The Grand Canyon of the North
27-June 2007 to 29-June 2007:
We then continued on eastwards around the southern and eastern banks of Mývatn and then up the wider unpaved road on the east side of Jökulsá á Fjöllum. In one stretch of road at Mývatn, we heard things hitting the windshield as if there was a gravel rain or something. It turned out that we had driven through a cloud of midges! Good thing we weren't standing outside under such a swarm!
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Day 1: THE THEME OF THIS TRIP
After deciding not to do the Skinandi Waterfall hike based on yesterday's observations, we slept in and awoke to bitterly cold weather and threatening skies. As we were packing up and getting ready for breakfast, I looked out the window and noticed that the rear right tire (facing me) was flat. Seemed like the theme of this trip would be flat tires, especially since we just had one on the very last day in the Western New York leg of the trip.
So without further adieu, I bugged the owners of the guest house hoping I wouldn't be disturbing them or waking them up as it was still around 8am. Fortunately, Eline the hostess who answered the door was all smiles and gladly summoned Jon to help out. Jon used his tractor as the jack and changed in the full-sized spare in no time.
Upon looking at the flattened tire, he said, "That tire looks worn out."
When comparing the full-sized spare with the existing tires still on the Suzuki Vitara, it was like apples and oranges. The spare tire still had its deep treads while the remaining three tires looked like they could go at any time as well. Julie insisted that when we get to Akureyri later on today, we get in touch with Budget and demand the other tires get changed.
Anyways, I thanked the hosts for their help and then proceeded to have brekkie with Julie after packing up and loading up the car. The breakfast was the usual affair with bread (brauð), butter, and juices. When brekkie was over, it was time to leave. Jon had already left to do the farming chores, but I gave Eline one last goodbye in Icelandic and exchanged pleasantries (still in Icelandic) as she was thrilled that a foreigner was trying to learn the language (she's Dutch but lived in the country long enough to be fluent in Íslensku).
She was about to take a foursome of Dutch women for a horseback ride and I felt like I was putting on a show for everyone. I was a little embarrassed, but I was quite happy to get in some Icelandic practice at this time.
"Það er aldeilis!" Eline would exlaim. (translated to mean "That's impressive!")
"Nei," I would say.
"Jú," she'd retort back.
So with that, I said, "Takk og bless!" with a wave and a wide smile and was on my way.
And with that, we left a little after 10am and headed to Akureyri with a detour to Ketubjörg.
On the way to Ketubjörg, there was a moment when one Icelandic horse kept trotting in the middle of the unpaved road instead of going into the grass so we had to be patient with it. At least that left us with some photo ops of the beautiful Icelandic horse looking right at us.
It took a while to get to Ketubjörg, but we eventually got there about an hour and a half later at around 11:30am.
There was a signpost Ketubjörg, which was encouraging. It was overcast, windy, and bitterly cold. After going over the stile (some small steps traversing a wired fence), we were standing atop seaside cliffs overlooking some rough-looking seas as well as looking down at a waterfall diving right into a pile of rocks next to the ocean.
It was a picturesque sight and the birds flocking and flying about the area really added to the already wild atmosphere. Of course the frigid arctic winds (5 degrees Celsius not counting the wind chill factor) also kept our noses running and our bodies shivering.
We also had to be careful not to stray too close to the edges of these sheer cliffs because it would most certainly mean death from the straight force of impact on the sharp rocks and even the frigid waters if somehow the fall didn't finish the job.
At 12:15pm, we drove back towards the Ring Road but not before making an unexpected stop at a busy spot called Glaumbær where there were some turf farms. Unlike the Norwegian turf farms, these really looked like the ones you might expect hobbits to live in.
We didn't expect that this place was as busy as it was. In fact, we noticed there were a handful of tour buses so unbeknownst to us as we did our trip planning, this unexpected stop turned out to be one of those popular stops even though we had never heard of it before.
