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Stuðlagil Canyon is a stunning gorge lined with basalt columns and one of Iceland’s prime Instagram hot spots. Here’s how to see one of the country’s most recent natural attractions.
Stuðlagil Canyon is the finest collection of basalt columns in Iceland. Although it was formed millions of years ago, it has only been a tourist attraction for the last 15 years.
This mighty natural phenomenon was hidden under the glacial waters of the Jökulsá á Brú River.
In 2009, the Kárahnjúkar Hydropower Plant was built. This caused the river’s water levels to drop, revealing a remarkable natural formation in Iceland.
Today, intricate basalt colums rise either side of a river that changes colour with the seasons.
Stuðlagil is one of the most beautiful places to visit in Iceland.
While it’s a long way from Reykjavík, it’s an easy detour on the popular Ring Road Route.
Here’s all you need to know about visiting Stuðlagil Canyon including how to get the best views of this Instagram charmer.
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HOW ARE BASALT COLUMNS FORMED?
Iceland is known as the Land of Fire and Ice.
Located below the Arctic Circle, it’s shaped by glaciers and volcanic eruptions on tectonic plates. The latest being at Fagradalsfjall volcano near Reykjavík.
During an eruption, superheated magma (molten rock beneath the earth’s surface) emerges as lava (molten rock above the earth’s surface). Ninety per cent of lava is made of basalt rock which is rich in magnesium and iron.
If the basalt lava cools very quickly the hardened rock will crack into long geometric columns.
This process is called columnar jointing. The columns are usually hexagonal but can also be pentagonal or even octagonal. Over the course of centuries, they can form vertical cliffs or terraced steps.
Iceland’s cold temperatures and volcanic activity are perfect for forming these columns. There are many great examples of basalt columns across the country, but Stuðlagil Canyon is the best.
WHERE IS STUÐLAGIL CANYON?
Stuðlagil Canyon is in the Jokuldalur Valley in eastern Iceland.
Here are the driving distances from some nearby towns:
- Egilsstaðir – 70 kilometres (43 miles)
- Myvatn – 140 kilometres (87 miles)
- Reykjavik – 600 kilometres (372 miles)
You can visit the area on one of our longer Iceland itinerary options.
WHEN WAS IT FORMED?
Stuðlagil Canyon was formed millions of years ago. However, the giant basalt canyon was completely submerged under the river Jökulsá á Brú (also called Jökulsá á Dal, or Jökla).
This fierce glacial river was tamed after the construction of the Kárahnjúkar Hydrpower Plant in 2009. This saw the water levels drop by 7 to 8 meters.
Almost overnight the magnificent basalt canyon of Stuðlagil was revealed.
HOW TO SEE THE BEST OF STUÐLAGIL CANYON?
There are basalt columns all the way along the Jökla River.
You can see them as you drive along the Jökuldalsvegur road which runs along the western edge of the canyon.
The best section of the canyon is about 20 kilometres (12 miles) down Jökuldalsvegur Road from the junction of Route 1 – Iceland’s Ring Road.
Stuðlagil Canyon can be seen from both the west bank and the east bank.
The west bank viewpoint is much easier to reach, but the views are not half as good. The east bank involves hiking along a trail for 1 hour, but the views are much better.
We highly recommend spending the time and effort to get to the east bank; the only way to get down to the basalt columns and see Stuðlagil Canyon at its best.
WEST BANK STUÐLAGIL CANYON VIEWS
To get views of the basalt columns at Stuðlagil Canyon from the west side turn down Route 923 (from Route 1) and shortly afterwards turn onto Jökuldalsvegur. This gravel road is in good condition and easily navigable in a 2WD car. After 20 kilometres (12 miles) turn left at a sign for Grund Farm and park in the large parking lot (called Stuðlagil Canyon in Google Maps and marked in blue on the map below).
It’s then just a 5-minute walk down 239 metal steps to a viewpoint which overhangs the canyon. The blue-green water sweeps beneath your feet and the basalt columns can be seen on the other side.
Because of the angle of the platform and the curve of the river, you cannot see into the heart of the canyon from this viewpoint. You also can’t get down to the river.
The west bank is definitely worth a stop, but to see the true splendour of the canyon you have to make your way to the east bank.
Facilities // There are toilets (250 ISK) and a cabin selling coffee and snacks at the West Bank viewpoint.
EAST BANK STUÐLAGIL CANYON HIKE
From the east bank, you can hike down to the river and look into the heart of Stuðlagil Canyon. There are 2 parking places to start the hike.
01. STUÐLAGIL EAST SIDE PARKING (1-HOUR WALK)
From Route 1, turn down Route 923 and then onto Jökuldalsvegur. After 15 kilometres (20 minutes driving) turn left at a sign for Klausturserl. You quickly come to a small parking lot (called Stuðlagil East Side Parking in Google) just before a bridge over the river.
From here it is a 1-hour hike (2-hour return walk) to the viewpoint over the basalt canyon.
02. PARKPLATZ KLASTRUSEL (30-MINUTE WALK)
Crossing the bridge over the river, a bumpy road continues on the other side to a parking lot (called Parkplatz Klastrusel in Google).
This parking lot is right next to Stuðlafoss Waterfall and closer to the canyon.
