How to Visit Studlagil Canyon, Iceland

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Studlagil Canyon is one of the most stunning and interesting places I’ve visited in Iceland — yet thanks to its remote location, it feels wonderfully off the beaten track.

This canyon, located in the Jökuldalur Valley (Glacier Valley) of East Iceland, is home to one of the greatest collections of basalt columns in Iceland. In fact, “Studlagil Canyon” translates to “Basalt Column Gorge.” These long, dark streaks of rock form unusual geometric shapes throughout Iceland.

Even more interesting? People had no idea this place even existed until a decade or so ago. More on that in a bit.

Studlagil Canyon was high on our list when Amanda and I visited Iceland. And while we spent much of the experience soaking wet and sinking into mud, we absolutely loved it.

You should definitely put this on your list. Here’s what you need to know about Studlagil Canyon.

(Note: It’s spelled “Stuðlagil Canyon” in Icelandic, but I’ll be using Studlagil Canyon here. The “ð” is pronounced like “th.”)

A canyon lined with gray columns of rock, with a turquoise river flowing through it. The sides are grassy and there's a viewing platform on the left.

How Did This Place Come to Be?

For centuries, Icelanders had no idea the basalt rock columns of Studlagil Canyon were lurking beneath the river’s surface. The turquoise Jökla River rushed wildly through the landscape, leading no clue to what lay beneath.

People didn’t even live in this part of Iceland. Just sheep.

In 2009, the hydroelectric plant Kárahnjúkavirkjun opened nearby and created the Hálslón Reservoir. Much of the Jökla River was diverted into the reservoir instead of rushing down its usual path, so the river level decreased seven to eight meters.

In 2016 a group of sheep herders discovered the newly revealed canyon. In 2017, Studlagil Canyon was featured in an advertising campaign for Iceland-based WOW Airlines.

WOW stopped its operations two years later, but the cat was out of the bag — Studlagil Canyon was the hottest new natural wonder of Iceland. In recent years, the canyon went from a hidden gem to a must-visit spot, drawing travelers from all over the world.

Yet still, this place is very quiet compared to the tour bus-crammed Golden Circle, or the busy Mývatn region in Northern Iceland.

Studlagil Canyon FAQ

How long is the hike to Studlagil Canyon?

If you park in the small parking lot on the east side, it’s about a two-hour out-and-back hike. If you have a 4×4, you can park in the closer parking lot and save about an hour’s hiking time.

Do you need a local guide to hike Studlagil Canyon?

No guide is necessary at Studlagil Canyon. The hiking path is clear and easy to follow.

Is there a restroom at Studlagil Canyon?

There is a paid toilet on the west side only. There are absolutely zero facilities on the east side, which is the hiking side.

Which side of Studlagil Canyon is better, east or west?

The east side is for the long hike. The west side is just a viewing platform.

Four hikers in colorful coats hiking along a muddy path.

Hiking to Studlagil Canyon

There are two sides of Studlagil Canyon: the east side and the west side. You will want to know which side before you start!

The east side is where you do the hike, and there are absolutely no facilities here — not even toilets. There are two parking lots, one further away and one closer but at the end of a rough road.

The west side has an overlook that you can climb down to photograph the canyon (more than 100 stairs), and there are paid restrooms. This is next to a farm called Grund, and there is a paid toilet. No hiking is accessible from the west side.

Amanda and I were interested in the hike first and foremost, so we headed straight to the east side parking area.

A parking lot next to a river surrounded by grass as far as you can see.

Our Experience Hiking Studlagil Canyon

When Amanda and I get to the Studlagil Canyon east side parking lot in front of the bridge, we have our first decision to make. We can see the second parking lot in the distance. Could we get there in our little Toyota Corolla?

After weighing our options, we decide no. This looks like a rough road with lots of deep holes; while it’s technically not a 4×4-only road like an F road, it’s better suited to 4×4 cars. (Incidentally, we made the right decision. We end up driving our car on several questionable roads during the trip, but none where the road condition was this bad.)

Parking in the further away parking lot adds on an extra 30 minutes to our trip, but we’re ready. An hour’s hike each way is totally doable.

We gear up and start hiking, climbing hills along the potholed road.

A waterfall emerging from a wall of long, skinny, vertical stone columns.
Lovely, lovely Stuðlafoss Waterfall

About 30 minutes into our hike, close to the second parking lot, we come across a beautiful waterfall — Studlafoss! Studlafoss waterfall reminds us of Svartifoss, the famously picturesque waterfall on Iceland’s southeast coast. It’s a lovely surprise along our path.

At this point it begins to rain. No problem. We get out our rain jackets and I decide not to put on my rain pants, as I already have water-resistant hiking pants on. That would be enough, wouldn’t it?

Dear readers — that was a mistake. Water-resistant is NOT waterproof. But by the time I realize I should have put my rain pants on, my hiking pants are so soaked that there’s no point. Alas, we trudge along the trail, my teeth gritted in annoyance.