Since we had a little time on our side, we took our time to explore these farms a bit more. There was one that had an opening so we were able to peer in and see how it was basically a pretty run-of-the-mill shed. But I wonder how well this building would do if it sought out LEED certification.
Some of the turf farms actually looked a little modern despite some leftover barrels and wagon carts lying about on the premises.
At 1:45pm, we left Glaumbær and continued onwards as we finally got back to the Ring Road and followed it to Akureyri. Along the way, the highway weaved within valleys alongside glacial rivers and a few minor mountains.
As we were zooming by at 90km/h, there were several waterfalls that were visible from the road, but most of them lacked signposts or pullouts so we didn't stop form them. A particularly striking part of the drive got us into a wide idyllic sweeping U-shaped valley (Öxnadalur) flanked by jagged mountains. One of the peaks looked like it ended in a sharp point with a pair of smaller points on either side. It was probably the one thing we had the patience to stop for. We could've easily made several stops for waterfalls and valley views along the way.
We finally got to Akureyri late in the afternoon at 3:30pm, checked into another Hotel Edda (aka a school turned into summer hotel), then got in touch with an auto repair shop affiliated to Budget to try to rectify our tire situation. We met the contact who happened to be a young-looking Icelandic lady (possibly just out of school) at the airport and she had us follow her to an industrial wharf area where there was what looked to be an auto shop.
At the auto shop, the workers there couldn't believe we were given a vehicle with four worn tires. At first, I was worried I would have to pay for all four tires to be changed as that's what the lady (named Berta) initially told us, but she eventually got in touch with the Budget in Reykjavík and ultimately told us that we're not responsible for the tire changes.
As the tire changing took place, we chatted with Berta and one of the mechanics about various topics such as Icelanders having multiple jobs, the guy's car collection, his connection with Hrísey Island, and Akyreyri restaurants. Eventually, the car was ready by their closing time of 5pm and we could see right away that the tires were new and had treads on them (as they were supposed to in the first place).
And with that, we headed back into town to have dinner at a busy place called Greifinn, which was an LP recommendation). We had more fish as well as the salad and bread bar that came with it. After the dinner, we treated ourselves to a soft serve at a joint called Brynja's despite the chilly weather. For a place that was supposedly famous up in this part of the country, Julie didn't seem too impressed with it.
Anyways with things seemingly returning "normal," we kept our fingers crossed in the hopes that no other tire would go flat especially in remote places. We were fortunate to have our flat happen at the guesthouse in Hof í Vatnsdalur because it ironically might have been more difficult to get the ordeal rectified as fast as we did in Akureyri...
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Day 2: WHERE'S THE AKUREYRI SUN?
Even though it was cloudy and bitterly cold yesterday afternoon, I figured the Akureyri Sun would show up tomorrow given the changeable weather in the country. Well, when we awoke and looked out the window, we were disappointed to see continued cloudy skies. But no matter. I figured this would be good for waterfalling since cloudy weather usually means even lighting for long exposure photographs. So today, we set out to see as many waterfalls as we could before returning to Akureyri in the evening.
With our 7:30am start, we started out by going directly to Goðafoss (the God's waterfall). But on the way just before the turnoff to the desired waterfall, we saw a sign indicating the Sprengisandur Road (F26) and the way to Aldeyjarfoss some 41km away. Since this was also one of the falls we intended to bag, we figured we mind as well do this one now.
So we headed down the relatively smooth gravel road, which was mostly along the Skálfandafljót River cutting its way through a very wide and largely bare-looking desert with some green mats of grass adding some color to the otherwise brown and black terrain.
We'd eventually encounter a fence blocking further progress for the time being. It turned out that the fence was unlocked, but I had to get out of the car, open the fence, then drive through the gate before getting back out of the car to close the gate again.
It was just like at McLean Falls in New Zealand. Anyways, that signalled the start of the actual F26 section where we were greeted by a scary sign showing a car going into water with 4x4 text next to it. Needless to say, we had no intentions of crossing any rivers in our rental SUV especially with the size of the Skálfandafljót River paralleling the unpaved road we were on.
