The valley Jökuldalur or Glacier Valley is an impressive valley in East Iceland. Since early on, it has mostly consisted of sheep farms, and some of the farms are considered among the best in the country. The valley is also known for its forceful glacial river that has three names: Jökulsá á Brú, Jökulsá á Dal, and Jökla, which has forced its way from the highland through the bottom to the valley for centuries. When heading to Northern Iceland from Egilsstaðir in the East Region in Iceland on the Ring Road, road nr. 1, part of the road goes through the lower part of Jökuldalur. To enter Upper Jökuldalur, you need to take a turn south onto road nr 923 near the farm Skjödólfsstaðir. In Upper Jökuldalur, you will find this exceptionally beautiful waterfall, Stuðlafoss Basalt Column Waterfall, and the canyon Stuðlagil or Basalt Column Canyon.
The almost terrifying river that kept the gem hidden
Although this part of the river Jökulsá á Brú (The Glacier River by the Bridge) is exceptionally beautiful because of the rare basalt column formation, not many have visited this Natural Wonder. It is truly one of the most beautiful hidden gems in Iceland. However, there is a reason for this. For centuries, the river Jökla, which is 150 kilometers long, was one of the largest and most powerful glacial rivers in Iceland. It was so strong that it divided the valley Jökuldalur into two separate parts that didn't have much communication for centuries. It was a river that was both dangerous and difficult to cross. It was the only river in Iceland that became known by its nickname rather than either of its real names.
The reservoir that swallowed the glacial river
When Icelanders built the hydroelectric plant Kárahnjúkavirkjun and created the vast reservoir Hálslón in the highlands in Hafrahvammagljúfur canyon, the sources for the river Jökla were affected. Instead of running as a glacial river through the valley of Jökuldalur, its source in the north-eastern highlands was diverted into the Hálslón reservoir. From the reservoir, its flows with its former force through 60 kilometers of underground tunnels to drive the hydro-electric turbines of the power plant. So, most of the old sources of the river Jökulsá á Brú don't reach Jökuldalur anymore. This project was a grand-scale interference into the forces of nature, as Icelanders built a hydro-electric power plant to provide the aluminum plant in Reyðarfjörður with electricity. No wonder the whole project created a dispute.
The secret hidden gem Stuðlagil
The change for the river Jökla was huge. The source changed from being a glacial river to a spring-fed river from creeks and small rivers. Most of its current water comes from the lower part of the Highland and also from the surrounding mountains. Accordingly, the water level is much lower, and the force of the river changed dramatically. Instead of being a forceful glacial river carrying 120 tons of sand, mud, and dirt from under the glacier Vatnajokull every hour, it became a beautiful, clear river with blue water slowly finding its way to the river mouth. However, sometimes, during autumn, the river changes again to its older form when the reservoir Hálslón is full. At that point, the overflow of glacial water from the mighty glacier Vatnajökull starts to float through Jökuldalur again. Usually, this happens in late August or in September, but the volume is nowhere near the amount it was in the old days.
Einar Páll Svavarsson photo and local guide in Stuðlagil in 2016 when he discovered what has become one of Iceland's most popular attractions
One of the most beautiful basalt columns formation in Iceland
Although the natural wonder Stuðlagil and the basalt columns have always been here, much of this fascinating landscape was underwater level in the forceful river Jökla only a few years ago. It is almost hard to believe when standing by the picturesque, relaxing river watching the birds swim in joy and harmony that this was a terrifying place under the forceful pressure of a dominating and angry river. It is by any standard one of the most beautiful place in Iceland where you can see and photograph exceptional basalt columns.
How to visit the Stuðlagil Canyon?
Access to Stuðlagil is relatively straightforward, but there are two options. One where you can drive to the farm Grund and view the canyon from the west side. After turning south on Ring Road nr. 1 by Skjödólfsstaðir to road nr. 923, you drive to the farm Grund about 19 kilometers. At the farm, you will find a parking lot and a path to the riverbank (the walk is only 250 meters and takes about five minutes) and a narrow track to the bottom of the river. Here you must keep in mind that you are walking towards a high and steep slope that descends to the river, so caution is needed. The view from this side is quite spectacular, but you need to follow the path. During winter from September to April particular caution is required as the path and the slopes are quite slippery.
The second one requires some hiking. An effort that only adds to the enjoyment of visiting such a place. Again after turning south on Ring Road nr. 1 by Skjödólfsstaðir to road nr. 923, you drive to the farm Klaustursel about 14 kilometers, a bit less than driving to the farm Grund. Here you find a bridge on the river Jökla by the farm Klaustursel that is on the other side, the east side. By the bridge, there is a parking lot on the west side, and driving over the narrow bridge is not allowed. After walking over the bridge to the east riverbank, you take a hike on the track about four kilometers to the Stuðlagil canyon, which is very near to the farm Grund. It is recommended to stop after two kilometers by one of the most beautiful basalt column waterfalls in Iceland, Stuðlafoss. Climbing down to the river in the canyon is possible at one spot and requires careful climbing, but once down by the river, you sense that you have entered a wonder-world of basalt columns. The stones and rocks are sometimes wet and slippery, so take precaution. Since the hike, both ways is 8 kilometers and stops by the waterfall, and the canyon is probably two to three hours. For photography, it is recommended to be in the canyon in the morning. An excellent way to plan this visit is to stay at Skjödólfsstaðir accommodation or campsite and get an early morning start.
If you are going to visit the Stuðlagill Canyon in Iceland you might be looking for a places to stay. Here you can book from a selection of accommodationin the Stuðlagil area. Preferably at Skjöldólfsstaðir.
Below is the location of Stuðlagil Canyon on the map of Iceland