Mývatn is a lake near Akureyri in North Iceland. The lake was formed during a massive eruption 2300 years ago. Today the area is best known for the huge numbers of birds that visit in the summer, and for the weird and inspiring volcanic features that surround the lake. The name "Mývatn" is derived from the vast numbers of midges that gather at the lake and are sure to leave an impression on all who visit!
There are two small towns on the shores of Mývatn:
Mývatn was formed after a massive eruption 2300 years ago, and it remains geothermally active today. The lake is located along the western side of the volcanic zone which bisects Iceland and is an extension of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The features of the landscape are quite new in geologic times, with most of the land shaped by activity occurring since the last Ice Age.
The inhabitants of the surrounding area, called Mývatnssveit, are approx. 450 but many more live there in the summer to service tourists. Lately there has been a movement among the local entrepreneurs to increase tourism in the winter so now some hotels are open during the winter and tours are offered, including go-carting on ice and ice-bowling as well as jeep rides over snowy terrain.
During the last Ice Age much of the Mývatn was covered by glaciers. Eruptions below the ice led to the formation of some of the area's mountains. Major volcanic events since that time have occurred 3800 years ago, 2500 years ago, 2300 years ago, and during a series of eruptions lasting from 1724 until 1729. Most recently, eruptions of the Krafla volcano from 1975 until 1984 produced fresh lava flows in the area. This volcanic activity is seen today in the relatively shallow lake, the many pseudocraters that surround it, and the fantastic lava formations and craters in the area.
Flora and fauna
Due to the number of wetlands surrounding the lake there are an exceptional number of waterbirds, and the area is recognized as one of the premier bird-watching sites in the world. Over 115 species of birds have been sighted at the lake, including thirteen species of ducks that nest in the lake area. Most nesting birds arrive in late April or early May. The most abundant species is the tufted duck, followed by the greater scaup and wigeon. Other commonly sighted species include the Barrow's goldeneye, red-breasted merganser, gadwall, mallard, common scoter, long-tailed duck and teal. Harlequin ducks and the Barrow's goldeneye breed nowhere else in Europe. Other birds likely to be seen at the lake include the tufted (Slavonian) grebe, red-necked phalarope, common loon (great northern diver), red-throated diver and whooper swan.
One of the reasons why so many birds congregate in the lake area is due to the massive number of aquatic insects - visitors are advised to bring mosquito netting with them to avoid the often-bloodthirsty hordes of black flies that can be found here.
In general the area's weather is less severe than what is found elsewhere in Iceland. The average temperature in January is -0.2°C, and in July the average reaches 10.2°C. The area is also one of the sunniest in Iceland, and annual precipitation is only 0.4m.
The easiest and most flexible way to visit the lake is by automobile. There are also numerous buses from Akureyri, Husavik or Egilsstadir. For those looking for more of an adventure, visiting by bicycle entails a 90 kilometer pedal from Akureyri.
There is not much of a public transport system. If you came to Myvatn by bus, walking, biking and hitchhiking are you best options but beware as it can get quite chilly in the winter. The road around the lake is approx. 36km. so biking is a good option. There are some local trips available at Skútustaðir, Vogar and Reykjahlíð (Ask store clerks or information centers for details)
There are a vast number of sights for visitors around the lake. The following listing includes major points along the Ring Road, listed in clockwise order starting from Reykjahlíð, followed by those sites that are located off of the Ring Road.
Hverfjall (Hverfell) Crater
This 2500 year old, nearly symmetrical tephra crater rises 463 meters high and is 1040 meters across. It is accessible via a trail that runs from Reykjahlíð to Dimmuborgir. Access to the bottom of the crater is not permitted in order to prevent erosion - please obey signs and remain on the marked paths.
Dimmuborgir, which means "dark forts" in Icelandic, is an area of volcanic arches, pillars, caves and bridges along the east shore. The black lava formations are the result of a 2000 year old lava flow, and numerous trails lead through the area. Cracks in the ground here often hide deep and dangerous crevices; stay on the marked trails.
Lofthellir, Lava Cave
Lofthellir Lava Cave is just in 45 min drive away from Lake Myvatn. It is about 370m long and boasts the greatest natural ice sculptures currently known in an Icelandic lava cave.
The shores along the south side of the lake are home to many pseudocraters, formed during volcanic eruptions when lava flowed over wetlands, eventually resulting in steam eruptions and forming these medium-sized craters. There are a series of trails in the town of Skútustaðir that lead through these craters and provide further information about the geology behind these formations.
This 529m tall peak is accessible from a trailhead along the road, just south of the mountain. The trail runs along generally flat land to the back of the mountain, after which it takes a decidedly vertical turn and leads straight to the summit. The trail is tiring and footing (on loose rock) can be tough - plan about forty-five minutes to an hour for the ascent. Views from the top are tremendous, making this a very worthwhile trek.
The area north of Vindbelgjarfjall is a protected nesting area, and access during nesting season is forbidden; do not hike or drive off road to avoid disturbing the many birds present.
A low mountain range about 6km from Reykjahlið on the way to Egillsstaðir. Next to it - mainly at the bottom of the hill on the further side from Reykjahlið are interesting hot mud pools, solfataras, fumaroles, etc.
The site of a major volcanic eruption known as the Krafla Fires of 1975-1984. The various overlying lavafields give an interesting striped appearance to the area on a larger scale. Some areas of lavafields that are still steaming, and there are solfataras and various lava formations. Nearby (about 500m) is a large explosion crater called Víti (which is the same name as the similar explosion crater at Askja). It is a fairly large site and worth about half a day to walk around. To find it, set out from Reykjahlið, in the direction of Egillsstaðir and turn left at the signed turn after about 8km. It is a further 7km, a little way beyond the geothermal power station.
The Mývatn area is known for hverabrauð, a delicious, one-of-a-kind molasses bread that is slow-baked for 24 hours underground by natural geothermal heat. This bread is sold around the lake area. In addition, the local smoked trout is famous in Iceland for its taste, it can be bought in most of the shops. Restaurants and grocery stores can be found in the two main towns.
Bars, cafes, and other options can be found in the area's two main towns.
Like most places in Iceland visitors should always watch the weather and exercise caution around thermal areas. Weather changes quickly, and the onset of fog, high wind, or a severe storm can turn the best day into a survival situation. Similarly, thermal pools are often boiling hot and should be approached with caution, and the areas around thermal features are often unstable so all warnings and barriers should be observed.
Crime is not an issue in Mývatn, but sensible precautions should still be taken.