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Waterfalls and Glaciers: Hengifoss to Dettifoss

On Saturday we had more things on our itinerary than we could possibly accomplish so we were strongly motivated to get out of Egilsstaðir early. Unfortunately once the car was completely packed we realized we were missing Ian's hoodie. This might not seem like a serious problem but we had packed light and the only other option for outdoor activities was his winter coat. It was also a good quality item that hadn't been worn until this trip. We scoured our cabin and then unloaded all the bags and opened them but it was nowhere to be found. Finally we went back to the restaurant where we'd had dinner the previous night but it wasn't there either. By the time we gave up on finding it we'd lost a half hour and were fighting off a bad mood. Soon after we got on the road, however, our exasperation dissipated as we found ourselves driving along the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes I have ever seen. Lagarfljót is a long, skinny lake that doesn't get a lot of tourist traffic despite being the largest lake in East Iceland. It's best known for abutting Hallormsstaður, Iceland's largest forest, and possibly hosting a sea monster. Driving along the eastern shore of the lake was an epiphany as the road approached the water's edge and we could see how faithfully the mirrored surface reproduced the colorful landscape and cloudy sky. We couldn't resist the temptation to pull off the road and absorb the sight. On closer inspection we saw that by some refractory property of the surface the details were blurred slightly, almost as if an impressionist had painted the reflection of the landscape on a giant canvas spread across the ground.
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My research had told me that there was an extraordinary buffet restaurant close to the road so we took the turn off for Hótel Hallormsstaður to fuel ourselves for the hike that lay ahead. The clusters of birch trees that we passed through felt incongruous after a week of seeing nothing but grass and scrub on the Icelandic landscape. The Lauf buffet restaurant inside the hotel lived up to expectations and we ate vigorously while looking out over the forest and the far side of the lake.
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The trailhead for Hengifoss was on the opposite side of Lagarfljót but there was a convenient causeway that traversed the lake. We had already seen several of Iceland's famous waterfalls but we had learned there was a lot more to appreciate than just falling water. Each one had been unique in the combination of height, forcefulness, and setting. Of course, half the fun of a waterfall that was at the end of a trail was the task of getting there. This one began with a long climb up a hill alongside Hengifossárgil gorge.
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After a couple of sheep gates we reached an overlook with a spectacular view of what to me was the most amazing waterfall we had seen yet. The flow wasn't particularly powerful but the background was incredible. The river had cut a deep gash in the rock so the top of the waterfall was already halfway down the cliff, and it poured a long distance into a tranquil pool before flowing into the gorge. The upper walls of the chasm were lined with a remarkable display of basalt columns that looked like a colossal design project. This was actually Litlanesfoss, about two thirds of the way to the end of the trail where Hengifoss lies.
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We continued onward until we reached a bench with decent views of the final waterfall. Hengifoss was an attractive waterfall in its own right with a backdrop of layers of basalt separated by stripes of red sedimentary rock. Given that we were pressed for time we made a collective decision that we'd walked far enough and decided to turn our attention once again towards sustenance.
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After our buffet breakfast it was too early to sit down for a full lunch, but the Klausturkaffi cafe inside the historic home of Icelandic novelist Gunnar Gunnarsson was so renowned for its seafood soup and cake buffet that we had to make a stop. The 1930's mansion is quite beautiful and distinctive, constructed of dark basalt and white mortar with a lush and wellmaintained turf roof. We arrived just as the cafe was opening and had a piping hot tureen of seafood soup that was almost like a bouillabaisse in its richness, followed by a fluffy rhubarb pie. The cake buffet looked amazing but it would have been far too much to handle so soon after breakfast.
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We doubled back towards Egilsstaðir on the western shore of Lagarfljót and then took the Ring Road west to the turn off for Stuðlagil. This colorful canyon was revealed only after the Kárahnjúkar hydropower plant was brought into operation in 2009, diverting water from the Jökulsá á Brú and lowering its level dramatically. Even after ten years the canyon hasn't made it into the 2019 edition of the Lonely Planet so it was fortunate that I supplemented the guidebook with my own research. I did make one significant mistake that caused us to miss the experience of entering the canyon itself, which was in trusting one person who wrote that the hike into the canyon was four kilometers each way. That led me to choose the option of the viewing platform above the canyon which had a parking lot adjacent to it. Only once we were looking over the platform did we see another parking lot on the lower level much closer to the entry point that is accessible to any four wheel drive vehicle. One excellent resource where locals explain the different access points to the canyon is the reviews on Google Maps.

