Nautagil Hike – The Real NASA Training Ground

The circular hike from Dreki to Drekagil Gorge in the Highlands of Iceland explores the lava and rocks ejected from Askja in 1875 as well as other eruptions in the area. A large number of crater types can be seen across the landscape as well as exploring the aptly name Bull Canyon at Nautagil. The walk then follows the narrow river back to Dreki.

Everywhere you go in Iceland you are told it is where they prepared for the Apollo moon landings. It seems to be a more prevalent story on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and Golden Circle. However it isn’t until you get to Dreki in the Highlands that the story becomes reality.

NASA in Iceland

Each summer a camp is set up at Dreki on the lower slopes of Askja volcano. However this isn’t a normal camp for pleasure. These campers are scientists from NASA who are still utilising the landscape to prepare for space exploration. This time it is to prepare a robotic space explorer for the 2020 trip to Mars.

An annual sunset walk lead by NASA shows where, how and why Dreki, Askja, Lambahraun lava field and Nautagil is still used for their training. This is an annual event run by the rangers from the centre at Dreki. It is totally free and hard work taking over three hours of walking across rough ground before a final walk along the river as the sun skims the horizon back to the camp.

Early on in the planning for the space expeditions it was realised that if any valid geological research material was to come back to earth the astronauts needed to know what they were looking at and what would be useful to scientists back on earth. So, as part of their training they were taken to Dreki to work in a hostile, unknown environment for a geology crash course. The landscape in Dreki was believed to be the closest to the moon providing invaluable experiences for the astronauts.

The trail can be completed without a guide during the summer months and is clearly marked from Dreki.


Starting the Trail

The trail begins on the far side of the river from the campsite and heads along the edge of the hillside. The trail is clearly marked and undulates along the hillside. In places the edge is sheer with the path being narrow. It is quite hard going as it is made up of loose volcanic ash. A strange size somewhere between sand and small gravel.

The views back towards dreki with the vast and empty lava fields are stunning. There are numerous different craters dotted across the landscape and as they sunlight catches them they appear to glow. The route into Dreki can be seen and the true scale is immense.

Ash layers

Following the ash path along the slopes mounds of lava are natural obstructions that need to be navigated. Their variety is amazing from puffy pillow effects to gloppy areas of flow as well as sharp rocks spewed out under pressure.

During the multiple eruptions of Mount Askja ash and lava has built up in stunning patterns and layers.

As time passes the harsh cold winters and extreme weather has eroded the surface to reveal patterns, a story of the volcanoes past exposed for those who take the time to explore.

These can be seen as the trail curves round just before dropping down into the canyon.

Bull Canyon at Nautagil

After the layers of ash, the trail starts to head down to the river and the road beyond. Take time to look over the edge into the canyon from above before following the trail down. Just before the final drop down to the river the path splits. The right hand fork has towering cliffs and leads into the canyon.
At sunset the canyon is dark, but the white pebbles that form the floor lift the light slightly. These light stones tumble down the sides of the canyon making it feel narrower than it really is.

The sides tower above the canyon floor and the contrast of red rock against the white is dramatic.

After exploring the canyon follow the trail down to the river and either follow the river or the road back to Dreki and the mountain huts.

Photography Notes

The walk from Dreki to Nautagil provides spectacular landscape views across the Lambahraun lava field. The small volcanoes that are dotted around can be identified although the flat landscape makes it difficult to provide a focal point.

Bull Canyon is deep with sheer sides coated in white pumice stones. This makes exposure quiet difficult and shooting with a negative exposure compensation setting will assist in getting the pumice as well as the canyon walls properly exposed. The canyon faces north east and catches sunlight in the morning, but by the evening is in total shade.

As always the details are worth exploring. The rocks are not just white but every shade of grey in the canyon and on the path from Dreki there is deep red as well as black lava and pumice. There are also fantastic layers of ash which show each explosion as a compression layer within the rocks.

Nautagil Hike Details

Distance: 6km
Minimum time: 3 hours
Ascent: 185m
Start and Finish: Dreki Campsite
Road: F910
Parking: 65.04227°N, 16.59499°W
Nearest Town: None within 4 hours drive


Getting to Nautagil

Nautagil is located a short distance from Dreki in the Icelandic Highlands. It is reached from Route 1 along F910 or F905 (F88 should be avoided whatever the sat nav says!) and then a walk along the marked trail that initially follows the far side of the small river away from Drekagil. The circular walk takes about 3 hours with the final stretch either following the river or the road back to Dreki. If time is limited road F910 continues from Dreki and there is a small parking area directly across the river from Nautagil.


Other Places Nearby

  • Dreki and Drekagil Gorge – The canyon here is deep with a river at the base. The mountain rangers are based here with huts and a campsite
  • Askja Caldera and Askja Víti – The large caldera from the volcano now has a large lake and smaller geothermal blast crater perfect for swimming in the right conditions

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