What makes the Lake Mývatn area so special? Are there any other sites in north Iceland near Lake Mývatn? Should I visit Mývatn in summer or winter? Read on for our ultimate guide to Lake Mývatn.
North Iceland is home to the beautiful lake region of Mývatn. With an area of 36.5 square kilometres, Mývatn is Iceland's fourth-largest body of water, although its scale is just one of the qualities that draw guests throughout the year. It is also home to some incredible geological features, a wealth of flora and fauna, and it is surrounded by many unbelievable sites.
After all, the lake is one of the highlights of the Diamond Circle, a popular travel route in the north of Iceland.
Only one very small town can be found in the Lake Mývatn area, called Reykjahlíð. Here you will find basic amenities such as a gas station, bank, mini supermarket, health care centre, school, swimming pool and a hotel. Various cafés, restaurants and guesthouses are also scattered along the banks of the lake and by some of the main attractions, and there are campsites in the area.
From Reykjavík, it takes about six to seven hours to drive to the village of Reykjahlíð, in good conditions. During winter, that could take longer, depending on the weather, but the Ring Road that connects the two settlements should still be open.
If planning a holiday to Mývatn, you'll want to be fully prepared for what is in store. For that reason, we have compiled a wealth of information and pointers for what to do and see in the area, about the lake itself and its incredible surrounding features.
Lake Mývatn is a part of a sightseeing route named the Diamond Circle, that also visits the town of Húsavík, the canyon of Ásbyrgi, and Dettifoss waterfall. Other attractions visited on certain tours include Goðafoss waterfall and the Hljóðaklettar rocks.
The town of Húsavík is known for being the whale watching capital of Europe, with many operators boasting 100% success in their sightings over summer. It's also a very picturesque and colourful little town in its own right, with beautiful views across the bay of Skjálfandi.
Ásbyrgi, meanwhile, is a lush green forest in a deep, horseshoe-shaped canyon, said to have been formed by Odin's horse, Sleipnir, when one of its feet touched the ground. Nearby are the stunning Hljóðaklettar rock formations, where basalt columns run every direction.
Dettifoss waterfall is the most powerful in Europe, thundering into a haunting black ravine. Goðafoss waterfall is much less powerful, but notable for its history; it is named 'the waterfall of the gods', as it was here where Icelanders officially converted to Christianity over a millennium ago.
The Lake Mývatn region completes the Diamond Circle route, and is by no means overshadowed by the other features. Animals lovers will find plenty of birdwatching opportunities; those into fishing will delight in the bountiful waters; any seeking relaxation can bathe in the Nature Baths; and all should marvel over the scale of the lava fortress Dimmuborgir.
If you want to visit Lake Mývatn and these surrounding attractions, you can go on a day tour of the Diamond Circle from Akureyri. This is suitable for those that have limited time in the area, and want to tick off all the major sights.
It's also possible to go on a day tour of the Diamond Circle from Reykjavík with a Flight.
While these excursions are excellent for those who wish to pack as much into their days as possible, those who want to spend more time at each destination could easily spend as long as a week marvelling over Mývatn and its other surrounding sites.
Námaskarð Pass, on Mount Námafjall, is a stark geothermal area, defined by its seething fumaroles and brightly coloured clay, that is worth a visit on any trip to Mývatn. With the barren landscapes, sulphuric smells and swirling steam, walking here makes it feel like you have entered another world.
Hours can be spent marvelling over the contrasts of the colours and listening to the hissing and gurgling sounds sound of the earth; just be sure to the paths in this area, as the earth around the vents is unstable and pregnant with boiling water.
The otherworldly lifelessness of Námaskarð Pass helps to illustrate how dramatically diverse north Iceland is; Mývatn and its surrounding rich vegetation is only on the other side of the Námafjall mountain.
Photo by Arian Zwegers, from Wiki Creative Commons. No edits made.
Dimmuborgir, or the Dark Fortress, is an area of dramatic lava rocks just east of Lake Mývatn. Often compared to a castle, it has columns that resemble towers, ridges that rise like battlements, and caves that tumble deep into the earth like dungeons. In the area, there are several hiking trails, that last from just a few minutes up to a few hours, suitable for people of all abilities.
