Guide to Iceland

Goðafoss

While traveling around Iceland’s ‘Diamond Circle’, one of the last major stops before heading back to Reykjavik is the beautiful northern port city of Akureyri - Known as Iceland’s “Northern Capital” the city was a welcome respite after countless hours of driving through northern Iceland.

Coincidentally we happened to be travelling through Iceland at the same time as when the 2018 World Cup was being held and the Icelandic national team had earned a spot for the first time in its history. It was somewhat of a cultural thing for me as I’m from Canada and the whole football / soccer thing never really interested me. I find its to be a far too dramatic sport. The collective attention of the Icelandic people however was focused solely on the World Cup.

We knew that Iceland had a relatively small population, especially compared to what we’re used to living in Taiwan, but when almost half of the country had packed up and left for Russia, the small town of almost 20,000 seemed eerily empty.

Nevertheless Akureyri is a picturesque harbour-side city surrounded by mountains and the ocean and compared to the capital, has a much better system of urban planning, which means getting around is a lot less confusing for tourists.

Our accommodations in town were stunning and included a geothermal jacuzzi which was much appreciated after driving hundreds of kilometres from the rather desolate area where we stayed near Dettifoss.

Another highlight was having access to a nice supermarket where we picked up some fresh juice, Icelandic craft beer, fresh bread and more supplies for the road.

Due to time constraints we hadn’t planned many stops for the last leg of our trip between Akureyri and Reykjavik, so just before arriving in Akureyri we more or less made our final stop along the Diamond Circle at yet another waterfall, but not just any waterfall - The Waterfall of the Gods.

With a name like that, who wouldn’t want to stop and check it out?

Godafoss

Goðafoss as it is known locally just so happens to be one of the most spectacular and well-known waterfalls in Iceland. Even though it is not as large, wide or powerful as all of the others it is certainly one of the most beautiful and that is true for every season.

There’s a reason why the waterfall is known as the “Waterfall of the Gods” but before I get into that I think I should talk about its physical attributes:

Godafoss is a 12 meter high, 30 meter wide set of cascading falls, similar to Canada’s Niagara Falls.

The water flows from the river Skjálfandafljót, one of Iceland’s longest rivers. Originating from the Vatnajökull Glacier, the river also happens to be the water source for several other waterfalls including Hrafnabjargafoss, Aldeyjarfoss, Barnafoss and Ullarfoss.

During the summer the area around the waterfall is lush with green grass which reflects in the colour of the water. In the winter the area is usually covered in snow, the falls may freeze and if you’re lucky you can see the Aurora Borealis in the night sky.

The waterfall is attractive year round and when I visited it was really beautiful.

However I would have loved to have the opportunity to watch the Northern Lights at the same time.

So how does it get its name?

Well, like a lot of things in Iceland, it has to do with a bit of a legend. Whether or not the story is true is up for debate, but in Iceland it is widely accepted as fact as it is chronicled in the Íslendingabók (Book of Icelanders), a 12th Century work that tells the early history of human settlement in Iceland.

The first people to settle in Iceland were Norwegian explorers, more commonly known as the Vikings. When they settled on the island they brought with them their culture and their old Norse religion which consisted of deities like Thor, Odin, Loki, etc.

No, not the superheroes that you’ve seen in the movies.

As Christianity spread throughout Europe, societies that practiced what was considered “pagan” religions were often forcibly converted. The Christianity of a thousand years ago was much different than it is today, no one bothered with slogans like “God is Love” to convert people - The good word was spread primarily by the sword.

By the time the Icelandic Commonwealth was established in 930AD, pressure to make Christianity the official state religion became an issue as Norway threatened to invade if the people of Iceland didn’t conform.

Around the year 1000AD, when the annual meeting of the parliament met at Þingvellir, it was decided that for the good of the people, Christianity would become the state religion with the caveat that pagans could still practice in private.

That decision was placed on the shoulders of an “Ásatrú” priest (or goði) named Thorgeir Ljosvetningagodi Thorkelsson who was said to have spent days meditating and praying to the Old Gods before it was clear what path would be taken. When the decision was made to make Christianity the official state religion Thorkelsson returned home to the north of Iceland where he tossed his idols of the Norse Gods into a beautiful waterfall.

Since then that waterfall has been named Goðafoss.

Photography

Like most other destinations in Iceland there are a few things you’ll want to take into consideration if you’re planning on visiting and taking photos at this waterfall.

Similar to Dettifoss, the last waterfall you’re likely to have seen before this one, there are two different sides to view Godafoss from. In this case however getting to either side doesn’t take an much time - You’ll just have to get in your car, cross a bridge and park at another parking lot to enjoy the view from the other bank.

Unfortunately due to the amount of people that visit, you’ll probably want to find a spot to set up your tripod away from the wooden platform - The problem with the platform is that when people walk it creates a shake which will ruin your long exposure shots.

