Lake Mývatn

Outdoor Adventures in Lake Myvatn, Iceland

Lake Mývatn

Summer & Winter Activities At Lake Myvatn

Many travelers are familiar with Iceland’s famous tourist loop near Reykjavík, which is known as the “Golden Circle.” But few are aware that the island’s north side is also home to a stunning circuit of its own natural attractions.

Known as the Diamond Circle, this roughly 260-kilometer itinerary takes in some of Iceland’s most breathtaking landscapes, while also providing a chance to see a diverse array of wildlife. Northern Iceland abounds with geothermal areas, lava formations, waterfalls, whale watching, and migrating birds.

While there are many incredible destinations to explore along the Diamond Circle route, Iceland’s Lake Mývatn is often thought of as its centerpiece. Here, travelers will find a wild and untamed land filled with adventure throughout the year, with each season offering its own unique outdoor experiences.

While Lake Mývatn may seem like a remote, relatively undiscovered place, you’ll find a wide variety of accommodations, restaurants, and activities available within easy reach. The area provides an off-the-beaten-path experience that few travelers take the time to see. Those that do make the trip are often blown away by the sheer number of natural attractions to be had in this geological wonderland.

Whether it’s covered under a blanket of snow or bathed in eternal summer sunshine, Lake Mývatn is an incredible destination that active travelers won’t want to miss. Here’s a look at some of the many unforgettable experiences to be had there throughout the year.

Lake Myvatn


SUMMER ACTIVITIES IN LAKE MYVATN

During Iceland’s warm summer months, visitors have an opportunity to enjoy long days of activities powered by the midnight sun. With so many exciting adventures to be had and plenty of sunlight in which to experience them all, you may be so pumped up that you forget to sleep.

In this time of year, vibrant green hillsides filled with wildflowers meet rushing waterfalls. Huge flocks of migratory birds make the area’s glistening lakes and rivers come alive with activity. You can hike through magical landscapes, and all of Mývatn’s top attractions are easily accessible at this time of year.

Here’s a look at what you can expect during a summer visit to Lake Mývatn:

Birdwatching

Every year, beginning in late April, waterfowl from northwestern Europe flocks to Lake Mývatn. Over a dozen species of ducks nest here annually, including the greater scaup, tufted duck, Barrow’s goldeneye, long-tailed duck, red-breasted merganser, and Eurasian teal. You can also spot beautiful birds of prey such as the gyrfalcon, short-eared owl, and snowy owl.

While the best time for birdwatching around the lake is from mid-May to mid-June, species such as the gyrfalcon and the striking harlequin duck also winter in the region (and may even prove easier to spot then). Many of the waterfowl species will become more hard to spot as July approaches, but they’re still around. Focus your attention on the area near the bay of Neslandavík, as well as the Laxá River.

Be sure to check out Sigurgeir's Bird Museum, which is located on the shores of the lake. There you can learn more about the bird species that visit the lake, purchase birdwatching guides, borrow telescopes for close-up views, and make use of comfortable hides that are great for avid wildlife photographers.

Godafoss

Chasing Waterfalls

Some of Iceland’s most impressive waterfalls are situated around the Mývatn area, including Europe’s most powerful. The mighty Dettifoss is a sight to behold as it flows about 500 cubic meters per second into the canyon located 45 meters below.

The falls are best viewed during the summer months, when both the east and west entrance roads are open to cars. The roads close during the winter due to snow and wet conditions, which can make the hiking trails to the falls dangerous. A short hike upstream (south) will take you to the much smaller Selfoss Falls, which is also located in the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon.

The “waterfall of the gods,” or Goðafoss, easily ranks among Iceland’s most beautiful falls. Legend says that the falls get their name from the time when Christianity was first adopted in the region, and statues of Nordic gods were thrown into the falls. The falls make their way over a 30 meter wide, horseshoe-shaped rock along the Skjálfandafljót River.

For a glimpse of lesser known falls, head into the Bárðardalur valley. There you can see the seldom visited, yet impressively dramatic Aldeyjarfoss Falls, with its picturesque basalt columns.

Hike Through Forests, Lava Formations & Craters

Lake Mývatn’s Höfði Peninsula is home to several lovely hiking trails that will take you through a pleasant forest (a rare sight in Iceland), with interesting lava formations along the way.

