Ásbyrgi Canyon is a spectacular horseshoe-shaped depression in the northeast of Iceland, steeped in folklore.
The canyon can be accessed by booking certain self-drives, such as this 10-Day Winter Road Trip, and guided packages, like this 10-Day Summer Vacation. Those who rent a car in the region can visit it alongside a wealth of other nearby sites. Explore the local region by taking a tour of Myvatn.
This beloved natural feature measures approximately 3.5 kilometres (2.2 miles) in length and 1.1 kilometres (0.7 miles) in width. It is only a small corner of the extensive and dramatic Vatnajökull National Park, but undoubtedly one of its most breathtaking.
Visitors to Ásbyrgi will quickly take note of the canyon’s 100 metre (328) feet high cliff faces, as well as the thick woodland of birch and willow below, creating an area quite unlike that found anywhere else across Iceland.
Other tree species here include spruce, larch and pine, and there is a small lake called Botnstjörn which visitors can hike to. One of the canyon's most distinctive features is Eyjan ("The Island"), a 25m rock formation that divides Ásbyrgi for almost half its length.
Geologists estimate that Ásbyrgi Canyon began to form roughly eight to ten million years ago, just after the last Ice Age, following a catastrophic glacial flooding of the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river. This flooding likely occurred due to a volcanic eruption beneath the ice-cap, Vatnajökull glacier.
Later, only 3000 years ago, this process repeated itself, further sculpting the soul-stirring, spectacular gorge that we know and love today.
With that being said, Icelandic folklore dictates an alternative theory, as it does with many of the landmarks around the country. Given the canyon’s horseshoe shape, legend has it that Odin’s eight-legged steed, Sleipnir, placed one of his feet on the ground here, leaving a deep imprint on the earth, as it sprinted across the sky.
A wealth of art and literature has depicted Sleipnir as Ásbyrgi’s true creator. Other myths claim that Ásbyrgi is the capital city and true home to Iceland’s ‘hidden people’, the Huldufólk and elves. Many of Iceland’s folk stories revolve around these strange, magical people and the bizarre punishments and plots.
Self-professed psychics have claimed that they can see and hear these mystical beings living in cracks and ravines of the canyon. Much more likely to be hidden in the woodland, however, are Arctic Foxes.
Thankfully, a number of other fascinating attractions are easily accessible from Ásbyrgi Canyon. One could visit Hljóðaklettar, a strange and enchanting cluster of columnar rock formations located in the neighbouring Jökulsárgljúfur canyon.
Nearby, there is also Europe’s most powerful waterfall, Dettifoss, a striking and mighty spectacle for any observer; glacial water from the Jökulsá á Fjöllum cascades 44 metres (144 ft) over the lip of the falls, culminating in a misty, roaring spray.
The video below shows one of Iceland’s most famous post-rock bands, Sigur Ros, who chose to play an outdoor concert at Ásbyrgi in 2006, only adding to the area’s rich and ethereal atmosphere. This and the rest of their performances can be seen in the film Heima (2007).