Iceland is famous for its countless beautiful sights, stunning, otherworldly landscapes, and its hot springs. Most of these sights are easily accessible through the Ring Road – the main road that circles Iceland and that most tourists take. While the Ring Road takes you all around the country, it skips the highlands (central region of the country), leaving its landscapes mostly untouched and seldom visited.
Among these landscapes is the famous Askja Caldera in the Dyngjufjoll Mountains – located on the northern side of the Vatnajökull National Park.
While I’ve seen dozens of stunning places in Iceland these past two years, I have to say this is by far one of my favorites for a few reasons. There’s a sense of adventure in just reaching it, it is mostly unknown to most tourists (since it’s hard to reach), and the setting is just something you can’t find anywhere else in the country or even the world!
Askja is a 50 square kilometers subsidence cauldron formed when a lava chamber, just under the surface of the earth, emptied in a volcanic eruption, causing the roof above it to collapse. In fact, Askja consists of three interlinked cauldrons, which makes it the best subsidence cauldron example in Iceland.
There you’ll find the Öskjuvatn Lake, which has an area of 11 square kilometers and a depth of 217m – making it the deepest lake in the country. Additionally, you’ll see the beautiful Víti volcano, which contains a 60m deep geothermal lake filled with bright blue water at 22 degrees Celsius. It’s almost like a surreal, natural Blue Lagoon inside a volcano.
Given how much I loved seeing Askja, here, I’ll share with you how to get there, in addition to a few “do and don’t” tips. If you have time, please, don’t miss visiting this surreal landscape.
When To Go
Due to Iceland’s weather conditions, the highlands are only accessible during the summer months, mostly from May to September. Sometimes the F Roads open a bit later or close a bit earlier in the season depending on the weather and road conditions.
Weather in Iceland is mostly unpredictable as it changes so quickly, so often. I don’t recommend going to Askja if there’s severe weather conditions and it could be dangerous not only during the drive but also during the hike.
I recommend checking the road.is site to see the current road condition and whether it is open or not. Check the site not only while you’re planning your trip, but also on the day of your trip just before leaving.
Since you’ll only be able to access Askja during the summer months, you can head there at any time of the day. If you head there late in the day (reaching Víti around 9 pm, as I did!), you might even have the beautiful experience of leaving Askja with the moon rising on the east while the sun still lingers on the west. That, plus the volcanic landscape makes it a completely surreal experience.
Driving to Askja
To reach Askja, you need to drive over the infamous F roads of Iceland. F roads are unpaved, ungraded roads in the highlands. F roads require a 4×4 vehicle as many of them have river crossings or go over rocky outcrops that require the torque and clearance of a four-wheel drive.
The F Roads leading to Askja are no exception. Do not even attempt this drive with a small car or even a small 4×4 (like a Suzuki Jimni) as there are two river crossings that require a decent clearance.
The easiest route to get there is taking the Ring Road (Road 1) past Akureyri and Myvatn (if you’re coming from Reykjavik), and getting off on Road 901. From the 901, you’ll turn right into the F905, which is where you’ll start the real driving adventure. After 21 kilometers, you’ll take the F910 until the end – an additional 62 kilometers.
You’ll encounter your first river crossing after driving about five kilometers after you enter the F910, with the second one following just a few minutes after. There are a total of three water crossings on this route, but the first one you’ll see is quite shallow and easy to pass, so it is not even marked on maps as a river crossing.
Pay attention though, as there are a few forks on the road with other F roads. Also important to note is that you will encounter two bridges with fences. It’s possible they might be closed, yet unlocked. Don’t be discouraged by this. Just hop off your vehicle, open the fence, cross the bridge, and close the fence again.
Stay on the F910 the entire time until you reach the shelter (cabins) and campsite at the end of the road. Once at the shelter, called Dreki Huts, I highly recommend stopping there to ask the ranger (or the shelter staff) about the current conditions at Víti and its hike. Depending on the current weather conditions, rangers may close the last part of the hike to reach the lower part of the Víti caldera. But don’t worry, you can still see it from the top.
This area where Dreki Huts are is called Drekagil, or Dragons Gully, and it is another sight worth seeing as an extra stop on your trip. Its dark, narrow canyon’s geology represents its name perfectly, as it looks like a place where dragons could have lived in a fantasy world. You can walk the canyon up to the waterfall, where you’ll see even more interesting geological formations.
Once you’re informed or finished walking around Drekagil, you’ll drive for another 20 minutes along F894 until you reach the parking area at the end of the road – the Vikraborgir Car Park. From there, your hike to Viti will start.
The total driving time from Road 1 to Vikraborgir, where the trailhead is, will take you about three hours each way.
Lastly, I highly recommend not taking the F88 route (which might come up on your google maps as an option to get to Askja from Road 1). This F road has several fords and river crossings that are not passable with a 4×4. You need a special vehicle with sufficient clearance and a snorkel to be able to cross them. Stick to the route shown above (F905/F910) as it is the easiest.
Also, do not trust Google Maps driving times. It does not take into consideration the road conditions, so it’ll show a much shorter time than what it really takes.