Located near the lake’s eastern shore, you’ll find the Hverfjall Crater. Two different trails lead to the top of the crater, where you’ll be rewarded with stunning panoramic views of the lake. Extend your hike by making your way around the rim of the crater. which will take about an hour.

To the south of the lake you’ll find the pseudo-craters known as Skútustaðagígar, which were caused by lava running across the swampy wetlands. This led to steam eruptions and formed the crater-like shapes we see today.

Then make your way through Dimmuborgir, a labyrinth of lava towers, caves, and pillars that were formed by a massive volcanic eruption around 2,300 years ago. It’s here where common legend holds that the Yule Lads (or Icelandic trolls) live in caves.

Lake Mývatn

Experience the Hverir Geothermal Area

For a truly out-of-this-world experience, head to the Hverir geothermal area, where you’ll find a landscape more reminiscent of Mars than Earth.

Steaming chimneys and boiling pits of mud greet you, as does the smell of rotten eggs. Do your best to bear the smell and take time to notice the bright yellow, orange, and red patterns of sulfur-stained earth.

Remember to stick to the paths around the boiling mud pits, as 200 degrees Celsius may be a bit too hot for anyone to handle. At the back of the geothermal field, you can hike to the top of Námafjall Mountain for a bird’s eye view of the unique area.


WINTER ACTIVITIES IN LAKE MYVATN

Iceland more than makes up for its long dark winters with the presence of the northern lights and numerous outdoor winter adventures.

Native Icelanders love to play in the snow and will be more than willing to show you how fun the country can be at this time of year. From wild Super Jeep tours to simply relaxing in a hot geothermal lagoon, the country offers a wealth of incredible winter experiences.

Here is just a taste of the many magical adventures you can expect as the temperature drops:

Viewing the Northern Lights

A true highlight of any visit to Iceland during the winter months is the chance to experience the northern lights. This natural light display is a common sight in the dark Arctic skies, and no place offers a more magical landscape in which to see them than Iceland.

Northern Iceland in particular provides longer and darker winters, which gives you a better chance to view the famed aurora borealis. The region’s smaller population also means less light pollution and a more vibrant northern lights viewing experience.

The northern lights are created when charged particles from the sun strike atoms in the Earth's atmosphere. Electrons within the atoms go from a high to low energy state, which releases a photon and creates the stunning colors we see. According to Nordic folklore, the lights are caused by fires created by the gods, or the spirit of a swiftly moving Arctic fox whose tail sends sparks into the night sky.

While there is never any guarantee of seeing the northern lights during your visit to Iceland, your chances improve in areas like Mývatn due to less precipitation and cloud coverage than the rest of Iceland. The natural phenomenon is unpredictable, but your odds of experiencing them will increase dramatically the longer you spend in the country.

You’re almost certain to see the lights if staying a week or more in winter. Remember to pack extra camera batteries if you plan to capture the stunning display on photo or video, as the chilly air can drain batteries much more quickly than normal.

Lake Mývatn

Mývatn Nature Baths

While the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa (located near Reykjavik) deservedly gets most of the attention from tourists, the Mývatn Nature Baths provide a much less crowded and less expensive alternative.

The man-made lagoon offers relaxing 36-40°C waters that are considered to be beneficial to the skin. No chlorine or disinfectant needs to be added, since harmful bacteria and vegetation are absent due to the chemical composition of the waters.

Although they can get a bit stinky, the sulfur of the baths can also help to alleviate respiratory diseases, arthritic pain, digestive issues, dry scalp, and eczema. Guests can also take advantage of two 50°C steam baths built above the geothermal area, which offer 100% humidity and sulfur-free steam.

The baths are open all winter from noon to 10pm. Children 12 years and younger get free entry when accompanied by a paying adult. Amenities include elegant changing rooms and the Kvika Restaurant, where you can grab a sandwich made with geyser bread and smoked trout. With a little luck and good timing, your relaxing soak may be accompanied by dancing northern lights overhead!

Lake Mývatn

Dog Sledding

Looking for a thrilling winter experience? Try being led by a team of Siberian Huskies across the snow-covered Icelandic landscape. Visitors can enjoy dog sledding just south of Lake Mývatn from January to early May.

