Waterfalls

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. 


Skaftafell National Park

Iceland is probably best known as home to some of the most spectacular waterfalls on the planet, but the country does have much more to offer to tourists than just waterfalls. There are a multitude of other attractions and things to see and do when you’re in the country and if your trip doesn’t include a visit to one of the nations massive glaciers, you’ve really missed out on a golden opportunity.

Given the fact that glaciers occupy at least 11% of the total land area of Iceland, glacial tourism has become a popular attraction in recent years. A simple Google search yields hundreds of results from the many tour operators who offer packages that include glacial hikes, ice climbing, snowmobile adventures, ice cave tours, etc. etc. etc.

To be frank though, these tours tend to break the bank in how expensive they are. Likewise, if you haven’t planned your trip well in advance, its unlikely that you’ll be lucky enough to reserve a spot on one of the tours after you’ve already arrived in the country.

That being said, even if you don’t join a tour, you can still see some of Iceland’s massive glaciers up close and personal during your travels.

Iceland’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull is one of the most popular glaciers for tourists, especially with adventure tour groups but also offers quite a few attractions for individual tourists to enjoy.

In this post, I’m going to focus on the glacier and the two beautiful waterfalls situated within Skafatafell National Park.

Skaftafell / Vatnajokull National Park

Skaftafell, in Southern Iceland has been classified as a protected area since 1967 and is considered to have an environment resembling what you’d see in the ‘Swiss Alps’ with mountains, glaciers, rivers, a wealth of flora and fauna and a temperate climate that is somewhat uncommon for the area.

The National Park was at that time Iceland’s largest environmental preservation area covering a massive 5000 square kilometres. In 2008 however it got even bigger when it was combined to form the “Vatnajökull National Park”, which is the second largest national park in Europe covering around 14,000 km2, or around 14% of Iceland’s total land area.

Taking into consideration the sheer size of the newly formed National Park, it was decided that it would be divided into four geographic territories that would be locally operated and maintained to ensure that they could offer the best environmental protection and services to the public.

The southern area, located in Skaftafell has a large visitor centre where guests can learn about the local environment and is also where most tour groups will start their tours of the area. The visitor centre also provides facilities for campers which includes a camp ground, toilets, washing machines, an on-site restaurant as well as free walking tours arranged by the park rangers.

While you won’t find many roads through the park, there are several well-maintained hiking trails. Some of which will allow for great views of the Svinafellsjokull Glacier while others transport you up the mountain to check out the Hundafoss and Svartifoss waterfalls.

The hiking trails in the park range in difficulty and length with the shortest being five kilometres while the others are much more time consuming and range between 16 - 20 kilometres each.

Link: Hiking in Skaftafell, Vatnajokull National Park

Unfortunately it seems like a lot of people just pass through Skaftafell on their way to the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon and completely miss out on the glacier and the waterfalls in the park. If you have the time, it is highly recommended to stop by the park for at least an afternoon and do the hike to the two waterfalls as well as the short walk to the glacier from the visitor centre.

If you’re camping, you’ll definitely want to set up camp in the park for the night. I can’t imagine a better camp ground to spend the night.

Svínafellsjökull Glacier

Svínafellsjökull is one of thirty outlet glaciers originating from Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap in Europe.

Situated in the valley between two steep mountains, the glacier is about 10 kilometres in length and estimated to be about two kilometres at its thickest.

As with most glacier tongues, a glacial lagoon has formed at the base of Svinafellsjokull thanks to the constant activity and melting of the glacier. The water in the lagoon appears to be dark brown in colour, but isn’t polluted - it is actually this colour because of the mixture of glacial water with black ash deposits which were collected over many thousands of years of volcanic eruptions.

In the lake you’ll likely notice some beautiful icebergs floating by - while it is an exciting and unique experience to see something like this, it is also a bit sad when you realize that after thousands of years of being a part of the glacier, they are now floating to their death in the lagoon.

Don’t let the little icebergs get you down though, the fact is that the glacier is in a constant state of motion and even though parts of it are floating away, it is constantly replenishing itself with fresh glacial ice.

Part of the magic of visiting a glacial mouth like this is that you get to observe up close the activity taking place at the glacier - It may not seem that apparent when watching from a distance but you will most certainly be able to hear the constant cracks taking place.

The glacier is a short walk from the Skaftafell Visitor Centre and should probably only take you about 10-20 minutes to arrive at the lagoon. Depending on the conditions at the lagoon (and the time of year that you visit) you may be able to get quite close to the glacier or not at all.

In the past tours of Svínafellsjökull were offered with experienced guides - In recent years though, due to the instability of the mountains on either side of the glacier, the tours have mostly shifted to the nearby Falljökull glacier outlet instead.

Still, the experience of visiting Svínafellsjökull is a highly recommended one - Especially if your trip to Iceland doesn’t include a group tour of a glacier. You’ll want to see one of these magnificent forces of nature up close while you have the chance!

