About Vettisfossen, Avdalsfossen, and the Utladalen Waterfalls
Vettisfossen was one of Norway’s famous waterfalls as it earned its claim to fame by featuring a 275m freefall, which made it the tallest unregulated singular-drop waterfall in Norway.
That said, our adventure included more than Vettisfossen.
Indeed, we also saw Hjellefossen, Avdalsfossen, and many others with and without names along the way.
That said, in order to witness Vettisfossen as well as several of the other incidental waterfalls along the way, we had to earn it with a hike that would typically take upwards of at least 4-6 hours.
Lessening the pain of such a long hike, the Utladal Valley and the Utla River (which all of these waterfalls reside in) was said to have the greatest quantity of protected waterfalls in Norway.
It was a testament to foresight of the people who managed to fight to protect Utladalen from the hydroelectric developments that happened all around the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
A Shared History of Conservation
Vettisfossen’s history in enjoying its current protected status (as well as the rest of Utladal Valley) was actually tied to what happened with Ringedalsfossen and Tyssestrengene over by the Tyssedal Valley near Odda.
At the time of the mid- to late 1800s, the industrial revolution was in full swing and the waterfalls above Tyssedal and Skjeggedal Valleys became looked upon as having great potential to take advantage of the steep watercourses for hydropower.
Despite the efforts of DNT (Den Norske Turistforeningen; a Norwegian hiking organization kind of similar to the Sierra Club at home in California) to protect the Ringedalsfossen and Tyssestrengene, the developments proceeded.
However, DNT re-doubled their efforts to ensure the Utladal Valley didn’t succumb to the same fate, and they managed to succeed on that front as it became legally protected in 1924.
I kind of view it in a similar light to how the public backlash from the damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley (despite it being in Yosemite National Park) enforced the protection of its twin in Yosemite Valley as well as other National Park assets nationwide.
The Vettisfossen Experience
There are many ways to experience the Vettisfossen Waterfall, but we’ll only focus on the two ways that we’ve managed to do it.
On our first visit in 2005, we hiked a 12km round trip trail to the bottom of Vettisfossen.
It had a net elevation gain of about 200m (240m at its highest point), and it took Julie and I between 3-4 hours to finish.
On my second visit in 2019, I hiked a 13km round trip trail to the top of Vettisfossen.
This hike featured a brutal elevation gain of about 560m (most of it in a steep 1km stretch).
It took me over 4 hours to finish (sped up with some trail running due to pouring rain).
I’m more apt to think doing Vettisfossen this way would typically take around 5-6 hours.
Both ways have the trail up to the Vetti Farm in common, which covers a distance of about 4.5-4.8km (each way).
The Vettisfossen Experience – Hiking from Hjellefossen to Avdalsfossen
Technically speaking, the main car park for the Vettisfossen hike actually begins from the car park at the Hjellefossen Waterfall.
However, both times that I’ve done this hike, I started from the end of the public part of the road another 700m further.
We have a separate write-up dwelling on the Hjellefossen experience.
So from the end of the Utladalsvegen, where a boom prevents further driving beyond the bridge over the Utla River, I then hiked a fairly level and wide gravel road.
It appeared that further vehicular progress could only be made by residents.
About 600m from the trailhead, the trail passed by the Utladalen Naturhus, which was basically an exhibit showing some artifacts of the history (both geological and cultural) of the area.
Whilst there, we also spent some time reading signs and maps so we knew very well what we were signing up for regarding this hike.
I also recalled that there was a cafe here though we didn’t take advantage of it.
After leaving the Utladalen Naturhus, we crossed another bridge, and then we pretty much continued following the unpaved local road alongside the Utla River.
In any case, after about 1.4km into the hike (according to my GPS logs), we started to see the impressive 173m Avdalsfossen.
Even though the trail was on the opposite side of the Utla River, the waterfall pumped enough spray to create a spray zone that may necessitate the need of a rain coast (depending on how wet you want to be).
As we traversed the spray zone, we could enjoy viewing the falls from a variety of angles.
We could also appreciate the size of the falls as Avdalsfossen made the fronting power lines and pylons (I thought this area was protected?) appear very small.
On the other side of the spray zone, we crossed another bridge over the Utla.
This was where there was a signposted spur trail leading up to the 16th century Avdal Farm above the top of Avdalsfossen.
It was said to have been restored and re-purposed for tourism since 1991.
The Vettisfossen Experience – Hiking from Avdalsfossen to Vetti
Beyond Avdalsfossen and the footbridges nearby, the trail then proceeded along more of the gravel road to Vetti.
It felt strange hiking on a local road knowing that every once in a while, vehicles would pass by.
In any case, the trail or road then traversed through a section of the Utladal Valley bearing the scars of landslides and rockfalls.
It was definitely one place you don’t want to linger around for too long as I’m sure such landslides are likely to continue to happen over time.
After a second bridge (it had a gate when we first came here in 2005, but it had since been left open on my 2019 visit), the road or trail then followed along the east bank of the Utla River.
At about 2km from the Avdal Gard trail junction (maybe 30 minutes of hiking), we then encountered a short but powerful waterfall on the Utla River itself, which was called Høljafossen or Hyljefossen.
The large plunge pool looked inviting for a swim, but it was a pretty cold and overcast each time I’ve done this hike so I never saw anyone go in for a swim even though there was a spur trail leading down to the river.
The trail made a brief climb beyond Høljafossen, and when the trail bent back to the right after the top of the climb, we then hiked along a fascinating section where at least three different waterfalls tumbled into the Utladal Valley.
I believe those waterfalls were coming from the brooks called Nonsbekken, Nybekken (the New Brook), and Storebekken (the Big Brook), respectively.
