NORTH OF SKOGAR — On what has been called the greatest waterfall hike in the world, we stepped carefully around a narrow ledge in a steep canyon, and what had seemed a far-off hiss of a waterfall instantly turned to a roar.
Our shifting perspective had revealed a column of water plunging from the cliff top above us, and crashing down far below into gray mist.
If Massachusetts had a waterfall like this we would have put it on the state flag, but here, on the Skogar to Thorsmork trail in southern Iceland, it is just one of maybe two dozen stunning waterfalls — I lost count — along a hike that passes between two massive ice caps and over some of the world’s newest land, created by a volcano that last erupted in 2010.
For connoisseurs of great trails, this is a must. The hike, which my wife, Jennifer, and I completed in August, is number one on my personal list for spectacular, forehead-slapping scenery that never abates — almost all of it above the tree line because there are almost no trees.
It is possible to break up the hike over two days by booking a night at one of two mountain huts along the route, but we did it as a long day hike. A one-day trip is not something to undertake lightly; the main trail is about 15 miles to Thorsmork, a rugged green valley through which runs a vein of black volcanic ash, carried there by floods.
You can do the hike in either direction but I recommend going south to north, as we did; the downhill into Thorsmork is steep and the hikers we met coming from that way said it was a slog. Better to begin at Skogar, which is essentially an outpost off the highway to serve people drawn to the shockingly beautiful Skógafoss waterfall.
Getting there was easy, even for our first trip to the country. We flew from Logan Airport on Icelandair, rented a car at the airport, bummed around Reykjavik for two days, and then set out on Route 1 or the Ring Road, the main national road which goes all around the island. Outside the city, the road is practically empty and the scenery makes for a fast and breezy trip. The road passes through jagged lava beds from past eruptions and then the nearly treeless countryside turns grassy, with little red-roofed churches tucked up against enormous cliffs. Iceland in the summer is as green as Ireland, with an icy white slice of Alaska laid upon the hills.
Skogar is a two-hour drive from Reykjavik. We may have spent nearly as long gawking at Skógafoss, a 200-foot high curtain of water that drops from ridiculously green cliffs into a river that twists around sandbars of black ash. There is a camping field with bathrooms at the foot of the falls. We stayed at the nearby Hotel Skogar, which has a neat little restaurant. Our plan was to complete the hike in one day, sleep at the Volcano Huts in Thorsmork, and ride the bus from Reykjavik Excursions back to Skogar the following morning.
Our trail day was cloudless and nearly 70 degrees, which is warm for Iceland. Many locals we met said we had the first great weather of the summer. Nevertheless, anyone embarking on this trek should be an experienced hiker prepared for bad weather. To increase your chances of a dry day, one strategy would be to plan a few nights at the Skogar camping field and then hike on the day with the best forecast. You can spend the other days watching the puffins at the bird cliffs near the black sand beach in the coastal town of Vik, or making the 2½-hour drive to the Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon, where icebergs the size of apartment houses drift slowly out to sea. There is great day hiking at Skaftafell National Park, where I was able to pet a real live glacier.
The trail to Thorsmork begins up hundreds of metal stairs beside Skógafoss, to a landscape of rolling green pasture that looks like it belongs in a Peter Jackson Hobbit movie. The easy dirt trail, marked by stakes in the ground, follows a glacier-fed river, and the waterfalls begin immediately. Some are wide and gentle. In places where the river narrows, the water races over cliffs in ferocious white torrents, sometimes cascading into double or triple falls.
After a few hours of hiking, the land begins to change. Snowfields become more common, and the rich green land devolves into a stark volcanic moonscape. About halfway to Thorsmork, the trail crosses a footbridge and splits temporarily into two trails, one marked by red posts and one marked in blue. My research had suggested the red trail had more waterfalls, but also more elevation gain and loss. We took the blue path to conserve our legs, though there is no easy way across the steep and rocky terrain.
The trail passes through a narrow space between the Myrdalsjökull and the Eyjafjallajökull ice caps. (I never did learn to pronounce those names. They’re too long to sound out, and if you do sound it out, it’s still wrong.) There are numerous snowfields to traverse on this part of the hike. No special equipment was necessary in the summer.
The Eyjafjallajökull volcano last erupted in 2010, disrupting air travel throughout Europe. The trail meanders through the volcano’s fresh lava field, now solidified. It was a thrill to walk over rocks younger than we were.
Eventually the trail begins a long descent into the Thorsmork valley, which looks a bit like an all-green Grand Canyon on a more intimate scale. There is occasional exposure to high cliffs that test the nerves, but the trail is well made and quite safe.
The Volcano Huts, where we bunked that night, were another three miles once we reached Thorsmork, extending our hike to about 18.5 miles, in roughly 9 to 10 hours. We were zombies on a death march those last few miles across the valley floor. If we were to do it again, we’d stay at Basar Huts (in Thorsmork), which would cut the extra distance. Or we’d ride the evening bus back to Skogar for a richly deserved night in a plump hotel bed, thumbing through our photos from one of the world’s great trails.