If you’re trying to figure out what to see in northern Iceland, look no further than Iceland’s Diamond Circle. Similar to the Golden Circle near Reykjavik, the Diamond Circle loop features Iceland’s three most recognized phenomena: geysers, waterfalls, and volcanic activity. Read on to discover the best things to do in the Diamond Circle, along with helpful tips on where to stay and how to include the Diamond Circle as part of your Ring Road road trip.
- What is the Diamond Circle in Iceland?
- Why Visit Diamond Circle
- Best Things to Do Around Iceland’s Diamond Circle
- 1. Lake Mývatn
- 2. Goðafoss
- 3. Húsavík
- 4. Ásbyrgi Canyon
- 5. Dettifoss
- Bonus! Stuðlagil Canyon
- Iceland Diamond Circle Map
- How to Get Around Diamond Circle
- How Much Time Do I Need
- Best Time to Visit Diamond Circle
- Where to Stay on Diamond Circle
- Frequently Asked Questions
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What is the Diamond Circle in Iceland?
The Diamond Circle is the name of a driving route that connects the most popular sights in northeast Iceland. This 155-mile loop will take you clockwise from Egilsstaðir to Lake Mývatn (geothermal area), Goðafoss (waterfall), Húsavík (town), Ásbyrgi (canyon), and Dettifoss (Waterfall).
Why Visit Diamond Circle
The Diamond Circle is the Golden Circle’s less popular sibling. Similar to the Golden Circle, you can witness some of Iceland’s most popular natural wonders such as hot springs, unworldly volcanic formations, impressive waterfalls, and vast canyons. However, it is less crowded since it’s further away from Reykjavik.
While I wouldn’t advise going to the Diamond Circle in lieu of the Golden Circle (there’s a sheer difference in scale), it’s a perfect stop in the north as you make your way back to Reykjavik after traveling through the south coast and eastern fjords of Iceland.
Best Things to Do Around Iceland’s Diamond Circle
1. Lake Mývatn
Myvatn is a 2,300 year old volcanic lake close to the Krafla volcano that was formed by an enormous lava fissure eruption. The area surrounding Lake Mývatn is highly volcanic, which is why the region is home to diverse flora and fauna, martian landscapes, and eerie lava formations. We explored the blue crater at Krafla, the mud pools in Hverir, the private lava cave Grjótagjá, and lava trolls at Dimmuborgir but there’s so much more to explore. The best part is that all of the sites in Lake Mývatn area are easy to get to from the Ring Road.
Krafla refers to the volcanic caldera that’s part of the larger Krafla volcanic system. A caldera is a large cauldron-like depression that forms when all the magma flows out of the volcano after an eruption. Calderas are neither volcanoes (they’re byproducts of a volcanic eruption) nor craters (same shape, different method of formation).
Like most people, we stopped by Krafla to see Viti Crater and the adjacent turquoise lake. Here you can clearly see the stark contrast between the red crater and the strikingly blue geothermal pool, which are both characteristic of the country’s Martian landscape. Nearby, you can also explore the lava ponds in the Leirhnjúkur lava field.
⌛TIME SPENT: 30 minutes
📍ADDRESS: Viti Crater Parking
Hverir Geothermal Area (below Namafjall volcano)
Near Krafla, you’ll find Hverir. Hverir is a vast area with black mud pools and steaming holes below the Námafjall volcano. The bubbling black pots and the prismatic sulphur crystals contrast against the vast red rock, resembling that of Mars. We only explored the areas near the roped walkway before the smell got to us but you can choose to walk the small hiking trail to get closer to the mountain.
⌛TIME SPENT: 20 minutes
📍ADDRESS: Hverir Parking
Grjótagjá is an unassuming lava cave with a small hot spring. Rumored to be home to outlaw Jón Markússon, locals used to bathe in the spring before volcanic activity rendered the waters too hot around the 1970s. Since then, it’s forbidden to bathe in the cave. Nowadays, people visit Grjótagjá to admire its beauty and see the real-life filming location of where Jon Snow and Ygritte consummated their relationship in the show Game of Thrones.
