Take a hike - Glymur Waterfall
The colorful lupine offsets the overcast skies that hang over Hvalfjörður Fjord, just north of Reykjavik. Turning down route 47 instead of taking the tunnel under the fjord brings you to an almost forgotten road, rewarding those willing to make the journey with the sight of one of Iceland’s lesser-known waterfalls, Glymur.
I’ve reached the bottom of the fjord and am gazing ahead at a large canyon stretching away inland, the falls hiding at the very end of the twisting mess of rock and moss. At 198 meters, it’s the second tallest waterfall in the country, and by all accounts, a beautiful hike.
In English, Hvalfjörður translates to Whale Fjord, which originates from an old, Icelandic folktale that tells of an evil, violent whale called Rauðhöfði (Red Head) who sunk 19 ships and drowned many sailors in the fjord. Looking back out at the sultry ocean surrounded by impressively high hills of green, grey and black, as so often happens in Iceland it feels like I’ve been dropped into a fantasy world, one where such a beast may very well exist. I breathe in the crisp air and begin my hike.
A tall tale
Rauðhöfði was originally an ordinary Icelandic man who was lost at sea one day and presumed dead. He was saved by a group of elves and a year later, his shipmates found him alive and well, and with much rejoicing they sailed to his rescue. However, there was a lady elf whom Rauðhöfði had made pregnant, and before he got on the boat to go home she made him promise that he would have their future son baptized at a church. The man agreed and boarded the boat toward home.
After arriving, the man promptly forgot about his promise. One day, at mass, his newborn son appeared out of nowhere inside the church. The priest asked whose it was—but the man did not speak up. Enraged at this, the mother elf materialized and cursed the man, sending him into a spiraling madness which caused him to burst through the doors of the church and leap off the cliff into the raging sea below, turning into the evil whale Rauðhöfði as he fell. He was wearing a red cap at the time, which is where the name originated from, and from that moment Rauðhöfði started to terrorize sailors in the fjord, sinking ships and killing the men on board.
Up the river
For a long time, the whale wreaked havoc in the fjord. One day, two sons of a blind priest lost their lives to the terror inflicted by Rauðhöfði. Furious in his sorrow, he had his only daughter lead him down to the water’s edge where he put his cane in the shallows of the water.
“What does the water look like?” he asked his daughter several times before she saw a black shadow in the water streaking towards them and told her father. Satisfied, he asked his daughter to lead him further into the fjord along the coast, and as they walked by the water the black streak followed them, revealing itself to be the evil whale Rauðhöfði. At the bottom of the fjord is where the river Botnsá spills into the ocean, and they slowly started to draw Rauðhöfði upstream.
On the edge
That same river runs in front of me now, babbling away noisily and blending harmoniously with the birdcalls coming from the small, spindly trees crowding the banks on both sides. My gaze shifts up to the steep hills on the opposite bank, which I would soon be climbing over to continue the hike up the canyon—they look intimidating, to say the least. But first I must cross the river via a log thrown across it. Steadying myself with a rope nailed into trees on either side of the river and running at hand height; I step out onto the rocks struggling to stay above the water, and then onto the log to cross.
The far bank is muddy, full of boot prints from hikers gone before me. The path starts a fierce descent upwards, but luckily there’s a rope strung up along metal rods that run parallel to the path and providing a steadying hand. After a 5-minute climb I’m at the top, but immediately I must make my way back down the other side to continue up the canyon. More mud, rocks, and what could hardly be called a path leads me down to the bottom, crisscrossing over small streams of water flowing down to join the river.
After this, the hike becomes much simpler; straight up the side of the canyon. The path sometimes precariously hugs the edge of the precipice with nothing but empty space to catch you should you fall, and at other times it extends more deeply inland, threading through green vegetation, more mud and rocks. As I steadily gain altitude, I’m able to look down on the birds wheeling around the gorge, soaring on the strong gusts of wind bouncing up the canyon before perfectly landing back to their nests, situated up the sides of the sheer and jagged rock walls. Green moss contrasts with the dark cobalt rocks, and far below, the river. It was here where Rauðhöfði struggled to follow the priest as he traveled where I now did.
The loud rumble
This is where the story gets intriguing. As the whale reached the bottom of the falls, he had no choice but to climb up it after the priest. There are no details about why he needed to follow. All that is known is that as he climbed the falls, he caused the whole earth to tremble, and a loud rumble echoed through the canyon, the walls amplifying the noise until it reverberated throughout Iceland. The name Glymur roughly translates to “loud rumble.”
The roar of Glymur has accompanied me for a lot of the hike up the canyon. I start to catch glimpses of the waterfall, and there are a few spots where the path branches off to the edge for a viewing opportunity. After over an hour’s hiking, I finally reach the top of the trail directly adjacent the falls. Water ripples down the rock face to the left, before splitting up into two different streams that dive down to the bottom of the valley. To the right is a bigger stream of water, plummeting down and contrasting beautifully with the bright green moss and dark wet rock behind it. Birds wheel around in the floating mist, brave souls nesting in the spray. Facing back the way I just came affords me with an astounding view back over Hvalfjörður, and I’m able to trace the journey of the old priest and the whale from the fjord all the way up to where I’m standing.
Defeating the whale
The priest lured Rauðhöfði further up the river to a lake called Hvalvatn (Whale Lake), where the whale died due to exhaustion. It is said that there are whale bones up there somewhere, but searching for them is an adventure for another day. However, my hike wasn’t completely over just yet either; rumor has it that on a good day, you can cross the river above the falls and hike back down the other side of the canyon.
I scramble over the dark shale, coming upon the river winding its way into the unknown. I take off my boots and tie them to my backpack before searching for a good spot to cross. Gasping as I plunge my foot into the icy water, I slowly make my way across the river that had been the whale’s pathway. At its deepest point it reaches halfway up my calf, and in only a couple of minutes, I’m resting on the other bank, massaging some warmth back into my feet before starting the long hike back down. Fairly soon after setting off, I lose the path and begin to travel much as the priest would have done; with nothing to guide me but the river charging back down to Hvalfjordur.
Hiking to Glymur
The trail to Glymur Waterfall is very popular and only one hour’s drive away from Reykjavík. The trail is not suitable for young children and it’s closed during the winter.
In total the hike takes from 3-3.5 hours.
* Hiking boots
* Weather-appropriate layers of clothing
* Water bottle
* Hiking poles
* Energizing snacks