Posted on February 5, 2019
Fjaðrárgljúfur–very Icelandic name, is a jewel of a river canyon in southeastern section of the island. It’s just 2 miles off the Ring Road, a few miles west of the village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur and one of a few classic photo spots between Vik and the Glacier Lagoon/Hofn area.
But it’s not a spot many tours get to, mostly just Icelanders and Ring Road travelers. Oh yeah, Justin Bieber used this unique Geopark as main location for one of his music videos — and landing the canyon on the travel world’s radar screen.
The park itself isn’t much, just a trail along the canyon edge. But something about it, the fluid canyon shapes, that’s almost otherworldly. The trail runs for about a mile and ends at a dramatic overview of the slide-like waterfall. It’s an experience regardless of the weather and a pleasant repast from the Ring Road drive.
Location: Follow Iceland Rt 1 west from Kirkjubæjarklaustur for two miles till you see a small sign for the park on the right. It’s Rt 206. Follow it for a couple of miles, it turns to gravel and ends at the park’s parking lot. GPS: N63° 46′ 16.026″ W18° 10′ 19.506″
Photo notes: You can go wide angle or zoom to capture the canyon’s curves. The canyon runs north/south so there’s not as much value being there during Golden Hour. Given the controlled access, there’s no issue with people getting into the shot.
The trail up starts at the parking lot. You can’t stray from the well-marked path; the grasslands are too delicate given the foot traffic. There are well defined overlooks along the way for photos (and selfies). Luckily, even when an overlook is busy, you can get a fairly clean shot of the canyon area. Note that the more delicate promontories of the canyon have been made off limits since the Bieber video.
Two studies. The canyon’s charm is all about the strange shapes — kinda like what you find at Antelope Canyon in Page, Arizona, but way bigger. The challenge is how you put these elements together.
It’s easy to go wide and include too much landscape for a clear composition. With these two studies I pushed in closer on some core shapes and colors. That gave extra emphasis to the grassland and juxtaposed the expanse of green against a few of the blue-black of lava columns.
The canyon ends just a bit further down the trail at the waterfall. The shot below is taken at the fenced overlook. It’s another view that has a wealth of complicated shapes. But the thing that worked best for me was to use the cliff that juts out on the left as a foreground element that leads the eye to that waterslide of a falls. I crop out everything on the right side and went square so as to emphasize the other visual relationship, that clear, blue lake at the bottom right. In post, I balanced out the dark and light spots and added texture to the visual surfaces, that lovely moss.
Posted on June 21, 2018
After 1 1/2 days shooting Dyrholaey, Vik Black Sand Beach and the waterfalls, I was ready to continue down the Ring Road. My next stopping point was Skaftafell Hotel, just down from Skaftafell National Park, an hour and a half northeast of Vik. The trip turned out to be full of unplanned discoveries.
Ninety miles isn’t much. During the first leg, the landscape isn’t much different from the western side of the South Coast. You’re driving through a wide swath of rich farmland sprinkled with sheep and horses that’s overlooked by the usual mesa. After that, the massive footprint of Vatnajokull Glacier pushed the Ring Road down towards the coast.
So the plan was to stop half way and do a 2-3 hour photo shoot at Fjaðrárgljúfur, a 2 million year old canyon park, then head into glacier country and Skaftafell Park. I had done a quick trip to the canyon on my first trip to Iceland, getting there just before dusk (see slideshow below). Fjaðrárgljúfur had a certain magic and I knew the location would be even better with good light.
But before easing down the road, I needed to upgrade my cold weather gear. I swung by the store, Icewear, to pick up some serious gloves and a balaclava mask on my way out of Vik. Icewear is as big as any REI store in LA. Finding all that cold weather gear in a town of 200 is kind of impressive.
About 40 miles east of Vik, Rt 1 crosses a lava area that is covered with dense green moss. It’s an intriguing area, most of it fenced off for environmental reasons. It’s worth a stop at one of the road pull-offs.
Closed for renovation
When I got to the turnoff for Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon, I was in for a surprise. A park ranger was waving visitors over to explain that the canyon was off-limits except for the bridge at the bottom of the stream. The wooden boardwalk that goes along the entire eastern rim was getting a major renovation.
That wasn’t what I wanted to hear, the canyon is one of Iceland’s unique photo experiences. Plus this was my one chance to shoot this park, what with me doing the Ring Road. I wanted to see if there was any leeway.
Our ranger was a total pro, articulate, thoughtful, hunky. He explained that as an American, I would understand how important and delicate the ecology of a park can be. He mentioned that it gots 500,000 visitors in 2017, way more than the current wooden boardwalk can’t handle, especially with all the spring rains.
My new ranger friend told me the view from the bridge would be worth it. Knowing that the bridge is located at the bottom end of the canyon, I begged to differ. “Do you think a photo taken from the far end of the Grand Canyon captures the magic of the place?” He got my point. He did allow me to head down to the base of the bridge and wander up river if I wanted. The water was way too cold for that but I did get one or two shots at river level.
Not the photo I wanted. But I gained a bit of insight into the challenges Iceland faces in preserving its unique landscape. Plus he gave me a ride back up to my car. We shook hands. He continued working with the new visitors, I continued up the Ring Road.
Along the way
With only 50 miles to my hotel, I had plenty of time to kill. So I kicked back and enjoyed the classic southern countryside, golden-green farmland framed by a mountain plateau… plus a wind-swept waterfall.
Just another road pull-off, not a place that’s in any guidebooks or on any tours. But balancing the fence posts with the plateau made it one of my favorite images.
Then I pulled up and parked for a closer look at the falls, called Foss a Sidu.
The area past this point was private land so I didn’t intrude. Just took six shots of this delicate falls. In half the images, the water doesn’t make it do the ground, the wind gusts kept sweeping the falls away.
Twenty miles further on and the Iceland landscape is transformed from farmland to a black sand river delta. I spotted a butte set against the expanse of brown-black earth — another photo location that’s not in the guidebooks. I found a safe pullout just over the bridge. My first image was to the east.
Shooting north, the view is of a long plateau and a tongue of the Vatnajokull Glacier.
Afternoon exploration, Hof
By now I was close to my hotel and ready for a late lunch. I checked in and grabbed something at the restaurant/store across the road. I had decided to do Skaftafell and the Svartifoss waterfall the next morning when I was rested. So that afternoon, I drove further east on Rt 1 to take a look at another of the area’s points of interest, the turf church at Hof.
The church itself was closed but the trees and old graveyard made for a shot that could have been in The Hobbit.
This whole area has some intriguing mountains so I explored another 10 km down the Ring Road. There was something about the snow covered peaks fronted by golden tundra grass. But one of my working rules is not just to shoot a cool mountain or waterfall by itself. I need to put any visual element into a more complex artistic context. So I didn’t pull over until I found the missing element, a dirt road that led the eye into the mountains.
It had been a long day so I rested before dinner. But Iceland had more in store for me, the evening light. I walked outside and noticed sunlight filtering down to the glacier behind Skaftafell National Park. Sweet.
A closer look.
And further down the road.
I got back to my room just after nine. It had been an interesting day, a perfect road trip day. My only must-see photo location had been a washout, called on account of spring rains. But the photos I had were uniquely my own … just me seeing something that other folks on the road had driven past. Not bad.