One thing that Iceland has no shortage of is freshwater. Our lakes and rivers provide us and the country’s plant and animal life with all the water we need. If you combine an abundance of rivers with an uneven landscape, what do you get? That’s right: waterfalls. And Iceland has no shortage of beautiful waterfalls. In fact, some of the most visited sites in the country are waterfalls. An especially picturesque one in east Iceland is Hengifoss, or ‘Hanging Falls’.
Depending on how you define a waterfall, Hengifoss is Iceland’s second or third highest, at 128 meters. It’s known for the distinctive rock pattern on the cliffs behind the water. The thick layers of basalt lava rock are broken up by thin layers of red clay, creating a stripe pattern. The waterfall is located in a deep gorge, filled with broken boulders and loose gravel. The great thing about Hengifoss is you have to earn the right to see it, with an intermediate level hike.
The Hengifoss Hike
The walk starts at the car park, 2km (1.2 miles) from Hengifoss. This puts the Hengifoss hike time at around 40-60 minutes; it’s a short trail, but it’s fairly steep. The route begins with a flight of steps and then continues as a gravel trail. Wear decent hiking boots for this trip, preferably waterproof as you may need to cross small streams. Hengifoss isn’t the only incredible waterfall you’ll see on the journey; after about 1.2km (0.75 miles) you’ll reach Litlanesfoss.
The Litlanesfoss falls are about 30 meters (98 feet) high and drops down in two steps. This water wonder is backed by another distinctive rock feature: basalt columns. These are naturally formed columns in a long hexagonal shape, measuring up to 20 meters (66 feet). For this reason, Litlanesfoss’s other Iceland name is Stuðlabergsfoss, which means ‘Basalt Column Falls’. The gorge circling the falls is very steep and covered with loose gravel. Be very careful about heading down into the canyon; it will be a lot more difficult to climb back out. It’s a good idea to just enjoy the view from above, from the safety of the marked path.
Once you pass Litlanesfoss, you’re more than half way to Hengifoss. Even if you’re tired, don’t turn back at this point; the next waterfall is worth the struggle. There are benches along the way to allow you to rest, and you should bring snacks and plenty of water. Continue on the path and soon you will reach the second waterfall. Again, it’s better to stick to the path, as attempting to head down into the gorge can be dangerous.
Returning from Hengifoss
To get back from the waterfall to the car park, you have two options. First, you could turn back the way you came and follow the path. Or, you could cross the river above the waterfall and head down the north side. Note that this is the riskier path, as it is not marked like the path on the south side. Also, depending on rainfall the river may be too strong to cross. Leave a safe distance between the edge of the waterfall and the place you choose to cross the river. It’s best to start this hike in the morning. You’ll want time along the way and at the top to stop to rest, admire the view and take pictures. Ensure there’s no possibility of you coming down in the dark; it’s both safer and better viewing in the light. Remember that in winter Iceland only has a few hours of daylight.
Additionally, in the winter you’ll have a lot of snow to contend with. Paths will be covered and/or icy, so it’s best to complete this hike when the weather is suitable. Note that parts of the trail may be closed in the winter months. In the summer, paths may be slippery with mud; another reason to be prepared with decent footwear. As a general rule, you should always bring warm, waterproof clothing when you travel around Iceland. The summers are mild and the weather is renowned for changing suddenly and fiercely. Always be prepared.
How to Get to Hengifoss
Hengifoss is 665km (413 miles) from the country’s capital, Reykjavík. That’s around an 8-hour journey, but the vast majority of this route follows the ring road, or Route 1. This is a road that circles the entire country, staying on or close to the coastline in most places. So, you’ll need to drive with your rental car in Iceland towards the small town of Fellabær, which is where the turning for Hengifoss is found. Turn off Route 1 onto Route 931, then keep following that until it gets to a junction with Route 933. Continue along 933 and the Hengifoss car park will be on your right, just past a bridge crossing the river.
Other Attractions Near Hengifoss
East Iceland’s waterfalls are not the only natural wonders to experience on that side of the country. Only a short drive from Hengifoss is Iceland’s largest forest, Hallormsstaðaskógur. It covers an area of 740 hectares and is mostly made up of native birch trees. It contains two camping areas and 11 marked hiking trails, which altogether make up 40km of walking opportunities. One of the hiking trails actually leads to another waterfall, known as Ljósárfoss, which is 18 meters (59 feet) high. At the start of each trail, you’ll find a box with a map displaying all of the trails. Within the forest, there’s also an arboretum, a botanical collection of over 80 tree species. Streams drift through the forest and their water is drinkable, as is all flowing water in Iceland. The forest is also home to many bird species, such as the goldcrest, rock ptarmigan, and the common raven. Edible berries can be picked in the forest, but of course, don’t eat anything you’re not 100% sure of.
To reach Hallormsstaðaskógur, make your way back along Route 931 from Hengifoss, and stop at one of many parking spots. If you want to stop for the night, there’s a hotel at the forest’s edge: Hotel Hallormsstadur. The forest’s two campsites are located near to the hotel: Atlavík and Höfdavík. Both have toilets and shower facilities, waste disposal, and tables and chairs.
Other Waterfalls in East Iceland
Considered to be Europe’s most powerful waterfall, Dettifoss is found in north-east Iceland and is part of the Diamond Circle. The Diamond Circle is the north’s answer to the south’s Golden Circle and features a host of amazing stops. At 45 meters (148 feet) high and 100 meters (328 feet) wide, Dettifoss showcases the strength of Iceland’s water. It is so powerful, you can feel the ground rumble when you stand near it. It’s colloquially known as ‘The Beast’ and is fed by Europe’s largest ice cap, Vatnajökull. Dettifoss is located next to Route 864, about 151km (94 miles) from Akureyri.
Translated to ‘Steam Falls’, Gufufoss is found near the coast in east Iceland. It’s close to the small seaside town of Seyðisfjörður, which has a population of about 700 people. Gufufoss drops down in two steps of 6 meters (20 feet) and 14 meters (46 feet). Steam fills the canyon below, so the fall lives up to its name. It’s an easy walk of a few minutes from the road and is signposted on the way to Seyðisfjörður.
Another waterfall on the road to Seyðisfjörður, but this one is closer to the town of Egilsstaðir. Like Hengifoss, a moderate up-hill hike is also required to reach this site. Allow for around half an hour from the parking area, and wear solid footwear. The last section of the trail has a chain attached to the cliff for assistance down to the waterfall. This is one of the few waterfalls in Iceland that you can walk behind, so bring your waterproof jacket along. Fardagafoss is located about 5km from Egilsstaðir, along Route 93.
Grab yourself a rental car and take a trip around Iceland’s ring road. Why not see how many of the country’s amazing waterfalls you can visit? Most of them are fed by the glaciers that make up 10% of the land of ice and fire. Don’t forget while you’re traveling to minimize your impact on the environment. Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints. Fill your water bottles from the rivers you pass; you’ll be amazed at how wonderful Iceland’s freshwater tastes.
Samuel Hogarth, Cars Iceland.