If you are planning an epic road trip around Iceland’s Ring Road, make sure to add visiting the Dettifoss waterfall on the itinerary. You won’t want to miss the chance to see and feel the thunderous falls in North Iceland.
Dettifoss is one of the most incredible waterfalls in Iceland. Its impressive display is a pretty popular attraction, and for good reason. In fact, Dettifoss is not a special waterfall just because people love it, but it also has claims of being the most powerful waterfall in Europe! Dettifoss is so epic it even made a movie screen appearance in sci-fi film Prometheus.
You’ll want to be prepared when you visit Dettifoss. We will tell you how to get there, when the best time to visit Iceland is, where to stay nearby, and more. We will also help you save a painstakingly long drive by telling you what each viewpoint offers so you can see the falls exactly how you want.
Whether you are on a trip around the whole Ring Road or just Diamond Circle, this guide will give you all the great Dettifoss waterfall tips and more. This is truly one of the best photography locations in Iceland!
What is Dettifoss and Selfoss Waterfalls?
Iceland is known for its many great waterfalls, Dettifoss waterfall being the most powerful in all of Europe. People come from all over the world to witness this magnificent wonder and hear the falls roar. Another giant, though more humble is found not far upstream, its name is Selfoss waterfall.
The Dettifoss waterfall in Iceland is a giant! No kidding! Over 96,500 gallons of water pour over the falls every single second. Its thunderous falls are so powerful that the ground even shakes beneath your feet as you draw near. Measuring 300 feet (100 meters) across and reaching heights of 144 feet (45 meters), Dettifoss’ gargantuan size will dwarf anything nearby.
Dettifoss is found along the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river, the second largest river in Iceland. This river is in fact a glacial river that flows from the Vatnajökull glacier. The Jökulsá á Fjöllum river is sediment rich from Vatnajökull, which makes the water a milky white color.
If you make the stop to see Dettifoss, you will get the chance to see another waterfall that is just a short hike upstream called Selfoss. Selfoss waterfall is not to be confused with the town in south Iceland. Rather, this is the gorgeous Selfoss waterfall in North Iceland that sit along the same river as Jökulsá á Fjöllum.
Although Selfoss is not as mighty as Dettifoss, what it lacks in power, it makes up for with grace. This waterfall is over 300 feet wide (100 meters) and stands 36 feet tall (11 meters). Selfoss falls spill over the edge in curtains. The difference other than height is that Selfoss spills out as elegant curtains over the edge.
What does Dettifoss Mean?
The name Dettifoss translates to ’The Collapsing Waterfall’ which tells a little bit about how it was made.
Dettifoss is part of the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon which was formed by major volcanic eruptions from the Vatnajökull glacier and other previous glacial floods within the last 9,000 years. As volcanic eruptions melted the glaciers from beneath, enormous volumes of meltwater came flooding down toward the coast forming the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon. Large chunks of columnar basalt were dislodged from the canyon creating the sudden changes in elevations. These spots were called knickpoints, one of which created our mighty giant as well as Selfoss. This is how the massively powerful waterfalls of north Iceland were created.
Where is Dettifoss Located?
Dettifoss is found in Vatnajökull National Park, one of the stops along the Diamond Circle route in Iceland. Just like the popular Golden Circle sight seeing route on Iceland’s south coast, Diamond Circle is another long route(260km) that showcases North Iceland’s wonders. Dettifoss is a worthy stop on the Diamond Circle route along with Ásbyrgi canyon, the Hverfjall volcano, and the pearl of the north, Myvatn lake.
There are two sides of Dettifoss waterfall in Iceland to visit. You can see the waterfall from the east or west side of the river; However, because there is not a bridge nearby, it takes over an hour to drive to the other side. The drive is very long so, we recommend choosing just one side to visit rather than doing both.
West Dettifoss is about a 20 minute, or 15 mile (24 km) drive off Ring Road route 1. The eastside road will take a bit longer to reach totaling about 45 minutes to do the 20-mile (32 km) drive off route 1.