A gravel pathway with hikers passing a river.

By this point the hiking trail is an easy-to follow gravel road, and mostly level — a welcome development after the hilly beginning to the hike.

We have been hoping that we would come across a bathroom somewhere in our hike. No, that building in the parking lot isn’t a bathroom. Nor are the few buildings after that. Nor is the building the workmen are constructing. Nor do they have a porta-potty on site. “You have to go to the other side of the River Jökla,” one of the workmen tells us.

It’s okay. We can do this!! We are not going to miss Studlagil Canyon of all places!!!

Soon we begin seeing basalt columns poke out along the riverbed. Finally. They grow longer and longer. An hour into our hike, we’ve made it.

The canyon, lined with basalt columns in every direction, and a gravel hiking path along the wide of it.

By now, it’s raining VERY hard as we come to the main part of the basalt canyon. My hood is pulled tightly around my face and my camera is an angular paunch beneath my rain jacket.

Still — this is astounding.

What surprises me the most is how so many of the basalt columns are curved into twisting shapes. They don’t all come out straight! This is the work of thousands of years of lava meeting a powerful glacial river. And not all of them are hexagonal basalt columns — some have four, five, or seven sides.

The water? It’s really that turquoise, bright and milky. It reminds me of the brightly saturated rivers in Bosnia, the neon blue lakes in Slovenia.

We walk down to a tall, narrow rock slab overlooking the river, and it’s crowded with people. Who climbs a structure that dangerous — in the rain?! One wrong step in either direction and you’re dead!

I refuse to go up there — but the water’s edge would be nice. I need to get a shot from there.

Then I step into the mud, and my foot is engulfed nearly to my ankles. Why did I not wear my waterproof boots?! (Well, easy, Kate. You have bad arches and can’t hike in your Hunter wellies, even with insoles. You chose your hiking boots for today. You didn’t know it would be THIS muddy.)

I can’t get anywhere down to the water’s edge.

Amanda standing in the rain at the bottom of the canyon near the water, waving and wearing a bright turquoise coat.

Amanda, having chosen a pair of waterproof boots that she can actually hike in, makes it down to the edge of the water.

Kate taking a smiling selfie next to the canyon, wearing a bright yellow hooded raincoat on top of a hot pink coat.

I try to placate myself with a selfie, smiling through the shower.

After about 30 minutes at the canyon, we decide to head back. We trudge back in silence, the rain pounding down around us.

Fittingly, 20 minutes later or so, the rain slows to a drizzle, then stops.

Are we going back? Hell no. We need to pee.

Another angle of the canyon with columns of basalt twisting and turning in different directions.

Driving to the West Side

By the time we get back to our car, we have one goal: get to the bathroom on the west side. Or any bathroom, really. Seven minutes later, we are in the parking lot — where a public restroom is waiting. THANK GOD.

We run into the bathroom and ACK — we need to pay, and we left our wallets in the car! I grab my phone, pull up Apple Pay (extremely useful in Iceland), and scan my phone. We’re in.

Finally, we’re able to leisurely explore the west side of the canyon. Here you can climb down stairs to a platform. I decide to head down; Amanda sticks to the top.

A long downward staircase leading to a platform overlooking the canyon.
Another view of the canyon, with the water here appearing so turquoise it's almost bright green.

After a long climb down, I’m left with a stunning view in both directions of the gorge, including fantastic views of the unusual curving basalt columns. Yes, it was worth the visit.

Still, these stairs are no joke. I count them as I ascend and I have to stop at around 130. Long before that I’m stopping to catch my breath.

I meet up with Amanda at the top. The views from the parking lot are nowhere as good as the views on the platform.

And I think to myself, Would this have been worth it if I had only gone to the west side and not done the hike?

And even without waterproof pants or waterproof shoes, I’m so glad I did the full hike.

There’s nothing like seeing this place up close.

(For the record, I’m vigilant about rain pants and waterproof boots for the rest of the trip. They come in handy at the waterfalls that soak you like Kvernufoss and Gljúfrabúi.)

Two people posing for a selfie on top of a very tall, very narrow piece of rock above the canyon.

Safety at Studlagil Canyon

One thing that strikes me whenever I visit Iceland is how few safety precautions are in place. Whether you’re walking on smoking ground at Hverir or standing on the edge of a cliff at Múlagljúfur Canyon, Icelanders have remarkable confidence in people’s ability to stay safe.

You might get a rubber mat on the pathway. That’s it. Railings? Ha. Staff? Almost never.

It made my palms sweat seeing how many people teetered on the narrow sheet of canyon in the rain. So many of them could have easily fallen to their deaths.

On the west side of the river is a sign from Grund Farm urging safety. “This gorge is EXTREMELY DANGEROUS and demand great care; also, the river is cold and has a fast current. Never go to the cliff edges — falling off can mean death.