After a few minutes of bumpy driving, we ultimately made it to a car park amongst the barren black expanse at 8:45am. It was very cold the moment we got out of the car, but in this 5 degrees Celsius and drizzling weather, we walked for a few minutes downhill towards a precarious overlook of the thundering Aldeyarfoss waterfall. The falls was probably about some 20m or so tall but the basalt columns surrounding it made it rather interesting.
We didn't linger too long here due to the cold, and also because we knew it was getting late in the morning (it was 9:15am by now) and there were many more falls to bag today. Just as we were about to pull out, a big caravan of Suzuki SUVs were also pulling into the car park. Seemingly inconsiderately, they parked in a way that trapped us in and we couldn't get out. Julie took the initiative and honked the horn and finally someone moved his SUV.
On the return drive, we ended up going north on the east side of the Skálfandafljót. From this vantage point, we saw the same waterfalls as before, but now they seemed to be a little more distant and seemingly not as photogenic. I guess I should've photographed those falls when I had the chance earlier.
Within another hour, we finally made it to Goðafoss. There were numerous people on the other side of the Skálfandafljót River and we knew that was the tour bus crowd. We were on the east side of the river and decided to walk down a path that ultimately yielded us full views of the horseshoe-shaped falls from both the top and the bottom.
Interestingly, on our side of the river, there weren't many people. And it turned out that we got some pretty good views of the entire context of the waterfall from this side.
It turned out that Goðafoss was translated as the God's Waterfall. And it got its name because the pagan chieftan threw his idols into the waterfall when Iceland adopted Christianity.
Although the literature made it seem like it was a pretty voluntary move, I wasn't sure if it was one of those situations where you either had to convert or die (i.e. convert by force given the power of the Christian world at the time) or it really was as benign a transformation to simply move away from Norse deities and into Christian ones.
When we had our fill of the waterfall from the bottom, we then climbed up to an outcrop where we got a nice top down view of the horseshoe-shaped segmented waterfall. We got the idea to do this because we noticed photographers setting up their tripods from such a position while we were down below.
Anyways, from realizing the experience we were getting from this side of the waterfall while noticing where the tour bus crowd were scattered about on the other side, we doubted the tour bus crowd got as good a view as we had.
At 11am, we were back in the car and drove off in the direction of the scenic Mývatn Lake. However, we didn't make any stops considering the poor colors thanks to the dreary cloudy day. A few minutes more of driving east of Reykjalið and then we turned onto a mountain road that would ultimately take us to the west side of Dettifoss in the Jökulsá á Fjöllum River in Jökulsárgljúfur National Park.
This was a 4wd-only road (really more of a high-clearance road, but we saw a few 2wd vehicles along the way). We figured that they warned it was a 4wd road because we did notice a few big stray rocks conspiring to pop tires along with a few potholes. The washboardy road made sure we couldn't go faster than 40km/h unless we wished to get the jarring of our lives on this road.
Eventually we'd get to the car park for the west end of Dettifoss at 12:45pm. Out here the weather was miserable. The cloudiness seemed to have descended upon the area and really fogged things up.
I was hoping the canyon was below the clouds so we could see Europe's most powerful waterfall, but after braving the near-freezing weather (2 degrees C with horizontal rain and arctic winds), we were faced with fog even at the overlooks of Dettifoss. To make matters worse, the mist from the waterfall made things even colder as we couldn't tell if it was from the waterfall or the rain.
There were many photographers there trying to make the most of the situation, but it was a pretty crummy day to be photographing Dettifoss. Trying to salvage something from this stop, we also walked a little further to Selfoss, which could only be seen from a distance on this side of the gorge.
It didn't seem like we'd be able to make it to the brink of that waterfall unless we crossed some streams along the way, which we didn't feel like doing. However, we did notice some people on the other side so we remembered that for tomorrow when we expected to be back here again but on the other side of the river.