⌛TIME SPENT: 15 minutes
Of all the Lake Mývatn sites we visited, Dimmuborgir was by far our favorite because it was so unique compared to everything else we had seen.
Dimmuborgir is known as the Black Fortress due to the endless stretch of lava pillars. 2,300 years ago, a volcanic eruption created a lava pond that trapped existing groundwater. The groundwater evaporated and spouted out through steam vents that formed solidified lava pillars. Eventually, the lava pond emptied itself and its “roof” collapsed, leaving only the characteristic pillars standing.
Besides the landscape, I love the mythology surrounding Dimmuborgir. Tradition says that Grýla and Leppalúði – the most famous of the nasty trolls in Icelandic folklore – had thirteen sons who lived in the Black Fortress. The thirteen sons (also referred to as the Yule Lads) are each named after the specific way they would frighten unsuspecting Icelanders during the thirteen nights leading up to Christmas. You can click here to find out more about the Yule Lads.
⌛TIME SPENT: 1 hour
📍ADDRESS: Dimmuborgir Parking
Additional Things to Do in Lake Mývatn
If you have more time, here are some other popular attractions around Lake Myvatn.
- Hverfjall Volcanic Crater – Hverfjall (“Hverfell”) is a tuff ring volcano that you can hike to get sweeping views of Lake Mývatn and the fields of Dimmuborgir.
- Lofthellir Cave – if you have the time (4-5 hours), book a cave tour to discover the lava tubes and ice formations in Lofthellir.
- Skútustaðagígar Craters – I definitely want to go back and see the Skutustadagigar pseudocraters up close, which look like grassy bowls scattered throughout the lake.
- Mývatn Nature Baths – a geothermal spa that’s less crowded than Blue Lagoon
Goðafoss is a majestic waterfall that is a 45-minute drive from Dimmuborgir. The “Waterfall of the Gods” gets its name from a religious myth where priest Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði threw pagan idols into the falls as a symbol of Iceland’s official conversion to Christianity.
The waterfall is absolutely stunning. On a clear day, you can walk around the perimeter and down to the base of the falls which is what we did.
⌛TIME SPENT: 1.5 hours
📍ADDRESS: Goðafoss Waterfall
Husavik is a charming town located in the northern part of Iceland. Often referred to as the whale capital of Iceland, it is one of the best places to go on a whale watching tour where you’ll have a good chance of spotting humpback, minke, and maybe even blue whales if you’re lucky. While you’re waiting for your tour to start, the town is a great place to eat, explore, and relax.
⌛TIME SPENT: 1-4 hours (depending on whether you decide to go on a whale watching tour)
4. Ásbyrgi Canyon
Ásbyrgi is a horseshoe-shaped canyon that was formed thousands of years ago as a result of a tremendous and devastating flood (though Viking legend says it’s actually the remnants of a hoof-print left by Odin’s flying horse). Regardless of its origins, Asbyrgi Canyon is a geological marvel. You can easily spend hours walking along the perimeter or hiking in the dense forest protected by the canyon walls.
⌛TIME SPENT: 1-3 hours
Dettifoss and Selfoss are waterfalls in North Iceland that are located near each other (about a ~30 minute hike apart). Both flow from Vatnajökull glacier but, unlike other glacial falls, the waters here are grey-brown due to the sediment run-off.
Of the two, Dettifoss is more popular as it’s considered the most powerful waterfall in Europe and is a main attraction along the Diamond Circle.
⌛TIME SPENT: 2.5 hours
📍ADDRESS: Dettifoss Parking (East)
How to get to Dettifoss & Selfoss
Dettifoss East or West Side
If you want to see each side of the fall, you will have to drive 1 hour one way as there’s no direct path connecting both sides. If you only have time to see one side, it comes down to personal preference. Dettifoss looks more impressive from the west side, but only a small part of Selfoss is visible. In contrast, you get the full view of Selfoss from the east side but a small sliver of Dettifoss. We chose the east side because here we felt we could still appreciate the power of Delfoss while also seeing the full elegance of Selfoss. Here are pictures of both the east side and the west side you can reference to make your own decision!
