Dettifoss

Vatnajökull National Park / Jökulsárgljúfur, Northeast Region, Iceland

Rating: 5     Difficulty: 2
The powerful Dettifoss
Dettifoss definitely blew us away with its sheer size and power. Perhaps a waterfall so wild and fierce was befitting of an area that just screamed natural and raw as it flowed on the glacial river Jökulsá á Fjöllum ("YUK-ul-sou ow FYUHT-lum") meandering through Iceland's version of the Grand Canyon - Jökulsárgljúfur ("YUK-ul-sour-glyoo-fur"). And to back up our adjectives, we've learned that this falls was said to have a flow of about 500 cubic meters per second at high flow, with dimensions of 44m tall and 100m wide. Add it all up and we witnessed a monster that was quite possibly Europe's largest and most powerful waterfall (let alone Iceland's biggest). The milky color of the waterfall was due to the fact that the massive river was fed by the sediment-rich meltwaters of the vast Vatnajökull glacier.

Given the wild nature of the falls (it was unregulated and protected by being part of the vast Vatnajökull National Park [it was Jökulsárgljúfur National Park or Jökulsárgljúfur þjóðgarður when we were there in 2007]), its rate of erosion (and therefore its propensity to move further upstream) was very high. Such raw power and fury almost made it feel like the ground was trembling beneath our feet, which made us very hesitant to get too close to the edge and potentially fall into the raging and frigidly cold river (there were no guard rails)!

We managed to experience this waterfall from both sides of the river - each quite different in their own way. So we'll describe the experiences separately.

Directions: Because the Jökulsá á Fjöllum River could not be crossed in the vicinity of Dettifoss, there were two separate roads that left the Ring Road - one for each side of the river. The specific directions and descriptions are further below.

If you want to visit both sides of the river, your only opportunities to cross the river are where the Ring Road bridges the river to the south (it's about 19km between F862 and Route 864) and where Route 85 bridges the river near Ásbyrgí to the north (it's about 4km between the Route 864 and the Dettifossvegur on Route 862).


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East Bank
Double rainbow in the mist from Dettifoss as seen from its east bank
From the car park, we hiked a well-marked gently downhill trail through some rugged basaltic lava terrain. During the descent, we were able to look right into the rugged Jökulsárgljúfur canyon. When the trail veered back towards the waterfall, we had plenty of options to scramble towards the edge of the gorge to look at the waterfall from a variety of spots. That said, we definitely had to be careful as there were no guardrails to keep us away from the edge. Basically it was up to our discretion to get as close as we thought was safe, but I'd imagine this would be reason to keep a very close eye on kids who don't know any better or adults who feel the need to live dangerously.

I believe it took us on the order of 20-30 minutes walk to get from the official car park to the falls overlook area.

While on the east bank, we got angled and profile views of Dettifoss near its brink. The lookout area on this side was long so it was also possible to scramble a little further downstream to get better views of the entire falls including its misty and inaccessible base. The trail continued further upstream from the brink of the falls where there was a fairly straightforward walking path that went to the brink of the horseshoe-shaped Selfoss (see that page for more details).

Someone who didn't mind getting right to the edge of the cliff at the east bank of Dettifoss The east bank required driving on a bumpy unsealed 2wd road on Route 864 (though this route was not nearly as rough as the route to the West Bank as even tour bases would take it). It was for this reason that it was far busier and more popular than the west side.

To access the east bank from Reykjalið, head east on the Ring Road for about 37km (or 19km beyond the turnoff for Route 862). Just beyond the bridge over Jökulsá á Fjöllum, turn left onto Route 864 and follow this wide and relatively tame unsealed road for about 31km. There's a signposted turnoff to the left leading the last kilometer to the car park.

Overall, the drive from Reykjalið to the east bank of the falls took us a little over an hour.


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West Bank
Top down view of Dettifoss from its west bank
From the car park, we hiked a 10- or 15-minute trail that went through a stark moonscape of black terrain without a hint of the waterfall even being here. It wasn't until the trail briefly climbed towards a rocky bluff did the final descent to the river and the waterfall was finally revealed.

The trail ultimately descended right onto the cliff that was both obstructing views of the bottom of the falls from this side as well as getting us face-to-face with mammoth waterfall. There were some low rope barricades to suggest to us not to go any further. Also, some parts of the ground here were wet from any mist that happened to be wafted up above the cliff then blown in our direction.