Next, we decided to skip the Hafragilsfoss car park and head right for Hólmatungur. By this time, it was 2pm and Julie was already sick of the cold dreary weather so she decided not to do the hike. With that, I headed off into the cold and did the 3.5km loop hike.
On this hike, I saw a series of waterfalls at an area called Katlar meaning the cooking pots. Even with the crummy weather, it seemed I descended below the fog and so the gorge with its waterfalls were easily visible. There was a gusher in the main river as well as several smaller cascades and waterfalls flanking the walls of the turbulent gorge.
I was careful not to get too close to the edges of the cliffs here because the water definitely looked turbulent and I'm sure the 2C air temperatures would've meant sure and quick death if I fell in.
Once I had my fill of the Katlar area, I took the trail back up to a connecting trail leading to another waterfall in this area further downstream. But on the way back up, I saw an impressively large cascade on one of the side streams going into Jökulsá á Fjöllum River.
The path looked to be its own loop but that wasn't apparent until I was on my way back up to the main trail passing by that large cascade. The cascade tumbled amongst green vegetation and seemed to be big compared to the smaller ones haphazardly feeding the main river.
Once I rejoined the main trail, I followed it along the rim of the canyon to the south. Eventually, I'd start to hear and see a cascade further downstream though not on the Jökulsá á Fjöllum watercourse.
At first, I took an apparent spur path down to the north end of the impressive tumbling falls. But I figured it wasn't an official path as it ultimately descended a steep slope towards its base.
Back on the main trail, I saw a signpost with a map right at a trail junction. That sign made it clear that I was at Hólmarfossar (you see I had originally thought this waterfall was Urriðafoss). So I guess that waterfall I saw on the way out of Katlar was the Urriðafoss.
The view of the falls from the official trail was less contextual but there were wildflowers in the thick vegetation surrounding the falls.
It was getting late in the day as I started back along a path cutting right back to car park area. This trail drenched my pants as I would consistently brush against wet foliage protruding onto the trail.
As I was back at the car park area, I decided to go up the hill on a separate path in search of Réttarfoss. I wasn't sure if this was another cascading waterfall or if it was on the main glacial river. Julie was impatiently wondering why I didn't head straight for the car park and going up the hill instead.
But when I got to the top of the hill with the fog and drizzle conspiring to ruin the situation once again, I managed to see and photograph what I could of the impressive horseshoe-shaped Réttarfoss on the Jökulsá á Fjöllum. Boy was I glad I did the extra detour.
Finally after 5:30pm, I returned to the car and we headed back south on the 4wd road to the Ring Road. At 6:45pm, we arrived Kverir or Námaskarð, which included numerous boiling mud pots and hissing steam vents along with some colorful hills.
It was still bitterly cold and the steam from the mud pools and steam vents did little to relieve us from the cold.
Julie and I decided to spend a bit of time here at this geothermal feature considering our somewhat disappointing experience at Dettifoss. So this was kind of like salvaging some kind of good vibes on a day when the weather conspired to make us stay indoors.
So we explored the walks even getting right up to a pretty conspicuous cone that was spewing out steam. It looked like it might have been a geyser at one point.
But once we got pretty thermalled out, we were back at the car at around 7:15pm, and thus we pretty much called it a day as far as sightseeing was concerned.
We would eventually get back to Akureyri by around 8:30pm. We had dinner at a popular local dive called Bautinn, where I finally tried some Icelandic Lamb while Julie had her Guilemot.
After I paid the bill and handed over the merchant copy, I told the young dark-haired waitress "Takk fyrir mig."
Her eyes widened in shock and she said, "Oh my God! That sounds so Icelandic."
"No way," I said.
"Yes! That was really Icelandic." The surprised waitress walked off and tended to her business before I could process the situation and engage further in the conversation. In any case, I knew we had to pack up and leave Akureyri tomorrow with lots to do.
Hopefully the weather will cooperate tomorrow, but given our luck, I'm not so sure the famed good weather in Akureyri that Icelanders have been talking about will show up as long as we're here...
