In the Shadow of Vatnajökull – from Litlanesfoss and Hengifoss to Höfn
Litlanesfoss and Hengifoss
The landscape of Eastern Iceland, along the Ring Road, is dominated by the Vatnajökull glacier. The glacier, which was formed two and a half thousand years ago contributes much to the features of the surrounding landscape. That, combined with an active tectonic activity, results in some of Iceland’s most stunning waterfalls.
One of the most underrated waterfalls in Iceland is Litlanesfoss, not far from Egilsstaðir, a town you’re likely to pass if you head down to Seyðisfjörður. The waterfall and Egilsstaðir are connected by Lagarfljót, a long and narrow lake, also a home to the Icelandic Loch Ness monster, the Lagarfljótsormurinn. The reason Litlanesfoss doesn’t get much coverage is due to its being overshadowed by Hengifoss, about a kilometre further up.
Litlanesfoss is special because of the basalt columns that surround it. These basalt columns are some of the tallest in Europe. Looking down at them near the top of the waterfall, they appear like strands of playdoh that were squeezed through a beehive mesh. Because of the way they are formed, from a certain view, the columns look like screens, partially hiding this natural wonder from view, creating a sense of mystery and magic about the waterfall.
The hike up to one of the higher lookout point on Litlanesfoss was about 40 minutes. We could have gone farther up, towards Hengifoss, but decided not to, since we were pressed for time. From the base of the waterfall, it didn’t seem like it would take us much time, but the road up is a lot windier than it seems, so don’t be fooled like us! Make sure to allocate enough time to see both Litlanesfoss and Hengifoss.
I enjoyed the climb up. Although the incline could get quite steep, the ground was mostly solid earth, which was nice to walk on. The shape of the waterfall is absolutely beautiful, with the Hengifossá falling into the gorge for 35 meters, its plunge divided in two by a lovely secluded pool.
Hengifoss is quite different from Litlanessfoss. Litlanesfoss is located in a narrow gorge, hidden from view by outcrops of basalt columns, making it impossible to view from the road. Hengifoss, on the other hand, pours over an open cliff face with a wide curvature, gushing 128m down over striated basalt rock with thin layers of red clay in-between. The rock underlying the waterfall was created by volcanic eruptions during the initial formation of Iceland in the late tertiary period – that is to say sometime after the mass extinction of dinosaurs and before the rise of man.
The rock face is fascinating to look at and keeps a record of Iceland’s geologic past. Within the rock and its layers lie fossilised vegetation – mostly the trunks of coniferous trees that give scientists clues into Iceland’s natural history.
The walk to Hengifoss, also known as the Hengifoss Track, is one of the most popular hikes in Iceland, and it takes about an hour. We did not do the entire trek since we were pressed for time and so could only admire this beautiful force of nature from the upper reaches of Litlanesfoss.
WW2 Museum in Reyðarfjörður
We stopped off at the World War Two museum in Reyðarfjörður. All the museums in Iceland are really good, and this was no exception.
The audio guide was well done and there was a variety of material conveying to visitors the sense of what it was like to live in Iceland during the World War Two. There were also some old books from the time lying around. Some of them were quite peculiar.
The most interesting things were of course the vehicles outside the museum, you could get into to get a feel of the space and how it must have been like to drive one of those. I can say I didn’t think they were comfortable and they were probably pretty cold to be in during the harsh Icelandic winters.
On the Road to Höfn
The beautiful landscape of Eastern Iceland is about more than just the waterfalls. It is dominated by the fjords that scar the coast all the way towards Höfn and Vatnajökull National Park. The views of the Vatnajökull glacier are breathtaking. Coming from a tropical country, seeing never melting ice at the height of summer is a real novelty.
I know, unfortunately, that things are changing due to global warming. Although the glacier seemed so large, stretching out over the moutain range, I could not stop thinking about how fragile we have made our world.
While this part of Iceland does not offer any of the super recognisable sights one may come to expect in a country so rich in iconic landmarks, it is perhaps the most impressive one to drive through. While nothing stands out, everything is so impressive and dramatic – Vatnajökull pouring down between broken mountain peaks, its icy fingers seeping towards black sand beaches, northern birds taking flight before the backdrop of distant misty peaks, countless islets piercing the dark waters of the North Atlantic, incredible!
Because Iceland’s surface is mostly basalt, the sand and gravel on its beaches are black. The last time I had seen black beaches was when I was in on the island of Santo Añtao, another volcanic island in the middle of the sea.
While you are on this road, you’ll see a lot of Arctic terns, here in Iceland to breed and nest for the summer. These birds have travelled a long way, all the way from the Antartic in fact, to get here on time for Iceland’s warm (at least according to the bird) and bountiful summer.
They are also found on land in other northern Eurasian areas, like the Netherlands. During the southern summer though, just like puffins, they spend their time out at sea. The terns, also known as sea swallows, fly beautifully and I loved observing them when they were gliding on the air currents.
Do be careful if you get out of the car to walk about though, sometimes they can get a wee bit aggressive, since you’ll be near their nesting grounds, so keep your head down!
At Höfn, which is in Southeast Iceland, we stayed in Lilja Guesthouse – a lovely, recently renovated modern guesthouse in the middle of some stunning landscapes.
We made this timelapse of the seemingly neverending Icelandic sunset just outside our room, actually from our room’s terrace.
The landscape of Southeast Iceland really conveys a sense of vastness. Here we seem to be on relatively flatter land – gone are the cliffs and gorges, now replaced by softer volcanic hills and rolling pasture land.
Our room had a view looking out onto a stretch of flat gravel that went on for a while. When I woke up the morning after, looking out at the landscape made me feel like I was on the surface of the moon since I couldn’t see the green that was just beyond the horizon.