If you have a 4×4 vehicle it takes 7 or 8 minutes to drive to Parkplatz Klastrusel. If you have a 2WD it is a much less pleasant journey (but many still make it). From here it is a 30-minute walk (1 hour return) to the viewpoint over the basalt canyon.
Facilities // There are no toilets at Parkplatz Klastrusel, but there is sometimes a food van selling slushies, waffles and hot dogs.
THE BEST VIEW OF STUÐLAGIL CANYON – EAST VIEWPOINT
From the viewpoint you can also descend down to the river, which will grant you excellent views of the giant columns of basalt rising above your head as turquoise waters flow past your feet.
It’s a short, but slightly tricky scramble (5 minutes) where you’ll need your hands in a couple of places. Beware it can be quite muddy after rain.
The hiking routes are marked in red on the map below and are relatively flat and easy, apart from the scramble down to the riverbank.
MAP | STUÐLAGIL CANYON VIEWPOINTS
This map of Stuðlagil Canyon contains the west side parking and viewpoints (in blue) and the east side parking, viewpoints, and hiking trail marked in red.
WHEN TO VISIT STUÐLAGIL CANYON
The best time to visit Stuðlagil Canyon is during the summer months of June, July & August. The temperatures are mild, the hiking trails are clear of snow, and the river is most likely to be a wonderful blue colour.
In winter, getting here can be a challenge and the river and canyon can be covered in snow and ice.
In spring the snowmelt brings sediment down the valley turning the river brown; and in fall, the hydroelectric dam releases its overflow producing higher water levels and a more churned-up river.
Finally, Stuðlagil Canyon has rapidly become an Instagram spot, so queueing up at the edge of the river to get your photo can take time. We highly recommend coming early or late in the day.
TIPS FOR VISITING STUÐLAGIL CANYON
01 – If you plan to scramble down to the river edge wear waterproof boots or shoes with a good grip and allow 2 to three hours to hike to the canyon and get photos.
02 – The river currents here are strong and the water is cold. It’s not advisable to swim in spite of its inviting appearance.
03 – Drones are allowed, but there may be a few about, so stay in contact with other drone operators and be prepared to wait. The riverside is a popular spot for nesting birds, so you need to be careful of them as well. Not only can drones be unsettling to the birds, but they can also be aggressive toward drones.
04 – Although the Stuðlafoss Waterfall is right next to the Parkplatz Klastrusel, you’re actually a bit too close to get any good shots. The waterfall photographs best from the main road.
05 – It’s best to get to the East Side viewpoint as early as possible to beat the crowds, then pop into the West Side viewpoint – it matters less if it’s slightly busy on the west side.
OTHER GREAT THINGS TO DO IN THE AREA
Although a long way from Reykjavík, there is plenty to do in this less-visited part of Iceland.
Hengifoss // One of the most attractive waterfalls in Iceland, Hengifoss is 80 minutes away from Stuðlagil. It’s the 3rd highest waterfall in Iceland with colourful layers of rock making it a beautiful place to visit.
Laugavallalaug // Head onto the nearby F-roads and into Iceland’s Highlands and you can get to our favourite geothermal pool in Iceland, Laugavallalaug. A naturally heated waterfall cascades into a small pool in this idyllic setting.
Hafrahvammagljufur // This dramatic 8-kilometer-long canyon is about 200 metres deep and set in a remote part of the highlands of Iceland. It’s only 37 kilometres from Stuðlagil but with the rocky roads, it takes about 1 hour to drive there.
Askja // Although one of the most challenging drives in the highlands, the unique geology of Askja Caldera is well worth a visit. It takes about 4 hours to get there from Stuðlagil.
Seyðisfjörður // This lovely little town tucked into one of the eastfjords is just under 1 hour and 30 minutes from Stuðlagil. It’s known for its rainbow road leading to the quaint church and charming colourful houses.
WHERE TO STAY NEAR STUÐLAGIL CANYON
There are plenty of great places to visit on the way to and from Stuðlagil so it’s worth spending a day or so in the area. Here are some places to base yourself. For more suggestions, read our guide on where to stay in Iceland.
Lovely family-run guesthouse just a short distance from Hengifoss waterfall. If you have a 4×4, the journey from here on the F910 passes Laugavallalaug and Hafrahvammagljufur, two unforgettable adventures in Iceland.
This modern, cool hotel is only a few miles from Route 1, and well-located for easy access to the facilities of Egilsstaðir (a 10-minute drive) and the major sights in the area.
OTHER GREAT BASALT COLUMNS IN ICELAND
Stuðlagil Canyon may have the highest concentration of basalt columns in Iceland, but there are many other great examples spread around the country.
Great black columns rise above the black sands on Reynisfjara beach in southern Iceland.
Picturesque brown basalt columns surround a cave entrance at Hljoðaklettar or Echo cliffs, just one of the great things to do near Myvatn.
Magnificent black columns surround the charming waterfall of Svartifoss at Skaftafell in Vatnajökull National Park.
A mix of vertical and twisted brown basalt columns wind their way around the gushing waterfall at Aldeyjarfoss, one of our favourite waterfalls in Iceland and an excellent place to visit in the highlands.
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