Outside Iceland, Dettifoss is possibly best known as the big waterfall from the opening scenes of Prometheus. Within Iceland, it’s best known as being the most powerful waterfall in Europe, although that fact is now being prefaced with words like “possibly” and “among”. But it’s quite the sight to behold.
Dettifoss is the biggest of three significant waterfalls in the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river, the most fearsome river I’ve encountered in Iceland. It’s not the longest nor the most powerful but for sheer violence, it’s pretty amazing. It comes from the Vatnajökull glacier and it’s opaque grey with debris. It doesn’t flow, it fights, it looks like it’s barely contained within its own canyons and I was quite nervous about being stuck in a broken-down car beside it for several hours.
There are two ways of approaching Dettifoss, which is in the middle of the Highlands. There are two roads which run more or less parallel to the river, one on each side. According to the map left in my hire car, the west road is completely unpaved while the east road is partly paved, so I opted to drive, north to south, down the east road. And that map is wrong! In fact, not only was the tourist road map left in my car wrong, so are my 1:750 000 Marco Polo map and my 1:425 000 Reise map. I can’t speak for today but as of the summer of 2014, the east road is 100% unpaved.
Sometimes the gravel road is half-decent gravel but a lot of it is so rutted that you really don’t want, for example, a pile of tent pegs sitting your back parcel shelf to dry because they jingle and rattle all the way. Even if the pegs are wet and muddy, put them away for that bit of road and get them out and wash and dry them later. This is an important lesson for driving in Iceland. I think if I’d known it was going to be thirty-five miles on rough gravel roads with every other vehicle overtaking me and leaving me, literally, in a cloud of dust, I might have enjoyed it but I wasn’t expecting it and it felt so remote. Here is an example of a random bit of road:
The southern end of the west road is paved, from the Ring Road to Dettifoss and a very pleasant drive it is too. For some reason, Google haven’t driven their camera cars up the nice paved road and I didn’t stop to take any photos of it but let me assure you; it’s a smooth sweeping paved road through scenery that does, admittedly, look much the same as it does on the east road but because there’s a real road, it feels much less remote and much less intimidating to drive.
I’ve seen Dettifoss from both banks and I think you get a good view of it from both but you get a wilder view from the east side. From the east, you can see all the way down the canyon, you can see shattered rocks around it and you can see the huge cloud of spray that rises up. If you want to see a waterfall from a post-apocalypse movie up close and personal, go to the east side. It’s also the side where, if you have a death wish, you can go and touch the water. Don’t do this! Tourists can be monumentally stupid and getting anywhere near the edge of waterfall so powerful that you can’t see the bottom for the density of spray is a monumentally stupid thing to do.
It’s not a very high waterfall, only about forty-five minutes, which is lower than both Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss but it’s about one hundred metres wide and it’s turned sideways so as to fit that wide river through the narrow canyon opening.
The west bank, as you may have spotted, is very green. A lot of the spray gets blown over there and there’s a bit of soil, whereas the east bank is all shattered boulders, with just a few sprigs of this and that clinging to the bare rock.
You can go up on the cliffs on the west side and look down on the waterfall or you can go along the top of the canyon where you’re not only level with the top of the waterfall, but it’s also turned towards you. There are more tracks and paths on the west side and a feeling that tourists are encouraged there more than on the east side. There are pretty big car parks on both sides, although that’s something else Google Maps doesn’t show.
You can go on tours to Dettifoss but it’s generally included as part of tour called something like the Diamond Circle, but it’s done as a bit of a whistlestop tour including anything and everything else of interest between Mývatn and Húsavík, so if you want a little longer to enjoy the waters, it’s best to drive it yourself.