Dettifoss definitely blew us away with its sheer size and power when we first looked at it in June 2007, but its flow actually grew when we came back 14 years later!
Perhaps a waterfall so wild and fierce was befitting of an area that just screamed natural and raw, and even my Icelandic dictionary said að detta meant “to fall or tumble”.
It flowed on the glacial river Jökulsá á Fjöllum (“YUK-ul-sou ow FYUHT-lum”), which came from the melting Vatnajökull Glacier.
The river meandered through Iceland‘s version of the Grand Canyon called Jökulsárgljúfur (“YUK-ul-sour-glyoo-fur”), which literally means “glacial river canyon”.
And to back up our adjectives, we’ve learned that this falls was said to have a mean flow of nearly 200 cubic meters per second (typically 400-500 cubic meters per second in late Summer), 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).
Further adding to the visual splendor of Dettifoss, it had a milky color, which was the direct result of the massive river carrying glacial flour along with other sediments along its northbound journey.
Jökulsá á Fjöllum was unregulated and protected as part of the Vatnajökull National Park, which was previously known as Jökulsárgljúfur National Park or Jökulsárgljúfur þjóðgarður.
The park made its big expansion months after our trip in 2007 when it merged with Skaftafell National Park on the southeast side of Iceland.
Given the wild nature of the falls, its rate of erosion (and therefore its propensity to move further upstream) was very high.
Back when they didn’t have roped barricades (or not nearly as many as on our second visit in 2021), we used to get so close to the edge that we swore the ground was trembling beneath our feet!
On each of our visits to Dettifoss, we managed to experience it from both sides of the river – each quite different in their own way.
As if that wasn’t enough, we also found it rewarding to extend our visit by going further upstream to the Selfoss Waterfall, which we have a separate write-up for.
More ambitious visitors trying to avoid the crowds may consider taking a much longer trail in the opposite direction to Hafragilsfoss, which also has a separate write-up.
Comparing the West Versus East Sides of Dettifoss
When we first visited Dettifoss in late June 2007, experiencing it from the west side was actually a bit of an adventure.
This was because the access road to get there (see directions below) used to be an “F” road (or mountain road), which were typically for 4wd or high clearance vehicles only.
In fact, it felt like the the west side was actually the less-preferred side since the road to the east side was less rough (though still unpaved).
Thus, we found the east side was the side that had the tour buses and the greater visitation during our first visit.
However, when we came back in August 2021, we were quite surprised at how the former F road was now paved while supporting large tour buses and easily accommodating of passenger vehicles.
I suspect that the main driver of this drastic change was for the tourism authorities in the north of Iceland to create an answer to the success of the Golden Circle Route in the southwest.
Indeed, they’ve actually created the so-called Diamond Circle, which encompassed a circular route anchored from Akureyri (the second largest Icelandic city behind Reykjavík).
Dettifoss and the Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon sat on the far eastern end of the circular route, which included Goðafoss, Mývatn, the thermal features at Námafjall, Ásbyrgí, and Húsavik among others.
As a result of these changes that took place after our 2007 visit, we noticed that the west bank was now the more popular side (by a wide margin).
Nevertheless, regardless of what side gets more of the tourism traffic, the differences between the two sides basically boil down to this.
On the east side, you get more of a profile view of the main drop of Dettifoss as the waterfall tended to face away from that side of the canyon.
However, you also get a more intimate hike that encompassed a view right into the Jökulsárgljúfur along the way as well as the option of hiking up to the neighboring Selfoss with most of its segments facing you.
Conversely on the west side, you get more of a frontal but very misty view of Detifoss’ main drop as well as more options at seeing the falls from different spots.
For example, there was a new lookout platform right in the spray zone (as of our August 2021 visit) from further downstream Dettifoss.
We also experienced the lookouts further upstream of the waterfall, where we can peer into the turbulence of the river folding into an emerging fissure above its brink.