If you navigate to “Dettifoss Parking (East)” on Google Maps, you’ll be taken to a parking lot that’s about a short 10-15 minute walk to Dettifoss. From Dettifoss, you’ll need to walk another 20-30 minutes south to arrive at Selfoss. Note, the path to get to the eastside parking lot is unpaved. While not necessary, we were grateful to have a 4×4 car as the compact in front of us looked like it was struggling to cross the gravel.
💡TIP: While both waterfalls are impressive in their own way, we were underwhelmed. Because it was cloudy and drizzling, the only things in view were black rocks, cloudy skies, and muddy waters. I personally would skip the falls and head straight to Lake Myvatn unless I went on a clear day during golden hour (or in the winter to see the northern lights illuminated in the waters).
Bonus! Stuðlagil Canyon
If you’re traveling from Egilstaddir or elsewhere in East Iceland AND it hasn’t rained AND you’re traveling in the summer, then I’d highly recommend spending time at Stuðlagil Canyon.
Studlagil Canyon is home to one of the most fascinating basalt rock formations in Iceland. The canyon is a recent discovery, as it was only revealed in recent years due to the decreasing water level of the river Jökla. Because the river that flows through Studlagil changes color throughout the year, Studlagil is most striking during the summer months when the water retains its beautiful turquoise color before turning muddy – hence, all the “ands” above.
⌛TIME SPENT: 2.5 – 3 hours (the hiking can be done in 2 hours, but we spent at least 30 minutes to 1 hour taking pictures)
📍ADDRESS: Parkplatz Klaustrusel – Studlagil
How to get to the East Side of Stuðlagil Canyon
In order to capture the best view of the turquoise river nestled between the towering basalt columns, you should navigate to the east side of the river. Note, the official parking lot on Google Maps is located on the west side of the river. The west side is also more convenient to navigate to as there is a metal staircase that will take you to a viewpoint of the river.
Stuðlagil Canyon Parking
Navigate to Klaustrusel Farm (Google Maps: Parkplatz Klaustrusel – Studlagil) to get as close as you can to the well-trodden hiking path. On your way, you’ll cross a small white bridge and pass the East Side Parking lot pin on Google Maps (Google Maps: Studlagil (East side parking)). Note, you can park at the official east side parking pin but it’s further away from the east side viewpoint. You may also want to download directions ahead of time, as we lost reception on our way to the canyon.
Stuðlagil Canyon Hike
If you park at the closer lot, the hike is about 2.5 miles roundtrip. Pretty soon into your hike, you’ll pass a waterfall named after the canyon (Stuðlafoss) but won’t see much else around you until you get to the canyon. Here’s a thorough guide with pictures you can reference to make sure you’re headed in the right direction.
💡TIP: Though not located on the Diamond Circle, it’s a worthwhile stop on your way to the Diamond Circle if you’re coming from East Iceland. However, because it’s not the easiest destination to get to, I would only recommend adding Stuðlagil Canyon as a stop if you’re visiting during the summer and it’s not rainy in order to get the best view.
Iceland Diamond Circle Map
Here’s a map of all the best things to do around the Diamond Circle, including the activities mentioned in this itinerary.
Diamond Circle Map: Krafla + Viti Crater → Hverir Geothermal Area → Grjótagjá Cave → Dimmuborgir → Goðafoss → Húsavík → Ásbyrgi Canyon → Dettifoss (Stuðlagil Canyon optional)
Egilsstaðir → Lake Mývatn
Here are a few additional maps in case you plan on spending 2 days or more exploring the Diamond Circle.
Diamond Circle Map (Day 1/2): Map Stuðlagil Canyon → Dettifoss Waterfall → Ásbyrgi Canyon
💡TIP: We didn’t actually spend any money on food this day and that was because… we didn’t buy any. We didn’t stop anywhere on our way to Studlagil or to Dettifoss and Selfoss because we wanted to avoid rainy weather (there were always clouds in the sky with intermittent rain, but some small pockets of sunlight). By the time we got to Lake Myatvn, all the restaurants were closed. We survived off of bananas for breakfast, granola bars for lunch, and cup noodles for dinner. I would not recommend what we did so I’d suggest planning some stops along the drive or making sure you get to Lake Myatvn before 8 PM.
