Natural Wonders

East Iceland: Essential travel guide

Often squeezed into an overnight stop on a self-drive tour of Iceland’s Ring Road, the East makes a superb short break destination in its own right. With five days to lavish on the little-visited Austurland region, you can not only dawdle through the breathtaking East Fjords, but also spend time hiking in the mountains of Borgarfjörður Eystri and exploring the waterfalls, canyons and dormant volcanoes of the island’s rugged interior.

East Iceland’s main hub, the modern town of Egilsstaðir lies in a broad valley near the northern tip of Lagarfljót. Rumours of a serpent-like monster, known as the Wyrm, have been floating around this glacial lake since 1345, but the 740-hectare birchwood of Hallormsstaðaskógur seems just as fanciful as you drive along the lake’s southern shore.

While forests are a rarity in Iceland, waterfalls appear around every corner. One of the country’s tallest, 128m Hengifoss plunges over humbug-striped cliffs of black basalt and red clay at the threshold of the Highlands. Delve deeper into the interior and you’ll discover more cascades at Laugarfell, as well as hot springs and the 1,833m trekking peak of Snæfell, King of the Mountains. A short distance from the new hydroelectric dam at Kárahnjúkar, the Jökla River has gouged out the 200m-deep, 8km-long Hafrahvammagljúfur canyon. When the dam was commissioned, river levels dropped, revealing extraordinary basalt columns in Stuðlagil canyon, further downstream.

These are just some of the natural wonders to be found on routes west of Egilsstaðir. Head north, east or south from town and you’ll reach the coast where the East Fjords boast some of Austurland’s most sublime scenery. From Neskaupstaður in the north, a head-spinning drive hugs the coast, meandering between mountain and sea and joining the dots between fishing communities all the way south to Djúpivogur. Another road snakes over a mountain pass before unravelling past waterfalls to reach Seyðisfjörður with its elegant clapboard houses and thriving arts scene.

Drive north, meanwhile, and you’ll reach Borgarfjörður Eystri – prime walking country and a top spot for puffin-watching during summer. The coast and mountains here are riddled with hiking trails – tiptoe to Álfaborg (home to the queen of the Icelandic elves), make tracks for the deserted bay at Brúnavik or climb high into the mountains of Dyrfjöll, where reindeer graze and trolls hunker down among jumbled boulders.

Day 1: Seyðisfjörður

From Egilsstaðir, drive east over Fjarðarheiði pass, stopping to hike the short trail to Fardagafoss waterfall before reaching Seyðisfjörður. Stroll along colourful Rainbow Street to the Blue Church and visit the Skaftfell Centre for Visual Art.

Day 2: The Highlands

After an early start from Egilsstaðir, stop for breakfast at Móðir Jörð organic farm in Vallanes before driving through Iceland’s largest forest and hiking to the base of Hengifoss waterfall. Visit the Wilderness Centre at Snæfellsstofa and relax in the geothermal pool at Laugerfell with views of snow-capped Snæfell. A surfaced road continues to Kárahnjúkar Dam, but to complete the loop back to Egilsstaðir (via Stuðlagil canyon) you will need to use the F910 mountain road – only open in summer.

Day 3: Borgarfjörður Eystri

It’s a 70km drive from Egilsstaðir to this northernmost village in the East Fjords. Push on for another 5km to reach the harbour at Hafnarhólmi for intimate views of nesting puffins (May to July), then head to the jagged Dyrfjöll mountains inland. Don’t miss the 4–5hr hike from Borgarfjörður Eystri to Stórurð.

Days 4–5: East Fjords tour

Follow Route 1 south from Egilsstaðir to Reyðarfjörður. A detour west along Route 92 leads to Neskaupstaður where you can go whale-watching and visit a museum dedicated to wildlife, maritime heritage and modernist art. Drive south-east from Reyðarfjörður to Fáskrúðsfjörður, from where the road follows the coast to Stöðvarfjördur (home to the impressive rock collection of Petra Sveinsdóttir) and Breiðdalsvík – a tiny fishing village which leads to spectacular Breiðdalur valley. Continue south, hugging the coast, to reach Djúpivogur, before looping back to Egilsstaðir.

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