Dettifoss is known to be the most powerful waterfall in Iceland and even in Europe. 44 meters high and 100 meters wide, the fall has a flow of about 500 m³ per second in summer, when the flow is strongest.
Dettifoss is somewhat isolated in the desert to the north of Iceland: east of Lake Myvatn in the Jökulsá á Fjöllum canyon and between Selfoss and Hafragilsfoss waterfalls.
Dettifoss waterfall in North Iceland
Though off the beaten track of Road number 1, this place still draws many visitors to its remote shores as it is undoubtedly one of the 3 most famous falls in the country. You could even say this is a top tourist hotspot in the country.
The Dettifoss waterfall originates in the Jökulsá á Fjöllum glacial river that descends from the Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe, to flow into the Greenland Sea up north. The desert landscape is cut by a deep and beautiful canyon, and the waters of the Jökulsá á Fjöllum cascade dosn several magnificent waterfalls along the way. First is Selfoss, then Dettifoss, the most famous, with two other waterfalls Fossvogur and Hafragilsfoss located a few kilometers downstream.
Dettifoss is tremendously powerful, and its roar can be heard for miles in every direction. When you see the mist rising like a mushroom cloud above the waterfall in the far distance, you'll immediately get a sense of the scale.
On site, you can really get right up to the cascade, the noise absolutely deafening such that you can physically feel the power of the sound. Downstream of Dettifoss, the Hafragilsfoss waterfall is 27 meters high and its terrain is beautiful, so be sure to stop there as well.
Dettifoss seen from the east bank
There are two main hiking trails near the waterfall from the west bank:
From the car park off Road 862, the walk from the car park to Selfoss and then to Dettifoss takes only 45 minutes. The loop is only 3.5 kilometers long and with almost no elevation, it is accessible to everyone. The Selfoss waterfall along the way is also one of the most beautiful in the region.
Another hiking loop you can finish in about 3 hours from the car park allows you to see all 4 waterfalls in the area.
From the Dettifoss car park on Trail 862, head towards Selfoss, followed by Dettifoss, then take the path running along the Jökulsá á Fjöllum glacial river until you reach two new waterfalls on the east bank: Fössvogur and Hafragilsfoss. All the waterfalls are indicated on the walking trails.
Dettifoss - Ruedi Haberli @Unsplash
The waterfall is best visited in summer because this is when the output flow of water is at its peak. It can be visited in winter, but you should know that Trail 864 is very regularly closed in winter (from November to May) and the 862, even though paved, is often closed from January to March as it's too dangerous.
In winter, it is still possible to reach Dettifoss via a guided superjeep tour: Additional information on 4x4 superjeep trips to Dettifoss in winter.
Access to the waterfall is much easier than it used to be. This remote area can be reached by two trails: the 864 in the east and the 862 in the west.
The 862 is particularly rugged in places on the northern leg near Dettifoss once you leave the section paved a few years ago between Road number 1 to the south and the car park. If you come from the south via the 862, the drive will be a breeze as this section is completely paved.
Off-road Trail 864 is technically accessible to all types of vehicles but, even though you may see others in city-cars, we strongly recommend renting a 4x4. Access via the 864 is a bit on the wild side which means less crowded, but the view from this vantage point is not as impressive.
Dettifoss seen from the west bank
Whatever road you take, arriving at Dettifoss is always a spectacle. After crossing Sanddalur, a valley of black sand surrounded by cliffs and basalt organs, you arrive at the fall and its lunar landscape of majestic cliffs.
In recent years, the west bank has seen development in particular. There are footbridges to give you the best views of the very photogenic Dettifoss waterfall and other amenities.
You can see the waterfall from the west or from the east bank. Most travelers prefer to observe it from the 862 (west side) which has easier access and because it just looks more impressive on this side. Also, staying on the same road, you can continue your journey to the Raudholar hike a little further north and to visit Jökulàrgljúfur Park.
You can also reach the waterfall by bus from the south or from the north.
Whichever route you choose to reach Dettifoss, you'll hear it well before you see the plume of mist hovering above, as the deep booming sound of the water hitting the basaltic organs of the canyon can be heard for miles.
The surroundings of Dettifoss - Laila Geibharg @Unsplash
There's not much near the waterfall except rocky desert! The vast majority of visitors sleep in the Myvatn region or near Asbyrgi in the north.
For camping, the nearest campsite is Hljóðaklettar a little further north along the 862. The Grimsstadir campsite is located on the 864, 28 km from the fall heading south. Camping around Dettifoss is prohibited, but it would be impossible to sleep with all that noise anyway.