East Iceland
Wanderlust Travel Magazine|November/December 2021
Spend a few days exploring the remote fjords, mountains and volcanic interior of Iceland's spectacular Austurland region William Gray gives his tips on hikes, tours and hidden gems
William Gray

Often squeezed into an overnight stop on a self-drive tour of Iceland's Ring Road, the East makes a superb short break destination in its own right. With five days to lavish on the little-visited Austurland region, you can not only dawdle through the breathtaking East Fjords, but also spend time hiking in the mountains of Borgarfjörður Eystri and exploring the waterfalls, canyons and dormant volcanoes of the island's rugged interior.

East Iceland's main hub, the modern town of Egilsstaðir lies in a broad valley near the northern tip of Lagarfljót. Rumours of a serpent-like monster, known as the Wyrm, have been floating around this glacial lake since 1345, but the 740-hectare birchwood of Hallormsstaðaskógur seems just as fanciful as you drive along the lake's southern shore.

While forests are a rarity in Iceland, waterfalls appear around every corner. One of the country's tallest, 128m Hengifoss plunges over humbug striped cliffs of black basalt and red clay at the threshold of the Highlands. Delve deeper into the interior and you'll discover more cascades at Laugarfell, as well as hot springs and the 1,833m trekking peak of Snæfell, King of the Mountains. A short distance from the new hydroelectric dam at Kárahnjúkar, the Jökla River has gouged out the 200m-deep, 8km-long Hafrahvammagljúfur canyon. When the dam was commissioned, river levels dropped, revealing extraordinary basalt columns in Stuðlagil canyon, further downstream.

These are just some of the natural wonders to be found on routes west of Egilsstaðir. Head north, east or south from town and you'll reach the coast where the East Fjords boast some of Austurland's most sublime scenery. From Neskaupstaður in the north, a head-spinning drive hugs the coast, meandering between mountain and sea and joining the dots between fishing communities all the way south to Djúpivogur. Another road snakes over a mountain pass before unravelling past waterfalls to reach Seyðisfjörður with its elegant clapboard houses and thriving arts scene.

Drive north, meanwhile, and you'll reach Borgarfjörður Eystri - prime walking country and a top spot for puffin-watching during summer. The coast and mountains here are riddled with hiking trails - tiptoe to Álfaborg (home to the queen of the Icelandic elves), make tracks for the deserted bay at Brúnavik or climb high into the mountains of Dyrfjoll, where reindeer graze and trolls hunker down among jumbled boulders.

Expert tip

Bring your binoculars - the East Fjords are a top spot for birdwatching. Puffins steal the show at Borgarfjorour Eystri, but focus on Djúpivogur and you can not only see everyone's favourite seabird (with around 30,000 pairs of puffins on Papey Island), but a whole lot more besides. Eider, scoter and other sea ducks shelter on Berufjörður to the north of the village, while the ponds and marshes of the nearby Bulandsnes peninsula attract waders, geese and swans. William Gray

65.2669°N, 14.3948°W

EAST ICELAND IN FIVE DAYS...

Day 1: Seyðisfjörður From Egilsstaðir, drive east over Fjarðarheiði pass, stopping to hike the short trail to Fardagafoss waterfall before reaching Seyðisfjörður. Stroll along colourful Rainbow Street to the Blue Church and visit the Skaftfell Centre for Visual Art.

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