The shortest route is paved, so easily accessible for those in wheelchairs or those who have trouble walking. It's only about 10-15 minutes, and leads you to the holes in the rocks seen above. If you want to head a bit further, then the trails turn to gravel or earth and you can spend hours admiring the fascinating landscape.
There are several folk stories from this area, and it's easy to see how people could've mistaken the rocks for mysterious creatures, especially considering there used to be no trails through this rock labyrinth, and Iceland is often dark and foggy. Some tales even refer to Dimmuborgir as the Gateway to Hell.
Picture by Wolfgang Hassellman
Locals disagree on the spelling of Hverfjall, and it can either be called Hverfjall or Hverfell. Both have the same meaning: Crater Mountain. Regardless, it is one of the most popular hiking destinations in the Mývatn area, as it can be fully ascended and encircled.
There are two permitted routes to get to the top of the mountain, the easier one from the parking lot right by it, and a more challenging one (that takes approximately 45 minutes) from Dimmuborgir. It is not permitted to walk off of either of these paths.
Hiking around the crater itself takes about an hour.
The mountain sticks boldly from the surrounding landscape, towering over green fields of mossy lava, but it is only 420 metres tall. Seeing as the mountain isn't very high, hiking to the top is not difficult, and can be done by those with a low level of fitness and by young children, making it a perfect family activity.
On the southern side of Lake Mývatn is a set of features collectively called Skútustaðagígar, a row of bizarre and beautiful pseudocraters.
Unlike regular craters, which are formed when lava builds up around a fissure in the earth, these pseudo craters were formed by gas explosions when melting lava flowed over pockets of water in the wetlands.
The area is now protected as a conservation area, but you can still hike through it and walk up the slopes for some fantastic views. Skútustaðagígar is particularly popular amongst birdwatchers, due to the number of duck species that nest in the area.
Photo by Andrés Nieto Porras
Grjótagjá is a hot spring cave hidden within Dimmuborgir, renowned for its pristine beauty and azure waters. It found its fame after being used in an iconic love scene in Game of Thrones, although in Westeros, they added a waterfall with CGI, and the water was warm enough to swim in, which it is not here.
Even though you cannot enter it, however, it is well worth visiting due to its uniqueness and the boldness of its colour.
If you have come to Iceland hoping to go hot spring bathing, then don't miss your chance at the Mývatn Nature Baths. This pristine pool is surrounded by incredible nature, and heated by the geothermal forces of the area.
Not only can you bask your worries away in the blue waters, but there is a sauna on-site; there is also a good shower and changing facilities. In wintertime, it's the perfect place to admire the Northern Lights in Mývatn, but the views are magnificent on sunny days as well.
Both Krafla and Askja are some of the most well-known volcanoes in Iceland and are an impressive sight to see. Both Víti lakes are located at the bottom of a crater by each of the central volcanoes.
Víti in Krafla contains cold water, but is a stunning aqua blue colour, sometimes appearing more green. In winter it is often surrounded by snow, despite the hot geothermal areas nearby. It is located a short distance north of Námaskarð.
There have been 29 volcanic eruptions in Krafla in recorded history; the last one ended in 1984, after going on for 9 years. As a result, there are stunning lava formations to be seen all over the area.
True, Askja caldera and its sidekick Víti crater are far away from lake Mývatn (in the eastern part of the central highlands), but still are worthy of a mention here. That's simply due to the fact that most tours going to Askja and Víti leave from lake Mývatn or the nearby town of Akureyri.
Reaching Askja from Lake Mývatn takes approximately 3 hours in a car, and is only possible with 4WD cars during summertime.
Askja is a big volcanic caldera, covered by a large lake called Öskjuvatn. The lake is 220 metres deep, making it the second deepest lake in Iceland, after the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon.
A terrible volcanic eruption took place in Askja in 1875, creating one of Iceland's largest volcanic ash clouds that led to a third of the country dying of famine and another third emigrating. Its last eruption was in 1961.
The water covering the caldera used to be hot, but has cooled down and freezes over during winters.
That is however not the case with the lake in Víti, a much smaller crater lake that is hot enough to bathe in. It can even be too hot to bathe in some parts, so enter it with extreme caution. The temperature of the water varies between 20°C to 60°C.
What better way to enjoy winter in Iceland than to go dogsledding in arctic surroundings? Dog sledding is available from a farm just south of Lake Mývatn, from January until May.
