Lake Mývatn: North Iceland’s Geothermal Wonderland

Few visitors to Iceland get beyond its southwestern region, around Reykjavík. And that’s a shame, because one of the most spectacular corners of Iceland is in the North. Our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook co-author, Ian Watson, told me I’d love the Lake Mývatn area. And he was right. Continuing my Iceland blog series, here’s a recap of perhaps the most memorable day I’ve spent in Iceland.

The midges are swarming. They don’t bite. But they do get stuck in your nose.

Mývatn — literally “Midge Lake” — fills an expansive plain ringed by flat-topped, snow-capped mountains in the north of Iceland, about a seven-hour drive from Reykjavík. Mývatn sprawls along the fissure between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, infusing the area with tremendous geothermal energy (and, consequently, some of the most breathtaking volcanic landscapes in Iceland).

Within a short drive — never straying farther than about a half-hour from the lakeshore — you can hike through a valley of lava pinnacles, summit two different craters, eat sweet rye bread baked in the hot earth, wander a neon-yellow plain of hissing fumaroles and bubbling hot pots, take a shower in the middle of nowhere, visit a geothermal power plant, and simmer in naturally heated hundred-degree water among steaming lava rocks. It feels like someone gathered up a half-dozen great American national parks and tucked them into one little corner of North Iceland.

The other thing you’ll see here —  like it or not — are midges, distant Nordic cousins of the miniature mosquitoes that terrorize the Scottish Highlands (called “no-see-ums” by some Americans). Mývatn’s broad, still, relatively warm expanse of water is just right for a bug spa. Fortunately, Mývatn’s midges don’t leave itchy welts. But if you’re near the lakeshore in the summertime, they do swarm relentlessly in your nose, ears, eyes, and mouth. Local shops sell mosquito nets to drape over your head. Budget travelers appreciate the free protein.

From Iceland’s second city of Akureyri, I drive an hour and a half east, through an uninhabited expanse. Eventually signs direct me to turn off and loop around the south shore of Mývatn. I’ve been primed by several Iceland aficionados (including our book’s co-author, Ian Watson) for Mývatn to blow me away. But at first glimpse, I don’t get it…it’s just a big lake.

Soon I reach my first lakeside stop, Skútustaðir, and step out of the car into a swarm of midges. Brushing them aside, my eyes zoom out to take in a series of pseudocraters extending out into the lake. A well-marked, half-mile trail leads around these giant popped bubbles of molten rock. So maybe there’s something to this Mývatn place, after all.

Continuing 10 minutes farther, I reach Dimmuborgir. True to its name — “Dark Castles” —  this area feels like an otherworldly Monument Valley, where petrified vampires lurk in the cracks and crevasses. Here again, easy nature trails offer a choice of hikes, from 15 minutes to two hours. Strolling between chunky formations that rise up from the earth like mighty stalagmites, I begin to understand why so many science-fiction epics are filmed in this part of Iceland.

Back in the car, it’s just another 10 minutes to the turnoff for Hverfjall, a volcanic crater with loose, pebbly slopes. I don’t have time for the hour it’d take to hike up to the summit and back…but I make a mental note to budget more time for Mývatn on my next visit.

I’m hungry. And, sure enough, I’m minutes away from one of the region’s most appealing eateries: Cowshed Café. The country-cutesy restaurant, serving a menu of modern and traditional Icelandic dishes, shares a building with an actual cowshed, just a few steps from the lakeshore. I dig into a plate of the sweet, dense, local rye bread topped with smoked arctic char. “This bread is baked in the ground,” the server explains. “Pardon?” “It’s what we call Geysir bread. You find a hot spot in the ground, bury a pan of raw dough, and dig it up once it’s done.”

I ask about the rooms at the adjoining Vogafjós Guesthouse. “Oh, yes. We used to have 10 rooms, but we’ve just finished building 15 more. ” Throughout Iceland — even in remote Mývatn — there simply aren’t enough beds to meet the exponentially growing demand. But can-do businesses are scrambling to accommodate their guests.

Before leaving, I get directions for the famous “Game of Thrones Cave”: “Just head back the way you came, take the first left, let yourself in the gate, and follow the gravel road until you see the tour buses.” Sure enough, another 10 minutes’ drive takes me to this middle-of-nowhere spot just in time to see a crowd of tourists pile back onto their bus. I make my way down a steep crevasse into Grjótagjá — a cave filled with naturally heated water. Most of what you see “north of the Wall” on Game of Thrones was filmed in Iceland. And this was the cave where Jon Snow and Ygritte, ahem, violated the oath of the Knight’s Watch. In an effort to curb reenactments, swimming in the cave’s pool is strictly prohibited. But that’s no problem, because a much better opportunity is just around the corner.

The Blue Lagoon, near Reykjavik, is Iceland’s most famous thermal bathing experience. But my personal favorite is Mývatn Nature Baths — roughly the same concept as the Blue Lagoon, but smaller, simpler, less pretentious, and half-price. For about $50, you can luxuriate for as long as you want in its murky, blue-green waters.

At the entrance, the clerk warns me, “Don’t wear your glasses in. The natural minerals in the water are a great exfoliant, but they’re hell on lenses.” I change, step outside into the lunar landscape, and walk the plank down into the serene lagoon. Almost instantly, I recover from a busy day of driving, hiking, and guidebook-scouting. The pebbles on the floor of the lagoon massage my feet, while the hundred-degree water takes care of the rest.

The lagoon is filled with just the right number of people, all enjoying a languid midafternoon paddle.  Slowly making my way over to the edge of the lagoon, I hang out for a while, using the panoramic views over the entire Mývatn region to visually retrace my route between uncanny landmarks. There’s a very slight sulfur smell, but it’s easy to ignore…and it keeps away the midges.

