One of the many things that makes Iceland’s scenery so spectacular is its unique geology. Exaggerated textures, shapes and definition can suddenly open up from an ordinary landscape into something ghostly, foreboding, or even “other worldly.” Due to these geological formations and years of erosion of the volcanic soil, canyons appear a little more dramatic, mountains a little more colorful, and mossy hillsides are reminiscent of hobbit holes.
Of all the unique geology I have seen throughout my time in Iceland, I am most fascinated by the basalt columns. Yes, I have seen these before, but never in abundance like in Iceland. They are in canyons, alongside waterfalls, and even beach cliff sides, reminding me of sticks glued together like the old game of “Magic Wood” that we played with as kids back in the fifties.
I am fascinated by what gives these basalt columns their hexagonal shape. Most answers are oversimplified, like “It’s how the lava cools.” But seriously, how does lava cooling make six sided columns that butt up to each other perfectly, often times cleaving off like string cheese? I understand as the rock cools, it pulls toward center, causing cracks to form. But how those cracks make such uniform hexagonal shapes continues to baffle me.
One of the best examples of a basalt colonnade in Iceland is the stunning Stuðlagil Canyon in east Iceland. It’s considered to have one of the largest collections of basalt columns in Iceland. But it’s a bit off the beaten path. Of all the places I have visited, directions on how to reach this canyon were the most vague. Landmarks are names of individual’s farms, for example, “Take a sharp left turn just past the Skjöldólfsstaðir farm.” Riiight…)
There are two ways to approach the canyon. If you go to the west side, you end up at a steep staircase leading down to a viewing platform where you can go no further. It’s not possible to descend into the canyon. Even worse, you are facing the least spectacular, shorter side. The most interesting massive colonnade is just out of sight beneath the cantilevered platform. To view the most scenic east side, one must cross the river and hike 10km (6 miles) to reach the canyon. (There is a new parking lot across the bridge, further down the road that cuts the hike down to 3 miles. But the road is pretty marginal, and I didn’t see any other camper vans on it.)
After a couple of wrong turns, I finally landed on the 14km gravel road leading to the canyon. But just before I got there, the road split. I went straight when I should have turned left. Once I saw the staircase, I realized I had missed my turn, and backtracked to the turn in the road that leads to the east side. This would mean a 6 mile RT hike to reach the canyon. My lucky streak with the weather having run out, I had two choices. Stick with the viewing platform. Or pull on my rain pants, my rain jacket, and slosh Onward! Through the bog!
Hengifoss and Litlanesfoss
Another magnificent geological marvel is Hengifoss. At 118m (387ft,) it is one of the highest waterfalls in Iceland. What makes Hengifoss so spectacular are the symmetrically spaced layers of red clay sandwiched between the layers of black basalt.
On the path to Hengifoss, one passes a lesser known but equally beautiful waterfall, Litlanes. While at 98 ft it is not as high as Hengifoss, being flanked on both sides by an amphitheater of basalt columns makes it no less spectacular.
It’s less than a 3 mile hike to reach Hengifoss, so I foolishly expected a “cake walk.” But not only is it a steady climb the entire way, but the morning I hiked it, the sun was beating down on my back on the warmest, most humid day during my time in Iceland.. I was wearing black from head to toe, which caused me to swelter in sweat all the way up, and freeze all the way down. Still, it was worth every sweaty step.
Within Iceland’s largest national park, Vatnajökull National Park, is the Skaftafell nature reserve, best known for another waterfall that stands out because of its “columnar jointing.” Svartifoss is one of Iceland’s most popular waterfalls, not because of its size (only 66 ft) but because of the beautiful black basalt columns that give Svartifoss its name in Icelandic, “Black Falls.”
Next along this stretch is the Fjadrarglufur Canyon, another geological masterpiece known to be one of the most picturesque places in Iceland. It was believed to have formed at the end of the ice age when the glacier retreated, leaving a glacial river to carve a massive canyon 300 feet down. The verdant green moss growing on the hillsides is the kind of stuff movies are made of. Or in this case, music videos.
In 2015, Justin Bieber filmed a youtube music video, “I’ll show you” in then little known Fjadrarglufur Canyon. That video went viral, now having over 487 million views. In the following years, over two million tourists visited this area, many no doubt to reenact Bieber’s slow motion twirls and airy leaps, but hopefully not the part where he swims in the glacial river in his underwear.
What was once a place to frolic wild and free now must be viewed from a roped off path no more than 3 ft wide. It was closed off altogether back in April 2018 by the Icelandic Environment Agency due to damage from overtourism. After being closed for some time, it’s thankfully now reopened after construction of a roped off path connecting three viewing platforms.
Visiting here made me ponder my own tourism footprint, feeling a bit of shame for following the “influencers.” Hitting all the “instagramable” stops is not typically my style of travel. But then I also don’t typically follow a Ring Road dotted with so many geographical wonders all lined up in a row.
Campgrounds on this section: Atlavik in the national forest, and Camping Höfn in the town of Höfn.
While a forest is not a “geological wonder,” in Iceland, it might almost be considered as such. But chronologically, it fits in this section. I have not included many photos of my campgrounds, because most of them have been nothing more than grassy parking lots. But the exception to that was my favorite campsite, Atlavik, located inside Hallormsstaðarskógur National Forest on the shores of Lögurinn Lake.