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Visiting Fljótsdalur and Vatnajökull National Park

Head inland to discover some of Austurland’s incredible natural highlights: the scenic valley that surrounds a mythical lake, and the eastern territory of the magnificent Vatnajökull National Park.
Snæfell. Photo: Páll Guðmundsson.
Snæfell. Photo: Páll Guðmundsson.

We know Austurland’s fjords get a lot of love from travelers, photographers, and explorers. And justifiably so – they’re spectacular, and easily accessible thanks to the Ring Road (Iceland’s Highway 1) skirting the coast between Höfn and Reyðarfjörður.

But did you know that East Iceland’s inland area is home to some incredible features, too? We’re talking about national park highlands, lofty peaks and waterfalls, hot pools, scenic hikes, and a whole lot more. And it’s all accessible too. We’re here to explain what to expect, and how to check it out.

All roads lead to Egilsstaðir

In many ways, Egilsstaðir is the crossroads of Austurland. It’s the region’s biggest town and service center.

From Egilsstaðir you have plenty of appealing options for your onward travels. You can follow the Ring Road north or south, head east to fjords like Seyðisfjörður or remote Mjóifjörður, or head southwest and inland.

The Highland Circle Travel Route.

Lagarfljót and Fljótsdalur

If you head southwest from Egilsstaðir and follow route 931, you’ll soon reach the shores of Lagarfljót, a narrow lake that may or may not be home to a mysterious monster

Lagarfljót is one of Iceland’s deepest lakes, sometimes only as wide as a river. It covers around 140km (87 miles) from its source in Eyjabakkajökull glacier, winding its way north to meet the sea at the black sands of Héraðsflói bay.

Fljótsdalur is the name of the valley that surrounds Lagarfljót (dalur means ‘valley’ in Icelandic). It’s a wide and beautiful valley that’s home to some gems, both natural and human-built.

Lagarfljót. Photo: Þráinn KolbeinssonLagarfljót. Photo: Þráinn Kolbeinsson.

Visiting Fljótsdalur

Fljótsdalur is so lovely we’ve put together a travel route that circumnavigates Lagarfljót and takes you to all the highlights. It’s called The Ring of Riverdale and it’s a great tour at any time of year. You can cover it in a day, or you can take your time to appreciate the area for a relaxing night or two. Camp by the lakeshore in summer, or stay in one of the area’s excellent guesthouses or hotels. The Hengifoss website has details of all the options.

You’ll encounter some fine local flavors in Fljótsdalur, from organic farm-to-table produce at Vallanes farm to a buffet spread with traditional dishes and delicious homemade cakes at Klausturkaffi café.

Nature comes with superlatives in this valley. Hallormsstaður National Forest is Iceland’s largest forest, and it’s perfect for outdoor activities including horseback riding, hiking, mountain biking, ATV touring, or just relaxing at a lakeside campground.

Nearby lies Hengifoss, among the tallest waterfalls in Iceland – and it’s a beauty. The 128-meter (420ft) cascade into a colorful canyon is a photographer favorite! It’s a 2.5km (1.5-mile) uphill walk to Hengifoss from the parking lot, and it’s good to take your time, savoring the views. Litlanesfoss is a bonus waterfall you’ll encounter on the walk; it’s a stunning cascade surrounded by basalt columns.

From Hengifoss car park it’s a short drive to Snæfellstofa Visitor Center for great displays on the region’s natural wonders, including all you need to know about the eastern region of Vatnajökull National Park.

Snæfellstofa’s neighbor is Skriðuklaustur cultural center. There’s plenty to see and do here, including a museum dedicated to a writer, 16th-century monastery ruins, a fun children’s play area, and an excellent café called Klausturkaffi.

Continue deeper into the valley to reach the unique Wilderness Center, where you can enjoy a hands-on experience of Icelandic history and hear the stories of Icelanders at the edge of the highlands. Food, lodging, and unique activities are all available here.

From the southern part of the lake, you have a choice to make. You can return to Egilsstaðir the way you came, or travel along Lagarfljót’s quieter western shore. One factor in favor of the latter choice: once you reach the main road (Hwy 1) you’re just a few minutes from the warm waters of glorious Vök Baths, a blissful destination for swimming and soaking, in pools that float atop a lake.

