Day 1: WATERFALLING ÞJÓRSÁRDALUR
We awoke around 6am as usual, but as we looked out the window of our room at the Hotel Edda Skógar, we noticed something we hadn’t seen our entire time in South Iceland – blue skies and sun!
“This is BS!,” I told Julie in unabbreviated terms. We knew this was the day we were to leave the Skógar area and head into Þjórsárdalur Valley. So after 7 days of cloudiness and rain, we finally got a chance at rainbow weather for both Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss on the morning that we’re leaving. It figures.
And so we checked out of the Edda, got our free night (cursing that we didn’t get the Edda Ísafjörður to put a stamp on the first night so our free night we’ve occurred at the $200/night Egilsstaðir Edda instead of the $100/night Skógar Edda), and headed closer to Reykjavík.
It was 7:15am as we left the blue skies and the sun around the south. However, the weather was partly cloudy as we went further west. Not far beyond the town Hella, we turned inland and up the east side of the Þjórsá River – Iceland’s longest river.
After an unfruitful search for Buðafoss (because it was a fairly lengthy unsealed detour to a private farm and the falls was facing the wrong way), we took a pretty beat-up road through lavaflows towards the Þjófafoss (the thieves waterfall) arriving at 9:15am.
This waterfall was wide and powerful, but the mountain behind it (Burfell) was what made it interesting. Waterfalls where we would be able to mix up some landscape along with an impressive waterfall (especially one as wide as this) were pretty rare.
It was situated in some pretty desolate lands as there didn’t seem to be much of anything when we looked around the area. Instead, it was pretty much the similar type of moonscapes that we kind of saw when we were hiking to the west bank of Dettifoss several days earlier.
We stopped the car at a pretty sandy spot near a fence indicating that it was another 4wd road beyond it. Since we weren’t interested in turning this into an off-roading adventure, we were pretty content with taking our photos before returning to our SUV to continue the drive up the valley. Even the 4km of rough road to even get here was definitely not a walk in the park.
There were ranchers also on horseback in front and behind the long line of horses. I could’ve sworn this scene reminded me of something ut of a beer commercial (I forget whether it’s Budweiser or Coors).
Our map also said Trollkönufoss (Troll Woman Waterfall) was around here too so that was my excuse to pull over and get out of the car for a bit. But when I went out to see the falls, it was flowing downstream and from my vantage point, there was no view. I suppose I could’ve hopped the cattle fences with the ranchers still there to get a better view, but I figured it wasn’t worth it.
We rejoined the Route 26 and headed for Háifoss at around 9:50am. We had a choice to do this one later, but we guessed that the sun was probably in a good spot so why not try for it now?
As we left the Road 26 for the road to this waterfall, we found out pretty quick that the road we were on was a bit rough with fairly big rocks strewn about. I had read in the literature that this was supposed to be doable by low clearance 2wd vehicles though I questioned whether that was true given the condition of the road.
But sure enough, but by the time we got to the car park at a little after 10:30am, we saw a 2wd passenger vehicle there so we knew it was certainly doable by passenger cars as long as you took it slow, which I’d imagine was what the folks already parked here had done.
As we walked onto the well-defined path under the sun that was shining brightly this morning, we hastily headed down the path towards the view of Háifoss. The midges at first were swarming, but they seemed to have left us alone the further along the trail we went.
You see, Háifoss had a nice bright rainbow in its mist and so our guess about the right timing with the lighting worked out. Háifoss (Iceland’s 2nd tallest waterfall) also had a pretty significant companion waterfall (called Granni – “the neighbor”).
As we looked down the gorge downstream from the falls, we were able to see more of those technicolor hills that I dubbed the Landmannalaugur Hills since the tourist literature tended to associate them with the popular backcountry destination.
We were glad we seized the moment and did this waterfall instead of putting it off until later in the day. What a scene! Sometimes seizing the moment is more effective than putting it off, I reckon, and this kind of proved that point (along with our poor lighting conditions at Gufufoss back in the East Iceland fjord of Seyðisfjörður). We took our time taking photographs of ourselves at the overlook as well as trying to photograph the gorge and waterfalls every which way we could imagine.
