Stuðlagil canyon is one of Iceland’s best hidden gems. Beautiful basalt columns formed on either side of a bright blue/green glacial river (we visited when it was raining – so no blue colour!). It looks like something from another planet!
We first came across it on the internet, just as we were planning our trip to Iceland. Naturally, we knew we had to go and check it out! There was a problem though; we could barely find anything online about it!
Even though we still have no idea how to pronounce it (‘Stuthlagil’, I believe – please correct me if I’m wrong!), we decided we’d try and figure it out and then write a comprehensive guide to any would-be adventurers!
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What is Stuðlagil canyon
Stuðlagil canyon is a glacial river canyon located in North Eastern Iceland, in an area known as Jökuldalur Valley (Glacier Valley in English). The beautiful blue stream is still fairly unknown though as, until relatively recently it was a raging torrential river called Jökulsá á Dal.
That is, until Iceland created the Kárahnjúkavirkjun hydroelectric power plant between 2003 and 2007, and diverted much of the river water through underground tunnels. What remained was a small river supplied by mountain springs and glacial runoff. The huge amounts of sediment that previous turned the river brown are now (unless you visit during the rain) a thing of the past, leaving the clear, blue glacial water in its place.
The water level is also signficantly lower, leaving behind the incredible basalt columns that were previously invisible. Stuðlagil literally means “Basalt Column Gorge”. See the photo below for the full description!
How to get to Stuðlagil Canyon
Stuðlagil Canyon is on the North half of the island and is only a short detour if you’re following the ring road around Eastern Iceland.
Our first visit to Stuðlagil Canyon was on the way North from Höfn, on the way to Húsavík (around 2hr 20 minutes north). This was only a 40 minute detour from Egilsstaðir, so we thought it would be worth the effort!
The only downside was that we stopped here in the evening and only ended up arriving at Húsavík around 9pm, by which time, absolutely everywhere was closed (except the GeoSea spa). Our recommendation is to make sure you don’t arrive too late!
From Egilsstaðir, take the no.1 ring road west, then turn onto the 923 south. Then follow the road south along the river until you see the white bridge on the left. Follow these co-ordinates (65.189175,-15.252697) to reach the Carpark Stuðlagil East side Canyon.
On our second attempt, we were headed south, so we hit Stuðlagil earlier in the day, and then ate dinner in Egilsstaðir. I think visiting in this direction makes a lot more sense, because the you’re likely to spend a fair amount of time here and don’t want to leave too late. Here’s the route we took from Húsavík
Trial by fire… in the land of fire and ice
As this was our first time to Iceland, our itinerary was extremely vague. We were winging it hard and, although we had rough ‘Google map’ drive times on our phones, we had absolutely no idea how accurate that would be once we hit the bumpy gravel backroads.
We also had no idea how sparsely populated Iceland was, and how quickly you go out of cell service once you’re out in the backcountry. All of this left us pretty unprepared for, and unable to remedy, any mistakes or wrong turns along the way.
This is a really good lesson to learn for any potential Icelandic trip. You will lose cell service, so having bulletproof ‘analogue version (i.e. a map)’ or a screenshot of directions is an absolute must. I’d also suggest brushing up on your map reading skills!
The wrong side of the river
Stuðlagil Canyon naturally spans two sides of a river in Jökuldalur Valley. Although the entire area is stunning, it was clear that on one side, the view of the beautiful green river surrounded by basalt columns was much better.
What the internet doesn’t really help you with, is telling you WHICH damned side is which!
TL;DR for Photographers
tl;dr.. for the best photos of Stuðlagil Canyon, you need to hike in on the South/South East side of the river. This is the opposite side of the river to the main Stuðlagil Canyon parking lot.
- Distance: approx 4km each way
- Elevation gain: minimal
- Difficulty: easy
- Trailhead: 65.189175,-15.252697
The North/North West Side
Well, it turns out that Stuðlagil Canyon and the canyon viewpoint existed well before Instagram. For 99% of history, tourists have generally preferred easy access over photo spots.
So with that in mind, it turns out that the most convenient and most tourist friendly spot is on the North/North West side.
This is the spot you’ll find if you plug Stuðlagil Canyon into google maps. Here, you can drive right up to the edge of the canyon and see a few hexagonal basalt rocks as well as the river cutting through the valley below.
The North side is beautiful, and if you’re not after closeup photos or Instagram shots (sigh), the view from this side is more than enough.
The path down to the river on the North Side
If you want to head down to the river on this side, it’s possible by following the muddy, dirt track down from the carpark (you can go upstream and downstream).
I would not recommend attempting this if it has rained recently; it’s slippery, and it’s a long drop down to the rocks below.
Without realizing that what we were looking for was on the other side, we valiantly worked our way down to the water. It was manageable for us, but steep and definitely not suitable for all abilities.
Once we’d made it to the bottom, it became clear that the best view of the valley was around the corner from the other side of the river!
Is crossing the river possible?
At this point, we still had no idea that there was an alternative hike on the other side, so contemplated crossing…
Hmmm.. not a good idea..
