There’s no official nickname for hardcore Game of Thrones fans, but a common joke is to simply call them “masochists.” I suppose that label fits me both as a fan and as a person attempting to visit Iceland’s Thrones filming locations without a guide.
SPOILERS AHEAD, so if you’re one of those stubborn people that for some reason has refused to watch the single most popular and critically acclaimed show in television history because “meh…dragons…” stop now, get over yourself, go catch up with the rest of the world, and read this when you’re done!
ARYA’S WATERFALL – Gjain Valley
(GPS: 64.149043, -19.736546)
Gjain is often overlooked by tourists since it’s a bit tough to get to. But as the World’s Biggest Arya Stark Fan I was determined to find the spot where Arya practices her “water dancing,” and is schooled by the Hound on the value of “armor and a big f*cking sword.”
Your options for getting to Gjain are either a 17km dirt road or an 8km dirt road on opposite sides of a mountain. We were traveling in winter, so the longer (but most direct) route was marked with signs that read “Impassable!” Icelanders do not screw around when it comes to passable roads, so we drove to the second route, but it was also marked “Impassable!”
We took our chances. This was ARYA’S WATERFALL!
Some snow had drifted down from the mountain and blocked sections of the road, so we had to put our faith in the engineers who built our 4×4, and we told the God of Death “not today.” Our pulse rates went up at one or two points as the wheels spun through some snow banks…but somehow we made it.
From the parking lot we descended on foot into the valley, which not only features Arya’s Waterfall, but a series of other waterfalls, lava tubes, and basalt columns. It was 360 degrees of classic Icelandic beauty. Even if you’re not a fan of the show (WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU???) it’s well worth the trouble to visit and soak in the serenity.
And, of course, I got my official “water dancing” photo…
YGRITTE’S ROCK – Svinafellsjokull Glacier
(GPS: 64.009150, -16.884065)
The Skaftafell area is home to impressive glaciers, gorgeous hiking trails, spectacular waterfalls…and a small mossy rock. But it happens to be the small mossy rock where Jon Snow and Ygritte first met!
Just east of the Skaftafell visitor center, there’s a dirt road that leads to a small parking area, and from there you can hike alongside the Svinafellsjokull glacier. Being able to walk so close to a glacier without any special gear or guides is already a novelty, but this trail is also where the Night’s Watch set upon a group of wildlings in season two.
Others have done a much better job of pinpointing the actual location of the specific rock where Jon held down Ygritte, but when we started our hike we weren’t getting internet service, so the website I had open on my phone wasn’t loading, and we therefore weren’t able to follow the directions.
We took photos with half a dozen OTHER rocks, hoping that we’d capture the right one. But we didn’t get it (and my wife has since used this as a major point of ridicule). The correct rock is small and covered in moss and not too far up the trail.
We did SEE the rock. We just didn’t take a photo of it. Either way, it was still cool to know we were in the right location, and to recognize elements of the glacier landscape where the Night’s Watch gave the wildlings chase and where an epic romance was born.
JON AND YGRITTE’S CAVE (BUT NOT REALLY) – Grjotagja Cave
(GPS: 65.627200, -16.882961)
So many Game of Thrones location guides will tell you that the Grjotagja cave is where Jon and Ygritte first “got acquainted.” But they’re wrong.
The Jon and Ygritte cave scene from season three was actually filmed on a sound stage. Theoretically, the scene was INSPIRED by Grjotagja, but when you see it you quickly realize that not only does it look completely different but it could also never accommodate a full camera and production crew.
On top of that, the water is geothermally heated to somewhere around 113 degrees. To put that in perspective, the maximum legal temperature for a hot tub in the U.S. is 104 degrees, and at 116 degrees your skin will burn after 20 minutes of exposure. So there was no way Jon and Ygritte would be able to splash around so cavalierly in water that hot.
But I still attempted to take a dip.
The cave is easily found off the main road, with two separate entrances. Just look for the big cracks and climb on down. We arrived just as a tourist bus was leaving so we had the place to ourselves, and it is just as gorgeous as we’d expected.
A handful of tourists pointed out a separate entrance to a different section of the cave a bit further down the path. They had taken their towels there with the intention of swimming, but I guess they changed their minds when they felt how hot it actually was.
I found a spot to take off my shoes and slowly stick my toes in. Instantly my body recoiled: DANGER. DANGER. DANGER. It took at least 15 minutes for me to slowly acclimate my feet to the water. Once they were submerged, even the slightest movement would cause pain as the thermoreceptors in my skin were reawakened. I managed to wade up to my ankles, at which point I decided that I’d sufficiently experienced the water at Grjotagja. As the warning signs at the entrance had tried to tell me: it’s way too hot.
WILDLING CAMP – Hofdi Pillars
(GPS: 65.571416, -16.949001)
The dramatic lava fields of Dimmuborgir are often credited as the filming location for the wildling camp in season three and the exterior shots of Jon and Ygritte’s cave. But yet again, we’re being lied to.
The actual location of the wildling camp is the Hofdi lava pillars, just three minutes down the road from Dimmuborgir. They’re immediately visible from the road and easily accessible from one of two parking areas. We got out and framed up some lovely photos of ourselves with the pillars in the background and then took some time to walk among the pillars and appreciate not only their natural beauty but their place in Thrones history.
Except those aren’t the actual pillars.
After returning from our trip, I re-watched the scenes supposedly shot at Hofdi and realized that we had aimed our camera at the wrong spot. I can’t say for certain, but I’m pretty sure the show was actually shot just a little further up the dirt road that leads to the second parking lot. We saw pillars in that direction as we were leaving, but we didn’t have time to check them out. We had spent too much time at the pillars that WEREN’T on the show.
Oh well. Maybe we’ll get it right next time we’re on a road trip through northern Iceland…
THE BLOODY GATE – Thingvellir National Park
(GPS: 64.270490, -21.110567)
Thingvellir is just over a half hour outside of Reykjavik and is one of the top tourist destinations in Iceland thanks to its unique geological landscape and the fact that it’s home to the Silfra fissure, a spot where you can swim between tectonic plates.
It also happens to be the filming location of the “Bloody Gate”—the road leading to the Eyrie. As Littlefinger explains in season four, the narrow ravine leading to the castle provides a strategic advantage: no matter the size of your army, they’re easy pickings when forced to march single-file with the Knights of the Vale firing arrows from the cliffs above.Our morning began in darkness since the sun doesn’t rise in winter until well after 9:30am. We saw a sign for one of the park’s waterfalls and thought we might be at the top of the “Bloody Gate” ravine, so we pulled over and opened our car doors. The wind YANKED the door out of my hand and hyperextended it with a squeal.
But aside from that, this location visit was a success story. The park’s visitor center gave us a map and circled the Bloody Gate location on it, and we soon found a hiking trail leading to where that majestic CGI castle stood. Even without the green screens and digital enhancements, the landscape itself is enough to fill one with awe. And it’s recognizable enough to shout, “Who would pass the Bloody Gate?” and to respond, “The Bloody Hound” to yourself and then giggle.
Even if you can’t quite find the right rock or lava pillar, the unique scenery found at every turn throughout Iceland will immediately transport you into the world of Game of Thrones. You’ll have a rewarding adventure either way, just keep this guide handy so you don’t get too lost beyond the Wall.