Lake Mývatn → Akureyri
Diamond Circle Map (Day 2/2): Krafla + Viti Crater → Hverir Geothermal Area → Grjótagjá Cave → Dimmuborgir → Goðafoss Waterfall → Húsavík → Akureyri
How to Get Around Diamond Circle
The best way to get around Diamond Circle is by car. If you’re doing a self-driving tour of Iceland along the Ring Road, the Diamond Circle is an ideal route that will get you from east to west (or vice versa) through the northern part of the country.
💡TIP: While you don’t need a 4WD vehicle for this part of the trip, you might find that it’s nice to have. This is especially true if you’re trying to get to the east side of Dettifoss, which requires driving over a minimally paved, gravel road. We were thankful to have our AWD RAV4 as we watched the small Subaru in front of us really struggling on their drive to the falls.
How Much Time Do I Need
If you’re starting and ending your day in Lake Myvatn, you can see many of the sights on the Diamond Circle route in 1 day.
However, if you’re planning on starting on one side as you make your way to the other (in our case, we started in Egilsstadir and were making our way towards Snaefellsnes), then you’ll want to spend a minimum of 1 night in Lake Myvatn so you can have 1.5-2 days exploring the area. Certain activities like hiking Stuðlagil or Asbyrgi Canyons, whale watching in Husavik, and exploring Dettifoss are time-intensive so you may want to consider spending 2-3 days around the Diamond Circle depending on how many of those activities you want to do.
Best Time to Visit Diamond Circle
The best time to visit Diamond Circle is in:
- Summer for best hiking conditions
- Winter for snow/ice activities and the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights
- Shoulder season (May and September) for milder weather (compared to winter), some chance of seeing the Northern Lights, and less crowds/cheaper accommodations.
Where to Stay on Diamond Circle
Lake Mývatn is the best place to stay if you want to see most or all of the sights on the Diamond Circle. You’ll want to spend at least 1 night in Myvatn or more depending on how many of the above activities you want to do.
💡TIP: Remember that Lake Mývatn is a geothermal area – the more convenient the location, the smellier it will be. We stayed at Skutustadir Guesthouse, which was reasonably priced, super convenient to all the stops we wanted to see, and came with free breakfast. However, it’s not for everyone, especially for those with sensitive noses since it’s impossible to escape the sulphuric smell. I’m not sure if there was an issue with insulation or if the smell is just super strong but we couldn’t escape it in our hotel room (even the water from the bathroom sink and shower smelled… eggy).
However, if you’re driving east to west, I’d recommend spending 1 night in Lake Mvatn and 1 night in Husavik or Akureyri. Both towns are about an hour away from the area and will get you just a bit closer on your way to Snaefellsnes/back to Reykjavik.
🏡 WHERE TO STAY: We spent the night at the Lava Apartments (⭐️ 8.1) in Akureyri and absolutely loved our stay. The room was super cozy, clean, and modern and I appreciated that each bed had outlets next to it and that the WiFi was reliable. Additionally, I loved how easy the contactless check-in process was and that the hotel was located in the heart of the city center, which made it easy to walk around. We booked an economy twin room, which was perfect for two female travelers.
Frequently Asked Questions
The Diamond Circle is a free driving route off of the Ring Road. All of the aforementioned sights along the Diamond Circle are free activities except for whale watching in Húsavík.
The drive from Reykjavík to the Diamond Circle is roughly 470 kilometers and would take around 6 hours.
You can drive around the Diamond Circle in about 4 hours with no stops. However, you’ll want to spend at least 1 full day exploring the area.
It’s possible to drive and see the main highlights of the Diamond Circle in 1 day if you keep your activity list short. However, it’s best to spend 2 days so you can see and enjoy more of the sights along the route.
Final Thoughts on iceland’s Diamond circle
The Diamond Circle in Iceland is an incredible, scenic drive that’s a must-visit destination for anyone looking to explore even more of the country’s most breathtaking landscapes. From the powerful waterfalls of Goðafoss and Dettifoss to the geothermal pools of Myvatn, you won’t be disappointed. As usual, feel free to leave comments if you have any questions & I will always reply 😊