Rjukanfossen and the Waterfalls near Rjukan

Rjukan, Telemark County, Norway

About Rjukanfossen and the Waterfalls near Rjukan


Hiking Distance: 600m round trip
Suggested Time: 30 minutes

Date first visited: 2005-06-22
Date last visited: 2019-06-19

Waterfall Latitude: 59.86559
Waterfall Longitude: 8.4768

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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.

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Rjukanfossen putting on an impressive show in the early Summer of 2019

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.

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Returning to the pullout where we parked the car to do the Rjukanfossen excursion

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.

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Rjukanfossen was easy to miss because it sat outside the Maristitunnelen so motorists wouldn’t even know to look for it due to the absence of Rjukanfossen road signs

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.

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Julie passing by the first sign we saw for Rjukanfossen, and it would totally be missed by motorists

Nevertheless, the combination of its unpredictability and its lack of clear signage meant that we had this waterfall all to ourselves.

Experiencing Rjukanfossen

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.

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Context of Julie checking out Rjukanfossen

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.”

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Kvitåefossen and Gaustatoppen as we were approaching the town of Rjukan from the east

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.

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Våeråifossen as seen from across the Vestfjorddalen at 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.

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The town of Rjukan expanded and remains to this day as a result of the exploitation of Rjukanfossen

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.

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Looking down into Vestfjorddalen towards the Vemork Power Station from the Rjukanfossen Trail

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.

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I’m not exactly sure where the Marispelet performance takes place, but if I had to make a guess, it could be at this clearing

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.

Authorities

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.

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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.

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The pullouts for Rjukanfossen right before the Maristitunnelen along the Fv37

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.

Short sweep showing the falls from near the far end of the Maristien Tunnel


Long video showing various angles of the falls starting from the far end of Maristien Tunnel then ending up closer to the more open part of the overlook

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Tagged with: tinn, rjukan, southern norway, scandinavia, telemark, cradle of tourism, norway, waterfall, notodden, oslo

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