In East Iceland, you can visit a rare canyon with basalt columns, about 30 m high called Stuðlagil. It’s found in the glacial valley of Jökuldalur and was only discovered a few years ago. The reason for this is the Jökulsá á Dal river (Jökulsá river), which shaped it was once a turbulent glacial river, filling it entirely and making the canyon almost invisible.
Facts and features
Today, the water level has dropped by 7-8 meters due to the Kárahnjúkar hydroelectric power plant, which was built in 2007. The canyon itself is 500 m long, with 20-30 m basalt columns on both sides of the river, and is considered to be of the largest column formations of this kind on land in Iceland. The two landmarks, the columnar basalt rock masses and the blue-green in summer (or grey-brown in spring) river water, are the main features of the canyon. Around the basalt columns, there are trails, beautiful views, and impressive cascades where pink-footed geese can be seen nesting in spring.
How Stuðlagil canyon was created
Basalt columns are not uncommon in Iceland. Basalt itself is a volcanic rock whose crystals are formed as the lava cools. The canyon was discovered in 2016 by a local tour guide and in just a few years became widely known on social media. It has been referred to as “the natural diamond in Efri-Jökuldalur” and is a very popular place to visit, especially after the construction of the Kárahnjúkavirkjun hydroelectric power plant.
What can be seen around Stuðlagil
The Kárahnjúkavirkjun power station is definitely a sight to see. It draws power from the dam at Jökulsá á Dal, from the glacial river and from Jökulsá in Fljótsdalur with a total of five dams and three reservoirs. The largest of the dams is also the largest of its kind in Europe, 193 m high, 730 m long, and consisting of 8,5 million cubic meters of material. The experience of a walk along the edge of the dam and the view looking down into the canyon below is unforgettable.
Also, a point of interest is the church at Eiríksstaðakirkja, the oldest concrete church in eastern Iceland. It was once located in Brú, a farm next to Eiríksstadir. It was subsequently moved to the town. The old altarpiece was painted in 1794 by Jon Hallgrímsson and is now kept in the National Museum of Iceland.
There is also a remarkable waterfall near Stuðlagil: the Rjúkandi is one of the few large waterfalls in northern Iceland that can be seen directly from the ring road. Its waters cascade down the steep valley of Jökuldalur, carved by the river Jokulsá á Bru. Many other waterfalls can be seen in the direction of the settlement of Egilsstaðir.
An old farm building named Sænautasel that is a historical landmark is also found close by. It was abandoned when the Askja caldera erupted in 1875. Today it has been restored and has museum value. The lake Binnubúð at Hjnúksvatn with a small hut by it is also a splendid sight to see; the old sheep farm at Hjardarhagi (two buildings preserved when the Ring Road was laid out) and of course Askja, as well as other mountain ranges and massifs, rivers and national parks, because Jökuldalur is the gateway to the mountains from the north-east.
How to reach Stuðlagil canyon
To reach Stuðlagil from the west side, you must turn south on Bypass 1 to Route 923. You then drive about 19 miles to the Grund Farm, where you’ll find parking and a trail to the riverbank (the walk is about 250 yards or 5 minutes). The walk to Stuðlagil is about 10 km in both directions. The trail is easy to navigate, although it gets a bit muddy towards the end. In general, access to the canyon varies from season to season, and you should always check the weather forecast, the condition of Route 923, and the hiking trail.