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Dettifoss – Europe’s Most Powerful Waterfall

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During our three months in Iceland, we saw a lot of waterfalls. Gullfoss, Dynjandi, Hraunfoss, Goðafoss, Seljalandsfoss, Svartifoss, Glymur and many more. But we couldn’t claim to have adequately covered the waterfalls of Iceland until visiting Dettifoss, the largest and most powerful in Europe.

Dettifoss Waterfall

It was raining when we parked our car and set out across a well-worn trail through the snow. After about ten minutes of hiking, the roar of the waterfall could be heard, but it took another ten minutes before the Jökulsá River came into view. Soon, we were standing speechless before Dettifoss. Crashing down a cliff 45 meters wide, the churning gray water is breathtaking, its sheer power and volume almost unbelievable. The glaciers of Iceland are huge, but still, it’s inconceivable that they can generate this much water.

You can approach Dettifoss from either side of the river. The views are supposed to be better from the east, but since that road was closed by snow, we were forced to take the western route. About a kilometer further upstream, there’s another waterfall called Selfoss. Far less powerful than Dettifoss, but even more picturesque.

Dettifoss is perhaps most famous for its appearance at the end of 2012’s hit film Prometheus. Ridley Scott used the waterfall and its otherworldly landscape to represent a nascent planet still being formed. Excellent location scouting. The unbridled, transformative power of Dettifoss is something to behold.

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October 28, 2013 at 6:27 pm Comment (1)

Goðafoss – The Waterfall of the Gods

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Goðafoss, the Waterfall of the Gods, is found just off the ring road near Akureyri. Although this makes it an easy stop for tour buses, don’t let the threat of crowds keep you away from one of northern Iceland’s most impressive natural sights.

Goðafoss picked up its name in the year 1000, after Iceland converted to Christianity. To demonstrate his adherence to the new faith, a local chieftain named Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði carried his pagan idols to the top of the waterfall and threw them into the churning void below. A bold break with the past, and I imagine Þorgeir held his breath for a while afterward, just in case the old gods weren’t so obsolete after all.

We were visiting early in the morning and the road from Akureyri had been almost completely free of traffic, so I was astounded by the crowd which had already gathered at Goðafoss. There were two big buses and at least ten other cars in the parking lot. The crowd definitely detracted from the experience, especially since a surprising number of them were misbehaving. I saw three different people throw their cigarette butts into the falls. Unbelievable!

To help mitigate my rage, I told myself that they must have a reason for the cigarette-tossing. Maybe they’re giving up smoking! Maybe they’re following the example of old Þorgeir, when he embraced Christianity, and instead of casting off their obsolete pagan idols, they’re throwing away their final cigarettes. A fantasy, I know, but it did help lessen my anger. A little.

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October 20, 2013 at 4:20 pm Comments (3)

Deildartunguhver and Hraunfoss

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On either side of Reykholt are two remarkable water-related sights. Measured by the volume of water produced, Deildartunguhver is the largest hot spring in Europe. And Hraunfoss, or the “Lava Field Waterfall”, is precisely as strange as its name implies.


At Deildartunguhver, a massive amount of water super-heated at 97°C (207°F) is continuously pumped out of a terrifying crack that has opened in the earth. The spring is powerful enough to supply the hot water needs of both Borgarnes (34 kilometers away) and Akranes (64 km).

We were visiting on an extremely windy morning, when the billows of steam produced by the springs were being blown straight across the ground. Half-expecting to have my face melted off, I stood briefly inside one of the steam clouds. Stinky and hot, but survivable. Deildartunguhver is not an especially beautiful sight, but witnessing the sheer, seething power of the earth is undeniably impressive. And a little scary.

Hraunfoss Wasserfall

We were touring the region without our own transport, which proved tricky since there’s only a single bus serving the area daily, but the friendly folks at the Fosshotel Reykholt helped us arrange a trip out to the Hraunfoss Waterfall. Here, the Hvitá River which comes thundering down from the glaciers is joined by countless tributaries hidden underneath the lava fields to the north.

The water streaming out of the porous walls of lava and crashing into the river makes for an oddly beautiful sight. Hraunfoss isn’t the most powerful waterfall we’d seen in Iceland, but is among the most unique.

Locations on our Map: Deildartunguhver | Hraunfoss

Great Hotel near both sights!

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September 26, 2013 at 5:54 pm Comment (1)

Three Waterfalls of Southern Iceland

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“Don’t go chasing waterfalls”. Words of advice from TLC, the greatest American girl group of the 1990s. No doubt it’s a catchy refrain, but what a terrible message! Why should three women who achieved their own dreams dissuade their fans from “chasing waterfalls”? To stick to the rivers that they’re used to? I suspect T-Boz and co. were trying to nip future competition in the bud. And it’s not just bad advice on a metaphorical level. As we’ve discovered in Iceland, waterfall-chasing can be very rewarding indeed.

