East Iceland's fjords, mountains, nature trails, reindeer ...
East Iceland is the area east of Lake Mývatn (Myvatn) and Dettifoss waterfall in the north and Jökulsárlón (Jokulsarlon) glacial lagoon in the south. The Eastfjords are relatively sparsely populated but the third largest lowland area of Iceland, Fljótsdalshérað (Fljotsdalsherad), has numerous farms and the largest settlement in the East, Egilsstaðir (Egilsstadir). The landscapes of this area are contrasting, strikingly beautiful with many mountainous fjords along the eastern coast, while the Vatnajökull (Vatnajokull) icecap is the dominant feature in the south-east with its famous Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon.
Picturesque fishing towns, hauntingly beautiful fjords, steep mountains, highland farms, villages, forests and woodlands, clear mountain streams, bird cliffs, columnar basalt formations, and vast expanses characterize East Iceland. Amongst the many attractions and activities are fishing, horse riding, bird watching, seal watching, skiing and hiking. The locals are justly proud of their many diverse trekking and hiking trails and hiking maps have been published for the greatest part of the region.
East Iceland has most of what makes Iceland so unique, as well as the reindeer in the wild, not found anywhere else in Iceland. The reindeer, brought to Iceland from Norway, live mostly at higher elevations in summer but seek lower grasslands in winter. Although their primary habitat is the heathland around Snæfell (Snaefell), they can be seen from Vopnafjörður (Vopnafjordur) in the north to the district of Suðursveit (Sudursveit) in the south.
Towns and villages
Vopnafjordur is well known for the beauty of its pristine landscapes, highland farms, as well as its salmon rivers Hofsá (Hofsa) and Selá (Sela), which attract numerous local and foreign visitors, artists and celebrities. First settled by Vikings in the late 9th century, Vopnafjordur is the setting of Vopnfirðinga saga – The Saga of the People of Vopnafjord and Þorsteins saga hvíta – The Saga of Thorstein the White. Additionally, the area’s highland farms inspired the setting of the great novel Independent People by Iceland’s Halldór (Halldor) Laxness (1902-1998).
Geology of this area is also fascinating: the only fossil of a mammal, a deer, from before the Ice Age was discovered close to the folk museum at Bustarfell, suggesting that millions of years ago Iceland might have been connected by a land-bridge to Scotland, via the Faroe Islands.
Borgarfjörður (Borgarfjordur) Eystri, an enchanting fishing village, is renowned among Icelanders for its peace and quiet, as well as being home to “a very large population of elves”, according to regional folklore. There are a great variety of hiking routes and marked trails as well as bird watching options. One of Iceland’s most celebrated painters, Jóhannes S. Kjarval (1885-1972) often spent time painting in this area - in the nearby Bakkagerði (Bakkargerdi) you can visit Kjarvalsstofa and see an exhibition on Kjarval’s life and works.
Egilsstadir is the principal township of Eastfjords on the banks of the glacial lake Lögurinn (Logurinn), located on the mid-reaches of the river Lagarfjót (Lagarfljot). Egilsstadir is known for having an almost continental climate, warm summers and cold winters. The locals base their livelihood mostly on services to the surrounding agricultural areas, tourism and commerce. Egilsstadir is on the Ring Road (Route 1) and it has a domestic airport.
Seyðisfjörður (Seydisfjordur) is connected with Egilsstadir by a 27 km long mountain road Fjarðarheiði (Fjardarheidi). It’s a harbour town where the M/S Norröna (Norrona) car ferry to and from Europe docks. While most of the towns in East Iceland are relatively recent, Seydisfjordur is renowned for its impressive old houses, the first sight to greet visitors arriving there on the ferry. Surrounded by Mount Strandartindur and Mount Bjólfur (Bjolfur) amongst others, Seydisfjordur is also one of the locations featuring in the film 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty'.
Djúpivogur (Djupivogur) is a lovely town with a long history, and well preserved old buildings which lend it a distinctive character. The main industry is fishing, with tourism growing rapidly. Boat trips from Djupivogur to the now uninhabited island of Papey with its large colonies of Atlantic puffins are a must for bird lovers. Seal watching and hiking are also available.
The port of Höfn (Hofn) on the southeast corner is another major town and a centre for Vatnajokull icecap exploration. From Hofn, it’s possible to go for hiking tours, 4x4 tours, snowmobiles, skiing and ice climbing. Hofn’s Glacier Centre gives amazing insights into the properties and behaviour of glaciers and how they’ve affected people throughout the centuries. From Hofn, it’s not far to one of Iceland´s top attractions: Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon where in summer you can take a boat cruise among the giant icebergs. A more secret treasure is Lónsöræfi (Lonsoraefi) with strangely tinted mountains which are popular for hiking in the summertime. The landscape is richly coloured, dominated by rhyolite and minerals with great geological and vegetation contrasts.
