Asbyrgi is a spectacular canyon in the shape of a large horseshoe bend with steep cliffs. Asbyrgi Canyon can be found on northeast Iceland and is part of Vatnajökull National Park. The area is called Jökulsárgljúfur. You can visit Asbyrgi Canyon as part of the Diamond Circle or loosely from Husavik for example. A hidden gem you must see!
Pick your battle
When planning your visit to Asbyrgi Canyon, you will need to make a choice. Do you want to:
- hike up the canyon cliffs and see the horse shoe bend view from up above, or
- walk easily downstairs and enjoy the canyon valley and lake Botnstjorn
Before voting for option A immediately, you will need to know that this hike will take about 3-4 hours (return), requires some guts and energy. For option A, I would suggest to continue to read this article to get a better idea of what to expect. To be honest, I didn’t go here well prepared, but looking back, I am very glad that I took the effort of the hike up the canyon wall. It was worth the view!
B is definitely the easier and less time consuming option, but obviously provides a less spectacular view. For option B, you can simply drive past the Visitor Centre into the canyon towards the lake, park here and walk around there for awhile. Or walk all the way from the Visitor Centre’s parking lot downstairs into the canyon (route A3 on the PDF map below) to the canyon lake Botnstjorn downstairs in the U bend of the canyon.
Actually just the last open part of the canyon is called Asbyrgi. Before that you have this long rock formation in the middle of the canyon, which is called Eylan, right in between Austurbyrgi (east) and Vesturbyrgi (west).
The hike up the canyon starts at the Ásbyrgi Visitor Centre Gljúfrastofa. So best is to park your car there if you plan to do the hike up the canyon wall or the long canyon valley trail downstairs. There is a big map outside, I also inluded the PDF in this article. Inside the Visitor Centre there are people behind the counter who can explain to you where to go. There are different routes, depending on your interests. In addition, there is a small museum about the flora and fauna of the Jökulsárgljúfur area.
Be aware that in July and August, the Visitor Centre is open daily between 11:00h and 17:00h, while during other months it opens/closes 1-2 hours later/earlier and in most months only Mon to Fri, see also this webpage. There are no drinks or snacks for sale here, but when the Visitor Centre is open, you can use the restrooms and fill your water bottles there for free. You can also pay camping fees here.
In English, Asbyrgi Canyon is also called the Shelter of the Gods. According to a centuries old Icelandic legend, the canyon is a footprint of an eight legged horse on his way to Odin, the God of health, death, kings, knowledge, battle and poetry.
From the Visitor Centre to the view point on top where the horse shoe shaped canyon bends, the shortest path is 4.7 km (one way). This took us about 1.5 hours on foot (one way). When you face the Visitor Centre, take a right turn from the parking lot when you want to take the shortest way. Follow the Asbyrgi sign on foot towards the canyon wall (southwest).
You walk about 5-10 min, cross a golf course, until you reach a short steel ladder with two ropes and another short steel ladder on top. It’s called Tofuklif (see map below). Yup, this way you will have to climb about 50 meters straight to the top! I did it, so I think a lot of people with a mediocre fitness can do this.
But honestly, half way I got a bit nervous. You see, I am afraid of heights, I had never done any mountain climbing before, was not wearing any climbing gloves… Yikes!
Ropes and rings were never my best components with gymnastics, to be honest with you. But I survived! Once you reached the top, you’ll be glad you did it. Take a turn to the right (2x) and simply follow the path and the yellow marked wooden posts that goes along the canyon wall’s edge on your right hand.
If you feel like this steep stairs and rope way up will not be something you dare, walk left past the Visitor Centre (east), past the golf course on your right hand. After about 5-10 min you will pass a low wooden gate. Shortly after that you will see the wooden path signs. Go right by following the sign Vesturdalur and gradually walk up the gorge wall.
At first you walk through grassland, and then the path continues in between low trees and bushes. Walk this path for about 1.6 km by following the canyon edge on your right hand. It goes higher and higher up. At one point you will see the steep stairs with ropes on your right hand (where otherwise you would have had to climb up). Continue walking straight ahead, keep following the canyon’s edge on your right hand for about 4km. We took the steep stairs up (Tofuklif) and the longer, easier path down.
Once you are up, the walk on the canyon’s wall is pretty flat. You will have to climb up and down a few big rocks here and there, but not much more than that. You walk mostly through a narrow path in a pretty, rocky heather field. Watch your steps. You can easily trip over some rocks or tree roots sticking out of the ground, especially when you might be tired on the way back. So be careful, trust me, you do not want to be in the need of medical assistance in a remote place like this.
Luckily, the heather was blooming pink-lilac when we were there (3rd week of August). Also luckily, it was a bright day with a friendly breeze. The sky was blue and the sun was shining hard on us. Make sure you bring enough water and sunblock! Once the sun us out in Iceland, it burns fiercely. We have had days where we felt like -5 degrees Celsius at one point of the day, and +25 degrees Celsius at another point, when the sun is out. So wear layers!!
At about 1 hour you will reach a point which has already a nice view. You can already look past the rock wall in the middle of the canyon called Eylan, see the valley on both sides. Very cool! We have noticed that part of the people stop here and turn back to the Visitor Centre. Personally I find that a pity because the prettiest view is yet to come! Only half an hour further to walk.
After about 20-25 minutes’ walk you will have to start a bit more climbing. You reach a big natural platform edge that must have been an amazing and popular point to take photos. But this has now been closed off with a safety ribbon to warn visitors. A recent earthquake caused clear deep cracks, making it too dangerous to walk all the way to the edge at that point.