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Day 3: WHAT A DIFFERENCE A DAY MAKES
Waking up in Akureyri today, I noticed that the clouds were still overcast but they seemed to be a bit higher than yesterday so I could at least see the peaks of some neighboring mountains and that they got some fresh snow. At least this was encouraging for today as we planned to essentially revisit the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river canyon and see all the waterfalls again.
So Julie and I got right to it and wasted no time checking out and getting out of Akureyri at 6:15am and headed right back to Goðafoss.
It was barely an hour later that we got to see the falls from the west side of the river. It was also clear why tour buses come to this side of the falls - because the car park is much closer to the falls. But even with that said, the views were not quite on par with those we earned from the other side yesterday.
So Julie and I took what photos we could from this side of the river though it wasn't like we had that many options. It was pretty much just the limited views near the brink of the falls but little else. Unlike the other side where we were able to get right down to the bottom of the waterfall.
At 7:30am, we then continued on eastwards around the southern and eastern banks of Mývatn and then up the wider unpaved road on the east side of Jökulsá á Fjöllum.
In one stretch of road at Mývatn, we heard things hitting the windshield as if there was a gravel rain or something. It turned out that we had driven through a cloud of midges! Good thing we weren't standing outside under such a swarm!
However, a short time later, we did snap a few pictures with the encouraging change of weather at the lake. Indeed the lake was scenic though whatever color that this place promised to have, it was all muted by the still persistent overcast skies.
Meanwhile, when we looked away from the lake, we saw a few more table-like and rounded mountains in the distance. I'm sure under clearer skies, they would've stood out like sentinels.
Anyways, on the road to Dettifoss on its east side, I had expected a smoother road and faster driving, but this road remained washboarded and bumpy. The only difference is that it was wide enough to accommodate two cars side by side easily whereas the other road on the west bank was more single lane with bigger rocks and pebbles.
By the time we made it Dettifoss' eastern car park, the skies had cleared considerably and it was actually 12 degrees Celsius already. What a difference a day makes!
After all, we were experiencing 2 degrees C yesterday under miserably drizzling conditions, fog, and arctic wind chills from the north. However, with the good comes the bad, and that was the presence of swarms of midges that wouldn't leave us alone.
Still, I'd take midges over fog blanketing the canyon anyday. Anyways, Julie and I took photos of Dettifoss from a more comprehensive perspective though getting it with a rainbow was difficult as it was too far downstream.
After having our fill of Dettifoss, we then took the trail further upstream to Selfoss. In the process, whenever we looked downstream towards the brink of Dettifoss, we could see that the rainbows were bolder. But we also noticed how milky the turbulent river looked as it was about to plunge over the 44m precipice of the falls.
We continued over to Selfoss, which was a considerably longer walk than from the other side. It had to have been nearly a half-hour's walk in each direction as the trail was a combination of dirt paths with some basalt rocky sections where rock cairns were needed to continue navigating further upstream.
Further on the seemingly long trail, we'd eventually see that we were approaching Selfoss, which beckoned us to keep on going. The excursion was worth the longer distance.
Eventually, the trail took us right up to the brink of the horseshoe-shaped falls, which also produced a rainbow this morning.
We had to be careful not to get near the water even though the waterfall itself looked short and benign. But we knew from the amount of whitewater that was downstream the short falls that it would not only be hypothermically chilly, but it would be a fast ride over the drop of Dettifoss further downstream.
After having our fill of Selfoss, we returned the way we came for one last look at the impressive Dettifoss. There were more people at the falls by the time we got back. So that was when we noticed how some people got pretty daringly close to the edge to get an unblocked view of the falls. Just watching them gave us butterflies in our tummies.
After returning to the car at around 12:15pm, we quickly drove over to the Hafragilsfoss car park, walked up towards a hill and looked down at the gushing 27m waterfall. On the other side of the hill, we got beautiful views of the canyon carved out by the glacial river that was the Jokulsa a Fjollum.