To solve this problem you can walk a bit further past the waterfall onto the grass bank for a bit more stability. Likewise you could also consider taking the path down to water level.

If you do take the path down to water level though, you’ll be confronted with a whole new set of issues with the amount of spray and mist that will cloud up your lens. In this case you’ll need to bring something to safely wipe down your lens with between shots.

Most of the shots I’m sharing here today were taken on an overcast and somewhat dreary day with a wide-angle lens and an ND filter attached. The shots are a range of long exposures that are anywhere between 2-10 seconds each.

If you don’t have an ND Filter on-hand it is important that you know how to manually control your camera if you’re looking to take photos similar to these. You may be able to get up to around one second exposures if the light is right.

To do this you’ll want to ensure that your ISO is as low as possible. Preferably at ISO 100. You’ll also want to have your exposure set to -1 or -2 so that your shot won’t be blown out.

Take some test shots and play with the settings to find out what’s best and then have fun!

If you visit during the summer and want long exposure shots like the ones here, I highly recommend investing in a Natural Density filter for your lens. However if you visit during the winter when there isn’t much light, you could get away without one.

If you visit in winter you’re going to be in luck because it’s likely that you’ll have the added bonus of the Northern Lights overhead. You won’t need lens filters for taking photos of the waterfall and the Northern Lights, but you’re definitely going to need a tripod, a remote control (or cable shutter release) and a lens capable of f/2.8 apertures.

For a handy introduction on how to shoot the Northern Lights click this link - Northern Lights Photography Settings

Getting There

 

Godafoss is located in northern Iceland along the Ring Road that circles the country.

Situated along the ‘Diamond Circle’ sightseeing route it is about a 53 kilometre (45 minute) drive from the northern city of Akureyri.

If you’ve first travelled south along the Diamond Circle and made your way north, the waterfall is about a 50km drive west of Lake Mývatn or the town of Húsavík.

In both cases you will drive along Road N.1 which is the highway that circles the country. The waterfall is a simple stop along the road and there will be adequate signage on both sides that notify travellers that you’re approaching the falls.

If you’ve decided that you’re not going to bother renting a car while visiting Iceland, you’re going to have to rely on public transportation or tour groups to get to where you want to go. There are tours out of the capital offered by tour groups like Reykjavik Excursions or Arctic Adventures which offer tourists access to several different destinations. It is important to remember that if you want to book a tour that you should do so well in advance as the seats on the daily tours tend to fill up quickly.

There are public buses that run between Akureyri, Myvatn and Egilsstadir that you may want to consider but you should know in advance that these buses don’t come that often, so you may get stuck waiting around for quite a while which is probably not the wisest way to use your time in Iceland. 

Bus Link: SBA-Norðurleid route 62 and 62A.

As one of the highlights of any travellers trip through Northern Iceland, Godafoss is one of those must-visit locations when you’re in the area. The waterfall is beautiful all year long but even though it is one of Iceland’s most popular destinations, it is rarely packed with people. If you visit, make sure to check out both sides of the fall and enjoy the beautiful scenery. Likewise if you are in Iceland during the winter months, try to visit a bit later at night so that you can not only enjoy the waterfall but the beautiful Northern Lights as well.


Hengifoss

You’ve made it this far? Congratulations. Most of the tourists who visit Iceland tend to either turn around and head back to Reykjavík after checking out the Golden Circle or after travelling as far as the south coast to see the world-renowned Black Beach and Glacier Lagoon.

I’m guessing that if you’re here looking for information about Hengifoss, you’ve probably decided to spend a bit more time in Iceland, completing what has become known as the “Diamond Circle.”

If so, you’re made the right decision - Iceland deserves a lot more time than the average tourist is able to invest and if you complete the Diamond Circle, you’ll be rewarded for your decision with amazing waterfalls, the beautiful Lake Myvatn, Hverfjall Mountain, hot spring resorts and much, much more.

Once you’ve made it past the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, you’ll have officially made it further than a large percentage of travellers. Your next stop along the road is likely the be southern-most city of Hofn to rest and stock up on supplies for your drive along the western coast of the country.

For most travellers, the first major destination along the eastern coast will be the waterfall known as Hengifoss - or the “Hanging Falls”, which is one of the prettiest waterfalls in the country and is also situated on one of Iceland’s most popular hiking trails.

Hengifoss

Regarded as one of the highest waterfalls in the country, Hengifoss is also one of the most beautiful thanks to the very unique nature of the environment that surrounds it.

The water, which originates from a plateau above descends 128 meters into a beautiful gorge that flows further down the mountain and eventually meets with Lake Lagarfljot.

