Stuðlagil Canyon

"All in all, you're just another brick in the wall"
"All in all, you're just another brick in the wall"

“Hidden gem.”  Really? Is there any place in Iceland that hasn’t been discovered?

Stuðlagil Canyon wasn’t in either of our guidebooks.

A Google query for it only produces 41,000 results, not many when you consider Gulfoss, the waterfall we recently wrote about, generates 3,060,000.

Unknown until 2016 (more about that later) Stuðlagil Canyon quickly shot to fame on Instagram. Even so, the platform features only 18,700 look-at-me photos.

Whether you consider it hidden or touristic, Stuðlagil Canyon, which Magellan found via a Danish photographer he follows, is a stunning attraction, an easy hike and an unusual story.

Jökla was once an extremely dangerous river, carrying 120 tons of debris per hour from the Vatnajokull glacier with such force that it divided Jökuldalur Valley into two parts, cutting the sheep farmers on either side completely off from each other. Most people stayed away from the river’s treacherous waters, which completely entombed the basalt columns for thousands of years.

Even today, you can’t cross the river and there are viewpoints on either side. We chose the east side by the Klaustursel farm because that’s the only way you can hike down into the canyon and truly see it; the west side just has a viewpoint.

Having rented a 4×4 was a hike-saver. The narrow dirt road, ruts deep enough to swallow a lamb, bumps along for a kilometre to a grassy field where the hike starts, forcing most people driving sedans and motorhomes (except for the daring/foolish few) to park near the turnoff from the highway. Even in late afternoon in low season (August 31), it felt like we were driving to a small country fair that a couple hundred people were attending.

Following a road and then a grassy trail on sheep-grazing land, the hike is easy and with our starting point, only an eight km round trip instead of ten. 

Stuðlagil translates as “basalt column.” It features the country’s highest concentration of these towering clusters of hexagonal formations, lava cooled to uncanny symmetry. 

The cool thing is the canyon wasn’t revealed until 2016. 

Here’s why. 

Seven years earlier the Kárahnjúkavirkjun hydroelectric plant was built upstream, the river’s waters diverted to provide an aluminum plant with electricity. As a result, Jökla became a gently flowing river and the Stuðlagil ravine receded about eight metres.

The locals would have noticed this new bulky-stone cathedral of formerly submerged columns. But it wasn’t until Einar Páll Svavarsson, an Icelandic guide, landscape photographer and travel writer, discovered them that Stuðlagil Canyon became insta-famous. On his website Einar writes,

When I visited Stuðlagil in early August 2016, almost no one had ever been there. I studied the place thoroughly, talked to local people, and read articles just to understand why no one had discovered this unique place yet…The dam and the hydroelectric project had moved the glacial river Jökla, the second largest river in Iceland, to another valley, and the river subsequently became a smaller collector of spring-fed streams. This not only changed the colour of the river but also, more importantly, lowered the water level, revealing the basalt column that had been hidden for centuries.

Hit Einar’s website, Hit Iceland, to see a pro’s photos of a top performer on Iceland’s hit parade of natural beauty.

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Iverson, Mads Peter. Magellan found out about Stuðlagil Canyon from Danish photographer Mads Peter Iverson’s YouTube Channel. If you want an “EPIC” photography tour of Iceland, check out any of his 58 videos that can be linked from Stuðlagil Canyon.

Svavarsson, Einar Páll. “Stuðlagil basalt column canyon in Jökla river.” Hit Iceland.  Feb 1, 2017.

Svavarsson, Einar Páll. “Stuðlagil—The Magical Basalt Column Canyon.”

8 Responses

  1. Mother Nature shows us another face to marvel at and admire. The formations are very beautiful and offset by the hydraulic waters below. Awesome.

  2. I’ve not seen basalt columns like this, thanks! Guess I should have taken more geomorphology and remote sensing courses. They showed amazing landforms, with explanations too. Glaciology courses were also eye opening and recommended. Were any communities affected by the change in river course?

    1. Upstream of the dam, some highland pasture was lost to flooding, frustrating a few sheep! Downstream, after the diversion of the river, a photographers dream was created, adding a few jobs in the hospitality sector.

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