After this long stretch of side-by-side waterfalls, we finally made it to the tin-roofed homes of Vetti.
Roughly 20 minutes of hiking beyond Høljafossen, we finally made it to the tin-roofed homes of Vetti.
After going up a couple of switchbacks, we ultimately made it to the buildings of the Vetti Farm.
This marked the 4.5-4.8km point of the hike (according to my GPS logs), and we then had a choice of which trail to take to proceed towards Vettisfossen.
Since we did the trail to the bottom of Vettisfossen on our first trip to Norway in 2005, I’ll begin with this route.
The Vettisfossen Experience – Hiking from Vetti Farm to the bottom of Vettisfossen
As we passed through the hamlet of Vetti, we paid attention to arrowed signs and red Ts.
We’d eventually go alongside someone’s home before we then had to descend a very steep path that dropped down towards the level of the Utla River.
As of our visit in 2005, there were some hoses or colored rope to hold onto to help with our balance on the descent.
This may have been improved over the years, but I’m not sure.
Once we made it to the level of the river, the path flattened out once again and we’d ultimately arrive at the Vettisfossen Waterfall in about a little over 30 minutes of hiking from the Vetti Farm.
As Julie and I got close to the base of Vettisfossen, we realized that we were only able to view the upper portions of the falls.
The bottommost sections were blocked from our sight by protruding cliffs.
I was real tempted to get my feet drenched by crossing the rushing stream on the rocky streambed then scramble my way upstream closer to the falls.
However, I decided against it given how quickly the currents were moving during our first visit in late June 2005.
Thus, we had to be content with the view you see in the photo above.
As a result, this was our turnaround point for our first visit to the Utladal Valley.
It took us another 30-45 minutes to return to the Vetti Farm from here, especially with the steep climb to make it back to the hamlet from the river’s level.
The Vettisfossen Experience – Hiking from Vetti Farm to the top of Vettisfossen
The trail to the top of Vettisfossen immediately ascended a steep path that combined some rocky sections as well as some dirt (muddy and slippery when wet) sections.
This stretch that went for a little over the next kilometer gained a brutal 560m where the climb persisted seemingly non-stop.
In some of the diciest and exposed ledges and rocky slopes, some bolts and steel wires had been set up to help maintain balance and momentum.
Ultimately towards the top of the climb, I then continued on for another 300-400m following the somewhat flattened out trail as it followed a marshy meadow area before arriving at a poorly-signed junction.
At a hasty pace, this stretch between the Vetti Gard and the signed trail junction took me 45 minutes, but it sure seemed a lot longer than that!
I say that the signage was bad because it made no mention of which path went to Vettisfossen.
Only an amateur hand-etching by someone generous enough to help the signage out made me realize that the sign pointing the way to “Skogadalsbøen” was the way to go.
By the way, I think that sign referred to the footbridges spanning the Morkaelvi or Fosselvi upstream of Vettisfossen.
Beyond the footbridge, the trail then curled and made another brief climb before wrapping up the next 400m stretch with a lookout point peering back at Vettisfossen.
From this vantage point, I had to be real careful not to get too close to the edge of the sheer cliffs, especially since I found it difficult to see all the way to the bottom of Vettisfossen’s sheer drop from the sanctioned lookout.
I was very fortunate to even get to witness the waterfall because low clouds from the thunderstorm storm that hit the area momentarily cleared up for me on my July 2019 visit before it poured buckets on the return hike.
Even though the trail kept going deeper along Utladalen, this was my turnaround point.
On the way back, I did notice some false or side spur trails skirting the cliff edges seemingly heading back to the brink of Vettisfossen.
While it would seem foolish to attempt to go all the way to the brink of the falls, this false path did yield nice partial views across the Utladal Valley towards a twisting pair of other big waterfalls called Stølsmaradalsfossen.
I went as far as the view of those waterfalls before returning to the main trail to get back to the Vetti Farm.
Overall, this option took me over an hour on the way up and about 50 minutes on the way back down, plus another 20 minutes of just enjoying the views.
Although I could use gravity as an aid on the downhills, this trail actually didn’t make things easier given the combination of slick footing and dropoff exposure hazards.
In order to access Vettisfossen and the Utladalen Waterfalls, we first had to drive to drive to the town of Øvre Årdal (or Upper Årdal).
From Skjolden, we drove east on the Fv55 for about 15km to the turnoff for the Tindevegen at Turtagrø (sign pointing the way to Årdal).
We then took the mountain road (toll required to lift the automatic toll boom) for about 31km as the single-lane road eventually switchbacked into the town of Øvre Årdal.
Then, we followed a combination of Flotavegen and Storevegen east for about 1.2km before turning left onto the signposted Utladalsvegen (just before the bridge over the Utla River).
We then followed this road for about 6km to the Hjellefossen car park or an additional 600m to the end of the public part of the road where there was more limited parking.
Overall, this drive has taken me around 90 minutes.
From Lærdal (or Lærdalsøyri), we drove north on the Rv5 for over 7km (passing through the Fodnestunnelen) before turning right onto the Fv53.
We then followed the Fv53 for just under 35km before turning left towards the Øvre Årdal sentrum.
In just over 300m (crossing over the bridge traversing the Utla River), we then turned right to go onto the Utladalsvegen, where we then followed the rest of the road to its end as described above.
This drive took us on the order of about an hour.
For geographical context, Øvre Årdal was about 12km (under 15 minutes drive) northeast of Årdal (or Årdalstangen), about 43km (over 30 minutes drive) northeast of Lærdal (or Lærdalsøyri), about 48km (over an hour drive) southeast of Skjolden, 85km (under 90 minutes drive) northeast of Flåm, 250km (under 4 hours drive) northeast from Bergen, and 299km (4.5 hours drive) northwest of Oslo.