We stood at the Fimmvörðuháls Trailhead in Skógar, near Iceland’s southern coast. Two days prior, we had completed our four-day trek from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk on Iceland’s Laugavegur Trail (read here). The Fimmvörðuháls Trail tracks north to Þórsmörk where one may connect with the Laugavegur. These two trails are often connected to form a forty-eight mile hike, ending at the spot where we stood, gazing northward, mouths agape. Before us was what is arguably Iceland’s most recognizable waterfall, Skógafoss. That’s saying something, in a country that boasts 10,000 waterfalls, including the largest in all of Europe. We walked to the falls, mere yards away.
Skógafoss was impressive. The Skógá River rushed in a single cataract over a precipice 200 feet above. Sixty feet wide, it fell unobstructed into the valley below, an effervescent sheet that is the stuff of fantasy novels. (Not surprisingly, it was featured in Season 8 of Game of Thrones.) We picked our way up the rocky beach on the east side of the river, getting drenched by the mist that swirled around the plunge basin. The day was overcast, as it so often is in Iceland, but what some may describe as gloom only added to the ethereal mystery of the scene. The rocky crags to either side of the falls were adorned in the usual verdant regalia we had come to expect anywhere in Iceland that water flowed. So, virtually everywhere. We marveled at the massive waterfall for a time, before turning our attention to the Fimmvörðuháls Trail.
The Fimmvörðuháls Trail crosses the grassy plain on the banks of the Skógá and climbs (via metal stairs) to the top of the escarpment. There we found a viewing platform that looks over Skógáfoss. Magnificent views of the river plunging over the cliff greeted us, and we could see down river to the North Atlantic. The spray from the tumult rose up from the canyon to shroud the northern fulmars that swooped from the cliff face. In the other direction the trail beat a smooth dirt track through a lush green landscape. We headed upriver.
Our path was a dark-brown thread through a tapestry of green. It followed the eastern bank of the Skógá River which meandered south from the saddle between the Eyjafjallajökull and Katla volcanoes in Iceland’s interior. Thick grass dotted with tiny wildflowers, often buttercups, surrounded us. Mere steps up the trail, we came to another waterfall: Hestavaðsfoss. Hestavaðsfoss stretches the full 185-foot width of the river, tumbling over two distinct falls, before swirling among grass-topped formations. World Waterfall Database lists its total height as twenty-eight feet. On the bank at the base of the falls, was a grassy hummock covered in small cairns. There was a similar array to our right, the structures curiously ominous in the gathering gloom. A thick blanket of brume was swaddling Suðurland.
Continuing north, we rambled through the mist, marveling at the increasingly spectral landscape. Another quarter-mile brought us to Fosstorfufoss, a 34 foot cataract that was a hard to get a good look at.
The first stage of this falls can be viewed straight-on from the trail, but as the river changes direction, so does the falls. Here, it plunges at a right angle to the first and thus away from the viewpoint. It is actually a little difficult to see the second fall from the trail if you don’t know to look for it. Now you know.
As we pushed on the fog became thicker and more opaque, limiting our vision to a few hundred yards. Sheep grazed in the surrounding meadow, looking for all the world like quivering, fuzzy tumbleweeds – until they moved. Sheep are an unwitting menace in Iceland; they are everywhere. Everywhere except inside their pastures. Trail passes fenced farmland? The sheep are on the trail. Highway threading its way between enclosed grazing land? The sheep are in the road. Apparently Icelandic sheep are highly accomplished escape artists, defeating all attempts to confine them. What do they do with their newly acquired freedom? Hang around just outside the fence. Graze. Stand on the trail blinking stupidly at approaching hikers. They don’t want to run away – they just won’t be fenced in.
When we reached the next waterfall, it slowly shimmered into existence out of a thick grey soup. Steinbogafos materialized out of the murky haze a few hundred yards upstream. Falling twenty-five feet in a single chute, the falls appeared as a silvery curtain in the Skógá River. It was a miniature version of Skógafoss. We would have liked to approach it but there were no trails to the plunge basin. In the end we trod only a little ways past Steinbogafos before making the decision to call it quits. Visibility was getting exponentially worse with every step we took upriver and the billowing vapor was beginning to soak our clothes.
We retraced our steps back down the Skógá, snatching additional glances at the three bonus waterfalls we had collected by hiking up the Fimmvörðuháls Trail. The tramp from Skógafoss to Steinbogafos had only netted us a single mile. When we clomped back down the metals stairs to the base of Skógafoss, we revisited that magnificent cataract one more time before heading for the car.
The hike up the Fimmvörðuháls Trail can be as long as you wish it to be. There are fourteen waterfalls in the first three miles alone. If you take it all the way to Þórsmörk, you’re in for around fifteen miles with the option to connect with the Laugavegur and hoof it all the way to Landmannalaugar. How ever far you go – go. It’s true that Skógafoss is the main attraction here, but a little extra effort will reward you with waterfalls, river views, and verdant countryside – all on a relatively easy hike. I’d say there were more waterfalls here than you could shake a stick at, but in Iceland it’s way easier to find a waterfall than a stick. ♦
Date: July 13, 2015
Location: Skógar, Iceland
Trailhead: 63.530027, -19.512269
Distance: 2.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 990 feet