Home TravelEurope Dettifoss and Selfoss, the most impressive waterfalls of northeast Iceland

Dettifoss and Selfoss, the most impressive waterfalls of northeast Iceland

by Flitter Fever
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When driving the Diamond Circle or at least visiting the Myvatn area, the Dettifoss and Selfoss waterfalls are not to miss! Dettifoss and Selfoss are the most impressive waterfalls of northeast Iceland, perhaps entire Iceland. These waterfalls can be visited on the west and east side, which both have their pros and cons. Read all about it in this article, including practical tips.

Woman sitting on rocks with double rainbow in front of Dettifoss waterfall Iceland
So lucky! Double rainbow in front of Dettifoss!

Jokulsargljufur

Jökulsárgljúfur is the largest and possibly the most spectacular canyon of Iceland. It’s app. 25 km long and about 0.5 km wide. Its depth come close to or exceeds 100m in many places. Jökulsárgljúfur is nowadays part of Vatnajökull National Park, one out of three NP’s on Iceland. Jökulsárgljúfur (west side) used to have the status of being a National Park on itself between 1973 and 2008.

These waterfalls belong to a protected area since 1996 to preserve the history, landscape, flora and fauna of the area. Please follow the marked footpaths and avoid disturbing the flora and fauna when walking around in this special area. Flying with a drone is prohibited at Dettifoss and Selfoss. We also met a ranger along the way who walked around to keep an eye on the visitors.

The southernmost located waterfall (out of four) is Dettifoss, with about 10 meters height. Dettifoss is north of Selfoss. Dettifoss is about 45 meters high and app. 100 meters wide. By water flow, Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall of Europe!

Woman smiling in camera at Sellfoss waterfall
All alone here, on such a sunny day, wow!
River view northwards with Selfoss behind my back
River view northwards with Selfoss behind my back

862 vs. 864 road

When you want to visit Selfoss and Dettifoss waterfalls from Myvatn lake area, you will have to make a choice which road you will take:

  • the asphalt road 862 (west), or
  • the gravel road 864 (east)

We took the 864 but almost regretted it… Especially the second part after visiting Dettifoss and Selfoss and heading further north, the road gets rough with bad gravel (big rocks, big holes). We drove by a couple who suffered a flat tire with their 2×2 car. The 864 road drives a bit like an old fashioned wash board, I don’t know how else to describe it. Cannot be too beneficial for a 2×2 car but ours survived. Don’t drive too closely behind someone else as you will be driving in a big cloud of sand and dust. Your car will be dirty afterwards, but luckily most gas stations on Iceland have free washing facilities, or the rain will wash it off.

In summer, this 864 road is attainable, especially with a 4×4. With a 2×2 it is tricky and one should drive very carefully and slowly (partly not faster than 40 km p/h). From Myvatn, it takes about 20 minutes before you reach the split between asphalt road 862 and gravel road 864. From there the gravel road takes about 30 minutes to the waterfalls. Most parts you can still drive about 80-90 km p/h with a 2×2 this time of year.

Gravel road on Iceland with clear blue sky
Gravel road 864 between Myvatn and Dettifoss east side
Side mirror of car with dust behind due to gravel road 864
Another one bites the dust

Why take the risk of the gravel road 864 to Dettifoss and Selfoss?

From a photography point of view, this the east side (864) is the best side. You face the waterfalls more from the front, whereas from the east side you face them more from the side, or in case of Selfoss almost the back. On the west side (862), you also suffer from the water drops flying from the waterfalls to your side as well, which is annoying. This is why we took the 864.

The good thing about visiting the waterfalls from the west side (862), is obviously the easier, less risky to drive the paved road. We love smooth asphalt! An additional benefit is that from the 862 (west) you can also visit Hljóðaklettar, which is not possible from the eastern 864. Check road.is for the road conditions before driving off at any time on Iceland.

Unless you want to make a whole round trip out of visiting the waterfalls to see them from both the east and west side… Some people actually do that, but warning: this will cost you about 5 hours in total. It does not make sense to do that when you intend to drive the whole Diamond Circle in one day. Dettifoss and Selfoss are great, but to me they are part of the Diamond Circle, which I would recommend to complete as a whole, possibly in one day (instead of spending all your time on two waterfalls alone). But that is very personal and obviously also depends on your priorities and how much time you have available.

Walking down from the parking lot (east) to Dettifoss
Walking down from the parking lot (east) to Dettifoss
Dettifoss waterfall from a distance
Dettifoss waterfall from a distance

Dettifoss

So we took the 864 road (east), driving through this mysterious moon landscape of grey rocks and dust. Poor lady driving behind us. The parking lot at the eastern side of Dettifoss is not big, it fits about 30 cars. Apparently in non-COVID-19 times there are lines here to be able to park at the parking lot when getting there let’s say at about 11:00h… Luckily we did not have any crowds, there were only a dozen people walking around in this entire area. Goof to know: there is a toilet on the eastern side as well, as I heard there wasn’t for many years.

From the parking lot you go down a stairs and a landscape with big rocks towards Dettifoss waterfall. The path (where to go) is not always super clear. This walk down from the parking lot to Dettifoss takes less than 10 minutes. Hiking boots recommended! You can walk up really close to Dettifoss. There are no platforms or fences like at other big waterfalls we visited, like Iguazu Falls. The setting is very natural. Dettifoss is massive and powerful. We were lucky to be here on a sunny day with clear blue skies. We even saw two rainbows! Wow, so impressive!

Dettifoss waterfall up close
Dettifoss waterfall up close
Woman sitting in front of watching waterfall dettifoss on Iceland
Mesmerized by the powerfull water rushing down Dettifoss

Depending on how long you will spend at Dettifoss, but let’s say about 20 minutes, you have spent so far 30 minutes since parking. Time to move on to the next waterfall?