Although we didn't have to hike at all to get to the platform we did need to descend about a hundred stairs and of course ascend them on the way back. The basalt columns that line the canyon are truly amazing in their different curvatures, heights, and coloration. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to see something so beautiful even from a distance but it would certainly have been even more spectacular to have explored the bottom of the canyon.
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I made another mistake with our itinerary on the way to Mývatn, although we were largely able to recover from it. There was a heavy concentration of worthwhile sights about half an hour north of the Ring Road before arriving at Mývatn. I knew we wouldn't have time to see all of them before our early dinner and my plan was to see as much as we could and try to push back our dinner reservation if we wanted to. When we reached the turn-off that Google Maps had given us we encountered an interesting sign. Were the authorities trying to help us or were they tricking tourists out of the best experiences for their own nefarious reasons? We decided to put our trust in the local authorities over Google Maps.
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We drove up 862 instead of 864 and after about twenty minutes reached the turn-off to Dettifoss as promised. We learned that Dettifoss can be observed from either the east or west sides but there's no way to cross over without returning all the way to the Ring Road. People are divided about which side is the best. On the west, where we were, there's more spray and the view is partially obstructed unless you cross the barriers and get dangerously close to the edge. However the road is paved and well-maintained and the waterfall is still quite impressive. People also agree that the view of the Selfoss, the other waterfall close by, is better from the west. The road to the east is gravel and people say that flat tires and dents are quite common even with a four wheel drive. The area around the parking lot was very desolate and volcanic, even for Iceland. We followed a path through a lava field with stubby basalt columns towards the cloud of mist we could see arising from the gorge. After about a kilometer we found ourselves at the top of a path that descended to the edge of the most thunderous and terrifying waterfall I've ever seen.
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Dettifoss is known for being the most powerful waterfall in Iceland and the second most powerful in all of Europe. The river appeared foamy and angry even before the water burst over the edge in a cascade of grey and white loops. Invisible rocky projections blocked the downward flow in spots and added to the sense of chaos. The strongest human alive would have fared no better than an ant in that cataclysm. Even from a safe vantage point behind the rope the sheer ferocity of the waterfall was intimidating. We navigated our way to the highest viewing platform via a path that went perilously close to a ten foot drop-off. From here we could finally see where the sheets of water impacted the bottom of the chasm. We could also see people on the opposite side who had clambered down to the slippery basalt above the gorge for a closer look. There was no barrier whatsoever and it was hard to believe that no one ever plunged to their deaths from that precarious spot.
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We doubled back towards the parking lot and then took a path about half a kilometer upstream to Selfoss. This waterfall shares its name with the town we stayed in on the first night, despite the fact that they are in completely different parts of the country and there's no waterfall in the town. The distinguishing feature of Selfoss is the way the basalt columns separate the water flow into individual streams, but the waterfall isn't very high and I don't think most people would drive out of their way for it if they weren't already going to Dettifoss.
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The restaurant declined to move back our reservation which turned out to be a good thing as an extra hour and a half would not have been enough time to visit the next spot on our itinerary. We returned to the Ring Road and drove another half hour en route to Mývatn, the most well-known lake in northern Iceland.

Posted by zzlangerhans 03:01 Archived in Iceland Tagged iceland family_travel travel_blog family_travel_blog lagarfljot Comments (0)

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