21 Sep 2014

Waterfall-chasing in Iceland

No trip to Iceland is complete - or likely - without visiting at least one extremely impressive and beautiful waterfall. They are literally pouring off every mountain, along every river, into every canyon. Some are visible from the ring-road whereas others require a little more effort, accessible via gravel roads or hiking uphill a mile or two to reach them.

On my recent volcano-chasing trip I managed to visit four very impressive falls in the north and west of the country - three that I'd visited on previous trips, and one new one, that I only found out about by chance after looking at the local region's website.

My first waterfall was the horseshoe-shaped Goðafoss, which is just off the main road, about half-way between Akureyri and Lake Myvatn. I saw it briefly on a weekend trip to the north of the country in March 2009 and part of it was frozen - it looked stunning in the winter sunshine. Now, in September, there was no ice to be seen, but I had a little longer to enjoy it as I was staying at the nearby guesthouse. I arrived just after the sun had set behind the hills to the west, but the clouds soon became illuminated pink, as I clambered over the basalt column tops at the lower part of the falls.

In the morning I got up at dawn and headed down the short path to the falls as the sky began to change colour for me. The light was tricky, with the best coloured clouds away from the falls themselves. My time was limited as I had to get to Myvatn for just after 8am for my volcano sightseeing flight, and had to get breakfast, pack and drive there before then. By 7am I headed back to the guesthouse, just as the sun glowed on the hills to the west.

My volcano trip was cancelled owing to sandstorms and strong winds, so I headed to my second waterfall - Dettifoss. Again, I'd seen it in March 2009, taking a fantastic super-jeep trip over the snow on the west bank to see it, as well as nearby Hafragilsfoss and Selfoss. This time the roads were open on both sides of the river, so I decided to head on the east bank to see it from a different side. The road was long and hard - dusty and gravelly, passing through the odd dust-storm. The horizon to the south was very hazy with gas and smoke from the erupting Holuhraun volcano.

Eventually I reached the parking area for Dettifoss and headed down to the magnificent falls, which carry the highest volume of water of any falls in Europe. The wind was crazy, rendering the tripod almost useless and therefore not much chance to try out some long exposures. As I neared the edge of the falls I found a sheltered spot, though, and managed a couple of long exposures, but the water looked murky with the red sandy air in the distance. I watched people clamber across the rocks below me, hugging the edge of the cliff; it's not a place for the faint-hearted.

After battling the sandy wind, I was too exhausted to walk to Selfoss or even drive to Hafragilsfoss - I just wanted to get back down that dusty road and head to my hotel to catch up on some sleep. I'd seen a sign at the turn-off for "coffee and cake" and was very glad for the well-timed stop - a delicious warmed crumble-topped apple cake with cream and some decent coffee helped keep me going for a little while longer. 

The next waterfall I saw was Goðafoss again, as I headed west after seeing the volcano, a couple of days later. I was there in the afternoon for a couple of hours, visiting both sides this time. The weather was fairly overcast, but the sun came out when I was on the left bank; the light wasn't ideal. It was also pretty busy, with tourists and photographers coming and going, especially compared with sunrise, when I'd been the only person there!

The following day I checked the website for the Vatnsnes Peninsula, which I was visiting to see the Hvitserkur stack. I wanted to make sure I wasn't missing any sights and was very glad I did - I discovered a very pretty waterfall called Kolufossar. A gravel road just past Blonduos brought me to the wonderful falls, which may possibly be my favourite in Iceland now. A couple of couples came and went while I was there, but otherwise I was alone, the odd tractor driving past in the distance. The sun shone brightly, hidden intermittently by passing clouds. With more time I would like to have explored the canyon downstream, but I had to get to Hvitserkur in time for sunset.

Last but not least on my waterfall trail was the much-photographed Kirkjufoss, with the Kirkjufell mountain behind, just outside of Grundarfjorður. I had planned on visiting Hraunfossar and Barnafoss, a little inland near Husafell, but didn't end up having the time or energy for the detour. I'd visited Kirkjufoss back in March 2012, when there was still a fair amount of snow on the ground, limiting where I could explore, but the waterfall itself had been flowing freely. I had also been the only photographer there on that occasion. This time I arrived during the golden hour and not surprisingly, wasn't the only one. There were between 8 and 12 photographers at any one time, most of whom huddled with their tripods leg-to-leg above the higher of the falls. I actually prefer the lower falls, so that worked well, as I headed a little way down the hill and enjoyed the sunset over the pointy peak from there, without having to jostle for tripod-space! Of course I did take a couple of the top falls too, but tried out a few different angles.

Rather fortuitously it was clear in the evening and some unexpected northern lights came out to play, so I returned to the hillside to see the falls under aurora light, with a little help from my torch to brighten the water.

I did miss the waterfalls of the south - Seljalandfoss, Skogafoss, Gulfoss, Svartifoss and the lesser-known Urriðafoss, but I'm sure I'll be back to visit them on future trips. I must also revisit the wonderful Litlanesfoss and make it up to Hengifoss in the east one of these days. I'm sure there must be dozens of other beautiful falls that I've yet to discover.

Please have a look at my Iceland Sept 2014 gallery for more photos from this trip.

For queries on licensing/usage, please contact me on sophiecarrphotography@hotmail.co.uk

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