Julie dwarfed by Dettifoss at its west bank While experiencing the falls on the west bank, we got some dramatic close-up views while watching Dettifoss dwarf people on either side of the river! In the afternoon on a sunny day, we also managed to see rainbows in the wafting mist rising from the base of this thundering waterfall. It seemed like this was the place to be at this time of day, and the photo you see above came from the west bank in the late afternoon under sunny skies.

But with the fickle weather, we also happened to be on this side during a frigidly cold and rainy day where it was very difficult to see anything. That might be something to consider if the weather's foul and you're flexible enough to defer a visit here until the weather improves.

There was also a short trail that took us slightly further upstream for get distant view of Selfoss.

To reach the west bank, drive east along the Ring Road from Reykjalið on the eastern shores of Mývatn for about 18km (in case you didn't know, Mývatn translated as "Midge Lake", yikes!). Then, turn left onto the rough and rugged signposted 4wd route 862 (though we've seen some 2wd risk damage to their rental car to get here). Continue about 20km from the Ring Road then turn right at the signposted turnoff for Dettifoss. Ignoring another turnoff for Hafragilsfoss at 1.8km from the turnoff, continue another 1.3km to the car park.

From looking at our logs, driving from Reykjalið to the west bank of Dettifoss also took us an hour.




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PHOTO JOURNAL
This was probably the most complete view I could get of Dettifoss, which was only possible from its east bank
Julie precariously standing near the edge of the west bank of Dettifoss
Between Mývatn and Dettifoss was the geothermal area at Námaskarð, which was interesting and probably would be even more picturesque than what's shown here if not for the bad weather
Near Mývatn is the geothermal Krafla area, where we found this beautiful crater lake called Stora Viti
The wide and somewhat graded unpaved road to the east bank of DettifossThe wide and somewhat graded unpaved road to the east bank of the falls

Looking downstream at the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon while hiking the east bank trailLooking downstream at the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon while hiking the east bank trail

Full view of Dettifoss from the east bankView of the falls from the east bank

Looking towards Dettifoss towards its brink from further upstream of the fallsLooking towards the falls towards its brink from further upstream of the falls

On the morning that I showed up, Dettifoss was producing bold rainbows when I looked downstream over its brinkOn the morning that I showed up, Dettifoss was producing bold rainbows when I looked downstream over its brink

Looking across Dettifoss from its east bankLooking across the falls from its east bank

Julie not comfortable going any closer to the edgeJulie not comfortable going any closer to the edge

Closer inspection of the sheer power of the river plunging over Dettifoss as seen from the east bankCloser inspection of the sheer power of the river plunging over the falls as seen from the east bank

Walking through lunar moonscape to return to the west bank of the river one day after crummy weatherWalking through lunar moonscape to return to the west bank of the river one day after crummy weather

The rains from yesterday produced little reflective tarns like this oneThe rains from yesterday produced little reflective tarns like this one

It's easy to imagine this place as like walking on the moonIt's easy to imagine this place as like walking on the moon

Descending down to the lookouts by the edge of the west bankDescending down to the lookouts by the edge of the west bank

Descending closer to the brink of the west bank of DettifossDescending closer to the brink of the west bank of Dettifoss

Bright rainbow near the brink of the west bank of DettifossBright rainbow near the brink of the west bank of Dettifoss

Going back through the desolate landscape to return to the west bank car parkGoing back through the desolate landscape to return to the west bank car park

Julie walking on the trail to the falls from the west side in bad weatherJust to give you an idea of how different the experience was just 24-hours earlier, here's Julie walking on the trail to the falls from the west side in bad weather

The wet, misty, and cold west bank of DettifossThe wet, misty, and cold west bank of the falls


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VIDEOS OF THE FALLS

Sweep of the falls and part of the canyon downstream as seen from the east bank


Sweep of the falls from closer to its brink on the west bank


Sweep of the falls near its brink in bad weather just 24 hours earlier (than the same video taken in good weather)!


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MAP OF THE FALLS

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TRIP REPORTS
For more information about our experiences with this waterfall, check out the following travel stories.




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TRIP PLANNING RESOURCES



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NEARBY WATERFALLS


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Impressive due to its power (Dettifoss) 
I find Dettifoss very impressive due to its power, mass and energy. I guess the grey water color empathizes this impression even more. At home, you can …

Spot the Harlequin ducks (Dettifoss) 
I got up close to the west side of the falls for a good panorama and plenty of noise too. I was surprised to see that a good flow of water escapes from …

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