About Rjukanfossen and the Waterfalls near Rjukan
Rjukanfossen (I think it’s pronounced “RHEE-oo-kahn-foss-n”) was the main waterfall attraction near the town of Rjukan.
When flowing, it would feature a 104m drop right at the head of the Maristu Gorge.
Indeed, after having witnessed this place for ourselves, we could now understand why Rjukanfossen provided the reason for calling Rjukan the “Cradle of Modern Tourism”.
And true to its name, this “smoking falls” definitely produced a lot of mist within the gorge.
A Surprisingly Elusive Waterfall
Curiously, for a waterfall as well-known in Norway as this, we noticed a lack of obvious signage for it.
If you’re not from around here, we found it easy to completely miss out on this place.
This happened to us on our first visit in 2005, and it took a second visit where we finally had success in finding it (see directions below).
We don’t know the reasons for the lack of road signage pointing would-be visitors to this waterfall (at least as of 2005 and 2019).
Yet even if you find Rjukanfossen, it proved to be elusive for another reason – hydroelectricity.
Apparently, the power company regulating the waterfall only allows for it to flow when the Møsvatn Reservoir further upstream had excess water or during special occasions.
As you can see from the photos on this page, we considered ourselves fortunate to have seen it flowing.
I recalled back in 2005, we visited the tourist information office in Rjukan, and the lady working there had told us that there wasn’t much water.
Similar to our recent successful visit in June 2019, that 2005 visit also took place around the same time of the year in June!
So from what I can tell, there was no noticeable pattern or reliability to see this waterfall perform.
Nevertheless, the combination of its unpredictability and its lack of clear signage meant that we had this waterfall all to ourselves.
From the pullouts fronting the east side of the Maristi Tunnel, we then walked on a footpath that went around the mountain containing the tunnel itself.
It was only on this path that we finally saw a sign mentioning “Rjukanfossen”.
Right from the get-go, we also saw an attractive view of the valley containing the infamous Vemork Power Station with the town of Rjukan further in the distance.
After an easy 250m of following the main path, we arrived at an opening with a commanding view right into Rjukanfossen and the head of the Maristu Gorge.
The footpath kept continuing further up a gentle incline before rejoining the other side of the Maristi Tunnel, but for all intents and purposes, this pretty much concluded the waterfall experience.
We wound up spending about 45 minutes away from the car, but we really spent most of that time simply taking pictures and enjoying the rare sight of Rjukanfossen putting on a show.
Other Waterfalls Around Rjukan
Before the rewriting of this page, I used to refer to it as the “Waterfalls of Rjukan.”
That was because we spotted enough waterfalls to warrant its own web page though the main Rjukanfossen waterfall was conspicuously missing (since we missed out on it on our first visit).
Nevertheless, on our return visit, we indeed spotted a couple of the familiar waterfalls we saw the first time.
One such waterfall fell on the Kvitåe (“Kvitåefossen”), which fronted the imposing Gaustatoppen Mountain as we approached Rjukan from the east.
Another waterfall tumbled on the Våeråe (“Våeråifossen”) opposite the Vemork Power Station.
The rest of the waterfalls we witnessed came and went depending on the timing and the snowpack or recent rainfall.
The History of Rjukanfossen
According to the interpretive signs here, word first spread about Rjukanfossen in 1810 when a geology professor reported on it to the Danish king in Copenhagen.
That ultimately resulted in increased tourism to the Vestfjorddalen area, and one even called this place “the cradle of modern tourism.”
However, the owner of the land with rights to Rjukanfossen saw the waterfall as dead capital, especially when a bridge facilitating visitation had washed away in a flood.
He eventually sold it to speculators who immediately saw the potential of harnessing the power of the waterfall for industrial purposes.
At first, the power from the falling water was used to extract the nitrogen in the air and produce fertilizer.
This manufacturing of fertilizer ultimately revolutionized food production in Norway.
Fertilizer production blossomed in 1911 when the fertilizer plant was completed.
At around the same time, the Vemork Power Station was completed, which was the world’s largest such plant at the time.
That meant the power generated here could ultimately be transported to places further afield.
With the energy produced, the Vemork Power Plant eventually yielded the world’s first plant to produce heavy water in 1934.
Rjukan’s Role in World War II
Julie and I also learned that in addition to the former glory of Rjukanfossen, the town of Rjukan was said to have played a pretty critical role in the outcome of the second World War.
It turned out that the heavy water produced at Vemork drew the attention of Nazi Germany.
Heavy water was one of the key ingredients to realize an atomic bomb.
Through some deft and daring collaboration, Norwegian and British allies managed to sabotage the heavy water plant when Nazi Germany occupied Norway and seized the area.
This act of sabotage might have undermined the Third Reich’s attempts at gaining the upper hand with nuclear weapons (or at least delayed them).
And as history had shown, the use of nuclear weapons in the war did not happen at the hands of Nazi Germany. Instead, the United States used them first in a pair of strikes against Japan essentially ending the war.
The Legend of Mari
Rjukanfossen also happened to be the setting for Telemark’s own version of a Romeo-and-Juliet type story of forbidden love and the tragedy that followed.
The basic story involved the relationship between Olav, who came from a wealthy family, and Mari, who came from a poor family.
Since the parents wouldn’t allow them to be together, Mari and Olav found a private spot at the foot of Rjukanfossen to sneak out at night and meet up.
This continued on a regular basis until a particularly frightening storm managed to pry loose some boulders and kill Olav.
Even after his death, Mari would faithfully return to her sacred spot hoping that Olav would return until one stormy night, she too, did not come back.
The story of Mari and Olav continues to live on to this day.
For four days in July, a local musical called Marispelet is performed to re-tell this story.
On the days that the performance occurs, the power company apparently agreed to let Rjukanfossen flow as it once did.
The waterfalls on this page are in or near the town of Rjukan. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their tourism website.
For the purposes of this write-up, we’ll describe the driving directions as if you came from the town of Rjukan.
We figured that you can easily route to the town regardless of where you would begin your drive.
From the Rjukan center, we drove west on the Fv37 for about 9km.
Once you go beyond the last of the switchbacks, the key is to look for pullouts right in front of the Maristi Tunnel.
If you’ve gone into the tunnel, you went too far.
This drive should take less than 15 minutes.
For geographical context, Rjukan was about 75km (a little over an hour drive) northwest of Notodden, 159km (2.5 hours drive) northeast of Rysstad, 176km (2.5 hours drive) west of Oslo, and 282km (about 4.5 hours drive) north of Kristiansand.
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