As we got closer to the Road 26, we could see the landscape of snowy mountains way off in the distance with large expanses of pretty desolate deserts of Þjórsárdalur in between us and those mountains.
The GPS told us to take this road that headed west along some other small road, and that was pretty much what we did. We’d ultimately reach a car park at a little after 12pm. We thought this was the way to Gjáin, but we couldn’t tell since there seemed to be a lack of signage saying as such.
Nonetheless, we entered what appeared to be a little rift area full of fragrant flowers, midges, some interesting alcoves, and a pair of attractive waterfalls. We stopped by an area where we could access one of the waterfalls, but the other required going across the river from here.
While trying to figure out how to get to the other waterfall (which seemed to be the one I’ve seen on the internet), I reckoned we had to get there from the historical farm Stöng, which I knew was nearby. Still, the scenery at Gjáin was quite nice.
Next, we barely drove a few minutes from Gjáin before reaching the farm at Stöng at 12:45pm.
It turned out that Stöng was the last ancient farm standing after complications arising from the activity of the Mt Hekla eruptions, especially in 1104AD. While there were other farms that were restored and re-used before more eruptions from Mt Hekla caused people to abandon them once again.
Even this farm fell into abandonment (and even burial from Mt Hekla) until excavation was ordered in 1939 under a Danish archaeologist. Apparently that was a big deal because it marked the first time that archaeology digs were happening in Iceland.
It was said that there was still a church and smithy buried even beneath the farm. It was also said that the church and smithy were re-created.
In any case, Julie and I walked through the premises and wondered how it seemed that the farming back then appeared to be not all that different from farming today as far as the facilities and tools were concerned (with the exception of motorized machines of today, which were obviously unavailable in ancient times).
After having our fill of this archaeological site, we then returned to the car and headed back to the Route 26 at 1:15pm.
The waterfalls weren’t tall, but they were picturesque. There were basalt columns nearby and the colorful volcanic slope off to our left which seemed to suggest that this area was a crater in which the waterfalls fell right into it before eventually eroding away an opening.
We spent some time admiring this rather unique dual waterfall and its wide pool. There were even some blooming wildflowers on the shores of the lake that we were standing on. Indeed, the setting was tranquil and beautiful, and it took us some time before we finally resisted our urge to stay longer as we were back in the car by 2pm.
When we arrived, it was about 2:45pm. Upon putting our stuff away in our room, a few things became immediately apparent.
First of all, I think this place was probably the dumpiest place we stayed at on this trip. The rooms were very small, but at least we were paying a fair price considering it was in the South – unlike the Metropolitan in Reykjavík, or any other place in that city I reckon. Still, this shared facility didn’t have its own sink in the room so I guess we’ll have to be sharing bathrooms when it comes time to brush teeth – like the good ‘ol camping experience. Upon inspecting the bathroom, it was pretty disgusting.
After having a lunch of hamburgers and fries, we engaged in a brief conversation with the lady working the cashier. She was a rather interesting woman in that she looked like your typical tattoed up biker lady with a real edge about her. She was very tall and wore black all over, and she probably could’ve kicked my butt if she wanted to.
It definitely didn’t fit any pre-conceived notions I had of what an Icelandic person might look like.
In any case, I was nervous about going to Dynkur since I knew it was a 4wd road to get there. However, I also knew there were no river crossings so that kind of made me less stressed out about attempting it. Nonetheless, I wanted to get this lady’s opinion on the attempt since she obviously knew this place better than me.
In a nutshell, she said that we should be able to make it. However, we just had to take REAL slow. She said it would take about 3 hours of driving (I believe she meant round trip). So I guess that gave me some encouragement that we ought to go ahead and make the attempt (just not today).
Thus, we decided to head to Landmannalaugur so we could check out that place on our own time. It was only 35km away and the Dynkur waterfall (the real reason why we went this far into Þjórsárdalur) would have to be punted for tomorrow.
Given the presence of 2wd vehicles at Landmannalaugur that we saw on our bus tour there a few days ago, we were confident about going on the northern approach of the F208 to Landmannalaugur. We figured that if 2wd vehicles made it there before, it mustn’t be that bad of a road.
