The volcanic wonderland of Mývatn is a bright oasis at the edge of Iceland’s desert highlands. Black lava fields give way to young mountains, interesting crater circles, and a flow of inland streams and lakes. The largest of these is Lake Mývatn, whose myriad pools and archipelagos are laid out with all the precision of a golf course. Yet only nature is to blame for the vivid colours and sublime contrast on offer: one hillside might be carpeted in grassy green, but the next is likely to be scorched white and dusted with yellow sulphur. It all depends on how the wind blows.

It is the famous Krafla hotspot that transforms a beautiful lake into an extraordinary landscape. The magma reservoir sits less than two miles beneath the surface – a literal bubble of volcanic activity that keeps things bubbling. Between the hot springs and mud pots the crusted ground is cracked and bulging. The most innocent outdoor stroll takes one past cones and calderas right out of a textbook. If anything, Mývatn inspires reflection about how the rest of the earth was made.

The lake of today was formed about 2,300 years ago in a routine eruption of one of the Krafla fissures. Often mistaken for a crater, Lake Mývatn is actually a very flat lava field that was dammed in around the edges by subsequent flows – that explains the vague shoreline, the size (more than 12km in length), the 40-odd islands in the middle and why the lake is so shallow (only 2–4m deep). The eruption disrupted the flow of the Laxá River and the new lake was filled with underground spring water. The two main basins of the lake were created separately and are fed by separate springs – in Syðriflói (the larger section) the water temperature averages 5°C; in Ytriflói (the northern end) the water gets up to 30°C.

The ‘Mývatn’ of travel brochures and road signs refers to the entire area: the lake, volcanoes, lava fields and steamy landscapes. As a destination, it’s right at the top of the list – stunning and easy to get to. Relatively speaking though, Mývatn remains gloriously undeveloped with just a handful of hotels and restaurants. Just over 500 people live here, on lakeside farms or in the village of Reykjahlið. When not catering to tourists, locals farm or work in one of two industries: the Krafla geothermal power plant and the local diatomite mine (taken from the lake’s fossilised algae deposits and used to make filters and abrasives). 

Getting there and away

Mývatn is an important crossroads between Iceland’s vast interior, the east coast, and the north, which makes it a convenient destination for both overland excursions and travellers following the ring road. Route 1 skirts the northwest side of the lake between Akureyri (1hr) and Egilsstaðir (2hrs 15mins). The junction at Reykjahlíð connects to Route 848 that loops around the lake’s southern side. Route 87 is a freshly paved road that leads to Húsavík (1hr) and is ideal for motorcycles and mountain bikes thanks to it carrying a lot less traffic. Further east, Route 862 connects the ring road to Jökulsárgljúfur Nature Reserve. Strætó offers a daily bus service to Mývatn between Akureyri (1hr) and Egilsstaðir (2hrs), stopping in Reykjahlíð.

The quickest way to get to Mývatn is by air – most fly directly to Akureyri and then drive the rest of the way. There’s also a small airport just above Reykjahlíð that services private and charter aircraft. For more information, contact Mýflug Air.