Project Description

Skaftafell National Park is the second of its kind in Iceland by land area, right after the one of Thingvellir. Located south of Vatnajökull, the park is surrounded by three glacier tongues: Skeiðarárjökull (the largest glacial valley in Europe) in the west, Morsárjökull in the north and  Skaftafellsjokull in the East, not to mention the impressive Öræfajökull glacier. All these glaciers protect the area from bad weather, making it the sunniest place of the southern part of Iceland, although some clouds filled the skies during our visit. The park covers more than 1700km² of which only 13% are located outside the glacier area. On Öræfajökull is situated the volcano Hvannadalshnjúkur, the highest point of the country with its 2119m and undoubtedly offering a breathtaking views once at its top!

Along the south coast of Iceland

As usual, we left Reykjavik in the morning for a few hours drive along the south coast of Iceland. During this journey, I take the opportunity to read a few lines about the history of the park itself and its infrastructure. It was founded on September 15, 1967 to protect the habitat of Skaftafell and part of the plain of Skeiðarásandur and the surrounding glacier tongues. Skaftafell was originally an important farm and its ruins are still visible today near Eystragil. They were moved in the 1830s and 1850s to a few hundred meters away and a farmhouse was built in Sel where was previously situated a modest sheepfold. This farm is not inhabited anymore, but it can be visited after about a 2 hour walk from the House of the National Park, also known as the “visitor center”.

Skaftafell National Park

This is there, at the visitor center, that we finally arrive mid morning, having first admired many beautiful and varied landscapes throughout our journey. Right after getting off the bus, we first visit the permanent exhibition center which explain us everything there is to know about the park and its various aspects, may it be geological, human or historical. This is, in my opinion, an excellent introduction to the park and how to behave once on the trails. Don’t miss the highlight of this exhibition: a film about the impressive eruption of Grímsvötn and the jökulhlaup (glacial lake outburst flood) which happened there and ravaged the plains of Skeiðarásandur in 1996. You will necessarily be crossing it by car or bus to get to the park, so you will notice the lack of vegetation in the area, which is both impressive and scary! Among other tourist facilities managed by the park are a restaurant (closed for renovation during our visit), a campsite with showers and toilets, a parking and a petrol station just outside the locality, the only between Kirkjubaejarklaustur and Höfn.

Skaftafell was the center of the former Skaftafell National Park covering part of the Vatnajökull and has disappeared in favor of the creation of the current and much larger park. It is thus an excellent starting (or arrival) point, ideal for many hiking, horse riding or ice climbing, as well as mountain biking or mountaineering to climb at the top of Hvannadalshnjúkur for the bravest and most adventurous! One of the most popular hikes is the one leading to Svartifoss, a waterfall located above Skaftafell and this is the one we have chosen to follow today. Let’s go!

Svartifoss Hike, between waterfall and greeny lanscape

Svartifoss Hike along the “Waterfall Path” is the most known and visited walk by tourists discovering Skaftafell because it is the shortest and easiest one to access, in addition of being extended to other points of interest within the park. The starting point can be reached directly from the parking lot or the camping located about 200m away.

It takes about one hour and a half (1.5km) to walk the loop between the parking and Svartifoss waterfall. The hike is easy and the height difference is about 150m. Having looked at the map available at the visitor center, we follow the path marked S2, then S3. Half an hour later, we arrive on a plateau with a crossroad. One path leads us down to Svartifoss waterfall and another to a hill overlooking the ice tongue of Skaftafellsjokull and Sjónarnípa. From the plateau itself, we can already see Svartifoss waterfall which look really isolated in the middle of a surprising vegetation. The road to Sjónarnípa is closed today due to snow, still quite present in the middle of June!

Unlike Dettifoss or Skogafoss, Svartifoss is not famous because of its water flow, but thanks to its absolutely beautiful environment. Indeed, the “black waterfall”, as it is nicknamed, is surrounded by beautiful dark basalt columns, sort of natural volcanic organs formed by a lava flow which cooled slowly. The water falls from a height of about 12m and we take our time to admire it more closely. Then it is time to go back to the intersection and cross a small bridge about twenty meters before the fall which allows us to reach the other side of the river and to continue our walk.

As we climb, the vegetation becomes increasingly rare, until having disappeared completely in favor of rocks and pebbles. We come face to a closed barrier which indicate that Skaftafellsheiði hiking trail is currently closed because of the snow. Really, that snow still present in large quantities in June impresses me! Will Iceland become the new Eldorado of winter sports? Anyway, this trail of 18km can not be done in half a day and is not part of our program, so we follow the loop allowing us to get back to the parking lot by the other side (yes, it’s a bit the principle of a loop). In doing so, we go through the previously mentionned “Waterfalls path” and admire Hundafoss and Þjófafoss waterfalls, of course less known that Svartifoss, but very nice to see nevertheless.

Just before returning to our starting point, we cross Lambhagi, a surprising place in Iceland since there are trees here! I find amusing the fact to get amazed by this kind of thing, but it seems that it is normal for us, people from the continent. Come on, just look out the window, I’m almost certain that you will see at least one tree and even grass! Here in Iceland, it’s most likely volcanic rocks, mountains, glaciers and volcanoes that you’ll see from your window, no doubt about it! These trees offer an ideal environment for birds and we quickly spot a large number of them, all of different sizes and colors. One of them especially can be heard from far away as it makes a funny noise which sounds like a laser! Piiiuut, piiiiuuuut! It take us 5 good minutes to see it, even if it was right above above our head!

Back near the visitor center, we are quickly attracted by the smell from a small caravan offering various “fast food” dishes to tourists in the area. Nothing better to end our walk, and I must admit that the hike has dug our appetite! Lucky us, because although some dishes are no longer available, they still have some lobster soup (langoustine in fact), skewers of meat and fish and chips. Since we do not know what to take, we order one dish of each, of course! Everything was delicious, especially the lobster soup which we will taste different variations once back in Reykjavik (sandwich, burger, etc). If you want to eat there, order quickly and preferably before 2PM, as soon as the reserves are depleted, “Glacier Foodies” closes for the rest of the day!

Towards Skaftafellsjökull

As we still have time before our departure towards the capital, we follow the Skaftafellsjokull trail. It starts right next to the visitor center, is very easy to follow and ends near Skaftafell Glacier ( “jökull” means “glacier” in case you haven’t guessed). From here, the view of the huge ice tongue is awesome! Those who wish can get close to it, but are encouraged to follow the instructions on a warning sign down the road. As we are not prepared to climb on a glacier (not today anyway!) and especially knowing that the clock is ticking, we turn back along a path parallel to the one used to get there. Here we enjoy our final moments in the park by walking on wooden walkways surrounded by a landscape of rocks of all shapes and sizes, covered with green moss everywhere. A very nice show on which one should not walk!

Once back at the visitor center, we get on the bus waiting for us and leave towards Reykjavik, again exhausted but delighted with our day! More time on site would have been required to follow a longer hike than the one of Svartifoss, but anyway, closed roads would not have allowed to go really far… The vagaries of weather, better to cope with them as not everybody can afford the luxury of leaving at the last minute once the weatherforecast announced sunny days without rain and according to the fact that there are still flights and accommodations which are not too expensive… In short, a day or two in Skaftafell National park (officially Vatnajökull National park nowadays) is worth it, especially if you can sleep on the spot!