Hundafoss and Svartifoss

Once you’ve finished checking out the glacier, you’re probably going to want to set out on the short hike nearby to check out the national park’s waterfalls.

Svartifoss is regarded as one of the most unique waterfalls in Iceland and for that reason it is a popular destination - So popular that people are actually willing to hike the five and a half kilometre route to see it.

You might be thinking - Five and a half kilometres? That’s it? - And you’d be right to think so, but when you’re travelling in Iceland you’ll quickly learn that most of the destinations you’re going to visit are nothing but a short walk from a car park on the side of the road.

The hike to the waterfalls starts out steep but rest assured it eventually flattens out and is actually more of a brisk walk than an actual hike.

After about ten or twenty minutes you’ll start to hear the sound of rushing water - This will be your first indication that you’re getting close to the first waterfall, Hundafoss.

Admittedly, for most people Hundafoss is just an extra treat on the trail to the more important destination - I’d argue though that if you don’t stop to enjoy this waterfall, you are really missing out.

Visitors are able to enjoy views of the waterfall on either side of the gorge as well as being able to walk right up to the top of the falls and look over.

Although when I did that it gave me a bit of vertigo when I looked straight down.

Hundafoss is about 24 meters in height with a flow of water that varies between the summer and winter months. In the summer months you may find that foliage blocks a bit of your view, especially on the viewing platform constructed by the park authorities. In winter on the other hand the views of the waterfall are much more impressive, especially if the waterfall is frozen.

Personally, I had no problem setting up my tripod to get photos of the waterfall on the platform provided. Once I crossed the river I also hiked down the trail for a few minutes to where there is a natural platform and a short trail that leads to the top of the falls.  

Once you’ve finished checking out Hundafoss, you’re about halfway to your final stop.

After hiking for another ten or twenty minutes, Svartifoss will eventually start to come into your line of sight. Even though you can see the waterfall from quite a distance away you’ll still have to complete the hike and descend into the river valley.

If there is snow on the ground you’re going to want to be careful walking on the trail in case you run into a patch of slippery ice.

Once you’ve arrived at Svartifoss you’ll notice that there is a platform set up by the park authorities that allows visitors to get a pretty good view of the waterfall.

The platform however is positioned a bit to the right of the falls and doesn’t allow for a front-on view.

Even though there is a small gate with a warning sign not to pass by it seems like most people ignore it and hop over to get a bit closer to the waterfall to take their pretty photos.

The gate is likely there primarily to protect the natural environment rather than tourists, so if you are hopping over, be sure to be careful but more importantly try not to destroy the place.

What makes Svartifoss, or the “Black Falls” so unique is not the flow of water, but the beautiful wall of basalt rock columns that the waterfall is rushing over the 20 meter crescent-shaped drop.

The columns of basalt rocks are something that you might have already seen when you visited the Reynisfjara “Black Beach.” Here though they are put on display as a naturally layered wall of columns that almost makes it hard to believe that it was formed naturally and not carved by hand.

Some have compared the hexagonal columns on the rock wall to the pipes of a giant church organ, so it shouldn’t be surprising to know that the architects who designed Reykjavík’s most famous landmark, the Hallgrímskirkja church, looked to Svartifoss for inspiration!

Hallgrímskirkja - Can you see the resemblance?

Obviously it goes without saying that what you’re going to see at the waterfall will vary by season. During the summer months the area is known for its lush greenery with moss growing on the jagged rocks around the river. In winter on the other hand, the waterfall and the river tends to freeze and there is often snow on the ground.

Even though I visited in summer, I would have really enjoyed the winter view a little more. The colours would have been much more contrasting with the black rock and the white snow.

Maybe I’ll have to take another trip back to Iceland!

Getting There

 

Skaftafell National Park is located 327 km (203 miles) from the capital city of Reykjavik. If you are driving directly from the capital it should take you about four hours to arrive.

Most people however will take several days to travel the Golden Circle and then make their way to the south of the country to visit the Black Beach, Skaftafell and Jokulsarlon.

If you are driving, simply follow the ring road (Route #1) until you reach the park.

When you are nearing the national park there will be lots of signage that will tell you when to make a turn.

If you’ve decided that you’re not going to bother renting a car while visiting Iceland, you’ll have to rely on public transportation to get around. There are tours out of the capital offered by tour groups like Reykjavik Excursions which offer tourists access to several different stops. 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.

During winter your options for public transportation are limited, so you’ll want to reserve your seats early.

Likewise, if you are booking a glacier tour from any of the tour operators, you’ll likely be able to find an option that includes round-trip transportation from Reykjavik.

If you’re traveling through the south of Iceland, you’re definitely going to want to stop at the Skaftafell National Park for a few hours. If the glacier isn’t enough to attract your interest, there is also one of the most unique and beautiful waterfalls in the country. You’re sure to have a great time enjoying nature in this park and I’m sure that if you’re camping, a night spent in this park might be one of the best you’ll have in your travels!