The closest town to Dettifoss waterfall is Akureyri, or the ‘Capital of the North. From Akureyri to Dettifoss, it takes about two 2 hours and 15 minutes and is 100 miles (168 km) apart. Akureyri has plenty of sleeping accommodations and is a great stop for food and fuel. We suggest staying there or in Húsavík which is the next closest town. Húsavík, is a seaside village that boasts some of the best whale watching in Iceland.
Where is Selfoss Waterfall Located?
Selfoss is another waterfall just upstream of the most powerful waterfall in Europe. It too sits along the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river making it a great waterfall to add to the Diamond Circle itinerary. After all, if you visit Dettifoss you will already be in the car park for Selfoss. Walk just a short hike away to see one of Iceland’s incredible waterfalls.
Dettifoss and Prometheus
The epic landscapes in Iceland make you often feel like you have been transported to another world. For this reason, Iceland’s beautiful places have made its way to many films. Dettifoss is included in that list of movie star landscapes too.
You may have seen our mighty giant before. In 2012, Dettifoss made an impressive appearance in the popular sci-fi film Prometheus. You can see the waterfall roaring in the opening scene. This is where everyone typically recognizes Dettifoss from, though there is not a hovering spaceship to mark the spot. However, if you take road 864 to the east side Dettifoss, you will have the same viewpoint that starred in Prometheus.
Visiting West Dettifoss
As we mentioned before, two different routes can be taken from the Ring Road to reach Dettifoss. You can visit Dettifoss either from the west or east side, though we do not recommend trying to see both.
The west side route is the most traveled path. The westside entrance (road 862) is favored because the road is paved and the access to Dettifoss is easier. From the highest westside viewing platform, you can see the full length of the waterfall. This site has the best golden hour during the summer, great for those dreamy-like pictures of one of the most beautiful falls in Europe. Be aware: the upper viewpoint at west Dettifoss has a lot of mist and may end up getting you wet. The spray of the waterfall can be a lot!
The lower viewpoint gets you relatively close to Dettifoss and will allow you to see it straight on. It has a near tangible ‘wow’ factor from this viewpoint that you won’t want to miss. Although the trail is steep, the view of Dettifoss is totally worth it.
Plan to make another one of the great stops off the Ring Road to visit west Dettifoss and Selfoss. Just turn onto road 682 from Route 1 in North Iceland. There is a large parking lot and a visitor center with bathrooms and a gift shop.
Visiting East Dettifoss
To get a different perspective of Dettifoss, take the road down to the east side. Even though it’s a tad bit tougher to access, you will be able to avoid large crowds while getting a great view.
The road from the east side of the Jökulsá river is a very, very long gravel road (864) that is not favored by everyone. Although you are not required to have a 4wd to go down road 864, the gravel road has many potholes and makes the drive a bit bumpy. This road often has closures due to weather, so be sure to check Iceland road conditions before planning the trip.
The eastside view is impressive. The full length of Dettifoss can be seen from the eastside; However, the extent of its width is hidden. It is much easier to get a picture of Dettifoss in a regular camera from this side. Another advantage of the east side platform is that you may not get as wet from the spray.
The car park is pretty small on the east side, so if you are traveling to Dettifoss in the summer, go early to get a spot.
Visiting Selfoss Waterfall From Dettifoss
Selfoss can be visited from Dettifoss no matter which side you are visiting, no need to even leave the car park.
The views of Selfoss are pretty different east compared to the west side. From the west side, Selfoss only shows a sliver of its falls. To visit Selfoss from the westside, take the trail from the lower viewpoint back toward the parking lot. You’ll see a sign for Selfoss along the way. Follow the 0.5-mile (1 km) trail along the river to get there.
The view of Selfoss from the eastside is just under a mile (1.4 km) away from Dettifoss. This trail is a bit more rugged than the west side counterpart. You’ll be climbing over boulders along the riverfront until you reach Selfoss viewpoint. In our opinion, Selfoss is best seen from this side because you can see the curtain effect of the falls.
Is There a Long Hike to Visit Dettifoss Waterfall?
West Dettifoss is a fairly easy hike. The walk from the parking lot is 0.5 miles (1 km) and mostly downhill. The paved trail takes you along the edge of the canyon to both the upper viewing platform and the lower viewing platform.