Svartifoss Travel

We read that the Hallgrímskirkja had been inspired by Iceland’s geography, but until gazing upon Svartifoss, we didn’t understand how literal the inspiration had been. The church’s architect reversed the color scheme from black to white, but otherwise Mother Nature has a solid case for copyright infringement.

The “Black Falls” are found in the Skaftafell National Park. The park itself is one of these massive Icelandic places where you could hike for days through valleys and across glaciers without seeing another soul. So it’s merciful that the park’s best waterfall is just a couple kilometers from the entrance. Svartifoss isn’t especially powerful but, with a backdrop of pitch-black basalt columns arranged behind the water like a curtain, it’s absolutely gorgeous.

Skógarfoss Iceland Photos

A rectangular sheet of water which falls straight down for 60 meters and produces an awe-inspiring splash, Skógarfoss might be the most classic “waterfall” we’ve ever seen. Most waterfalls are like, you tell a group of five-year-olds to draw a circle, and their sketches are basically correct, definitely “circles” in the general sense of the word. But then little Julie turns in this absolutely perfect circle, and you’re vaguely unsettled. Skógarfoss is like that. Almost creepy in its perfection, just like that weird little Julie.

Waterfall Panorama

Even more impressive than Skógarfoss or Svartifoss, is Seljalandsfoss, found just twenty minutes west of Skógar. This massive cascade is visible from the ring road, not far off from Reykjavík, so it’s a sure bet that every single tour bus will be making a stop. The first time we visited was at the end of a very long day tour, when our guide gave us all of fifteen minutes to fight past the other groups and briefly bask in the waterfall’s glory.

The second time was a lot more fun. We had our own transport, were with friends, and arrived at around 10pm. The hour was late, but the Icelandic summer sun was still out, and we had the entire waterfall to ourselves. Seljalandsfoss is incredibly loud and drops directly into a deep pool, producing a thick sheet of spray. But the best part is the path which loops around behind the waterfall, allowing you to view it from every angle.

Locations on Our Map: Svartifoss | Skógarfoss | Seljalandsfoss

We visited these waterfalls as part of the Glacier Lagoon Tour and one by renting a car from SADcars

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August 19, 2013 at 5:40 pm Comments (6)

The Mighty Waterfall of Gullfoss

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Arguably the most impressive sight along Iceland’s Golden Circle is the enormously powerful double-stepped waterfall known as Gullfoss (Golden Falls). Here, the Hývtá River’s journey through the highlands comes to a magnificent end as it drops over 100 feet into the canyon below.

Rainbow Gullfoss

From afar, the breadth and force of Gullfoss are awe-inspiring enough, but it isn’t until reaching the ledge of the viewing platform that you can see the full scale of the waterfall. After the initial descent of 36 feet, the river takes a sharp right and immediately crashes down another 69 feet. This secondary waterfall is obscured from view until you’re close up, and turns Gullfoss into something extraordinary.

Normally, we tend to thank celestial powers for magnificent natural wonders, but in Gullfoss’s case, we can extend at least part of our gratitude to a fellow human. Sigríður Tómasdóttir was raised on a nearby farm, and loved the waterfall as she would a family member. In the early 20th century, foreign investors discovered Gullfoss and won permission to construct a dam on it. But they found a stubborn and bitter opponent in Sigríður. In order to raise awareness of the threat to the waterfall, she walked barefoot from Gullfoss to Reykjavík and even threatened to commit suicide by throwing herself into the churning water. Thanks largely to her persistence, the investors eventually backed away from the project.

In truth, she sounds like a nutter, but we should all be appreciative of Sigríður’s reckless selflessness. Gullfoss is an amazing display of nature’s power, and it would have been a shame to have lost it.

Location on our Iceland Map

We toured the Golden Circle with a car from SADcars, located near the BSÍ bus station. They’ve got some of the cheapest rentals available in Iceland.

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August 15, 2013 at 11:53 am Comments (5)

Þingvellir – The Historic Heart of Iceland

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Reykjavík may be the capital, but the rift valley of Þingvellir (pronounced “thing-vet-lir”) is the true heart of Iceland. Over a thousand years ago, the country’s first parliaments were convened here, adding historical significance to an area of unbelievable natural beauty.

Nomansland Iceland

Þingvellir lies right along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the North American and European continental plates are pulling apart from each other. It’s unlikely that the 10th-century Icelandic councilmen understood tectonic theory when they selected Þingvellir for their yearly assembly, the Alþing, but they couldn’t have chosen a more impressive setting, nor one more symbolic. This is, after all, the spot where Iceland is literally growing.

Our short walk through the park began at the lookout near the visitor center, where we had a great view over the valley. Not far off, we saw the Þingvallavatn Lake (Iceland’s largest), lava cliffs, and narrow rifts like scars scratched across the earth. As the plates drift apart, the rifts are becoming bigger and, standing here, you can almost see the growth happening. It leaves you with a very vivid sense of the earth’s instability.

