02 Jul 2015

North Iceland by adamandheather

5/6

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The rain finally breaks, and we set out for a day hike.

Basalt rules at Vesturdalur in North Iceland. Centuries of flooding have washed the rubble away from volcanic cinder cones, leaving the hardened magma plugs exposed.

In a light drizzle we walk among huge, angular formations of black basalt that tower over the river valley. Hljóðaklettar means "Echoing Rocks", and these concave formations shape and reflect sound just like a stage. The sights and sounds are eerie.

Along the way we talk to some backpackers who are making the trek from Ásbyrgi Canyon south to Dettifoss, collapsing a typical two-day hike into one. They've covered that ground so quickly that we begin to regret not making the trek ourselves.

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From the highway, two flat planes stretch off into the distance, one trending straight and the other sloping gradually downwards. At the end of the canyon, over 3 kilometers away, the canyon closes with a cliff face over 100 meters high. A rock formation named Eyjan ("The Island") stretches into the center from the shallow end, lending the canyon's depression a distinctive horseshoe shape. Legend has it that Odin's horse Sleipnir once flew low and touched the ground with his hoof, leaving the canyon in his wake.

The valley is peaceful and still, and tall trees have taken over its floor. It feels strange to see such a forest this far north, surrounded by many kilometers of barren land.

It was a photo of this canyon that sealed our commitment to traveling to Iceland. The sight of such a lush forest and unusual rock formation opened our eyes to the diversity of the country's landscapes.

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Our little 4WD shudders violently and lurches to the right, seeming to skid sideways for a second. It's enough to get our eyes open wide and our hearts pounding. These gravel roads are well-graded for the most part, but the occasional series of gigantic potholes proves to be too much for our suspension to handle. We can't keep up with the Land Rover in front of us, and it eventually recedes into the thick, pea-soup fog that hangs over the road.

We're driving back down to the ring road along the eastern side of the canyon Jökulsárgljúfur, and it gives us a chance to revisit its massive waterfalls from a different perspective. We have the Hafragilsfoss overlook to ourselves, and even the mighty Dettifoss has only a few dozen visitors on its east bank.

With the spray of Dettifoss drifting exclusively to the west, we have clear views of the falls all the way up to the edge. The spray has so much volume that it forms cascading waterfalls down the black, columnar basalt cliffs on the opposite side. The upper bank of the river is surprisingly calm, with the last few meters of water flowing smoothly and giving little hint of the violence occurring just over the edge.