These tours are exhilarating, and after, you'll have plenty of time to cuddle up with the dogs and pet them. This is an ideal activity for animal lovers and families with young kids, especially since the age limit for the dog sled is just two years old.
Picture by Regína Hronn Ragnarsdottir
East of Lake Mývatn is the otherworldly Lofthellir cave, renowned for its spectacular icicle formations. The beauty of this cave is in its contrasts, of the red lava rock ceiling and the white ice, with its hints of electric blue.
This cave is about 3,500 years old, and 370 metres long. The temperature inside the cave stays at around freezing year-round, and is not suitable for those with claustrophobia as some crawling is necessary to enter. Be sure to dress warmly before going, and only go with a tour guide, not on your own.
Conditions in the cave vary, and tours are only offered between May and October.
Lake Mývatn is world known for its rich flora and fauna, largely stemming from the fact that the lake is pretty shallow and has rich sources of energy and nutrition. The name 'Mývatn' translates to 'Midges Lake' and midges are probably the first animal you'll notice surrounding here if travelling in summer.
Note, these are not mosquitoes. There are two types of midges in Iceland, non-biting ones (called chironomids) and ones that bite both animals and humans (simulium vittatum - also known as black striped fly or simply gnats). Note that they cannot pass on infections.
Although tiring, especially if there's a large amount of them, they still play an important role for the rest of the flora and fauna of Lake Mývatn.
For most of their lives, they live as larvae at the bottom of the lake, and multiple fish species feed on them, including a variety of trout and arctic char. These fish, in turn, feed the multitude of birds that live at Mývatn.
There are, in fact, 58 species of bird that frequent the area. These include the Short Eared Owl, Whooper Swan, Gyr Falcon, Horned Grebe, Greylag Goose, Grey Heron, White Tailed Eagle, Snowy Owl, Common Eider, Common Rave, Common Snipe and Mallard.
The lakes are Europe's only breeding ground for the Barrow's Goldeneye, and more duck species gather here than anywhere else in the world, with fourteen variations.
A bird museum can be found in the area, Sigurgeir's Bird Museum, that has a specimen of every Icelandic breeding bird there is, except one; the Grey Phalarope.
In terms of flora, Mývatn is mostly known for their rare species of green algae called Kúluskítur, more commonly known as Marimo or simply Moss Balls. The algae grow into large, green balls with a velvety texture. This species of this algae has only been discovered in few other locations in the world, including in Japan, Scotland, Estonia and recently in Australia.
Around the year 2000, there were millions of these fluffy green balls in lake Mývatn, but in 2013 almost all had disappeared. However, in 2016 there were signs of more of them appearing and growing - so hopefully the lake will soon again be covered with Moss Balls. The species is protected, so if you do see furry moss balls, please leave them undisturbed.
There are several hotels and guesthouses around Lake Mývatn, as well as a campsite and various cottages that can be rented out. Staying in a cottage, or a bungalow, is possibly the most authentic way of experiencing the Icelandic landscape.
Icelandic people often own a small house in the countryside - so-called summer cottages. The more luxurious ones often have a hot tub and plenty of space, WiFi and televisions, but other ones may be much more rustic and may not necessarily have central heating, running hot water or electricity. So the choice is varied, depending on what you are looking for.
The Mývatn area is sparsely populated, and therefore there aren't that many options when it comes to food. If you have a special diet, you'd do well by stocking up on groceries in larger towns nearby, such as Akureyri or Húsavík. Reykjahlíð does have a small supermarket, but it may not accommodate all diets, and the larger towns will have a wider variety of products to choose from.
However, if you're too busy sightseeing to make time for cooking, then you have a few options to choose from.
The hotels in the area all have good restaurants. Additionally, there are a few other decent, and perhaps more affordable, options.
Daddi's Pizza serves tasty pizzas, Gamli Bærinn Bistro serves great burgers and other fast food and Kaffi Borgir that's right next to Dimmuborgir has a soup and salad bar, as well as the locally caught trout - the house special. Vogafjós Cowshed Restaurant is a farm to table restaurant with ingredients coming from the area.
As Mývatn is a popular travel destination, and there aren't that many places to choose from, then it's advised to make a booking beforehand.
Did you enjoy our ultimate guide to Lake Myvatn? What will you do when you visit Lake Myvatn? Tell us in the comments!