From the lookout, a path leads down into the Almannagjá gorge, marking the eastern edge of the North American continental plate. We walked along the canyon wall until reaching the Öxaráfoss waterfall. During the days of the Vikings, the Öxará river was redirected here, so that it would splash down into the canyon near the Alþing and provide drinking water for participants.

Þingvellir Waterfall

From Öxaráfoss, we left the cliff and went further into the valley until our progress was blocked by the fissures which have opened in the earth. With amazingly clear blue water filtered through miles of lavastone, you want to jump right in… and in fact, you can. It was inside one of these fissures that we had recently been snorkeling.

Our path now led to the Þingvallakirkja Church. Although the present wooden building was only erected in 1859, this has always been one of Iceland’s oldest and most important churches. While there’s not much to see inside, the front yard is occupied by a lovely cemetery and, around back, you’ll find an elevated, circular grave which houses the bones of two of the country’s favorite poets.

Þingvellir is the first stop on the “Golden Circle” tour and we left the park immediately after visiting the church, in order to have time for Geysir and Gullfoss. Þingvellir has a lot to reward a longer stay, with plenty of hiking trails and opportunities to fish, dive or go horseback riding. It’s fascinating for both its unique geology and its history. And on top of that, it’s simply a beautiful place.

Location on our Iceland Map

We booked our rental car from SADcars for this trip!

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August 14, 2013 at 2:21 pm Comments (5)

Hiking around the Western Snæfellsness, Part 2

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Our excursion into the Snæfellsjökull National Park was the first big hike we’d embarked on in Iceland, and was an incredible introduction to the country’s nature. By the early afternoon, we had already seen an old Irish well, an amazing crater and a lava-field. But the second part of our day would prove to be even more action-packed.

Snekkjufoss Waterfall
Snæfellsjökull, always in the distance, led us on

A long walk from the Saxhóll Crater brought us to its sibling, Rauðhóll, which we circled along a nicely-marked path. Circumnavigating the crater took about an hour, and the scenery was stunning. Here, unlike at Saxhóll, the vegetation has largely returned. We were all alone, within sight of both the sea and the Snæfellsjökull Glacier, and fell completely under the landscape’s spell. I don’t think we talked at all. It would have been wrong to interrupt the natural, silent harmony by blurting out some idiocy like “Gosh, this sure is pretty!”

We continued up a dirt track in the direction of the glacier until reaching two waterfalls: Klukkufoss and Snekkjufoss. Both were lovely. Smaller Klukkufoss fell over basalt columns, while Snekkjufoss thundered into the valley. The river powering through Snekkjufoss was fed by the Snæfellsjökull Glacier. A shining white beacon always visible on the horizon, the glacier was our companion throughout the day.

After the two waterfalls, we hiked up the third and final crater of the day, Sjónarhóll, and enjoyed an unparalleled view of the valley. A field of lava stretched out in front of us, Hellissandur and the beautiful Ingjaldshóll Church were visible in the distance, while the Atlantic Ocean claimed the horizon beyond.

Now we had the task of getting back to our tent at Hellissandur. It was already late in the day, so we chanced a shortcut along an unmarked trail past Burfell Mountain. Note: when a trail in Iceland is described as “unmarked”, that’s exactly what it means! There was neither track nor stake to lead the way, and so we just kept heading north, up and down huge hills, over agonizingly bumpy terrain, past concerned-looking sheep, and across rivers which started small but were becoming unnervingly larger as we distanced ourselves from the glacier.

Eventually, it had to happen. At the foot of Burfell, we found ourselves ringed in by uncrossable rivers. The summer’s glacial run-off was in full swing and these rivers, which on the map looked like tiny streams, were raging. We followed the tamest river east, downstream, searching for a fordable spot, only to encounter another river joining in from the south. And now we were completely hemmed in, and had to move south, 180° opposite of our goal.

Crossing Rivers Iceland

After an hour of hiking in the wrong direction, we found a relatively shallow spot, and stripped down to our undies. At this point, we had been going for thirteen hours, so the freezing water was actually a helpful way to revive. It took another hour before reaching the coastal road. We weren’t anywhere close to our campsite, but a road means cars, means transportation, means hitchhiking. Luckily, hitchhiking in Iceland isn’t just safe and convenient, but can be a real life-saver. We were picked up by the very first car which passed.

In all, we had walked over twenty miles. Way more than planned. We managed to get our tent erected, then collapsed into our sleeping bags. The next morning, we awoke in utter agony, but the experience was worth the pain. Snæfellsnes is home to some seriously amazing nature, and this hike introduced us to a lot of it.

Locations on our map: Rauðhóll | Klukkufoss | Snekkjufoss | Snæfellsjökull

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August 9, 2013 at 5:44 pm Comment (1)
Dettifoss - Europe's Most Powerful Waterfall During our three months in Iceland, we saw a lot of waterfalls. Gullfoss, Dynjandi, Hraunfoss, Goafoss, Seljalandsfoss, Svartifoss, Glymur and many more. But we couldn't claim to have adequately covered the waterfalls of Iceland until visiting Dettifoss, the largest and most powerful in Europe.
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