Stuðlagil Canyon: East Iceland’s Secret Revealed

Until recently, Stuðlagil Canyon lay hidden by the deep, rapid-flowing waters of the River Jökla. 

Just over a decade ago, this landscape was transformed, revealing one of east Iceland’s best-kept secrets. 

The transformation happened when the Kárahnjúkavirkjun hydroelectric plant opened in 2009, and much of the River Jökla was redirected into the new Hálslón Reservoir. This meant river levels at Stuðlagil fell by around eight meters. As the water levels dropped, the secret Canyon became visible for the very first time.

And it was well worth the wait! 

Stuðlagil Canyon is a stunning gorge lined with towering hexagonal basalt rock formations. In 2017, Stuðlagil went global when an image of the Canyon was featured in an advert for WOW airlines. This meant the (not-so-secret-anymore) Canyon rapidly became one of Iceland’s hottest Instagram spots and its newest natural tourist destination.

Visiting Stuðlagil Canyon is a great itinerary addition if you’re touring east Iceland. Despite its rise to fame, the Canyon is a little off-the-beaten-track, so it’s far less crowded than some of Iceland’s more established attractions, like those found on the Golden Circle.

To help you plan your trip, we’ve shared some of the highlights of Stuðlagil Canyon alongside our practical tips on how to reach it. 

Stuðlagil Canyon highlights

Breath-taking basalt columns

Studlagil Basalt Canyon Iceland

Stuðlagil Canyon demonstrates how volcanic activity has shaped Iceland’s landscape over millions of years. You’ll see impressive 30-meter-high hexagonal basalt columns along the Canyon walls. 

Basalt columns are created when iron and magnesium-rich lava is rapidly cooled. As the lava cools and hardens into rock, it forms hexagonal, pentagonal, or octagonal column shapes. Stuðlagil is an excellent example of this natural process.

Basalt columns are found across Iceland. If you’re keen to see more, Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach on the South Coast is well worth visiting.

The turquoise Jökla

From its source in the Vatnajokull Glacier, the Jökla stretches over 150km through east Iceland, emptying into the North Atlantic Ocean. In its original form, before the hydroelectric plant was opened, the glacial sediment that feeds into the Jökla gave it a murky grey/brown color.

When the Hálslón Reservoir finally opened in 2009, the color of the River Jökla flowing through Stuðlagil Canyon changed. This section of the river is now fed by the reservoir’s crystal-clear waters, which filter out much of the sediment and give the water its distinct – and rather beautiful – turquoise color.

The river does still vary in color throughout the year. So, please do consider this depending on when you visit. For example, snowmelt can still turn the Canyon waters brown in spring. And sometimes, when the reservoir is full in the fall, an overflow of the glacial water from the mighty Vatnajokull can have a churning effect that produces the grey/brown-colored Canyon waters of old.

A hint of history

When you visit the Canyon, take a moment to imagine the river flowing at eight meters higher. This hints at how powerful and dangerous the Jökla was before 2009. So, it’s not surprising that local history tells of lost lives and damage to land or livestock caused by this once-ferocious glacial river.

The Jökla also shaped certain local traditions. Before the construction of bridges in the area, the river was often impossible to cross. Ever resourceful, Icelanders mastered echo communication, using wind direction to carry the sound of voices across the river. But, when the bridges arrived, this tradition was sadly lost.

Getting to Stuðlagil Canyon

Egilsstadir, Iceland Cottages or cabins

Stuðlagil Canyon is 70km from the town of Egilsstaðir, nestled in the Jokuldalur Valley. There are two route options to consider. Each one offers different benefits, depending on the time of year and how far you’d like to walk!

Stuðlagil’s secret has been so well-kept, partly because it’s hard to reach. There are few signs on the route, so be sure to research the best approach before you set off. 

Option 1: West side easy riders

If you approach Stuðlagil Canyon from the west side, park your hire car at Grund Farm. Then, take a 5-minute walk and descend 239 metal steps to reach the Stuðlagil west viewing platform. 

The installation of steps and a viewing platform on the west side makes viewing the Canyon safer and more accessible. You’ll get a great aerial view of the basalt columns and the river from the platform – but please note that you can’t get down to the water. 

