East of the Mývatn region in northern Iceland, you'll come across Dimmuborgir, a sprawling field of lava rock formations. Visit it once—or even just scroll through some photos online—and it won't surprise you to learn that this area is full of folklore. Dimmuborgir is a popular hiking spot that can often be full of tour buses. Lucky for everyone, the area is large enough to find a few moments of peace and quiet away from the crowds.
Dimmuborgir was created more than 2,300 years ago when a nearby eruption sent lava spewing into the air to land all across what we now know as the Mývatn area. The lava rock formations in Dimmuborgir are unlike any others you'll see in the country. This is because they were formed in a very specific way. As lava flowed across the land during the eruption, it came across a lake. When the lava met the water, the liquid began to boil while simultaneously cooling the lava down quickly. As this happened, pillars of steam shot through some of the lava. These pillars can still be seen as the massive formations of lava rock and caves in the Dimmuborgir area.
In terms of folklore, the tale of the Yule Lads incorporates Dimmuborgir in a huge way. According to legend, the area is home to the 13 trolls—the sons of Grýla (a half-troll, half-ogre) and her husband Leppalúði—called the Yule Lads. The Yule Lads would harass Icelanders on the 13 days leading up to Christmas, each brother having his favorite form of torture ranging from Skyr-Gobbler's tendency to steal and lick home's supplies of skyr, to Sheep-Colt Clod's habit of stealing livestock.
Grýla's pet cat also makes an appearance in Icelandic folklore as the Yule Cat. This cat is said to prowl the countryside during Christmastime, eating anyone who hasn't received new clothes by Christmas Eve.
How to Get There
As mentioned before, Dimmuborgir is located past the Mývatn region and is quite a drive from Reykjavik (about six hours). It's closer to Akureyri, which is just over an hour drive from the city. Dimmuborgir is located near the town of Reykjahlíð. From here, you'll follow the Ring Road along the south shore of Lake Mývatn for about 3 miles (5 kilometers). From the road, you will see a sign directing you to Dimmuborgir. Turn here and drive approximately one mile (1.5 kilometers) before hitting the parking lot.
What to See
You may recognize this site as the area where Mance Raider housed the wildling army in "Game of Thrones." The main attraction here are the very scenes that were showcased in that episode: massive, haphazard stacks of lava rocks. Walking through this field is like entering another world. Everywhere you look, there are caves, moss-covered stones, and the feeling that something could be hiding just around the corner.
There are six marked hiking trails ranging from 15 minutes to three hours: Small Circle (15 minutes; 0.35 miles / 570 meters), Big Circle (20 minutes; 0.52 miles / 840 meters), Church Circle (1 hour; 1.4 miles / 2.3 kilometers), The Crooked Path (2 hours; 1.2 miles / 2 kilometers), The Mellond Circle (2 hours; 2.1 miles / 3.4 kilometers), and Dimmyborgir-Hverfjall-Storgja (3 hours; 5 miles / 8 kilometers).
There is a restaurant and restroom facility located just off of the parking lot. Please note that the restrooms do cost a small fee to use.
You're definitely going to want to visit this area early. At midday, it can become congested with bus tours and hoards of tourists that are hard to escape. If you do find yourself there during the busiest time of the day, opt for the blue hiking trail which takes you through the center of the lava field. The path is marked as difficult, which dissuades some from giving it a try.
If you do take on the more difficult or longer trails, make sure you are an experienced hiker in relatively good health. The longer trails take you over rocks and through some areas where twisting an ankle or tripping is a real danger. Make sure to hike with friends if you're nervous about this kind of thing.