A Travellerspoint blog

Waterfalls and Glaciers: Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss

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With Vestmannaeyjar behind us, I wondered if we had possibly peaked too early. Could anything compete with the exhilaration of topping Eldfell and gazing at the entire volcanic island of Heimaey laid out before us? Little did I know we were about to embark on two days of driving through some of the most beautiful landscape either of us had ever seen on a route filled with adventures.

Once we were reunited with our car on the mainland, we returned to the Ring Road where we immediately encountered our first waterfall of the trip. Seljalandsfoss is one of the most visited and photographed waterfalls in Iceland. It isn't the tallest or most forceful, but the water separates into sheets of droplets halfway down the cliff in a way that's perfect for generating rainbows. In addition there's a footpath behind the waterfall that gives the visit a pleasant interactive element as long as one is willing to get a little wet.

Only a small fraction of visitors to Seljalandsfoss make it to Gljúfrabúi, another waterfall just a short walk away. This "hidden waterfall" is largely enclosed within a small cavern. It's absolutely worth getting damp one more time to see the streams of water falling into the cave from a source obscured by bright sunlight.

We had barely enough time to check into our hotel before our eight o'clock dinner reservation. Despite the unassuming name of "The Garage", this turned out to be the most impressive accommodation of our entire trip. The hotel sat at the base of a tall cliff with a waterfall of its own and was surrounded by horse pastures. Our hosts were a genial married couple who offered us freshly-baked bread and showed us to a very large and comfortable bedroom. They had warned us in advance that there was no restaurant at the hotel so I had arranged to have dinner at the Hotel Anna nearby. This restaurant had a warm, countryside atmosphere and the food was as good as we had enjoyed anywhere thus far on the trip. Our waiter was particularly friendly and we had a little talk about traveling with children while I was paying the bill.

The restaurant was on a small semicircular offshoot of the Ring Road which it shared with a larger resort hotel and one of the typical Icelandic red-roofed churches. As we drove closer to the resort some of their horses strolled over to the fence, probably because they get treats from some of the passers by. We let the kids out to have a closer look at the horses, which were very amenable to being petted but probably disappointed that the kids had nothing to offer them except handfuls of grass. Fortunately they ignored the buttercups Cleo was pushing towards them because as I found out later they are actually poisonous to horses.

At the other end of the road was something that really fascinated us. We could see a deep gash in the hillside behind the houses that looked like the mouth of a canyon. We dedicated ourselves to reaching it and after several dead ends we eventually found a cluster of cabins that seemed like they were very close to our goal. I saw the opening to a path through a thicket marked with a wooden sign with a picture of a hiker and the word "Gongulei". A short distance down the path I came to the mouth of the canyon which was absolutely beautiful. I could see the trail led up to a footbridge which spanned the creek that had carved the canyon. I didn't want to keep going since it was late and everyone else was waiting in the car, but I decided this would probably be a fantastic way to kick off our adventures the next day.

In the morning we asked our hosts about the canyon, but they didn't seem familiar with it despite the fact it was just a five minute drive away. I told them about the "Gongulei" sign and they smiled wryly. Apparently gongulei means "trail" in Icelandic. We packed the car and had a solid buffet breakfast at the riding resort, then drove back to the trailhead at the nameless canyon. This time we all got out together and clambered up the riverbank to the footbridge. Looking deeper into the canyon there was no sign whatsoever that the human race had ever existed. It felt as though we had been transported back to prehistoric times or to a fantasy world populated only with elves and trolls.

The path continued up the steep hillside on the other side of the bridge. The kids navigated the trail without much difficulty but as we continued to ascend through the wet grass I began feeling more uneasy. The cliffs along the riverbank were nothing compared to others we had seen in Iceland but they were still at least ten feet high around the bridge. They might as well have been a hundred feet high as far as safety was concerned. If one of the kids slipped could he roll all the way down the hillside and over the cliff into the river? It seemed unlikely, but was I willing to bet my kids' lives on it? I wasn't about to do that. Mei Ling was strolling around the hill obliviously shooting pictures while I pondered our next move. Just then a black dog bounded up the hill from the bridge with his tail wagging furiously. He made a beeline for the kids who rewarded him with vigorous petting. Meanwhile I had decided that we had enough adventures ahead that it wasn't necessary to risk anyone's life on this particular unknown trail. The hillside seemed three times steeper and slicker on the way down that it had been coming up and I felt a little bit of vertigo as I maintained a position between the kids and the cliffs at all times. We made it back across the bridge safely and wistfully bade farewell to Gongulei Canyon, still unexplored. If anyone wants to have a beautiful canyon all to themselves they can find it here.

Soon after we began our onward journey we saw a small parking area by the side of the highway that was almost full. I was starting to realize that this was a good way to pick up on interesting sights that I'd missed in my research. We could see a large monolith of volcanic rock standing alone in the flat expanse of grass that fronted the coastal mountains. Small stone and wooden houses had been built into the base of the rock. This was Drangurinn, thought to have been a home to elves that cared for the cows of local farmers when they were giving birth. From the side the rock had a completely different shape due to its thinness, and on the far side was a little slope that was a dense garden of all the wild plants we had seen on our journey thus far.

Our next destination was as crowded as the canyon had been solitary. Skógafoss is a very powerful waterfall right by the Ring Road that is surrounded by verdant landscape. There's no trail behind the waterfall but it's still possible to get close enough to be drenched in spray.

Next to the waterfall is an enormous staircase that leads to a viewing platform at the top level where the Skógá River spills over the edge of the cliff. It doesn't look overwhelming from the ground but as the steps became taller our legs began to burn and our breathing became labored. Soon we were thankful for the chilly wind which cooled the sweat that was forming on our foreheads. Spenser surprised all of us by tearing off ahead. I kept expecting him to get exhausted and start complaining but he barely paused on his way to the top. forcing me to quicken my pace to prevent him from being alone at the upper level.

From the observation platform we had good views of the knobbly green hillsides with occasional clumps of grazing sheep. We decided to follow a paved trail heading inland along the river bank. We didn't know it at the time, but this was the beginning of the fifteen-mile Fimmvörduháls trail that continues all the way to the valley of Þórsmörk. We walked the trail for about half an hour and admired the changing contour of the river as it meandered through its shallow canyon on its way to the waterfall.

It was a good thing we had arisen early because despite the unplanned stops at the nameless canyon and Drangurinn we were still on schedule to be in Vik for a late lunch. There were still several important destinations on this day's busy itinerary.

Posted by zzlangerhans 01:25 Archived in Iceland

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