The Hengifoss waterfall appears suddenly across lake Lagarfljot, like a sharp white scratch against the dark cliffs. It turns out to be a fleeting glimpse—Hengifoss is set back from the sinuous lakeside road in a high canyon. The closer we drive, the less of the torrent is visible.
For that reason, the forty minute hike up to the waterfall is a popular one, and several cars sit gleaming in the warm summer sun in the discrete layby that marks the start of the trail. Despite an unseasonably grey and rainy summer in Reykjavík, the skies in East Iceland are clear and blue—so much so that we have to apply sunscreen, for the first time this year.
The trail starts out uphill along a gravel road. As we crunch up the hill, I realise how much of a hike you spend looking at the ground beneath your feet. The yellow sand and dusty pebbles of the manmade road aren’t nearly as stimulating as walking a real hiking trail, with all the creeping roots, bright soil, different ground plants, and colourful flowers that wildland contains.
When we reach the first in the series of waterfalls along the way, all such thoughts are forgotten. Litlanesfoss is a tall, narrow stream of foaming water that collapses down through a stunning basalt rock formation. The vertical cliff is made up of squared off columns that lean in towards each other like the crumbling pillars of a wonder of the ancient world.
After another twenty minutes of hiking steadily uphill the road finally ends, and my boots finally thump satisfyingly onto the raw earth of a dirt trail. It’s an easy hike that yields panoramic views over Lagarfljót, and passes several points of interest along the way. There’s a small photogenic waterfall that turns into a stream littered with stepping stones, but it’s also possible to cross directly at the foot of the cascade, and lots of people do so, also taking the opportunity to get a photo.
Seams of red
Hengifoss remains concealed until almost the last moment. We stride up the bank of the river, crossing boulders and grassy stretches, the path sometimes tracing the inside walls of the canyon as it narrows towards our target. Several European accents float by as we pass other hikers—German, Spanish, English, and more than a few speaking Icelandic. The summer weather has put everyone in an energetic mood, and with the crashing sound of the waterfall getting ever-louder, we bound up the final hill.
Hengifoss is a dramatic sight. The 128 metre waterfall tumbles down from the Highlands into a canyon that’s like a bite out of the earth, revealing meaty layers of sedimentary rock, including four bright red seams that look like icing in a layer cake.
A little past the end of the path, we scramble up onto a large boulder that’s fallen down from the cliffside. The spray of the waterfall blasts the surrounding cliffs, and the resulting river gushes down the mountains, ultimately blending with the silty grey water of the glimmering lake Lagarfljót. We trace its path back down the hillside feeling refreshed before we, too, vanish out from this engrossing pocket of Icelandic nature and back into into the wider world.