The river looked cold, murky and uninviting. It looked virtually impossible to cross without being swept away, so we figured there must be a river crossing either upstream or downstream.
Unless you are an expert in this kind of scenario, do not try to cross the river! Water that cold and fast moving will end you, literally…
Eventually, a couple appeared on the other side of the river, and we realized that they must have hiked in. Somehow, with a lot of gesturing and flailing arms, they managed to communicate that there was a bridge downstream that would give us access. Perfect!
Try again tomorrow
Unfortunately for us, it was getting pretty late by this point and we had a late appointment at GeoSea, so we decided to come back and tackle this on our return from Húsavík the following day.
The South / South East Side
By resetting our odometer the previous day, we’d figured out that the trailhead was about 4km away from the canyon; We’d have to park on the North side of the river, just before a white pedestrian bridge that was too narrow for cars to cross.
The weather the next day was abysmal, but I had a brand new pair of waterproof trousers I was itching to try out, so it wasn’t an issue! (I’d actually really recommend them for Iceland! I recommend these Helly Hansen waterproof pants if you’re looking to get a set)
(I didn’t even take the camera out until we reached the end of the hike because there was so much rain!)
Hiking to Stuðlagil
Once you’ve parked, the route to Stuðlagil Canyon is fairly easy, flat and obvious. Cross the river and turn right along the farm track. Follow the road uphill, headed in the upstream direction.
Along the way, you’ll pass through several styles, gates and a couple of shallow river crossings. If you don’t have waterproof boots, expect to get wet feet.
Follow the road for as long as possible, don’t get sidetracked by trails that lead into fields on your right until you can see a clear trail down towards the river. This will be when you’re virtually parallel with the car park opposite.
Again, the trail is extremely obvious and easy to follow
Once you’ve spotted the final trail that heads down into the field to your right, follow it as it winds down towards the edge of the canyon.
You’ll see a relatively straightforward climb down to the river, if you choose to do so, that will involve stepping down the basalt columns. We did this when it was raining and it was relatively slippery. Slow and steady will get you there safely and in one piece.
Once you’re down at the river, you should be able to see the river as it heads upstream and columns of basalt rising out of the water on both sides!
Is it worth the hike?
Stuðlagil Canyon on the south side is a stunning destination but a long, long hike just for a quick view and a few photos. Fortunately I’d packed some (soggy by this point) Cadbury’s chocolate fingers to keep our spirits up. I recommend bringing snacks!
If you don’t care about the photos, I would seriously consider just sticking with the North side viewpoint.
When is the best time to visit Stuðlagil Canyon?
Right off the bat, you can rule winter out for this adventure. The water would be frozen and I imagine you’d need a superjeep to get anywhere near this part of Iceland!
The area is also closed from May 1 – June 10 every year to give the local Pink Footed Geese the space they need to breed.
Therefore I’d say the best time to visit Stuðlagil is from Mid June to September! These were the conditions in July.
The weather will definitely affect how enjoyable this experience is, but the same goes for everything in Iceland really, so I guess that’s a fairly moot point.
On the plus side, if the weather is really socked in, this is a hike that doesn’t rely on epic views in the distance, so it might be a great option on a foggy or cloudy day.
Will the water be green when you visit?
No doubt this is the big question on your mind, and we’ve already hinted at the answer above. If it’s been raining a lot in the previous days, don’t expect clear blue water. If it’s been raining, the river picks up a lot of sediment and turns a muddy brown. Boooo.
You should set your expectations appropriately, and if the blue water is important to you I’d recommend scoping it out from the North Side first, before starting the hike.
Obviously, Iceland gets a LOT of rain, so cross your fingers and toes and hope for the best!
Where to eat – nearby in Egilsstaðir
Egilsstaðir had very few options that came highly recommended or that were open in the evening. But we did manage to find somewhere worth recommending; Salt Cafe and Bistro.
They had an excellent range of dishes including pizza, curry and burgers (exactly what you need when you’ve had a long afternoon of hiking). Not to mention a decent range of local beers and dishes.
As was the case everywhere in Iceland, don’t expect these places to be open if you show up late (I mean 9 o’clock onwards, potentially even earlier).
Overall, the Stuðlagil Canyon hike on the South side is a good little adventure that’s manageable for virtually all abilities. If you can walk 8km in a straight, flat line, you can probably manage it. There is a little bit of a downclimb once you get there though, so please factor that in.
It’s probably one of the easiest adventures we came across in Iceland, so it might be a good hike to add if you want to throw in something really gentle and unique on your trip. It’s also a good way to break up the driving a little as you head North.
I can also see this being incredible if there are Northern lights in the forecast, especially if you’re on the South side facing North.
The basalt columns were really cool to see and it certainly made for interesting photos. With that being said, I don’t think it was really in my top ten experiences in Iceland, especially given how limited we were on time!
Perhaps I would have been bowled over if the water was bright blue, but having visited from the Rocky mountains, this is something I’ve become fairly accustomed to (yes, yes, first world problems, I know).
If, on the other hand, you haven’t seen bright blue/green water like this before then you might really enjoy this. Either way, it should probably go on the Iceland bucketlist!