But – there’s another excellent choice from the southern part of the lake. You can also head into wilder territory: the highlands and the eastern territory of Vatnajökull National Park.

Hengifoss. Photo: Þráinn Kolbeinsson.

Vatnajökull National Park

It’s hard to sum up this national park in just a few words, but here are some impressive facts about it:

  • The park was established in 2008 and it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2019 on the basis of its unique natural characteristics.
  • Today the park measures approximately 15,000 square kilometers (approx. 5800 square miles), which is around 15% of Iceland.
  • Inside the park sits the mammoth Vatnajökull glacier or ice cap, measuring around 7700 square kilometers (2975 square miles).

You may know the stars of the national park in the southern region (all those outlet glaciers and glacier lagoons!) or in the north (thunderous Dettifoss waterfall, for example). The park’s eastern territory receives less attention and fewer visitors: it’s a more remote region than the park territories in Iceland’s north and south, but it definitely rewards a visit.

Visiting Vatnajökull National Park

We’ve put together a travel route that helps you see the best of the highlands area and the treats of the eastern region of Vatnajökull National Park. It’s called the Highland Circle, and its useful to note that some elements of the circuit are only accessible in summer, and some are only accessible if you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

If you don’t have a 4x4, don’t worry, there are other ways to see and appreciate this spectacular, near-empty part of the country.

The best place to start is at the Snæfellstofa Visitor Center. It’s run by Vatnajökull National Park and is full of helpful information on highland roads and access, plus family-friendly displays on the region’s flora and fauna. During the summer, park rangers host educational events and children’s activities.

Close to here, there’s a turn-off for route 910, a paved road (open in summer) that climbs dramatically before leveling out and taking you through highland terrain that’s a favorite habitat for geese and reindeer. Superb detours include Laugarfell for hikes, hot springs and a guesthouse (no 4x4 required), and Snæfell mountain for more adventurous hiking (4x4 required).

You can follow route 910 to the spectacle of Kárahnjúkar dam, and then the paved road becomes an F-road (route F910), only accessible to high-clearance 4x4 cars. If you have a regular car, you’ll need to turn around at the dam and retrace your route back to Fljótsdalur and Egilsstaðir.

Route F910 usually opens around mid-June and has some brilliant pit stops – including scenic Hafrahvammagljúfur canyon and Laugavalladalur geothermal stream – before it joins route F907 (4x4 required) and leads you to route 923 (no 4x4 required).

Along route 923 is access to mighty Stuðlagil canyon, one of Austurland’s jewels. There’s simply no bad angle to this gorgeous gorge. From the viewing platform on the canyon's north side, or from ground level after a hike on the south side, the basalt columns and clear blue water are a remarkable sight.

After admiring the canyon, head north on route 923 and you’ll reach Hwy 1, the Ring Road, and an easy, scenic return to Egilsstaðir.

Snæfellsstofa Visitor Center. Photo: Gunnar Freyr.

Spectacular Snæfell peak

The star of the eastern region of Vatnajökull National Park is Snæfell, or ‘Snow Mountain’. It stands at 1833 meters (5358ft) above sea level, making it the tallest freestanding mountain in Iceland (that is, it’s not under or surrounded by a glacier).

Snæfell is in fact an ancient central volcano. When Snæfell last erupted and whether it's still active or dormant is a matter of dispute!

The plateau surrounding Snæfell (which is called Snæfellsöræfi) is noteworthy for its rich vegetation compared to other highland regions, making it a good habitat for abundant wildlife and an internationally important wetland for birdlife (a so-called Ramsar site).

The hiking around Snæfell is top-quality, and there is a hikers hut and park rangers stationed here in summer.

For experienced hikers, summitting the mountain itself is possible in a day, and the views on a clear day are breathtaking. A handful of tour companies run guided hiking trips here, with pick-up available in and around Egilsstaðir.

Read more about the area on the national park’s website, and note that access to the Snæfell area requires a 4x4: it’s 12km (7.5 miles) from paved route 910 to the hikers hut, with rivers to ford on the way.

As ever, with travel in remote regions, we recommend you check the local weather forecast and road conditions before setting off.

Happy exploring!

Snæfell and Snæfellsskáli. Photo: Páll Guðmundsson.


Words: Carolyn Bain