The Selfoss experience on the east side was a bit more limited as most of the flowing portions of the falls were dropping away from the west side.
Experiencing Dettifoss from the West Bank
From the car park, we hiked a 10- or 15-minute trail that began with no hint of the waterfall’s presence besides some signage.
Shortly after starting the walk, we then went through a desolate and dark landscape strewn with rocks practically reminding us of what the moon’s surface might look like without the craters.
The first of a trail junction leading to the right towards Selfoss was in this barren section (though there would be more recent trails to get to Selfoss along the river later on).
It wasn’t until the trail briefly climbed towards a rocky bluff on the far side of the moonscape did we finally start to see the imposing Dettifoss below us.
Thus, after another trail junction, the Dettifoss trail made its final descent to the river both near and directly across the waterfall’s brink.
On our first visit in 2007, we made it precariously down onto the cliff edges, where we were really tempted to edge out further to see the dark bottom of the gorge.
This was especially tempting since the cliffs blocked our view of the very bottom of the canyon.
However, given the unpredictability of the waterfall’s spray combined with the instability of the cliffs, we noticed rope barricades were set even further back from the cliff edges on our August 2021 visit.
While experiencing the falls on the west bank, we got some dramatic close-up views while watching Dettifoss dwarfing people on either side of the river!
Moreover, back at the trail junction, we had the option of going further downstream to a misty lookout platform with the option to keep going towards Hafragilsfoss or going upstream towards Selfoss yielding more downward views.
From these high vantage points, we managed to see bold rainbows wafting in the rising mist on sunny days in the afternoon.
However, in the morning, we’d be looking against the sun so it might not be a great time to see this side of Dettifoss unless there was enough cloud cover to diffuse the sun’s light (though hopefully not cover the place in fog).
Indeed, that might be something to consider if the weather is not cooperating with your visit and you’re flexible enough to defer a visit for more optimal viewing conditions.
Anyways, as far as extending a visit from the west side of Dettifoss, you can hike about 800m upstream from the top of the steps towards the end of the trail by Selfoss.
On the way back, from Selfoss, you can take the shorter route back to the west side car park by staying inland from the canyon rim, which was about 500-600m from the trail junction within the desolate moonscape stretch.
Additionally, you can hike at least an additional 2.25km (or 4.5km round-trip) downstream from the new lookout platform towards Hafragilsfoss.
Experiencing Dettifoss from the East Bank
From the car park on the east side (see directions below), 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 Jökulsárgljúfur canyon before reaching a succession of trail junctions.
The first of the trail junctions took us closer to the rim of the canyon with perhaps the only view that let us cleanly look at (and take photos of) the full height of Dettifoss.
The seonc of the trail junctions took us closer to the brink of Dettifoss where we could literally feel the raw power of the Jökulsá á Fjöllum making its dramatic leap.
Roped barricades discouraged going any closer to the brink of the falls from the sanctioned trail though they didn’t exist on our first trip so we were able to get all the way to the earth-shaking brink of Dettifoss.
That said, we definitely had to be careful with our risk assessment because there really wasn’t anything to keep us from putting ourselves in danger except for our own judgment back on our late June 2007 visit.
I believe the walk took us on the order of 20-30 minutes to get from the official car park to the falls overlook area and back.
This doesn’t count spending a little more time for other lookouts as well as the optional hike to Selfoss 1km (or 2km round-trip) further upstream.
Finally, it’s worth noting that given the developments on the west bank of Dettifoss, the east bank was noticeably less popular, but it was by no means unpopular.
Indeed, we felt that driving to the east bank was fairly straightforward and somewhat smooth from what I could recall from our 2007 visit.
However, it was definitely more washboarded and rougher (though still doable by passenger vehicles) on our 2021 visit, which further enhanced the disparity of tourist traffic volume between the two sides.
