Driving to Askja Caldera in Iceland in our weathered 4X4 involved crossing rivers, sliding through deep sand and zig-zagging over lava fields. An amazing 4WD adventure.


The cloud hangs low to the ground. A monochrome scene of gravel and rock makes the drive to Askja Caldera look black and white. Boulders appear to be growing in size and frequency. We’ve been driving for over an hour and my concentration is at personal best levels. It needs to be. One momentary lapse – letting my mind drift off in order to take in this incredible scenery – and we could be facing a hefty repair bill from the damage this road could do to our rental car.

So, we press on, conversation long since paused to allow me to concentrate on the obstacles before us and Mark to mentally prepare for our first river crossing.

We had been wanting to make this journey to Askja Caldera across Iceland’s infamous mountain roads since we arrived in the country, but with the worst summer weather for 100 years, timing is everything. After asking a few locals for advice and getting a casual shrug rather than a concerned frown, we decided today is as good as any.

After 45 min, the F905 mountain road continues to stretch out before us. The main obstacles between us and Askja Caldera are yet to cross our path. A few small streams, freshly created form all the rain this area has seen over the last couple of months, curve around boulders on the road. These impromptu streams, quickly growing in size, increase our anxiety levels as we anticipate how swollen the actual river crossings have become.

WHAT IS ASKJA CALDERA?

Our destination today – Askja Caldera – is the finest example of a subsidence caldera in Iceland. The circular crater was formed when a lava chamber just under the surface of the earth emptied in a volcanic eruption. A series of further eruptions over the centuries created a striking crater with Öskjuvatn lake – an 11 sq km body of brilliant blue water – sitting firmly in its clutches. Beside the lake is the milky white geothermal waters of Viti. This impressive force of nature is a worthy destination for an adventurous Iceland day trip.

But this day is more than just the destination. Driving to Askja Caldera is the real experience. Rocky, unkempt roads, tricky river crossings, deep black sand, jagged lava fields and weather that’s closing in quicker than we can progress. Driving to Askja is an adventurous travellers dream. A landscape well and truly off the beaten track.

We’re 1.5 hours into our drive and the intermittent drizzle is slowing our progress. Steaming lava fields scar the earth beside the track and our first river crossing is looming over us. Unsure if our 4×4 will make it through, we get some immediate comfort in the form of another 4×4 similar to ours heading in the opposite direction.

We flag them down and ask them if they have any advice for us. Their response of a shrug and “well, we’re through” was not the kind of ringing endorsement we were hoping for. Sensing our apprehension, they awkwardly tell us how easy it is and how we’ll be fine.

Taking this artificial feedback, we allow our mood to be lifted as we leave the F905 for the much trickier F910 and pull up at our first river crossing.

TRICKY RIVER CROSSINGS ON THE F910

With the rain persisting, we get out of our 4X4 and inspect our first river crossing. We stand at its shores, inspecting the flow. It’s much wider than I was expecting and moving quite quickly. The edges are rippled; where water and rock meet. The centre is smooth but flowing.

We had strict advice that you shouldn’t cross a river deeper than ¾ of your tyre but looking across our obstacle, it’s hard to tell how deep it is. Turning around would be a defeat; we’d miss Askja Caldera and the rest of the drive. Getting stuck in the river would also be a defeat, but of a more financial kind.

We decide that the ripples in the water are telling us that it’s shallow enough to pass. After encouraging ourselves with our new found river intuition, we get back in the car.

I put the car in first gear and aim for our predetermined shallow section. We were told to go slow through rivers but not to hesitate. What does that mean exactly? I drive slowly through – holding my breath the whole time – and our car handles it like a piece of cake. The water was about a third of the way up the tyres but nothing our mid-sized 4×4 couldn’t handle.

Five minutes later we are at the second river crossing. This is shallower, slower, more sedate. Being experienced fjord crossers now, we don’t even bother check. I drive through – without hesitation – and we give ourselves a huge cheer.

TWISTING THROUGH LAVA FIELDS & VOLCANIC SAND

Now past the river crossings, the F910 deteriorates significantly. Our speed slows as we zig zag left and right dodging large boulders across the lava field. Smaller rocks just bounce under the car as I’ve long since given up trying to avoid them all.

After the second of two bridges the rocks subside, replaced by large swathes of deep sand stretching out in front of us like trails of quicksand. Tyre tracks about a foot-deep show signs of previous survivors. The car slides left and then right, where I point the wheel has little impact. Stopping is not an option, so I continue at a steady speed meandering through the sand.

The dust from our wheels rises high into the air behind us, defying the rain that’s trying to push it back down. The road in front of us is nothing more than a faint etching in the sand. I’m not even sure if I’m on it.

Rising out of the murk comes the ranger’s information centre at Dreki. Turning right we begin the last leg of the drive up to Askja Caldera. We twist and turn through newer lava fields; jagged black rock and folded magma looks like it dried just days ago.

Finally, after 2 hours 45 minutes of bumping and jolting we arrive at our destination.

HIKING TO VITI CRATER

There are a number of well-marked trails in the area, but with the rain falling solidly and the cloud low we take the short walk (marked A1) from the car park to the caldera rim.

The 2.5 km trail heading south across the black gravel takes about 40 minutes. It’s a bleak scene as we trudge through gravel then slippery mud, our heads hang low to avoid the driving rain.

As we approach the rim, the Askja caldera and Oskuvatn lake unfolds before us and the geo-thermal waters of Viti appear, strangely tucked into the corner of the much larger caldera. The waters are a milky bluey white in a perfect inverted cone. In this rain, we decide not to go for a swim. The walk down the muddy steep path would be very tricky anyway.