What makes Hengifoss stand out though is not its height - it is considered either the second or third highest waterfall in the country - nor the amount of water that flows from the top. It’s uniqueness is thanks to the spectacularly coloured layers of strata in the gorge which brilliantly displays the age of this waterfall and of Iceland itself.

The different layers, some of which date back to the Tertiary Period display the various stages of Iceland’s geological development through the shifting of tectonic plates and volcanic eruptions. - all of which have molded the island into the ever-changing landmass that it is today.

Most notable are the eye-catching layers of red clay which are fossilized trunks of coniferous trees which are between two to sixty million years old.

The different layers of strata are beautifully lined up making the red layers of clay and the black layers of basalt look like naturally designed stripes with a waterfall conveniently in the centre.

Although the waterfall is among the highest in the country, it certainly doesn’t seem like it when you’re standing nearby as the flow of water isn’t comparable to what you’ve likely already seen at Gullfoss.

That shouldn’t matter though - You should be visiting this one more for the spectacular display of our planet’s geological history with the added bonus of a giant waterfall.

Another reason why Hengifoss stands out from the other waterfalls that you will have visited on your trip is that it isn’t located directly next to a road or the highway. In fact, if you plan on visiting this waterfall you should know that you’re going to have to be prepared for a bit of a hike.

The hike, which is roughly a two hour round trip is a beautiful one with great views of Lake Lagarfljot flanked by snow-capped mountains to your rear with mountains and Hengifoss easily visible all the way along the trail.

It suppose the hike could be considered a bit steep in some spots, so if you plan on visiting, be prepared for a bit of a workout. Never fear though, even though the hike takes around two hours, the trail is well-maintained by local authorities and the path is easy to navigate.

I should probably also mention that even though most people are hiking to see Hengifoss, you’re also going to walk past the beautiful Litlanesfoss waterfall as well!

Two waterfalls for the price of one! (Admission is free by the way).

Litlanesfoss Waterfall, like the larger waterfall upstream is also quite notable thanks to its special geological features. Unfortunately it tends to be overshadowed by the much larger Hengifoss.

The waterfall is considerably smaller at around only 40 meters in height, but is known for its beautiful columns of basalt rock that resemble a naturally formed staircase - a larger version of what you probably saw at the Black Sand Beach earlier in your travels.

The reason why this pretty waterfall is so easily overshadowed is because it is generally just a short stop along the trail. It is situated deep in a gorge and you can’t get close enough to it like you can with Hengifoss.

After you finish checking out Litlanesfoss, you’ll round a slope on the mountain and Hengifoss will start to appear in the distance. Once you get close enough you will notice signs that warn visitors not to get too close.

Some people obviously continue to walk further up the river stream to get as close to the falls as they can.

It is important to remember though that you are pretty much in the middle of no where and if you have an accident, it is going to take a bit of time before someone comes to rescue you. Don’t put yourself in unnecessary danger.

In truth, I hiked up a bit further than was permitted and set up my tripod in the middle of the river to take photos of the waterfall. I didn’t really walk that far though and I tried to put myself in a spot where I wouldn’t be ruining other people’s photos.

I have seen claims that there is a cave behind the waterfall that you can walk into - if you want to get in the cave though you’re going to have to do a bit of dangerous river tracing while climbing over massive rocks and you’re going to have to be prepared to get wet.

Most tourists don’t come prepared for this kind of adventure - and I don’t recommend you even attempt it if you don’t have the proper gear and a tour guide that knows the area.

Safety is the most important consideration when you’re travelling, so don’t do anything too dangerous and remember that Iceland is an incredibly expensive place to traveil. I doubt you’ll want to break the bank on an emergency helicopter ride back to a Reykjavik hospital.

Getting There

 

Ok, so I’m going to really recommend you learn from my mistake here. There are two different routes that will bring you to Hengifoss.

Google Maps will present you with two different routes to get to Hengifoss - One of the routes will take you along the coastal highway to the town of Egilsstadir and then you’ll backtrack along the massive Lake Lagarfljot before arriving at the parking lot for the hike.

It will also present you with a route that will take you in-land through the mountains.

DO NOT TAKE THE ROUTE THROUGH THE MOUNTAINS!

The road is completely washed out and is in a state of extreme disrepair. It will probably also cause a bit of damage to your rental car. Learn from me. I promise, you’ll appreciate the advice.

Follow Route One from Hofn all the way to Egilsstadir and then transfer to Route 95 and continue south.

You’ll arrive at the parking lot about half an hour later and your car will still be in pretty good shape!

Hengifoss is one of the highest waterfalls in Iceland but as I’ve mentioned above, its unique geological features somewhat overshadow the height of the falls. If you are travelling through the eastern-coast of Iceland and this waterfall is not on your itinerary you are definitely missing out. Don’t let a bit of exercise scare you away from seeing one of the prettiest waterfalls in a country that is…. full of waterfalls.