Fjaðrárgljúfur is one of Iceland’s most spectacular natural gems. It is also one of the places that you will probably never be able to pronounce correctly - or at all.
The magnificent canyon is 100 meters (328 feet) deep and two kilometers (1.24 miles) long. What makes it so special are its sheer, turning, and twisting walls, full of oddly-shaped salients and bumps dotted with soft grass and patches of moss. Deep in the canyon, a lazy river serpentines towards the sea. These formations create a dreamlike sight that is truly difficult to describe with words. Standing above this distinctive canyon and admiring the unusual sight is an unparalleled experience, for sure!
This is an especially difficult word in Icelandic. It consists of two words: Fjaðrár, which is the name of the river that runs through the canyon, and gljúfur, which simply means ‘canyon.’
You can try to pronounce is as Fiath - raor - gliu - vur. Saying it quickly will probably take some practice, but you can do it! Say it to an Icelander and they will be totally amazed!
The canyon was formed by progressive erosion approximately nine thousand years ago. The bedrock itself is thought to be about two million years old. When the glacier retreated at the end of the last Ice Age, the melting water accumulated and a lake was believed to have formed in the valley behind the canyon.
The sediment-rich runoff water from the lake flowed towards the ocean through the area where the canyon is located today. The glacial river carved and dug itself into the bedrock, forming several cascades which carved the bedrock even more powerfully. When the lake finally slowly filled with sediment, the runoff river started to carve itself into the freshly formed sediment layers. Together these forces shaped the area and left this fairytale-like canyon behind for us.
The canyon is located in South Iceland, near the village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur, 248 kilometers (154.1 miles) from Reykjavík. When taking the Ring Road (Route 1) from Reykjavík going towards Skaftafell, make a left at the sign pointing to Road No. 206, Holtsvegur.
Continue on the gravel road for about 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) and you will reach the parking area. The road is unpaved, but any type car should be able to drive on it in summer. However, in winter (between October and April) a 4X4 car is recommended, as the road is not well maintained and can be snowy or icy.
There are two ways to discover the canyon, from the top and from the bottom. There is a marked path starting from the parking lot that leads along the top of the canyon. There are several viewpoints built at the most breathtaking locations where you will have an amazing view over the canyon. The walk is easy and does not take long.
The other way to explore the canyon is approaching it from below. This requires an adventurous attitude as sometimes you will need to wade through the shallow river. This is best done in wading sandals, neoprene socks, or barefoot. The river is extremely cold, however, so it is better to have something on your feet. Hiking sticks can help you to keep your balance in the water.
Walking along the bottom of the canyon is a great adventure and a beautiful hike to do in summer. A matchless view is the prize for those who are brave enough to try it. However, the river is sometimes higher than usual. If you feel that the current is too strong or if the cold water causes you too much pain, do not continue. It is better to be safe than sorry!
The canyon looks completely different in spring, autumn, and winter. When there is no snow, the grass and moss are completely brown. This site is not a bit less beautiful, it is simply different from what you will see in the green pictures from summertime. This is, actually, the real face of Iceland. The landscape is green for only a short three-month period in summer and then is brown and white for the rest of the year.
When snow covers the canyon, the paths become slippery and icy. In mid-winter, it is a good idea to bring hiking crampons or spikes, for your own safety. You can buy them at most petrol stations and even at some grocery stores in winter.
Obviously, entering the river is not recommended in winter. Thin layers of ice can form on the surface and it is difficult to be sure how deep the water is. As the water is extremely cold, falling into the water can be especially dangerous in winter.
Also, in snowy and icy conditions, leaving the Ring Road and driving the unpaved road up to the Fjaðrárgljúfur parking lot is only recommended for 4X4 cars.
Since the location appeared in a Justin Bieber music video, it went viral on Instagram and the canyon became world-famous. Thousands of visitors come to admire this extraordinary sight year-round.
During spring and autumn, however, the area gets extremely wet due to intense melting and precipitation. The paths often get muddy and slippery, which makes visitors leave the marked trail to avoid getting dirty.
Leaving the marked path can be very dangerous when you visit a thrilling canyon. Also, when tens or hundreds of people start to step off the path, they together cause serious damage to the vegetation, treading the grass and moss down, killing the fragile flora, and creating even bigger mud pots.
This is why the Icelandic Environment Agency sometimes decides to completely shut down the Fjaðrárgljúfur area to protect the vegetation and ensure visitors’ safety. Sadly, many travelers tend to ignore the closures and climb over the ropes to enter the closed areas.
This is very disrespectful and reckless behavior which can result in personal harm and irreversible changes to the landscape. If planning to visit the canyon, please keep in mind that it is sometimes not accessible. If this happens, you have to let it go and plan to visit again. You can check the current trail conditions on the SafeTravel Iceland website.
Even if the path is open, we kindly ask you not to follow in Bieber’s footsteps. Do not climb over the ropes. Do not stand out on the edges of the cliffs where no viewpoint has been built. Never step on the moss, even if other people did so before you. Do not follow the detours started by others. The Icelandic Environment Agency is constantly trying to restore the vegetation on which people have left their footprints and the process can take decades.