With glaciers made of millennia-old water and active volcanoes on the same island, Iceland ends up having some very amazing rivers, filled with some of the purest H20 on the planet. It’s water that’s clean enough to drink straight out of the flowing streams and rivers, and plentiful enough to keep waterfalls like Dettifoss, Europe’s largest, thundering mightily all year long.
Fishing is excellent in Iceland, and it’s pretty easy to figure out which rivers are most vaunted for their bounty. Lax means salmon in Icelandic, and there are many waterways in Iceland that are called Laxá, or Salmon River – with most having a specific location appended to their name. Sport fishermen come from all over the world to try to catch Atlantic salmon, as well as other varieties like trout and char. Most visitors these days opt to catch and release (after a photo op, of course) which helps to preserve the stock for future generations.
Rivers of purest water add life and energy to the stunning beauty of Iceland!
Iceland’s longest river is Thjórsá (spelled in Icelandic Þjórsá), running south from its source at Hofsjökull glacier in the very center of Iceland to the Atlantic coast. Cutting as it does across some of the most fertile, and thus populated, areas of the country, it’s held a big place in Iceland’s history since the Age of Settlement in 870AD. Just crossing it was a major event, and from the Middle Ages rope-and-raft ferries were used until the first bridge was built over it in the late 19th century.
Named for a bull’s head (þjór means bull) that had been placed on a pike as a marker at its estuary when when the first wave of Norsemen and women arrived at Iceland’s coast, today Þjórsá is not only a major source of hydroelectric power, but also offers protected wetlands and waterfalls, excellent fishing and even river rafting. It could easily be said to be the lifeline of the country, and at 230 km long (over 140 miles) it’s a formidable one at that.
Jökulsá á Fjöllum
Dettifoss is one of many dramatic drops along Jökulsá á Fjöllum (literally, GlacierRiver-on-the-Mountains) as it runs toward the Greenland Sea. It’s fed by melted runoff from the great Vatnajökull glacier and is the second longest river in Iceland, traveling north over the highlands through ancient beds of lava. It cuts deep and rough through the now-hard magma at places, and at others meanders peacefully at ground level, belying the fact that around the next wide bend it might again become a thundering falls.
Like its cousin Thjórsá to the south, Jökulsá has always been a hindrance to east-west travelers. Most forded the river at Grímstunga, near where Highway 1 bridges the river today, though passage across was also possible at its broad estuary, just north of the dramatic Ásbyrgi land formation. Jökulsá is a powerful phenomenon on the Icelandic landscape, and well worth visiting to appreciate.
Skeiðará & Markarfljót
Skeiðará and Markarfljót are known, unfortunately, much more for their destructive power than for pretty things like waterfalls. Both of these south-flowing rivers are pathways for jökullhlaup, or glacial runs, where massive amounts of water are released from glaciers melted by volcanic activity, causing dramatic changes to the landscape. During the Grímsvötn eruption under Vatnajökull glacier in 1996, a huge bridge on the main highway was taken out by the rushing waters of Skeiðará, which looks as harmless as fine lace on a map. And only days after the world-famous Eyjafjallajökull eruption began, Markarfljót, which from above looks a bit more like a proper river, was filled past capacity with water and ice, flooding its fickle banks.
Because of the regularity of this phenomenon, the southlands of Iceland where these rivers run are basically just wide stretches of sands that have daunted travelers since the early days of Settlement. Ever-shifiting Markarfljót, however, is redeemed by the beauty of Thorsmörk (Þorsmörk) Nature Preserve near its source, and Skeiðará by the primal majesty of its source, the mighty Vatnajökull glacier.
Glerá & Elliðá
Tamer and closer to urban centers are two lovely rivers, Glerá in Akureyri and Elliðaá in Reykjavík. Glerá (“Glass River”) runs right through the heart of Iceland’s second largest city and is flanked by walking trails for a taste of urban nature. Its source is in the craggy Tröllaskaga mountains where trolls are assumed to live, adding a touch of otherworldiness to a very classic and helpful river: it was dammed for hydroelectirc power in the 20th century, helping to build the town of Akureyri. The dam is no longer in use.
Elliðaá, however, is still a source of power for the capital, though dam,the second to be built in Iceland, is small and simple. The area surrounding the river has been reforested and is a perfect place for a stroll, as well as for excellent salmon fishing.
Every year, fishermen from around the world flock to Iceland for the opportunity to cast a line into its fresh river waters in hopes of catching a gorgeous North Atlantic salmon. Though there are many well-known fishing rivers throughout the country, Norðurá (North River) has to be one of the most well-known and respected. Year after year, anglers are consistently able to land impressive salmon in its waters, surrounded by ancient lava fields, rugged mountains and the flora and fauna native to the island. Many if not most visitors choose to catch and release these days, though dining on your own newly-landed salmon is close to heaven!
One of the great things about this river is how close it is to Reykjavík, just a scenic hour and a half’s drive away, and complete with a world-class fishing lodge and professional guides who know the river and the local elements like the backs of their hands. For those not so interested in casting out, the river is easy enough to access, just off Highway 1, to enjoy a serene walk along its mossy-lava banks.