The Stuðlagil Canyon is located in eastern Iceland, hidden in the middle of the Jökla River, some distance from the beaten track of road number 1.
Stuðlagil is said by many to be the most beautiful canyon in Iceland. With its incredible basalt columns and turquoise waters running through its gates, the canyon has become one of the hottest tourist sites in recent years, drawing countless people from all over the world.
The turquoise waters of the Jökla river that flows through the canyon
When you first set eyes on the canyon, even if you've seen it in a thousand pictures before, you will be stunned by the composition and colour of this veritable living painting. It almost looks too perfect to be a natural feature.
But man had no hand in the making of this canyon, its origins are 100% natural...
As is often the case in Iceland, the answer is: volcanoes. A massive eruption pumped lava into what is now the canyon and the rapid cooling of the lava led to the formation of these basaltic columns that bring to mind organ pipes. Erosion by the waters of the Jökla sculpted the rest.
These basalt organs are a common feature in Iceland, with another famous example being the Svartifoss waterfall in the south.
This canyon also has a magical side: the waters running through it change colour. In fact, some days in summer when the water level is low, the water in Jökla is absolutely crystal clear and takes on a shade of turquoise blue that tends to emerald green. Other days, the color is a dark brown-green.
This is all due to the varying water level due to rains, glacier melts, but also to the much-criticized Kárahnjúkar dam further south (Hálslón Reservoir), which dumps its meltwater into the river at the end of August, raising it significantly.
Finally, the most incredible thing about this magnificent canyon is that it was completely unknown until 2017... In fact, the construction of the famous Hálslón reservoir and the Kárahnjúkar hydroelectric power plant (a colossal project consisting of 5 dams), 60 km further south, began in 2003 and ended in early 2009.
This dam impacted the level of the water that flows into the Jökuldalur valley and the Stuðlagil region. This changed the landscape quite literally and some places have been rediscovered in a new light. The basalt columns, until 2009 an underwater feature, now stand in plain view...
In August 2016 photographer Einar Páll Svavarsson visited the canyon and snapped a few photos of this newly revealed landscape, and had them published in WOW Magazine the following year. Following this publication, this canyon was put on the world map thanks to massive engagement on social media networks.
The canyon is a little far from the usual tourist circuit around route number 1, but you can get there quite easily even with a traditional vehicle.
There are few villages in the region, but the nearest one, Egilsstaðir, the eastern crossroads, is only 1 hour away by car.
To get there, take road number 1 heading west towards the Mývatn region before turning off on route 923, a dirt road but in very good condition. Signs to the canyon are already marked on route number 1, so you'll know when to exit. After a 19-kilometer drive on the 923 you'll arrive at a new intersection with a guesthouse names Skjödólfsstaðir, and from here you have two options:
Stuðlagil Canyon map
You can do both of course, but if you had to pick one, we strongly recommend the view from the east.
The famous metal platform on the west bank of Stuðlagil, seen from the east bank
To admire the canyon from the west bank, don't take the first exit signed “Stuðlagil”, instead continue 4 km south on the 923 until you reach the Grund farm. In 2020 the municipality built a car park as well as a metal staircase leading to a viewing platform perched at the top of the canyon.
This avoids a hike but it's not the best view of the canyon, far from it. But if you are into drone photography or film, this is a great way to snap shots of the canyon from up high.
The official car park near the Klaustursel farm and the famous wooden bridge
This is the best route, but you'll have to work for it. To get there it's quite simple:
When you reach the 923 near Skjödólfsstaðir, turn off at the first sign indicating “Stuðlagil” on the left. From here, it's a quick drive to the car park at the “Klaustursel farm”.
The second, official car park is also on the west bank of the river but leads to a wooden bridge (photo above) to cross the river. While it is accessible to vehicles, it's reserved for residents of Klaustursel (despite this, many break the rules...). Driving across allows takes you to another smaller car park 2 km away (and halves the hiking time), but we recommend you follow the rules.
From this first car park, you can begin your hike right along the steep walls of the canyon.
The hiking trail has plenty of signage, so you won't get lost unless you're trying to. Once across the wooden bridge, the path follows the river bank to the best viewpoint.
From the bridge, the trail follows an uninteresting stone path for 2 km to the “unofficial” car park, before turning into a small dirt path overlooking the canyon. From here, the basalt organs will begin rising around you.
700 or so meters after the second car park, your next stop will be near a pretty little waterfall, Stuðlafoss, which flows between the canyon walls, a bit like that of Svartifoss in Skaftafell.
The colors of the canyon walls are simply breathtaking and about 5 km from the official car park, you will find the best viewpoint. It's a very easy walk along the banks, accessible to old and young with almost no elevation. It won't take more than 1 hour to get to the Stuðlagil Canyon, another choice viewing spot.
Stuðlagil: the view at the foot of the basalt columns in the canyon
From here, the opposite bank appears in incredible lighting, basalt organs with whimsical shapes stand alongside perfectly straight parallel columns stacked neatly for tens of meters, creating a stunning effect of perspective.
You can admire the canyon from high up, looking down at the basalt columns, but you can also get right to the waterline (photo above) where the visual effect is most striking.
To go down, it's wet, smooth stone so be sure to keep a hand on the rope bolted to the stone as a handrail. Even with this, you still need to be very careful as unlike the west bank there are no guardrails on this side, and the Jökla's current can be quite strong ...
In total, the round trip will take about 2 hours, or 2 hours 15 minutes maximum, but remember to factor in the time you spend taking your best Instagram snap.
Stuðlagil is best visited in summer, from June and mid-August. This is when the colors will be at their most visually striking due to the vivid contrast. And as mentioned, at the end of August the hydroelectric power plant upstream pumps its reservoir of meltwater into the canyon, which completely changes the water level and landscape. The colors become dull in comparison to the summer months, and the vegetation around the canyon is already turning brown for the winter.
The site is very busy in summer, a bit too busy in fact, since its discovery in 2016. So we recommend visiting when the crowds are sparse, at least if you want to avoid too many random tourists in your photos. Before 10 am or after 6 pm is ideal.
For photographers, the shaded evening light during the midnight sun period in July makes for an exceptional vista in Stuðlagil.
Given the influx of tourists there, it may be wiser to seek accommodation close enough to Stuðlagil so you can pick your moment to go there in the evening or early in the morning.
Good news for camping lovers, the campsite near the official Stuðlagil car park and the Klaustursel farm offers about 100 locations with toilets and a public sinks for washing up.
Other types of accommodation are also available, including a well known apartment complex and a country home on site:
These are located directly in Grund, a few hundred meters from the canyon, an ideal location!