The walk to see the upper and lower viewpoints is not very long and you won’t want to miss either, so make sure to do each. Include the unpaved hike down to west Selfoss waterfall. Selfoss is not much further upstream and is totally worth the effort.
The trail loop from the parking lot to Dettifoss and Selfoss, then back is 1.5 miles (2.5 km) and will take about an hour to complete. You’ll be amazed by roaring falls, epic Icelandic scenery, and possible giant rainbows too!
The hike from the east side of Dettifoss is a steep rocky path downhill with some stairs. East Selfoss is still just a short walk away although it will require navigating over small boulders near the river’s edge. Round trip, the hike to Dettifoss from the east side is 2.3 miles (about 3.5 km) long. Mist from the falls makes the trails slippery, so be sure to watch your footing as you explore. This is definitely a place where you would not want to slip.
How Long to Spend at Dettifoss and Selfoss
Are you wondering how long to spend at Dettifoss and Selfoss? Although the hikes are relatively short, we recommend leaving time for taking pictures and just enjoying the epic views. We think it is best to leave 1-2 hours for the visit.
Camping at Dettifoss
Dettifoss does have a small campground that is only intended for through-hikers such as those who do the two-day-long Canyon Trial to Ásbyrgi. The campsite is primitive and without running water. Rangers bring fresh water to the site daily. Because the water is a limited supply, please leave the water for thirsty hikers.
However, if you are looking for somewhere to sleep, there are other great places to stay the night nearby. Stay in the Capital of the North Akureyri, to see the iconic Akureyrarkirkja church. The Lake Myvatn nature baths are also nearby and have great places to stay near Dettifoss waterfall in Iceland. Another town near the falls that you could choose to stay is the whale watching town of Húsavík. Spend the night in any of these towns on your way to discover more of the Diamond Circle attractions in North Iceland.
Can you Visit Dettifoss in Winter?
Some travelers prefer the beauty of winter in Iceland landscapes over the endless summer sun. These visitors cash out the midnight sun for a dance of the aurora in the night sky. If you wish to visit Dettifoss’ icy waterfalls, do so with these tips in mind.
There is no need to worry about visiting Dettifoss in the winter, as long as you are prepared for the conditions. First of all, to get there you will need a 4×4 drive vehicle in Iceland. East Dettifoss is frequently closed for the winter and even through some of the spring months, so make sure to take westside road 862 instead.
Although the snowy landscape is beautiful, visiting Dettifoss and Selfoss in the winter can be quite dangerous. Not only are the trails typically covered in ice or snow, making the walking paths very slippery. The vehement winter winds and blizzards can often disrupt the view of the waterfall as well. However, if still choose to brave the winds for that epic icy view, you may be rewarded with Iceland’s northern lights over the waterfalls.
Where to Stay Near Dettifoss Waterfall in Iceland
If you are looking for where to stay in Iceland near Dettifoss waterfall, we know of a few great options.
Hótel Laxá Is a great mid-range option and is only 13 miles from Lake Mývatn nature baths. After a good night’s sleep, make the 53.5-mile drive from Hótel Laxá to Dettifoss.
If you are looking to stay in charming Akureyri hotels and hostels, book a stay at the eclectic yet sophisticated Hotel Akureyri. The drive to the falls is 82 miles and will take about 1.5 hours to do.
If you choose the popular whale-watching town of Húsavík, spend the night at Svartaborg modern cottages. Svartaborg is located 68 miles away from Dettifoss and will take about 1.5 hours to travel to.
There is so much beauty to see in Iceland and we don’t want you to miss out on any of it. That’s why we are here to give you all the best tips and tricks to crafting the experience of a lifetime. We hope this guide gives you all the tools you need to make it the best trip ever.
Whether you are visiting East or West Dettifoss, the sightseeing tour of the North would not be complete without it. Include Selfoss on the itinerary for some of the most graceful falls in Iceland’s great national parks. After all, the hikes to see these falls are short and fairly easy to access. After you make this stop off the ring road, head to Ásbyrgi canyon, the Hverfjall volcano, and the pearl of the north, Myvatn lake.
Travelers and lovers of life, we hope you enjoy the epic trip to Iceland.