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Large-Scale

Walking among Icelandic giants

Story by Dan Bretl April 23rd, 2017

one week in

After a week in Iceland, we were starting to hit our stride. We'd made it about two thirds of the way around the ring road, and thankfully we still had some energy to keep going. After a night in a cabin in Reykjahlíð, our plan was to stay next in the small fishing town of Húsavík. We could have gotten there in less than an hour if we'd wanted, but we decided to take the much longer route through Jökulsárgljúfur National Park. We backtracked slightly on Highway 1 and then headed north on 862 to Selfoss (and it's much larger neighbor, Dettifoss).

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The big one

We had seen some pretty nice waterfalls in Iceland so far, but they were all dwarfed by the mighty Dettifoss. It's well over one hundred feet in height, and it's about as wide as a football field is long. It's the largest in Iceland (measured by volume) and one of the most powerful in all of Europe. I usually don't get too excited about these sort of high-traffic attractions, but I found myself truly in awe of the massive scale of Dettifoss.

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I spent a good while standing down near the falls - so close that I couldn't really see the whole thing at once - and simply marveling at the sheer volume of water rushing by. There was so much of it that it seemed to be moving in slow motion.

My favorite part was watching the thick mist swirling through the air. It was mesmerizing. I wish I could have set up a tripod to record for hours.

On the other side of the canyon, you can see a number of (either very brave or very stupid) people climbing about the cliff edge. They had gotten there by driving up the other road 864 that goes up the east side. Supposedly the view is better from over there since you can get so close, but if I had tried that and not slipped and killed myself then Catie would have certainly pushed me in for making her worry so horribly, so probably better we stuck to the west.

We braved the elements (and the waves of mist) and hiked up a short trail to get a wider view of the entire falls. You couldn't even see the bottom through the constant crashing water.

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Catie and I started something of a photo series on a particularly windy day in Ireland and then again in Hawaii, and the extreme conditions up above Dettifoss provided us with the opportunity for another great portrait session. She's a pro.

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rough road to Vesturdalur

Route 862 is nicely paved all the way up to Dettifoss, but beyond that point the concrete stops and it becomes much more rugged. We weren't sure how our little two wheel drive compact car would fare, but it turned out to be fine. I drove quite slowly and did a lot of weaving around potholes, but it wasn't really anything worse than some of the roads we brave in Washington with our trusty little Prius.

Eventually, we made it to the valley of Vesturdalur. We didn't quite know what to expect, but we had high hopes since we were right in the heart of the national park.

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The national park did not disappoint. We set out on a trail through Hljóðaklettar - "echo rocks" - along the river. There were huge bizarre stone hills and columns everywhere you looked. The patterns of basalt were unbelievable.

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I get easily overwhelmed from a creative perspective, so I have a photographic tendency to ignore the larger context and focus in on details like color and texture. I was in paradise walking around Hljóðaklettar. I'd never seen rock faces like that.

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As we continued on our way past the rocks and up through the surrounding vegetation, Catie spotted all sorts of wild berries. We both enjoyed the afternoon snack - mostly blueberries - along with the widening view.

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Wary of other hikers trying to steal her wild berries.
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Finally we made it to Rauðhólar, the "red hills". Catie and I both agreed they were pretty much the exact color of Catie's dragon - especially when paired with the black rocks below.

The view of Hljóðaklettar was magnificent in the late afternoon sun. It looked to me like a historic battlefield from the days of warring giants so many years ago. (Though to be fair, I have no reason to believe giants had any proclivity for violence.)

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From the hills, we headed back down into the rocky wild.

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Rather by accident, we stumbled onto Kirkjan, the church. It was the biggest cave we'd seen yet. It's incredible to think how it was formed perfectly naturally by some sequence of volcanic and river activity.

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On our way out, I found maybe my favorite photo from all of Iceland. It pulled it all together for me - massive geological formations, bright green vegetation, rolling water, and flowing patterns of painted rock. I knew we needed to hit the road again before it got dark, but I had to sit and savor that moment for a little while.

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There were campsites just outside of Hljóðaklettar, and I so wish we could have stayed a night or two. We didn't have the supplies though, and warm bowls of fish soup - not to mention a comfy bed - were calling our names from Húsavík, so we satisfied ourselves with a beautiful sunset from the car window as we came out the other side of Jökulsárgljúfur National Park.

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Jökulsárgljúfur / Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland