Gjáin, the Most Mystical Place in Iceland
Find Your Foss
We weren’t looking for Gjáin. Gjáin is the kind of place you don’t even realize exists until you stumble upon it. We were actually in search of Stöng, a Viking longhouse in the Þjórsárdalur valley.
To get to Stöng, you have to take a road marked by a red and yellow road sign—with an exclamation point, 4x4 only/no cars icon, and the words “illfær vegur” which we learned later means “impassable road”—and decide if your tiny Toyota Auris can make it, or maybe plan ahead and go in a 4x4. Logic told us to turn around and skip the longhouse. We could park and leave the car there, it was only a mile hike in, but it was late in the day and we still had quite a ways to go before we reached our hotel. As we decided to just forget about it and move on, a beat up Honda Civic flew past us barely giving the sign a glance and bouncing wildly through a litter of potholes. We looked at each other and without a word set off after them, against our car rental company’s repeated warnings.
While our trek down this road started out fine, it quickly turned into a vibrating journey against gravel waves of un-raked paths, zigzagging around large rocks, and circumnavigating pot holes that had grown into sizable ponds with the recent rain. After a few minutes of cautious maneuvering, we reached Stöng.
Stöng consists of two areas, the first being the actual preserved ruins excavated by archaeologists back in 1939, and the other is the Þjóðveldisbærinn Saga-age farm, a replica of how the ruins actually appeared in the past. We reached the actual preserved ruins and explored the foundations of what was a farmhouse before the eruption of Hekla laid waste to everything in the area. The valley where the ruins stood was golden with autumn and shone in the first bit of sunlight we’d seen all trip.
From Stöng, we continued down the ever more run-down road in search of the farmhouse replica. Driving up onto banks, half on and half off the road itself, dipping into holes that were larger than the wheels on our car, we didn't go far before the road forked. With each path equally weather-beaten something told us to go left, and so we snaked up a steep hill riddled with holes and looped around to the top of Gjáin without even knowing it was there.
We arrived at a spot above Gjáin with an area to park and an interesting stone staircase compelling us to explore. Looking down it was difficult to take the entire scene in, but as we followed the staircase's curve down the hill, the most mystical and magical place I’ve ever seen slowly revealed itself.
Tiers of waterfalls trickled down cascading levels of volcanic rock, furry and green with moss, feeding one into one another until the last one spilled out into a creek creating a scene I can only describe as fairy-like. The waterfalls’ quiet song echoing through the valley with the twittering of birds, tiny whimsical wooden bridges, and the serene stillness all added to the unreal feeling this spot evoked. I muttered over and over again to myself that it seemed like something out of a movie, and indeed, I found out after the fact that Gjáin was featured in a season four episode of Game of Thrones.
The spot itself is broken up into distinct sections based on where the waterfalls sit. Furthest back is an isolated area defined by a taller waterfall that feeds into a meandering creek. The lower, main area is characterized by two slow sloping waterfalls split by a hill that rises out of the ground like a scene from the Lord of the Rings. Forming a barrier in front of these waterfalls is a fleet of volcanic rock formations holding their own enchanted aura. And, behind it all across the creek is a hidden waterfall you have to hike up and over to reach.
The sun dropped lower in the sky and it was time to go. I dragged my feet as we climbed the hill to leave this magical place. We turned back onto the 4x4-only road in hopes that it would return us to a rental-car-appropriate path. And as we rolled on to our next spot I thought about how sometimes the thing you're looking for isn't always the thing you need, sometimes you find something better, something meant to be.