A misty breeze blew into our faces as we approached the base of Skógafoss. The thundering waterfall in Iceland pours a huge volume of water off a cliff as high as an 18 story building and can be seen from the main highway a kilometer away. Tourists traveling the Ring Road find it an irresistible stop. For my friend and me, it marked the beginning of our run on the Skógar trail.
We hiked up the stairs to the top of the falls weaving through throngs of people wielding selfie sticks and tripods. A short distance beyond the upper viewpoint of the falls we clambered over an A-frame step-ladder through a fence and found ourselves in the company of a few sheep in the quiet realm of the Skógar trail.
Our plan was to run 20-25 kilometers toward Þórsmörk and turn around to come back before the afternoon rain. Rapid fluctuations in the weather conditions of Iceland make even the two-day forecast marginally reliable. Since the route is devoid of trees and subject to sudden onset of freezing winds blasting across the nearby glaciers, we carried layers and rain gear along with our food and water. We navigated using a maps application on our phones and a paper map and compass for backup.
We had camped the previous night in the town of Vik instead of at the base of Skógafoss where tents were crowded into an open grassy area. In the evening, the campground shelter was a hive of activity as people sought refuge from the wind and rain. Tables were crowded with open laptops, lit backpacker stoves, and small stacks of dishes; strips of electrical outlets sprouted a variety of plugs and wires that led to phones and tablets. People were sitting, sipping hot drinks, cooking, reading or waiting patiently their turn at the sink or microwave. A multitude of languages mixed together in a common hum.
The vibe in the company of other campers was uplifting; on the trails, though, we preferred solitude soaked in the tranquil energy of earth. Though the Skógar trail is a popular hike in Iceland, people were few and far between and the soothing sound of water rippling, crashing, streaming, and splashing in ever-changing rhythms dominated our senses as we ran and hiked the rolling terrain on the ridge above the Skógá River.
The sheep were a source of amusement; they were loaded with unkempt wool, fat and sedate, yet bleated across the river like a loud bossy playground teacher.
The Skógá river could be an art exhibit specializing in cascading water; there were tall narrow shooting falls, short wide stepped falls, thin blanketing streams, and low tumbling rapids. Emerald green towers stood as islands forcing the stream to flow around them; narrow winding canyons hid the water in their depths.
At about eight kilometers we crossed the river on a narrow footbridge. A sign was posted near the bridge that showed an alternate “rough” route to the left, indicated in red, and the main trail to the right, marked blue. The map showed the two trails rejoining in the vicinity of where we intended to turn around; this gave us the option to make a lollipop shape out of our course instead of backtracking the entire route. We almost always prefer loops to out and back routes.
The main trail veered away from the river and became a wide rocky road over a barren landscape. It was “ankle breaking” terrain. The few trekkers we passed seemed absorbed in their thoughts, barely responding to our greeting. As we climbed in elevation, we needed to add layers and gloves to stay warm. August in Iceland can feel like December in the pacific northwest.
The trail crossed an icy packed snowfield that was infused with volcanic sand; it looked like a giant slab of Oreo cookie ice cream. I was surprised to find decent traction as we walked across it but the incline on the other side was steep and slippery. We encountered a group of mountain bikers descending the black sand and ice; their faces showed adrenaline-crazed expressions ranging from pure joy to sheer terror depending on the skill level of each rider.
We reached the trail intersection for the alternate return route but before heading back we decided to climb Magni, a cone-shaped mountain of red sand. Magni and its twin crater, Móði, formed during the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull. They are named after the sons of Thor, the god of thunder in Norse mythology. From the rim of Magni we could see volcanos and glaciers across a barren landscape. Clouds limited our visibility but held their own as a sight to see; they surrounded us layered shades of gray, some of them connected to the ground by streaks of moisture.
The alternate trail was well-marked by painted trail posts and weather-beaten signs. It took us through far more interesting terrain than the road we ran in on. We picked our way through icy stream crossings, hiked up snow-packed hills, and glided down volcanic sand dunes using monster strides. After rejoining the main trail at the footbridge we followed the river back to Skógafoss.
Waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes, sheep and black sand define the Skógar Trail. Curiously, the word skógar means forests and I don’t think we saw a single tree. Multi-day trekkers can go 55 kilometers beyond our turnaround point, camp or stay at huts along the way, and wind up at the hot springs of Landmannalaugar.
Driving the full perimeter of Iceland on the 1,323 kilometer (828 mile) Ring Road is a popular way for tourists to see “all” of Iceland. Indeed there are an abundance of spectacular sights close to the highway. Skógafoss is one. For us, leaving the car behind and traveling by foot offers a more intimate experience of the landscape. Running the Skógar trail was one of the highlights of our trip.