Walk and climb a 5-10 minutes further and your efforts will be rewarded with this view! The canyon walls are pretty steep, making it quite scary to walk up to and sit near the edges. But hey, everything for that photo, right?! Smile!!
We reached this view point 1.5 hours after we had left the Visitor Centre. We left the parking at about 14:30h, so it was at about 16:00h when we reached the view point at the horse shoe bend of the gorge wall. We looked down on the canyon lake Botnstjorn downstairs, which was in the shadow by this time. It should not have been much later; at this time the sun was still more or less in our back when facing the canyon. Ideal for taking some heroic shots!
We did it!
Honestly I am quite proud of myself for reaching this point, pushing myself and my boyfriend to do this walk all the way up there. It was a challenge for both my guts and physics, especially getting up via the steep steel stairs and ropes. But damn, we burned some calories here! Perseverance baby, whoohah!
From the view point at 4.7km, we returned back towards the Visitor Centre parking lot the same way as we came. Some people continue their journey and for example camp at the camping ground on the northeast side of the canyon. Different hiking routes are possible, see below map. This article explains the route that most people will probably want to take as it gets rewarded by seeing the best canyon view. Nevertheless, we only saw about 10 other people in about 3.5 hours’ time. I guess the latest COVID-19 border restrictions to enter Iceland had to do with that too…
Before returning, we took a 20 or 30 min late lunch break in the shade of a big canyon rock. The walk back from the view point to the steep stairs and ropes took again app. 1.5 hours. Plus another 30 min or so to the parking lot, because this time we did not take the stairs and ropes down. Instead, we continued our walk straight ahead, going downhill off the canyon wall until we reached the edge of the golf course. Take a left, pass the wooden fence, walk along the golf course on your left hand, go straight ahead and you will end up at the Visitor Centre and parking lot again. It was 18:00h. Mission accomplished!
When & how to visit Asbyrgi Canyon
You can visit Asbyrgi Canyon throughout the year, although in winter the circumstances will be tougher and the services limited. Also, take into account the daylight hours change over the seasons. No matter the season, always be prepared for any kind of weather. It’s typical Icelandic to experience four seasons in a day, with sun, wind, rain, snow and/or hail. I saw many people wearing a woolen cap in summer.
You can find Asbyrgi Canyon at the 85 road, 45 minutes east of Husavik and right in between the northern exits of the 862 and 864 roads that lead to the beautiful Sellfoss and Dettifoss waterfalls. In a future article about the Diamond Circle I will write more about visiting and driving from the south (Myvatn area) via Dettifoss and Sellfoss waterfalls on the 862 or 864 road.
Usually the gravel roads to Vesturdalur, Holmatungur and Dettifoss open up late spring (end of May, early June), also depending on the weather. Especially in that time of the year you better visit the Asbyrgi Visitor Centre and ask about the road conditions before making an attempt.
Distances to Asbyrgi Canyon
- Husavik – Asbyrgi Visitor Centre 60 km / 45 min
- Dettifoss west (862) – Asbyrgi Visitor Centre 35 km / 35 min
- Dettifoss east (864) – Asbyrgi Visitor Centre 29 km / 40-60 min
- Myvatn – Asbyrgi Visitor Centre 77 km / 65 min (862)
- Akureyri – Asbyrgi Visitor Centre 135 km / 105-120 min
From Asbyrgi Canyon you can also hike all the way south to Dettifoss, which is a 2-days trail suitable for experienced hikers.
Map Diamond Circle
This mobile friendly map includes most things mentioned in this article and more! It is smartphone friendly; you can use it easily via Google Maps. Click on the top left icon to open the menu. To customize the map to your interests, simply (un)select categories. Via Google Drive you can copy it to your folder of My Google Maps.
Check out this specific Asbyrgi Canyon PDF map to get an idea of the trails in the area. The Asbyrgi Visitor Centre is at the “I” icon (Information). The route we walked and described in this article is indicated by a red line A7, A8, A9 and Nafir in the middle of the map, all the way to the south bend, just above canyon lake Botnstjorn. The easier walk downstairs from the Asbyrgi Visitor Centre to the canyon lake is indicated by a light blue line A3. It also shows where the parking lot near the lake (P) and the toilets (WC) are. As you can see, there is also a gas station near the Asbyrgi Visitor Centre (top of the map).
For renting a car to get here, I would recommend Sunny Cars, an all-inclusive, worry free rental concept with affordable, fair prices, great service and no unpleasant surprises upon pick up or drop off. I am a big fan and use them all the time! In most countries the 2nd driver, free cancellation up to 4 hours in advance and all-risk insurance are standard included. Ideal, I use them all the time!
Where to stay & eat
In a future article I will write more about the Myvatn Lake area. I would suggest to stay here for at least two nights and drive the Diamond Circle from Myvatn. The best place to stay and eat is Vogafjós Farm Resort, ideally located in between all highlights of Myvatn and very close to the main roads. Alternatively, you could consider staying (and dining) in Husavik.
I hope this article was helpful for you to prepare your trip to Asbyrgi Canyon and/or inspires to visit Asbyrgi Canyon. Have you ever climbed on top of a canyon? What’s your greatest physical challenge so far? Do you have plans to visit northeast Iceland and Asbyrgi Canyon?
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Last Updated on 09/24/2020 by Flitter Fever