Recharged, I leave the Nature Baths and follow highway 1 east, where I twist my way on a serpentine road over a low pass. At the summit, a pullout offers sweeping views over the baths, and the nearby geothermal plant that supplies it, all in the shadow of the Hverfjall crater.

Descending the other side of the pass, the terrain levels out and becomes completely barren. It feels like Iceland’s “big sky” country. I pull off at the sign for Námafjall — an intensely geothermically active field that Mother Nature has painted an unnatural shade of bright yellow.

Opening the door of my car, I’m nearly knocked over by the eye-watering stench of sulfur. I regroup, plug my nose, and push on through, following the scantly marked trail through a Martian landscape. Giant, steaming pools of grey sludge sluggishly bubble like a great witch’s cauldron. Pointy cairns of yellow rock — called fumaroles — hiss like angry teakettles, venting volcanic energy from deep beneath the earth’s crust. On the horizon, a trail climbs up a naked, steaming hillside to a viewpoint overlooking the entire plain. Never have I stood somewhere that feels so little like my home planet.

A few fellow awestruck travelers wander slack-jawed around me. I notice a Swiss tourist getting closer and closer to a steaming fumarole. She seems mesmerized…like a midge drawn to a bug zapper. Finally, my breath catches in my throat as she plants herself right next to the fumarole and reaches her hands out to touch the rocks. And then…nothing. Turns out those particular rocks are not as hot as they look. She laughs the giddy giggle of someone who just played Russian roulette with Iceland, and won.

Reeling from the mind-bending (and pungent) setting, I continue a few more minutes on highway 1 to the turnoff for the Krafla Valley, which saw live volcanic activity as recently as the 1980s. Heading up the valley road, I swear that I see — out of the corner of my eye — a random showerhead sticking up in the middle of a bare field.

Writing it off as a sulfur-induced hallucination, I continue up the valley to a steaming geothermal plant, where the modest visitors center hands out free coffee as an enticement to sit through a brief film detailing how Iceland has harnessed its geothermal power. I’m no engineer, so I can’t really follow the process. But I’m duly impressed. And, since the visitors center has the last bathrooms for at least two hours to the east, I’m very appreciative.

From the power plant, I continue up the valley, passing the parking lot for Leirhnjúkur — a volcanic cone that was formed in the 1980s eruption, and is now popular with hikers for its steaming rocks and simmering pools. From there, the road twists up to a grand overlook of the valley, and finally terminates at the crater called Víti (literally “Hell”) — a strangely turquoise-colored lake filling yet another spectacular crater, formed by volcanic activity in the 1720s. Noting yet more once-in-a-lifetime hiking opportunities at both of these places, by now I’m really kicking myself that I did not budget more time for Mývatn.

Speaking of time…it’s getting late, and I have a long drive ahead of me. I retrace my route back out of the Krafla Valley, keeping my eyes peeled for that mysterious showerhead. Sure enough, I slam on my breaks when I see it — and the bearded backpacker using it to take a shower, stripped down to his skivvies and standing in the middle of nowhere. (Looking this up later, I learn that the showerhead appeared years ago, presumably to take advantage of all that natural thermal water for hikers who can’t afford the Mývatn Nature Baths.)

Leaving the Mývatn area behind, I carry on toward the Eastfjords. After just 15 minutes, I turn off to see one last spectacular sight in North Iceland: the epic waterfall called Dettifoss.

From the parking lot, a one-mile hike leads through a chunky field scattered with jagged, dark canyons of petrified lava. Finally, I emerge at a grand canyon filled with a thundering cascade. The violent thrust of the water sends a cloud of mist high in the air, casting rainbows across the wasteland.

On my way back to the parking lot, a short detour takes me farther up the river to yet another waterfall, Selfoss. From here I have a better view of the broad river — flowing from the north edge of Vatnajökull, Iceland’s largest glacier, to the Greenland Sea — that carves a path through a basalt landscape, creating these magnificent cascades.

The churning water is milky with glacial grit, which washes up on riverbanks here and there to create inviting little black-sand beaches. The basalt ledges that frame the mighty scene are trapped in a slow-motion process of sloughing off. Change is the status quo in this always-changing Icelandic landscape.

The epic Dettifoss is a fitting grand finale for my visit to the Mývatn area. As I head two hours through the desolate Highlands toward the Eastfjords, I’m confident that this area will be what I remember most vividly and fondly after my trip around the country. If Mývatn were two hours from Reykjavík, it’d be mobbed. But it’s halfway across the country…so it still feels largely undiscovered. And best of all, I’ve already forgotten all about those midges.

Mývatn is about a seven-hour drive from Reykjavík (non-stop on highway 1). It works best for those driving the entire 800-mile Ring Road loop around the country; of all the stops around the Ring, Mývatn is the one most deserving of two nights. Another option is to fly from Reykjavík up to Iceland’s second city, Akureyri, on Air Iceland Connect. From there, it’s about an hour-and-a-half drive to Mývatn — you can rent a car or take a tour.

All of the details for visiting the Mývatn area — including our top picks for hotels and restaurants, a self-guided driving tour connecting everything mentioned in this post, and even more area attractions — are covered in the Rick Steves Iceland guidebook.

3 Replies to “Lake Mývatn: North Iceland’s Geothermal Wonderland”

  1. You didn’t mention the bird museum…that, and the story behind it, were a highlight for us. It is incredibly well done…west side of Lake Myvatn.

  2. No mention of any Northern Light activity on your travels? I was at Myvatn last year and we had 5 nights of aurora. It is the reason most people go and I understand if you didn’t actually see any, but at least maybe point folk in the direction of best vantage points to see it? Away from light pollution etc.

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