Selfoss

From Dettifoss you walk in about 20-30 minutes to Selfoss (1.4 km), mostly over big piles of grey rocks in between the canyon wall and the river. The thundering sound of the water rushing down from Dettifoss echoes against the canyon wall. Simply follow the yellow marked posts to Selfoss. I can imagine these grounds may get very muddy and slippery on or after a rainy day, so be cautious! You do want to injure yourself at such a remote spot.

Rainbow above Dettifoss waterfall from behind
Rainbow above Dettifoss waterfall (from behind)
path with yellow posts between Dettifoss and Selfoss waterfalls
Between Selfoss and Dettifoss, follow the yellow posts

Selfoss is a beautiful horse shoe shaped waterfall with a particularly long sprout on the west side (we stood on the eastern side). Again, no platform or fences here, so you can walk up really very close to the stream of water at Selfoss waterfall. Be aware of slippery rocks from the water on the very edges. Selfoss waterfall sprays water over the western side here too. A beauty to see for real, definitely worth the efforts of sole good old rock hopping to get there from Dettifoss.

Back from Selfoss to the parking at Dettifoss took us about 40 minutes. The last part, up the stairs to the parking at Dettifoss s the toughest LOL We also saw a helicopter flying above Jökulsárgljúfur canyon in front of Dettifoss. You can check the helicopter possibilities at the T-junction where you exit the 864 towards Dettifoss Parking, because that’s where the helicopter is parked for customers.

Water splashing from Selfoss waterfall around noon
Water splashing from Selfoss waterfall around noon
Selfoss desolate landscape Iceland
Desolate landscape @ Selfoss

Best time to visit Dettifoss and Selfoss

From photography perspective, I would recommend visiting Dettifoss and Selfoss waterfalls in August before 09:30h (counterclockwise Diamond Circle) or late afternoon (clockwise Diamond Circle). This because:

  • The waterfalls are facing north, meaning that photos are taken in the southern direction; the sun is right behind the falls around 13:00h (mid-August), which makes photographing quite a  challenge;
  • The waterfalls’ parking, especially on the eastern side, can get pretty crowded in the second half of the morning and afternoon (at least that was the case before COVID-19 times).

Unless you like ‘against the sunlight’ photo effect…? Please be aware that you will not find any food trucks, eateries or machines with snacks, drinks or whatever at parking lots of sights like these on the Diamond Circle. That is actually pretty rare on the entire island of Iceland. Bring your own food and drinks. Simply fill your water bottle with tap water in the morning before leaving your accommodation, it is delicious here! No need to buy bottled water at supermarkets or gas stations on Iceland, that’s really a waste of money. Perhaps only in Myvatn, where the tap water smells like rotten eggs due to geothermal activity in the ground…

Jökulsá á Fjöllum river and Jökulsárgljúfur canyon wall seen from Selfoss
Jökulsá á Fjöllum river and Jökulsárgljúfur canyon wall
Selfoss waterfall from a distance
Selfoss waterfall from a distance

Hafragilsfoss

After visiting Dettifoss and Selfoss, you may want to visit a 3rd waterfall in the area as well. It’s a 45-60 min hike on foot (3.5km) or a 10 min car ride from the parking lot at Dettifoss (east) to Hafragilsfoss. Hafragilsfoss is definitely quieter on busy days at Dettifoss and Selfoss! Hafragilsfoss can also be seen from both east and west sides. It’s about 27 meters high.

Like Dettifoss and Selfoss, Hafragilsfoss is located in the river Jökulsá á Fjöllum, which is Iceland’s second longest glacial river (total length 206 km). North of Hafragilsfoss there is a 4th small waterfall called Réttarfoss, which is about 7km high.

Grey rocky canyon with waterfall from a distance on Iceland
Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon with Hafragilsfoss in the distance
Living on the edge at Asbyrgi Canyon Iceland
Living on the edge @ Asbyrgi Canyon

Next stop: Asbyrgi Canyon

From the Dettifoss and Selfoss waterfalls to Asbyrgi Canyon up north (the worst part) takes another 30 minutes because you have to lower your speed significantly due to the bad gravel road conditions. For more detailed information on the next stop, please read my earlier article Asbyrgi Canyon, the spectacular hidden gem of northeast Iceland you need to see. All part of Iceland’s Diamond Circle.

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.

How to visit Dettifoss & Selfoss

Besides the whole description above about the gravel road 864 on the east side vs. the asphalt road 862 on the west side of Dettifoss, Selfos and Hafragilsfoss…

A rental a car and being able to drive around yourself gives a lot of freedom and flexibility. You will be able to see more in a shorter period of time compared to public transport, and the airconditioning is a bit plus too! Just make sure it is insured all-risk and that you bring your EU or international driver’s license.

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!

All-inclusive autohuur volgens Sunny Cars

Or, if you do not want or cannot drive yourself or renting a car alone is too pricey, consider joining this 6-day Ring Road adventure guided tour.

Where to stay

When visiting Dettifoss, Selfoss, Asbyrgi Canyon, etc. I would recommend to stay either in/near Reykjahlíð at Lake Myvatn (65 km) or Husavik (90 km). See the earlier article about Asbyrgi Canyon for accommodation suggestions. Soon I will write an article about the complete Diamond Circle, where Dettifoss, Selfoss and Asbyrgi Canyon are all part of.

Do you have plans to visit the Dettifoss and Selfoss waterfalls during your Iceland trip? Or did this article convince you do to look into it? Should you have any further questions or additional tips, please let me know via below comment box.

Interested to read more articles about Iceland? Check out the Iceland Blog Archives! More articles will follow soon.

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Last Updated on 11/04/2020 by Flitter Fever

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