It’s fair to say that the west side doesn’t offer the very best photo opportunities. But if the east side is off-limits due to snow or ice, then it’s a safer alternative. The west also has the added advantage of public toilets (unavailable on the east) and a refreshment point. 

How to reach the west side of Stuðlagil Canyon

  • Take Route 923 
  • Turn onto Jökuldalsvegur, a gravel road 
  • Drive for 20km
  • Turn left following a sign to Grund Farm and park

Option 2: East side adventure seekers

If you seek stunning views that can only be captured inside the Canyon and want access to the water’s edge – the east route is for you. 

The east side does involve a longer hike, but it’s relatively easy-going, with plenty to see along the way. Still keen? OK, there are two routes to choose from. 

How to reach the east side of Stuðlagil Canyon (1-hour hike)

  • Take Route 923 
  • Turn onto Jökuldalsvegur, a gravel road 
  • After 15km, turn left for Klausturserl
  • Park at Stuðlagil East Side parking 
  • Follow the 1-hour walk to the Stuðlagil east viewpoint (2-hour return)

How to reach Parkplatz Klastrusel (30-minute hike) – 4 x 4 access only

  • Continue past Stuðlagil East Side parking (see above)
  • Cross the bridge
  • Follow the gravel road for approx. 8 minutes in a 4 x 4 hire vehicle
  • Park at Parkplatz Klastrusel (also great for accessing Stuðlafoss Waterfall)
  • Follow the 30-minute walk to the Stuðlagil east viewpoint (1-hour return)

Once at the Stuðlagil east viewpoint, you can climb down to the river. This is the more challenging part of the walk. It is steep and rocky, so please take extra care.

Whichever route you choose, think safety first! 

For self-drive adventurers, accessing Stuðlagil Canyon ideally needs a suitable 4 x 4 hire vehicle because you will need to use gravel roads. 

Road 923 is narrow, with twists and hills along the way. This will reduce your vision, so drive slowly and carefully. Plenty of sheep and reindeer also roam in this area, and they often like to use the road too!

Wearing waterproof shoes or boots is advisable for the east-side hike – especially for getting down to the water’s edge. Finally, don’t be tempted to swim – the Jökla River is cold, with powerful currents. 

Best time to visit Stuðlagil Canyon 

From June to August, the roads and walking trails are clear of snow, and you’re more likely to witness the most stunning shades of turquoise in the River Jökla.

If you are traveling in winter, Road 923 may be closed. Please be sure to check the latest travel and weather news before you set off. 

The walking trail to Stuðlagil east viewpoint may also be closed due to winter snow and ice or high river levels in spring. So again, please check the forecast before you head out to avoid disappointment. 

What else can I do in the area?

Hengifoss waterfall in Iceland

We recommend either an early morning or late afternoon visit to the Canyon. This means you will avoid the busiest periods. The area has plenty of activities to combine with a trip to Stuðlagil Canyon.

  • Klaustursel Farm is just 4km from Stuðlagil Canyon, offering a handicraft center, gallery, and reindeer-watching.
  • Egilsstaðir is 70km from Stuðlagil and is home to the East Iceland Heritage Museum.
  • Close to Egilsstaðir is Vök Baths, a perfect place to relax after your Canyon hike.
  • Hengifoss waterfall is an 80-minute drive from Stuðlagil Canyon.

Where can I stay near Stuðlagil Canyon?

In nearby Egilsstaðir, you’ll find hotels, guesthouses, B&Bs, and camping. Other options include Hengifoss Guesthouse (6km from Hengifoss Waterfall), a family-run guesthouse in scenic countryside. Closer to the Canyon, you’ll find Guesthouse Skjöldólfsstaðir on the Route 1 Ring Road, about 20km from Stuðlagil.  

If you’re planning a self-drive adventure in east Iceland, including a trip to the not-so-secret but still amazing Stuðlagil Canyon, then we’d be happy to advise on the best hire vehicle for the trip.

You’ll find plenty more practical tips and inspiring ideas across our blog for the best ways to plan a trip of a lifetime.