The distant views of the falls kind made me wonder if there was a way to get a closer look at the waterfall. But from the vantage point we were at, it certainly didn't seem like there was an obvious way to do it. It certainly wasn't possible from what we could tell on our side of the river.
Looking further downstream from the falls, we could see how the river carved out more gorges as it snaked its way through the moonscapes of the Icelandic wilderness here. The scenery was indeed rugged here, and we were content to just enjoy Mother Nature's handy work from this vantage point without having to work so hard.
The next few hours were spent driving and visiting Asbyrgi, which was a tiny hamlet housing a gas station and a newly renovated visitor information center.
We spent a few moments there checking out the displays as well as some of the maps there. We also had a small lunch there. But when we had our fill and were back in the car by 2:10pm, we continued the driving loop and were now driving south on the west side of the Jokulsa a Fjollum.
Eventually by late afternoon (3pm), we returned to Hólmatungur where Julie and I briefly walked the short out-and-back circuit to Katlar. The experience down here was quite a bit different from yesterday thanks to the lack of fog and drizzle.
However, it seemed like Julie was a little jaded with the scenery at this point so the visit to Katlar was rather quick.
We also didn't bother repeating yesterday's hike to the Holmafossar despite the change in the weather and the overall experience.
When we got back to the car, Julie got in, but I also did a quick jaunt uphill to see Réttarfoss in the improved weather and got to a see a rainbow in its mist. Then, I quickly ran back to the car.
Finally at 4:30pm, we arrived at the car park for the west side of Dettifoss. We quickly made haste as we walked across the moonscape trail leading to the western banks of Dettifoss. But as we passed through the black landscape, the overall context of the otherworldly scenery here was much more apparent now that the fog was no longer here.
When we got to the descent to the waterfall, we saw the mighty Dettifoss producing a rainbow under the warm cloudless sky. By now, it was 16 degrees C and I was sweating. No need for gloves or jackets under these conditions (unlike yesterday).
So we spent quite a while trying to seize the moment and capture as many photographs and movies of the gargantuan waterfall as possible under the blue skies. Indeed, this must've been one of those times where repeat visits on back-to-back days paid off big time.
I couldn't imagine being able to do something like this had we gone on a tour and weren't on our own. For even though self-touring was more expensive and required more research beforehand, it also offered the flexibility for unforeseen circumstances and situations like the weather. Plus, the experience was completely unique and memorable to boot.
We lingered here for at least an hour. Something alluring about rainbows and photographing them by awesome subjects like the waterfall Dettifoss.
I guess in hindsight, we should've gone back to Akureyri after seeing Goðafoss yesterday. It was the original plan. I felt like we shortchanged Akureyri and really didn't get to explore the town. Perhaps my insecurity about seeing the Grand Canyon of the North that day to free up today more was a bit misguided. Oh well, can't cry over spilled milk.
On our walk back to the car park, we couldn't help but notice the rocky barren landscape that the trail cut through. It was very moon-like and if it wasn't for the blue skies and the orangish light the sun painted the landscape with, you'd swear you were on the moon!
When we finally had our fill of Dettifoss, we were back at the car par at 4:30pm. It was getting late in the afternoon and we still had to check in over at Reykjalið, where we were spending just tonight.
So we drove back to Reykjalið where we finally checked into the Guesthouse Elda at 5:40pm. It was finally beautiful over at Lake Myvatn. But before we could get carried away taking too many photos, Julie was hungry so we didn't enjoy the scenery for as long as I would've hoped.
So we then proceeded to have a BBQ Buffet at the Gamle Bærinn (including a separate order of Hverabrauð - which was like underground smoked bread), and some rest and relaxation in our room without fighting the midges for once.
Of course there was a little bit of drama when the drain in the shower was too slow and I happened to flood the bathroom, but after spending several minutes trying to soak up the excess water, I returned to our room to wind down an otherwise busy day. Hopefully, the next person using the shower doesn't suffer a similar calamity as us...
Have a waterfall travel story you'd like to share?
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