DRIVING BACK WITH WATER RISING

Back in the car we start making our way out of the highlands and back to the tourist-friendly Ring Road. The return journey was much the same: bouncy roads, deep sand, lava fields and giant boulders. But one thing was different: with persistent rain throughout the day, the rivers seemed much deeper.

The water is closer to ¾ the height of our tyres on our return. Our 4×4 seems to strain a little harder to make it across, the steering less responsive, the engine gives an unwelcome groan. Without hesitation, we press on through the river.

We both breathe a collective sigh of relief as we rise on the bank at the other side.

Getting off the Ring Road and tackling some of the mountain roads in Iceland reminds you of one thing. Nature is in control here. Conditions in the highlands can change quickly, literally in the space of a couple of hours. While we made it through without any problems, you’re very much at the mercy of nature out here.

Safely back in our accommodation nursing a hot chocolate we ask each other if driving out to Askja Caldera is worth it.

The answer is probably not. At least not today anyway. It was wet, miserable and visibility was poor. After such a long and challenging drive, it would have been nice to walk around an enjoy it all for a few hours. But tired and frayed, walking in driving rain just didn’t appeal.

But asking if Askja Caldera was worth it is asking the wrong question. Was the experience of driving through the Icelandic highlands worth it? Of crossing rivers or water and sand? Of driving through steaming lava fields? Of bouncing along a makeshift mountain road? The answer, absolutely.


MORE READING

For a similar day trip in Iceland, although not quite as adventurous, read about our day in Kerlingarfjöll. Read our about page for more about how we like to travel.


THE DETAILS/ HOW TO DRIVE TO ASKJA CALDERA

Driving to Askja Caldera from the north east can be done via the F88 or the F910. Both are mountain roads and are only open during the summer months once the snows have melted, usually from the end of June or early July until late September / early October. 2WD rental cars are not allowed on mountain roads, so you must have a 4X4. We had a Suzuki Vitara which is considered a mid-sized 4X4 by car rental companies.

Normally, the F88 is a much trickier route with a much larger river crossing. If you are an inexperienced 4X4 driver, it is advised that you take the F910. The F910 has two river crossings, just south of the F905/F910 junction. The difficulty of these river crossings change depending on the conditions and the time of day.

We were inexperienced 4X4 drivers with a mid-sized 4×4, but we did not have any problems making the river crossings on the day of our visit. Having said that, the river was higher in the afternoon, after the glacial rivers had melted and light rain had fallen throughout the day.

There are two bridges on the F910, with gates on them. Just open the gates, drive through and close them behind you.

Driving to Askja Caldera took us 2 hours and 45 minutes one way (5 hours 30 there and back). The river crossings are near the beginning of the drive, so if you decide not to chance them, there are plenty of things to do in the nearby Mývatn area for the rest of day.

TIPS FOR CROSSING RIVERS IN A 4X4

The biggest challenge driving to Askja Caldera was crossing the rivers on the F910. Although 4×4 rental cars are insured for mountain roads they are NOT insured for river crossings. Making a mistake could be a very costly affair. Here are some tips to help you get across.

Get help /Before leaving, check the road conditions online and ask locals for advice. As you make your way to the crossings ask vehicles coming the other way for advice.

Set off early /Glacial rivers are usually lower in the morning than the afternoon so you want to get started as early as possible to cross when its easiest.

Scout the river /Do not try to cross a river where the water is higher than three-quarters of the height of the wheels of your 4X4. Cross the river where it is shallower, often where there are ripples and not where it looks calmer and therefore deeper. The best route is often marked by the tyre tracks of other cars. If the route is unclear it is usually better to start upstream and head diagonally across the river. If unsure wait for someone else.

Slow & Steady /Before entering the river put vehicle in manual in a low gear and drive slowly (5kph) but steadily along the easiest route. Do not change gears or stop.

Coming Back /When returning by the same route do not just rush across the river without checking. Rain and glacial melt will increase the challenge. The rivers were considerably higher on the way back than they were on the way. Take your time and scout them again.

Further useful information is available here.

TIPS BEFORE YOU GO TO ASKJA CALDERA

Askja Caldera is in a remote part of Iceland with few facilities so it’s important to be prepared for your journey. Here are some tips before you head off:

  1. Allow 8 to 10 hours for the whole day trip including the drive to Askja Caldera, hiking to Viti Crater and driving back again. Leave as early as possible.
  2. Always leave with a full tank of petrol. There are no petrol stations on this route and running out is not something you want to worry about. We used about half a tank to get there and back.
  3. Take enough food and water with you for the whole day. There is no food available on route.
  4. Check weather conditions and pack warm clothes, waterproofs and hiking boots. The highlands are colder than the coast and the weather can change quickly. It was 4 degrees when we were there in the middle of summer.
  5. Download google maps for the area onto your phone. Your GPS will work even if you do not have data. It can be invaluable for tracking your drive to Askja and when you are hiking if the cloud comes down.
  6. Tell someone where you are heading, ask them about local road difficulties, and make sure you know your rental company breakdown and Iceland road safety phone numbers.
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BUS AND TOURS TO ASKJA CALDERA IN ICELAND

If driving to Askja is not for you but you want to see the sights then you will have to join a tour, as there is no scheduled bus. Tours generally run from late June to early September.

Basic bus tours start about 23,000 Kr (US $230) per person, rising to super-jeep tours at around 34,900 Kr (US $350) per person. The price of getting to Askja Caldera on a tour was one of the main reasons we hired a 4X4 on our trip to Iceland.

Although prices are not directly comparable because if the river water levels are high you may not be able to complete your journey in your own 4X4, whereas you will in a super-jeep. Furthermore, some super-jeep tours also go to the recently created Holuhraun lava field.

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