Dettifoss is one of Europe’s most powerful waterfalls. Selfoss is a smaller but more elegant waterfall located just upriver.
There are viewpoints of Dettifoss and Selfoss from the east and west sides of the river. Each side offers a slightly different experience.
For the best experience, you can view Dettifoss and Selfoss from the east and west riverbanks. However, this can take a lot of time. To see both waterfalls from each side of the river, you will have to do a lot of driving, and a little bit walking, to get to each viewpoint.
How much time are we talking about? It can take up to five hours to visit Dettifoss and Selfoss from both the east and the west sides of the river.
It’s worth it, but what if you don’t have that kind of time? If you only have enough time to visit one side, which is better, the east or the west?
In this article, get the details on how visit Dettifoss and Selfoss from the east and west sides, with photos, photography tips, driving directions, and how much time you can expect to spend here. Also, learn how to add on Hafragilfoss, a quick detour that’s worth it for one of the best views of the day.
Facts About Dettifoss and Selfoss
Dettifoss, Selfoss, and Hafragilsfoss are located in Vatnajökull National Park in northeast Iceland. Mývatn is a great place to stay in order to visit these waterfalls.
These waterfalls are located on the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river, a river that is formed from the melting glacier Vatnajökull. This powerful river carved out the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon and flows through the Ásbyrgi Canyon before ending at Öxarfjörður, a bay in the Arctic Sea.
Dettifoss is considered to be one of Europe’s most powerful waterfalls. Many sources list Dettifoss as the most powerful waterfall in Europe, including the signs at Dettifoss, but during the summer months, the Rhine Falls in Germany can have a higher flow rate.
Dettifoss is impressive. When you get up close to it, the ground literally shakes under your feet. It’s loud, it’s thunderous, it’s awe-inspiring.
Dettifoss from the east side.
A short distance upstream from Dettifoss is Selfoss. This waterfall may not have the impressive flow of water like Dettifoss, but it what it lacks in power it makes up for in appearance. This wider, more docile waterfall is beautiful, with its numerous smaller waterfalls.
Hafragilsfoss is a much smaller waterfall than Dettifoss and Selfoss, but a visit to the viewpoint on the east side is worth it. From here, you get an awesome view of the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon.
Summer is the best time to visit Dettifoss and Selfoss. During the winter months, the roads to both sides of the river can be closed and may not reopen until April or May. For alerts and to check conditions, click here.
Dettifoss and Selfoss from the West Side
The west side of Dettifoss and Selfoss are well equipped to handle large numbers of visitors. From Route 1 (the Ring Road), it is a paved road to a very large parking lot. Once at the parking lot, there is a visitor center, a gift shop, and bathrooms. During our visit in 2019, more buildings were being added at the parking lot.
From the parking lot it is an 800 meter walk, mostly downhill, to the upper viewpoint of Dettifoss.
From the upper viewpoint, you can take the upper trail along the riverbank to an elevated overlook of Dettifoss. When I did this, I got very wet. The west side of the river gets more water spray which can make photography challenging and will get you and your camera wet.
This is the view from the overlook.
I don’t think that the overlook is worth the short walk, unless it’s a calm day and there is not much water spray.
The path to the lower viewpoint is worth it. Just note that it is a steep walk downhill (and later a steep walk uphill) but you get a relatively close view of Dettifoss.
To get to Selfoss, take the trail from the lower viewpoint back towards the parking lot. There will be a separate trail that follows the river, just follow the signs to Selfoss. It is about a 1 km walk on a rocky trail to get to Selfoss.
This is the view of Dettifoss as you walk the trail to Selfoss.
Trail to Selfoss
From the west side, you can only see a small portion of Selfoss. However, this small part is very pretty and you can get rather close to the waterfall.
To get back to the parking lot, follow the trail and the signs directing you to the parking lot.
This entire loop, the parking lot to Dettifoss to Selfoss to the parking lot, is a 2.5 km walk and takes about one hour.
It is possible to see Hafragilsfoss from the west side. However, the main viewpoint is on the east side and that was the one that we visited.
If you want to see Hafragilsfoss from the west side, follow the signs to Hafragilsfoss once you exit the Dettifoss parking lot.
Dettifoss and Selfoss from the East Side
Seeing Dettifoss and Selfoss from the east side is a much different experience. To get to the viewpoints, you will drive on a narrow, dirt road. This road is well maintained and is fine for cars without a 4×4, just be prepared for some rough spots and potholes.
Road conditions can change from month to month and year to year, depending on weather and maintenance. During our visit in 2019, this road was in the midst of a renovation project.
Like the west side, there is one parking lot for Dettifoss and Selfoss. This is a much smaller parking lot and can only accommodate about 25 to 35 vehicles. Get here early if you want a parking space. By the time we left at 11 am, the parking lot was filled and long line of cars were working their way up the dirt road towards the parking area.