When at the gorge and anywhere else on this farm, you are responsible for yourself.”

I couldn’t help but think that it might be helpful to have this sign on the side where people actually hike.

Even so — I didn’t go near the scary edges. I recommend that you stay away from them, too. No Instagram shot is worth your life.

A black and white shot of hooded hikers in the rain taking photos of the canyon.
The water could be as gray as this photo.

A Warning on Water Color

You can visit Studlagil Canyon year-round, but you may be disappointed if you come in late summer. Studlagil Canyon’s green-blue water is one of its main draws, but it’s only that color when the Jökla’s water level is low.

In late August or early September, the plant runs water through the dam, which turns the river gray or brown. This can also happen when there’s excessive rain or glacier melt, usually during the summer.

Amanda and I visited in August 20, 2022, and this was a legit fear we had as we planned our visit. Even so, we didn’t need to worry — the water was still bright turquoise. We lucked out.

You may want to check conditions by looking at Instagram or Google Maps for recent updates. And you can always head to the west side first to check out the color before doing the hike.

Hikers walking on a path through grassy green farmland.

How to Get to Studlagil Canyon

Studlagil Canyon is a short drive from the Ring Road, but you might not get to the right place without the help of Google Maps. The East Side, which is marked “Stuðlagil Canyon (East Side Parking)” on Google Maps, is a 16-minute drive from the Ring Road.

From the Ring Road, turn onto road 923. From here you drive past Hákonarstaði Farm and turn left at the sign for Klaustursel Farm. You’ll soon see the parking lot next to the white bridge.

The West Side, which is marked “Stuðlagil Canyon” on Google Maps, is a 20-minute drive from the Ring Road. Instead of turning left at Klaustursel, continue driving until you see Farm Grund, where the viewpoint is.

The two sides are a seven-minute drive from each other.

Please keep in mind that there are toilets ONLY at the west side.

Either side of Studlagil Canyon is about an hourlong drive from Egilsstaðir.

A close-up of super-short hexagonal columns sticking out of the turquoise water.

Where to Stay Near Studlagil Canyon

If you’re looking to stay near Studlagil Canyon, I recommend staying in the town of Egilsstaðir, which is the largest city in East Iceland (admittedly, with a population of 2500, it’s more of a village than a city).

We stayed at Lyngás Guesthouse in Egillsstaðir, and it was a great choice. This budget hotel felt a lot like a college dorm, but in a good way. We had a simple room with twin beds, and there was a kitchen and several individual toilets and showers on the floor, so we never had to wait to use them. Everything was sparkling clean.

See more places to stay in Egillsstaðir here.

Two hot water pools submerged in a cold lake, several people luxuriating in the warm water.
I loved the hot pools in the cold lake at the Vök Baths!

More Things to Do in East Iceland

I was surprised how much I enjoyed East Iceland. It’s far more than just a place to drive through quickly.

The Vök Baths in Egilsstaðir are my favorite hot springs in Iceland — seriously! I went to so many of them, but this one stood out for its unique hot pools inside a lake, modern and comfortable facilities, delicious food in the cafe, and slashes you could order!

We went to the Vök Baths right after hiking Studlagil Canyon and it was just what we needed after a long, wet hike.

Make sure you visit the lovely town of Seyðisfjörður. Seyðisfjörður is about a 30-minute drive from Egilsstaðir on the coast of Eastern Iceland. It became one of my favorite small towns in Iceland, full of rainbows and art and soaring mountains!

If you overnight in Egilsstaðir, grab breakfast at the 50’s-style Skálinn Diner the next morning! It’s not quite an American diner, but it scratched my itch for a diner breakfast!

And the drive along the Eastfjords from Egilsstaðir to Djúpivogur was the most beautiful stretch of our Iceland road trip! Every turn was a jaw-dropper, with mountains and fjords as far as the eye could see.

A much dryer Kate taking a selfie in front of the canyon in just her hot pink coat.
The rain stopped! Yay!

Is Studlagil Canyon Worth It?

I admit that I was miserable for a lot of my Studlagil Canyon experience. It wasn’t the best time on the trip by far. Even so, I’m so glad that I did it. Yes, it was worth the aggravation — even in the rain! Even having to pee the whole time! That’s how you know a destination is special.

But is it worth it for you? It depends. Do you have a minimum of 3.5 hours free to drive here from the Ring Road, walk all the way to the canyon and back, and drive to the other side for a look? Do you have the physical ability to do the two-hour hike or climb the 130+ stairs to the western viewpoint?

And let’s not forget the weather! Does the weather look okay? If not, are you okay walking in the rain? Do you have appropriate rain gear? (You should.)

I don’t think Studlagil Canyon is for every traveler. But if you got through this post and your reaction was, “Hell yes!” I think you’re going to enjoy yourself here.

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Have you been to Studlagil Canyon? Any recommendations? Share away!