Updated: Sep 21
The Diamond Circle lies on the quieter side of Iceland in the far north of the country. Less well-known and less visited than the Golden Circle the Diamond Circle is certainly no less impressive. Many tours in Iceland stick to the south coast of the country within easy reach of Reykjavik. But travelers fond of adventure and getting off the beaten path should definitely head north. The Diamond Circle route is made up of four main sights, all worthy of the title of best places to visit in Iceland, and many more worthy detours.
The main places of interest are Lake Myvatn, the Ásbyrgi Canyon, Dettifoss Waterfall, and the town of Húsavík. Combined they offer such a diversity of natural wonders that they may even be more exciting than the sights of South Iceland. But there’s no need to compare! In this article, we take you through the highlights of Iceland’s Diamond Circle. We will also look at the different times of year to travel and how best to do it.
Highlights of Iceland's Diamond Circle
Lake Mývatn and surrounds
The Lovely Lake Mývatn is expansive and beautiful taking up an area of 14 square miles. The landscapes around the lake are exciting to explore with caves, a steamy geothermal area, and some weird and wonderful rock formations. You could easily spend several days discovering the area and there is a great campsite not far from the lake where you could base yourselves.
The Hverir Geothermal Area has been likened to Mars with its dry red dusty plains, billowing steam, and bubbling mud pots. Then there is the beautiful Grjótagjá Cave with its crystal clear waters. The cave was made famous in the TV series Game of Thrones as the love nest of John Snow and Igritte. The area also boasts lush wetlands home to all sorts of birdlife, including many species of ducks. This is one of the premier spots in Iceland for bird watching.
The main draw of the area though is the geothermal waters of Mývatn Nature Baths. These hot spring baths have been likened to the popular Blue Lagoon in the south but are far quieter. You won’t need to book in advance at the Mývatn Nature Baths and you’ll enjoy a lot more space to wallow.
The drama of Dettifoss Waterfall cannot be overstated. This is arguably one of the most impressive waterfalls in Iceland and one of the most powerful in Europe. A glacial river originating in the Vatnajökull Glacier feeds these thundering falls.
The waterfall is around 100m wide and 45m high and the spray can be seen for miles around on a clear day. It is a good idea to wear a raincoat, as the spray will soak you through. Especially true if you’d like to walk down to the lower level viewing area right next to the falling curtain of water. Dettifoss lies in the wild Vatnajökull National Park and the walk from the car park is about a mile. Drivers note that the road to the waterfalls is a rough one so do give yourself plenty of time to drive it.
The Asbyrgi Canyon is a huge horseshoe-shaped canyon. It is just over two miles long and just under one mile wide. It is a uniquely impressive place with dramatic cliff faces rising up to 100 meters. The valley floor is carpeted in a beautiful birch forest. An unusual island of rock divides much of the canyon in two and there are many folklore stories told about the area. There are lots of lovely hiking routes in the area and a good campsite too.
Húsavík Whale Watching Tours
The coastal village of Húsavík is well known as the whale-watching capital of Iceland. Its sheltered bay provides a prime feeding ground for a wonderful variety of whales and dolphins. Boat trips head out into Skjálfandi Bay from around April to September. 23 different types of whales have been spotted here with the most common being Minke, Humpbacks, and Blue. If you are visiting from April to August you’ll also be able to see the puffins at the nearby Tjörnes Peninsula. Along with Lake Mývatn, this is a fantastic area for seeing wildlife in Iceland.
Not always considered part of the Diamond Circle the Godafoss Waterfall is a short detour from the route. Godafoss translates as the Waterfall of the Gods. It has a historical significance linked to Christianity as well as being an impressive sight. You can see this beautiful horseshoe-shaped waterfall from the road so a quick stroll around is well worth finding time for.
How to visit the Diamond Circle
The Diamond Circle route begins close to Akureyri the largest northern settlement in Iceland. Akureyri is on Iceland’s Ring Road route so you could drive there from the south if you have plenty of time and are traveling in the summer months. There is also an airport in Akureyri with plenty of internal flights leaving from the domestic airport in Reykjavik (note that this is not Keflavik Airport). If you don’t have the time or inclination for a long road trip then you could fly north. You could then either join one of the day tours or pick up a rental camper or car in the North.
The Diamond Circle route is about 200 miles in total but the detours can easily add quite a few miles to that. The whole route could be driven in about four hours, but it would be a long day and a little too rushed. The ideal way to explore is to take 2-3 days stopping at campsites along the way.
If you are taking a road trip or camping along the way then it is a good idea to stock up with food and water. This is a relatively remote area of Iceland and shops and restaurants are few and far between. Head to one of the supermarkets in Akureyri and stock up. The same goes for fuel. Keep your tanks topped up whenever you spot a gas station.
When to tour the Diamond Circle
As always if you are driving in Iceland then the summer months are the best time to travel. Road trips are far easier at this time of year and some of the roads along this route are quite rough and slow. You will enjoy the benefit of milder weather and the light of the Midnight Sun. It could be possible to drive the route in winter but it’s not the best time. The weather in Iceland makes it both potentially dangerous and uncomfortable. You would be better off on a guided tour or in a 4x4 camper or car and certainly not in a motorhome.
The shoulder months on either side of the summer high season are also good times for a road trip. Even though North Iceland is nowhere near as busy as the South, there will be even fewer people traveling at these times of the year. We’re talking late April and May or September and early October. If you are hiring a camper at this time of year do double-check which of the campsites are open. Many campgrounds will close in winter for varying amounts of time.