The whole of Fljotsdalsherad, the wide valley southwest from the black beaches of Héraðsflói (Heradsfloi) to the Vatnajokull glacier and Kverkfjöll (Kverkfjoll) volcano is a fascinating region. It covers an area of 9,400 sq. km, almost 10% of Iceland, and it includes Snaefell and the highlands, as well as the sub-glacial landscapes of Möðrudalur (Modrudalur). This district is also the scene of Hrafnkels saga, and at the cultural centre Skriðuklaustur (Skriduklaustur) was the East’s only monastery.
The river Lagarfljót (Lagarfljot), about 140 km long, originates in the highlands of the Vatnajokull icecap and flows north-east to the sea. Much of its length is occupied by the narrow lake Lögurinn (Logurinn). Logurinn is Iceland's third largest lake, with an area of 53 sq. km, and a maximum depth of 112 m which means that its bottom is almost 90 m below sea level. It is believed that the lake is inhabited by a serpent monster called Lagarfljotsormurinn, whose back is sometimes sighted rising over the waves. According to the tale, it was a small worm, or heath dragon, which grew huge by gloating over a ring that a young girl had let him guard. No local doubts Lagarfljotsormur’s existence. The phenomenon has attracted much attention over the years.
Hallormsstaður (Hallormsstadur) is the main centre of the Iceland Forestry Service. It is located on the beach of the Logurinn Lake. The Hallormsstadur forest is the largest in Iceland which is perhaps not saying much given that only about 1,3% of Iceland is forested. In 1899 the parliament passed a law for the protection of the remaining forest and the reforestation of the area which covers the site of an old manor house and church. An experimental forestry centre was set up and since then the Hallormsstadur forest has increased tremendously, now covering about 2,300 hectares. Scientists are experimenting with what type of trees best cope with the Icelandic climate and more than fifty varieties from 177 countries have been planted. Today, Iceland’s largest forestry project is gradually proving that Iceland can produce commercial timber and once more grow tall trees like those which were wiped out during the Ice Age. The Arboretum of the forest in Mörkin (Morkin) is well worth visiting: the trail has stone bridges, a memorial commemorating the poet Thorsteinn Valdimarsson from farm Teigur in the Vopnafjordur area, lovely open grassy spaces, and a picnic spot. Outdoor art exhibitions and various events are held there over the course of the year, and the “Great Forest Day” in June includes Icelandic lumberjack championship.
In the small cove of Atlavík (Atlavik) there are good camping grounds in the forest which is a popular summer destination for Icelanders. There is also an excellent camping site at Höfðavík (Hofdavik), both a tent and a campervan area. Hallormsstadur forest is only 25 km from Egilsstadir.
Laugavalladalur is a remote valley situated in the highlands northeast of the mountain Kverkfjoll and not far from the canyon Hafrahvammagljúfur (Hafrahvammagljufur). It is a beautiful grassy valley where steam rises from hot pools that give the valley its name. In these magnificent surroundings, the traveller can relax in a natural hot pool or enjoy a warm natural shower.
Another attraction of East Iceland which is off the beaten path is Snaefell (Snow Mountain) which is Iceland’s highest mountain outside of glaciers. Snaefell is located north-east of Vatnajokull glacier and rises up to 1,833 m. Geologists now believe it may even be an active volcano although Snaefell has not erupted since the end of the last glacial period 10,000 years ago. Near the mountain there is a cabin on one side where travellers can spend the night, and Eyjabakkar marshlands on the other, where thousands of geese gather each year. Around Snaefell and in Lonsoraefi, there's also a good chance of seeing the reindeer.
Cape Ingólfshöfði (Ingolfshofdi) borders South and East Iceland, rising up to 76 m, with a variety of landscapes - from steep cliffs and rocks to black sands, marshes and green grass. Ingolfshofdi is named after the first settler of Iceland, Ingólfur (Ingolfur) Arnarson, who spent his first winter in Iceland there before settling in Reykjavik. During summertime it is teeming with thousands of puffins, the great skua and other nesting seabirds. The cape is only accessible by 4x4 vehicles and, due to possible quicksand, it’s not recommended to travel there without guidance.
There are numerous other places in East Iceland to visit. Wherever you go, you can be sure of a warm welcome and an unforgettable travel experience. You can also find out more on the visiteast site.
While the residents of East Iceland are few in number, their culture is ancient, rich and varied. Their illustrious history, and the magnificent nature around them have shaped the locals into individuals who know what they want. Everything from the difficult fight for existence in earlier centuries to the technological revolution of the 20th century is interestingly illustrated in the museums and centres distributed throughout the region.