An Even More Forceful Detifoss
According to the signs here, the Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon and the desolate moonscapes surrounding both sides of the canyon around Dettifoss was formed by glacial flash floods in the Jökulsá River.
Rather than being a singular event, there has likely been many cataclysmic glacial floods (typically referred to as a jökulhaup or “YUEWHK-uhl-uhyp”).
That is because the sourcing Vatnajökull Glacier is no stranger to having volcanic eruptions from underneath its ice cover causing instant and extensive melting, which then resulted in severe floods and/or mudflows further downstream.
In other parts of the world, we’ve seen such floods referred to as lahars (which is more of a Javanese word as opposed to the Icelandic jökulhaup).
That said, in the years between our visits in 2007 and 2021, respectively, Julie and I were quite surprised at the seemingly greater volume of water on the Jökulsá á Fjöllum River.
I suspect that with Global Warming accelerating (especially in the Arctic regions), the melting ice caps have manifested themselves in greater river flow.
Thus, the waterfall took on a far more mistier appearance than it did on our first visit here 14 years prior.
Time will tell how much longer the Dettifoss Waterfall will continue to swell given the warming climate worldwide.
Dettifoss resides in the Northeast Region near Reykjahlið, Iceland. It is administered by the municipality of Norðurþing. For information or inquiries about the general area as well as current conditions, you may want to try visiting their website.
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.
For the directions to the trailhead on each side of the river, I’ll use the town of Reykjahlið on the east side of the lake Mývatn as the starting point.
In case you didn’t know, Mývatn translated as “Midge Lake”!
Directions for the West Bank of Dettifoss
To reach the west bank, we drove east along the Ring Road from Reykjahlið for about 18km.
Then, we would turn left onto the Route 862, which was paved and yielded a very smooth drive.
Just to give you an idea of how much things have changed, this used to be the rough and rugged F862 Road on our 2007 visit, which made the west side less visited.
Anyways, we’d continue for about 20km along Route 862 from the Ring Road before we turned right at the signposted turnoff for Dettifoss.
Ignoring another turnoff (for Hafragilsfoss) at 1.8km after leaving the Road 862, we then continued another 1.3km to the car park.
From looking at our logs, driving from Reykjahlið to the west bank of Dettifoss also took us an hour.
Directions for the East Bank of Dettifoss
To access the east bank from Reykjahlið, we headed 37km east on the Ring Road for about a half-hour (or 19km beyond the turnoff for Route 862).
Just beyond the bridge over Jökulsá á Fjöllum, we turned left onto Route 864 and follow this unsealed road for about 31km.
Back in 2007 when we first came here, this unpaved road was relatively tame and wide.
However, when we came back in 2021, this road deteriorated into a rough, slow-going, washboarded route with most development resources now going to the west side.
Anyways, there was a signposted turnoff to the left leading the last kilometer to the car park.
Overall, the drive from Reykjahlið to the east bank of the falls took us a little over an hour.
Visiting both sides of Jökulsá á Fjöllum
If you want to visit both sides of the river (Jökulsá á Fjöllum), you only have a couple of opportunities to cross the river itself.
The first and most obvious crossing is where the Ring Road bridges the river to the south in the 19km stretch between the Route 862 (formerly F862) and the Route 864.
The other crossing is in the north of the canyon where Route 85 bridges the river near Ásbyrgí in the 4km stretch between the Route 864 and the Dettifossvegur on Route 862.
If you’re interested in visiting both sides, then it can easily consume a full day of immersing yourself in the scenery of the Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon.
If the weather is sunny for the whole day, then I’d recommend visiting the east side first and then the west side to get the best of the lighting (and not have to look against the sun as much).
Of course, if the weather isn’t sunny all day, then it really doesn’t matter in what order you do both sides.
For geographical context, Reykjahlið was 101km (under 90 minutes drive) east of Akureyri, 165km (about 2 hours drive) east of Egilsstaðir, and 479km (under 6 hours drive) northeast of Reykjavík.
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