Meanwhile, the drive was actually quite a fascinating one through black sanded desert. I reckoned it was a taste of what the Sprengisandur Road F26 would’ve been like, but we weren’t going to do it on this trip.
Eventually at just before 5pm, we got to Landmannalaugur, but the thunderstorms were brutal! It was pouring rain and the rivers were muddy. Julie and I decided not to linger here and head back to Hrauneyjar to relax. It turned out that this excursion was a wasted trip. After all, we didn’t get to see the thermal pools we wanted to see on our paid tour but ran out of time.
On the way back, we stopped to look at what appeared to be a man-made lake in the middle of nowhere. We figured this must’ve been yet another one of those hydroelectric schemes sending power towards the more developed towns to the south. That was pretty much all we salvaged from this little out-and-back jaunt.
Finally after 6pm, we were back at the Hrauneyjar Highland Center. Dinner was this overpriced buffet of what seemed like Costco Salmon and some pork and potatoes dish. For what turned out to be $80 for the both of us, I wasn’t sure if we could’ve ordered hamburgers and fries again, but I sure wish I did.
After the dinner, it was time to unwind and prepare ourselves for our last waterfall hunt tomorrow. But first, we had to get ourselves to endure this one last night in what amounted to a trailer park-type experience…
Day 2: Á LEIÐINNI HEIM
Having slept early last night at the rather cramped and rustic Hrauneyjar Highland Center, we got up early and managed to use the Wi-Fi from their lobby. We got quite a bit of internetting done at that time. Before breakfast was served at 7am, I battled the midges and loaded up the car on this warm, sunny day.
When breakfast was finished, we checked out, and headed out at 7:40am for our last waterfall of the trip – Dynkur. We planned this to be our last excursion before heading back to Reykjavík for our last night in Iceland. It would be our final Icelandic overnighting base as part of our homeward-bound leg of this trip.
I recalled that yesterday, the lovely lady with the tattoo on her neck at the Hrauneyjar Highland Center mentioned to us that we could make it to the waterfall if we took our time. We knew it was a 4wd road to get there, but we took her advice and went forward with strengthened resolve. It wasn’t long before we left the Route 26 and then onto the 4wd track through the black terrains of the Icelandic interior.
At first, the road was pretty manageable with a few larger sharper rocks strewn about here and there but so far it wasn’t anything that we hadn’t seen on the way to Landmannalaugur from Hrauneyjar. We quickly learned to follow the white arrows, which were sparsely laid out at key junctions of the 4wd track. This was one place we didn’t want to get lost.
However, there were a few ruts and even bigger rocks that started to show up and conspire to scrape the undercarriage of the SUV. Still, they weren’t too much of a problem except they really tested my nerves regarding the fear of breaking down out here.
Eventually, we’d get to the last white arrow we’d see on the way to Dynkur. As we followed that path, it quickly degenerated into a real rough and rocky 4wd track. A couple of the ruts looked to be heavily affected by the thunderstorm from yesterday and showed some deep erosion.
Even on the grassy part of the drive, the track lines were too deep for the SUV so I had to keep one tire on the grass straddling the middle with another tire on one of the side banks. I certainly didn’t want to plant a tire in the deep grove as that could easily cause us to scrape the ground and even get stuck!
I was beginning to doubt whether we’d make it out going back this way. Eventually, the track got to a pair of huge boulders seemingly strategically positioned to block the 4wd path. Have we made it to the end already?
Even as I tried to ponder the answer to this question, we saw there was the continuation of the 4wd path which was far more tame than what we had just taken. It made me wonder whether the road we just took past the arrow was incorrect. Still, the arrow led us here. What else could we have followed?
And so we followed the remainder of the 4wd track until it got to a noticeable place to stop as the line of boulders near something that resembled a tiny car park would suggest. And from there, we could see the mighty Dynkur waterfall in the distance at 8:50am.
It was a nice but partially blocked view thanks to the canyon before us. I guess we could’ve explored a bit to see if there were any walking trails that allowed us to get closer to the falls. However, the swarming midges ensured that we wouldn’t be outside the car for too long.
But before we could claim victory on bagging this remote waterfall, the road threw one last curveball at us.