View of the canyon as you walk from the parking lot to Dettifoss.
To get to Dettifoss, it is a 10 minute walk (about 400 meters) down a steep rocky trail. As you approach the waterfall, there are a lot of places to take a photo. If it’s sunny you might be able to get a photo of the waterfall with a rainbow.
It is possible to get right up to Dettifoss from the east side. From here, you can really appreciate the power of the waterfall. It literally thunders as the water falls over the edge. It is awesome to see.
Plus, you don’t have to deal with water spray on this side of the river.
From Dettifoss, it is a 1 km walk to Selfoss. This trail is more rugged than the trail on the west side. You might have to scramble over some boulders along the way, so if you are here with kids, they’ll probably think that this side is more fun.
From the east side, you get to see the full size of Selfoss. It just doesn’t spill over in one spot. It is shaped like a horseshoe and the water falls in curtains along this very long edge.
Dettifoss may be powerful, but Selfoss is graceful and refined.
To get back to the parking lot, it is a 1.5 km walk. A visit to the east side takes about an hour.
From the parking lot on the east side, it’s a 5 minute drive north to the Hafragilsfoss parking lot. There were very few people here, so most people must turn around once the see Dettifoss and Selfoss. They have no idea what they are missing.
From the parking lot, follow the trail just a few minutes to a spectacular viewpoint over the the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon. The views over Hafragilsfoss and the canyon are stunning.
Trail from the parking lot to the Hafragilsfoss viewpoint.
Getting to Dettifoss and Selfoss
Dettifoss and Selfoss are located near Mývatn. If you stay overnight in Mývatn, it is worth getting an early start to visit Dettifoss and Selfoss before they get very busy.
When I used both Google Maps and the navigation system on our car to get to Dettifoss, that they both routed me to the east side. This is the side that is a dirt road with a tiny parking lot. I have no clue why Google would do this. If you use Google Maps or a navigation system, you will have to specifically enter in “Dettifoss west side” or “Dettifoss east side” to get driving directions.
Here are driving times to get to the west and east sides.
Paved road to the west side: From Route 1, it takes 20 minutes (24 km) to drive the paved road to the west side parking lot. From Myvatn, this drive takes 45 minutes.
Unpaved road to the east side: From Route 1, it takes 45 minutes (32 km) to drive the unpaved road to the east side parking lot.
West side to east side: To drive from one side to the other, it takes 1 hour and 10 minutes.
East side parking lot to Hafragilsfoss: 5 minutes (3 km)
How to Use This Map: Click the tab in the top left hand corner of the map to view the layers (points of interest and the driving routes). You can click the check marks to hide or show layers. If you click the icons on the map, you can get more information about each point of interest.
If you click the star next to the title of the map, this map will be added to your Google Maps account. To view it on your phone or computer, open Google Maps, click the menu button, go to “Your Places,” click Maps, and you will see this map on your list.
How Long Does a Visit to Dettifoss Last?
If you were to visit the east and west sides of Dettifoss and Selfoss, plus tack on Hafragilsfoss, the entire visit takes just under 5 hours. Seems like a crazy amount of time to spend looking at three waterfalls, right?
Here’s how the time breaks down, starting on the Ring Road: 20 minutes to the west side, 1 hour to visit Dettifoss and Selfoss. Drive 1 hour and 10 minutes to the east side and spend 1 hour here. Drive 5 minutes to Hafragilsfoss and spend 15 minutes at the overlook. Then, drive 45 minutes back to Route 1. This doesn’t include the time to/from Mývatn or your starting point.
If you just visited the west side from the Ring Road, a visit takes just under 2 hours.
If you just visited the east side from the Ring Road, a visit takes 2 and a half hours, plus another 20 minutes if you want to see Hafragilsfoss.
So, if you don’t want to spend five hours of your time here and just want to visit Dettifoss and Selfoss from one side, which one is better?
East Side vs. the West Side
Here are the pros and cons of the west and east sides.
- Paved road to get here
- Large parking lot with bathrooms
- You get to see Dettifoss straight on
- Get up close to Selfoss
- Lots of water spray from the waterfalls
- Can’t see all of Selfoss
- Get up close to Dettifoss
- No water spray
- Full view of Selfoss
- Rugged hiking trail to Selfoss (more fun for kids)
- Great view of the canyon from the parking lot
- Unpaved road to get here
- Small parking lot that fills up early
- No bathrooms
- Rugged hiking trail to Selfoss (a negative if you prefer an easy, leisurely walk)
If you can visit both sides, it’s absolutely worth it. However, if you only have time for one, and you can get here by 10:30 am, the west side is the best side, in my opinion. You get better views of both waterfalls with less water spray.
If you are planning a visit to Dettifoss and Selfoss and have any questions, comment below. If you have seen Dettifoss and Selfoss, which side is better, the east side or the west side?
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