Jökulsárgljúfur National Park is a long, narrow park in northeastern Iceland. It shares some superficial characteristics with Shenandoah National Park in the United States, except rather than running along the ridge of a mountain, it follows the path of the massive Jökulsá River, which flows south-to-north, starting at the massive Vatnajökull glacier in the southeastern part of the country. We hiked the park from its northern end to the southern tip, a modest trip totaling about 21 or 22 miles.
Photography-wise, this was not the best two days of the trip. It was fortunate for us as backpackers that we were presented with two brilliantly clear, sunny days, perfect weather for being outside. However, the constant sun for nearly 20 hours a day meant that basically all of my photos were taken in harsh, direct sunlight, hardly a recipe for great work. So while the scenery on this hike was pretty great, the photos are not – sorry about that. (My photos from our second hike are far, far better; we’ll get to those eventually.)
We started by hopping on a bus from Akureyri at 8:15am, which took us through the fishing village of Húsavík and then to Ásbyrgi – a bizarre geological feature at the northern end of the park. Ásbyrgi is basically an enormous horseshoe-shaped canyon, supposedly carved out in a matter of days by a massive tide of water flooding from the south after a volcanic eruption somewhere in Vatnajökull. Sheer cliffs of up to 100 meters in height were created in an otherwise featureless, flat landscape. Most day-trippers explore the canyon itself, but our hike led us up the side of the cliff to a beautiful view atop the canyon. From this vantage point I shot a fairly artless photo that I’ll post here just because it shows the scale of things (note the mass of people near the bottom of the photo):
After admiring this scenery for a while, we began the hike in earnest, heading south through a landscape that was almost completely flat, covered in low brush, grass and moss and very little other vegetation. In most of our hikes in Iceland we felt a bit like we were on the top of the world because the views were so expansive in every direction. This first day of our Jökulsárgljúfur hike was notable in that respect but not too many others, as aside from the beginning (Ásbyrgi) and end (Hljóðarklettar), the scenery was beautiful but hardly unique or mind-boggling.
But then we came to Hljóðarklettar, and we happened upon things like this:
Scale is difficult here, but this large area of the park was filled with enormous hills made up of columnar basalt formations like these: strangely geometric shapes of rather large size, resulting from the quick cooling of lava flows. I found these rather beautiful in a slightly odd way, something I could say of much of what we ended up seeing in this country. In any case, we explored Hljóðarklettar a bit but were mostly eager to make it to our first campsite, Vesturdalur, which was a developed campsite complete with running water and toilets. We paid a small fee to camp, pitched our tent in the only rainfall of the day, and fell asleep sometime during the long dusk.
The next day, our hike took us right along the edge of the cliff overlooking the Jökulsá River (see the headline shot or below). We hadn’t seen much of the river during the first day, but it became a constant companion on the second day. Weirdly, the river wasn’t so much picturesque as it was kind of disgusting – the water was an opaque milky-gray as a result of all the volcanic ash collected by the river on its way from Vatnajökull far to the south. We certainly wouldn’t be able to rely on it for drinkable water, which became an issue later in the day.
As the day wore on, the hike became more and more featureless, particularly when the trail moved away from the river into open land. We hiked for hours on one particular section in which all we could see in any direction was rock, dust, sky, and literally nothing else, with a strong wind blowing directly into our faces. When at last we came to our campsite at the southern end of the park, we were low on water and energy, and the campsite offered little comfort: shelter from the incessantly blowing wind was minimal at best, and there was no water available. The park supposedly keeps two large canisters filled for campers, but these were almost empty when we arrived, with barely half a liter of water left:
There was no water source nearby that we could tell, and with only about a liter of water left for the night and the next morning, we began contemplating double-filtering and then purifying the filthy water from the Jökulsá. We pitched our tent and I went in search of water; luckily, on the trail to Dettifoss, the waterfall at the southern tip of the park, I discovered what appeared to be a rainwater pond – literally the only fresh water we’d seen in the previous 5-6 hours of hiking. The pond, though it was standing water, looked clear enough, and with our water problem solved we were finally able to relax and go check out Dettifoss…
…which was, in a word, awesome. The largest waterfall in Europe by volume, Dettifoss let off an incomprehensible roar of sound, kicked up spray that was visible a mile away, and generally dwarfed the senses when approached. We stood in awe for some time and I tried to figure out some way to capture it on camera that would do some justice to simply standing in the presence of that kind of natural power. I failed, of course, but hopefully the above photo and the others the gallery give some idea. This was far from the prettiest waterfall we saw on our trip, but it was definitely the most impressive.
And then we settled in for a miserable night’s sleep: miserable because our tent was pitched on volcanic ash that blew into the tent all night, giving our respiratory systems fits. Luckily, the next day we were just catching a bus to a nearby town, Mývatn, and so could afford a terrible night of little rest. Mývatn ended up being one of our favorite places in Iceland, and the subject of the next entry.
In the meantime, check out more photos at the updated Flickr set!