As we drove, we clearly missed the way we took on the way in thanks to those boulders that were strategically positioned so we wouldn’t go back up the way we came. I guess they really wanted us to go the other way out to keep the road one-way perhaps?
Anyways, the road at first was very tame, but then it put us into a field of very large boulders. This was even worse than the deep ruts and gullies on the way in. Now, we had to dodge rocks too big to run over while trying not to kill the underside of the car when we didn’t have a choice of where to go. We knew which way was forward since there were sticks up ahead that we knew we had to get to.
However, before we could get back on the road home, we missed a turn and it wasn’t until the GPS tracking suggested that we took a different path than the one in. So after that 20-minute out-and-back detour, we finally were on the way back.
And so we drove the next hour going all the way towards the connecting road Route 31 which then took us over to the 35. By then, we were back on our way to the familiar Gullfoss.
Nonetheless, as we had feared, we were too early for the rainbows. Had we waited two or three more hours, then the sun would be behind us and we would’ve gotten the photographs we wanted. But we weren’t going to wait around that long as we intended to get back to Reykjavík in time for our dinner reservations as well as a lunch at Sægreifinn. Oh well.
In any case, we still salvaged something out of the excursion and got close to the waterfall again. Now that it was sunnier, we got better views into the turbulent gorge below the lower waterfall as it was wafting up mist. Somehow under these conditions it seemed more picturesque than our earlier excursion when it was gloomy and overcast.
During the drive back on the Ring Road, we noticed yet another display of a car wreck being used as a billboard. I figured after having seen many of these throughout the Ring Road, it was about time we took a photo of one of these (albeit a rather awkward one given that we were still in motion).
We finally we arrived at the Metropolitan Hotel in Reykjavík and checked in at 2:30pm.
We saw the same nice female Icelandic receptionist who greeted us the morning we left Reykjavík. She recognized us and we engaged in some small talk while I was trying to test my knowledge of the Icelandic language. It seemed like quite a while since I last had the opportunity to try…
Next, we started to empty out the car and prepare for our trip home. As we were doing this, a familiar-looking Icelandic elderly man walked up to us and tried to engage in a conversation. Unfortunately, he didn’t speak any english so communication was difficult at best even with my attempts at Icelandic. Julie and I thought he wanted to talk to us because he might have been the parking enforcement guy. After some futile attempts at communication beyond a sentence or two, I eventually asked if he could come into the Metropolitan Hotel with me so we could talk to the receptionist who obviously knew both Icelandic and English.
When we both walked in, a different receptionist was there and she was giving us this surprised “What is this?!” kind of look. Eventually, I told the lady I didn’t know what he was trying to say, and she’d finally told us, “Oh he just wanted some small talk.”
“OOHHH!” said I.
And with that, the old man stuck out his hand and said, “Blessaður!”
I shook his hand and also said, “Blessaður.”
Shortly thereafter, we finished packing and put our stuff in the room to get everything sorted out. Then upon the previous receptionist’s advice, we went to a nearby bookstore in town to pick up an Icelandic dictionary (orðabók). Boy was it expensive at around $40 USD or 2400 Ikr for a pocket-sized book (yeah I expected it, but somehow it never ceases to amaze me).
We celebrated our final evening in Iceland with a dinner at the very upscale and expensive Sjávarkjallarinn (literally the “seafood cellar”) Restaurant. We actually made the booking for this restaurant three weeks ago since they were fully booked back then. So obviously they’re quite busy and popular.
The atmospheric dark, blue-lit restaurant served up very delicious appetizers. I forgot exactly what we got but I do know that we did get an appetizer they were famous for. The mains were a little on the disappointing side, but perhaps that was because our expectations were set so high.
I recalled that one of the mains was a large seafood soup, which was more like a big bucket of seafood in a stew. It was kind of ordinary, I thought. However, Julie’s dish seemed to be more adventurous and tasteful.
And so it was, the dinner was over, we treated ourselves to one last softís in waffle cone, and we returned to our hotel. Indeed, our Icelandic sojourn was coming to an end and we could already sense that we were on the way home. Or as they say in Icelandic, “Á leiðinni heim.”