If you haven’t rented a 4×4, I recommend checking Guide to Iceland as they often offer cheaper prices on 4×4 rentals.
The Hike to Víti and Öskjuvatn Lake
The hike to Víti takes about 45 minutes each way along a mostly flat volcanic valley. The valley may have stunning views, but also, it has quite an interesting history too. This volcano erupted in 1875, delivering pieces of ash as far as Denmark. Back then, it had a devastating impact on the people and agriculture, forcing many farmers to emigrate to Canada. Also, due to the volcanic composition of the area, it was used during training for the Apollo program in the 60’s to prepare astronauts for the lunar landing missions.
You’ll witness the dark expanse of a lunar-like landscape as it turns into mountains of different shades of browns and ochre. Depending on when you go, it is highly probable there will be layers of snow still covering most of the hike (even during mid-summer).
Take your time during the hike. Even though it is a leisurely stroll, the snow can make it slightly challenging if you don’t have proper shoes or boots. Look carefully where you step on, as sometimes, as the ice melts, your feet can land on thin ice full of cold water under it (it happened to me!). But don’t worry, it’s just a few inches of water –nothing dangerous– but that cold water doesn’t feel nice at all when it enters your shoes!
As soon as you reach the rim of Lake Öskjuvatn, you’ll see one of the most stunning views in all Iceland. Weather dependent, you’ll see the Dyngjufjoll Mountains almost perfectly reflected on the lake. And in the foreground, to your right, you’ll see the crater – Víti. In fact, the name Víti mean “hell.”
Depending on the ranger’s advice, you could go down the crater to bathe in its warm-ish waters.
Bathing in Víti
This is something you can only do if allowed by the rangers. That’s why it is important to stop at the shelter to see the current status. As mentioned before, there are times when rangers have to close the access to the crater due to the terrain and weather conditions. When it rains, the steep slope down the crater becomes too muddy. While it is possible to descend, hiking up on mud becomes a serious challenge – too steep and slippery. When access is restricted, you’ll see some wooden “x” planted right on the trail leading down the crater.
Should the trail conditions be good, why not head down the crater? Even though people can bathe in Víti, the water is not that warm, averaging around 22 degrees Celsius (vs. 38 degrees at the Blue Lagoon).
But on a positive side, this is an all-natural geothermal lake, inside a volcanic crater, and you’ll have it almost to yourself! Due to the remote location of Askja, not a lot of people come here, so chances are you might even be there on your own for a while.
I went there with my friends this past summer (during the high season), and if I saw four people go there in the hour we spent at the rim (not counting the hiking and driving time), I’d say it was a lot.
As expected, there are no lifeguards at the lake, so take care when bathing there. Stay close to the shore and always within easy reach.
Staying There Overnight
You can stay in the cabins previously mentioned here – Dreki Huts. They can accommodate up to 50 people during the summer months. To book, you have to call the number on their official page, or email, as they currently don’t have online booking. I recommend calling with days or weeks in advance to secure your place.
Alternatively, the beauty of Iceland is that you can camp almost anywhere in the country. Should you have an F road capable campervan, you can park right in front of the shelter and spend the night there or pitch a tent nearby.
If you’re not staying in Askja for the night, I recommend staying by Myvatn lake as it’s the closest (big-ish) place to Askja. You can see the hotel selection and current deals on Myvatn here.
Here’s a Google Map with the location of the huts, the Víti Crater, and Myvatn.
A Few Extra Tips
It bears repeating. Even though people say it might be more scenic, do not take the F88 route as its river crossings are too dangerous for normal 4×4. Do not attempt it unless you have a special vehicle and have experience crossing rivers. It’s probably you’ll drown your 4×4.
Some rental companies offer modified 4×4 with higher clearance (like 35” or more). With these vehicles, it’s ok to try it. Car insurances in Iceland do not cover river crossings.
Before doing any river crossing (whether on the F88 or F910), stop and get a sense of the current depth. Remember, this is a dynamic environment that can change at any moment.
Should you not feel comfortable with the driving part of the trip, or not have the adequate vehicle to do it, Viator offers a few tours to Askja that are well worth checking.
Take some food, snacks, and water for the trip. You’re going into a “wild” territory outside of cellphone reach (in some areas). Better to be safe and have supplies in case you get stuck, have any unforeseen situation, or decide to spend the night there.
Also, take some extra warm clothing in case you come across an unforeseen situation that forces you to spend the night either at the cabins or in the car.
Don’t plan any other activity for that day, as it’ll take you from 10 to 12 hours to visit Askja, and maybe more if you take your time to walk around Drekagil.
You can head there at any time of the day as this is a natural sight open 24 hours a day. I recommend leaving early, though, as it takes a full day to do this. But, should you wish to see the sunset during the summer months, you could plan on being there around 10 pm and 12 am. Of course, have in mind that you’ll either spend the night there or drive over three hours to your accommodation after that.
I share several more tips to plan a budget road trip in Iceland on this other post. I highly recommend checking it if you’re planning on driving and sightseeing around the country independently.
And last but not least… Don’t miss doing this trip!! In my opinion, this is the closest we’ll be to traveling to the moon! (for now)