Huskies were made for the snow, and actually enjoy the cold winter weather. Visitors have a chance to meet and cuddle the two dozen unchained Siberian Huskies at the Heiði Farm kennel before taking off on their adventurous ride.

You’ll learn the basics of dog sledding before your musher takes you and one additional traveling companion on a journey you’ll never forget. Tours run a few hours and take in the majestic mountains, craters, and geothermal areas that make the Mývatn area famous. For even more excitement, try standing up with the musher to give it a try yourself.

In addition to taking in the beautiful countryside, you’ll also learn about what makes these dogs so special. Huskies were bred to be strong, energetic, and resilient to the harsh conditions of the Arctic region. The sled dogs of Heiði Farm are free to roam and interact with each other when they aren’t doing sled runs, and enjoy interacting with visitors of all ages.

Snowmobiling

Snowmobiling is not only a great way to cover a lot of ground during the icy winter months, but it’s also quite exhilarating. Once snow begins to fall in November, Iceland’s snowmobiling season usually runs until the big spring melt begins around May.

When the ice becomes solid enough on Lake Mývatn, snowmobile tours can be arranged on the lake. The area around the Krafla caldera, with its volcanic landscape of craters and fissures, makes an equally great snowmobiling experience.

The massive 10-kilometer caldera has erupted numerous times over its history, standing tall over the bubbling mud springs of the Leirhnjúkur lava fields below. During winter, the Víti crater’s aqua blue lake becomes a glistening field of snow and ice.

There’s no need to pack a lot of gear: All snowmobile helmets, snowsuits, jackets, and boots will be provided for you. You must have a valid driver’s license in order to operate a snowmobile, but younger individuals can ride along as passengers.

Where exactly your snowmobile itinerary takes you will depend on the amount of snow cover, making each trip a unique experience. Be sure to dodge the rock ptarmigan along the way, as the bird’s white winter plumage camouflages them well against the snow. 

Lake Mývatn

Super Jeep Tours

A rugged and dependable vehicle is needed for off-road adventures in the land of fire and ice. Iceland’s Super Jeeps are designed to tackle the steepest and rockiest of terrains, including glaciers and volcanoes.

Sturdy Land Rovers and Land Cruisers are heavily modified to make them suitable for taking on anything the dynamic Icelandic landscape can throw at them. These 4x4 vehicles are built like tanks, mounted on giant 38- to 46-inch tall tires and with larger fuel tanks in order to make longer trips possible.

The word “inaccessible” gets thrown out the window as you make your way across the wintry landscape, which limits where normal vehicles can travel. You can explore waterfalls, lava fields, and volcanic areas draped in untouched snow as you make your way down forgotten and often unused trails around Mývatn.

Along the way you’ll see many of the area’s most notable attractions, including Goðafoss, Dimmuborgir, Skútustaðagígar, and Hverir. Your safety is assured regardless of the rugged weather conditions thanks to experienced drivers, satellite navigation, and top-of-the-line radio equipment.

Horseback Riding

Summertime is the usual horseback riding season, but the winter months provide an equally enjoyable experience in which you can share the northern lights with gorgeous Icelandic horses.

These small, stocky horses are incredibly strong and beautiful, with their long, shaggy winter coats. Their easy-going and friendly temperament (along with their ability to perform five different gaits) makes them a pleasure to ride, even for first-timers. Should you happen to fall off– which is unlikely– their short height means you won’t be far off the ground, and a blanket of soft snow will be there to catch your fall.

Riders will travel across the frozen Lake Mývatn just as the early Viking explorers did centuries ago. These majestic horses have managed to remain their pure breed thanks to strict regulations regarding the importation of other horse breeds and any horse equipment that can bring livestock diseases.

Horseback riding truly allows you to connect with the beauty of Icelandic nature. It also gives you the freedom to take in all the scenery in a more peaceful manner than the snowmobile tours allow.

Whichever season you select for your next Icelandic adventure, you cannot go wrong by setting yourself up in the country’s north. Lake Mývatn offers an authentic Iceland experience where you’ll get to take in many of the natural wonders that make the country so uniquely alluring. –Megan Jerrard

BIO:  Megan Jerrard is an Australian journalist and the founder and Senior Editor of Mapping Megan, an award-winning travel blog bringing you the latest in adventure travel from all over the globe.