Enjoying the Waterfalls and Glaciers of Skaftafell National Park

Skaftafell National Park-4

As I’ve talked about in previous blog posts, South Iceland is just filled with beautiful nature of an incredibly diverse sort. It is quite amazing that for an area that really isn’t that big, you can find nearly so many different ecosystems .

On one of many days in South Iceland, I budgeted a full day for Skaftafell National Park, though I didn’t think we would need the entire day. Skaftafell National Park is the southern part of the larger Vatnajokull National Park.

The park itself is rather big, but for most day trippers, the bulk of the sites are within a couple miles walk of the visitor’s center. The two biggest attractions for visitors are Svartifoss and Skaftafellsjokull. Both of them are reached by well-maintained trails with under an hour of walking, but there are also more longer, more difficult trails for those who want to venture deeper into the park.

Skaftafell National Park-11

I knew Skaftafell National Park is a very popular destination, with some estimates of 500,000 visitors per year, making it one of the top attractions in the country. So even though we were visiting during the shoulder season, and not high tourist season, I wanted to get to the park early so we could beat a large part of the crowds.

Skaftafell National Park-6

Skaftafell National Park is easily reached off Ring Road 1, with a well marked sign. Like all of the other national parks and attractions in Iceland, admission to the park is free. That is one of the very nice things about visiting Iceland. I am so used to America charging admission to a good number of their parks and other beautiful nature sights. However, there is one thing about Skaftafell that is uncommon in the rest of the country: they charge for parking. I only encountered this in two different sights in Iceland: Skaftafell National Park and Selijalandsfoss. Having gotten so used to everything being free, this took me aback a bit. But the parking charge is about six dollars for 24 hours. And considering how this park is probably feeling the weight of the tourist crush, I can’t say I blame them for charging for parking.

Skaftafell National Park-2

Since we got there early, the parking lot wasn’t too full, and there weren’t that many tour buses. After a brief overview of our two planned trails at the visitor center map, we set off to see Svartifoss first. I knew that was the MOST popular sight, so I wanted to see it before the crowds set off. Shortly after we set off on our 1.8 kilometer hike to the waterfall, I realized we had been had by my guide book. My guide book had designated the trail as “easy”, so I figured the trail would be mostly flat and well maintained. Well…I got half of that right. The trail is very well maintained, with most of it cement, and the a good chunk of any uneven ground is covered in plastic coverings. But flat? That’s a laugh. The trail is nearly all uphill for the route to the waterfall. And when I mean uphill, I’m not talking a gentle incline, but rather steep in more than one part. It was quite the puffer at times, and I took advantage of the some of viewpoints of other waterfalls, or viewpoints of the surrounding countryside, to catch my breath.

Skaftafell National Park-1

Eventually, we saw a nice waterfall off in the distance, and wondered if that was Svartifoss. Even though it had basalt columns like was described in my guide book, I dismissed it initially, because the waterfall looked too small to be a large tourist attraction. But once we got closer to the waterfall, I could see that yes, in fact it was Svartifoss, but thankfully it looked more majestic up close. You can view the waterfall from a bit of a distance at the bridge that crosses the river, or you can take a short trail to the base of the waterfall for a very nice view.

Skaftafell National Park-3

The waterfall looks really nice up close and personal, and the basalt columns are interesting to look at, with the combination of basalt vertical columns and hexagons, formed by differing sorts of volcanic activity.

Skaftafell National Park-5

After admiring the waterfall for a bit, we continued on up the trail out of the valley. You can turn back and take the trail down the way you came up, though it really isn’t encouraged. Due to the large volume of tourists, the park requests you take another trail back, so as to control the flow of people traffic. The trail back was nice. It wasn’t anything overwhelmingly beautiful, but it provided some nice views of the surrounding countryside. We could also see the hordes of tourists making their way up the hill to visit the falls and we were glad to miss the tourist crush. Even more so, when we got back to the visitor center and saw the lines of buses parked in the lot.

Skaftafell National Park-8

For our next hike, we walked out to Skaftafellsjokull, which is a glacier within the bounds of the national park. My guide book promised an easy 1.8 kilometer walk to the glacier, and this time, they were right on the money. The trail is flat and you can see the glacier off in the distance when you start, growing bigger as you approach it.

Skaftafell National Park-9

This glacier is like a junior version of Fjallsarlon. The glacier is not that big, and like he rest of Iceland’s glaciers, it is retreating, and leaving behind a growing glacier lagoon in its wake. Due to the deep looking, fast moving glacier river that comes from the glacier, you can’t just walk up to the glacier, but rather view it from a short distance. It’s not the most impressive glacier in South Iceland, but it is still nice to stop and marvel at the sheer accessibility of Iceland’s glaciers, a fact that is liable to change in the coming years through glacier retreat due to climate change.

Skaftafell National Park-10

Even though I had budgeted the entire day for Skaftafell, it took really only about a half a day. So we headed back to the hotel to relax in our nice, warm hotel room and plan for further adventures. Skaftafell is super easy to reach in South Iceland. Just know that is a popular tourist attraction, so plan accordingly.

Enjoying the Icy Beauty of South Iceland’s Glaciers

South Iceland glaciers-4

One of the many pleasures in visiting Iceland, is that you can experience a number of different ecosystems and micro climates, all within a relatively short distance. I mean, you can visit temperate forests, a variety of beaches in multiple colors, geothermal sites of lava fields and steam pits, and glaciers. I have been to a wide variety of countries, and none of the countries I have visited have so many glaciers so accessible to the average person.

South Iceland glaciers-1

There are a variety of glaciers in different parts of the country, but the most accessible ones are the multiple ones in South Iceland. In this part of the country, you can easily see the glaciers spilling out from the mountains as you drive down Ring Road 1. And most of these glaciers are easily visited with only a short walk from a parking lot. It’s an awe inspiring glimpse into nature, one that is becoming more and more threatened over the years as the glaciers recede.

South Iceland glaciers-2

Probably the most popular glacier site to visit (and probably also the most beautiful) is Jokulsarlon, which is a glacier lagoon just off Ring Road 1, in the southeast part of Iceland. This is the largest glacier lagoon in Iceland, and it is getting bigger all the time, as the glacier recedes, creates more icebergsĀ  and a bigger lagoon.

South Iceland glaciers-3

This is a site that is literally impossible to miss as you drive down the road, either from the lagoon itself, or the hordes of tourists in the parking lot. We approached Jokulsarlon coming from the east, because this was our second to last stop on our very long day of driving from north Iceland. We got there late afternoon, so there weren’t as many tourists, but it still was a bit of a shock to the system to see so many tourists after days of only small groups in the west and north.

South Iceland glaciers-5

You have some options when visiting Jokulsarlon when it comes to activities. There is no admission fee to the site itself (a common occurrence for the nature sites in Iceland), so you can just walk up and down the shores of the lagoon, taking in all the different angles to enjoy the different icebergs. You can walk all the way out to the beach where the icebergs eventually float into the sea after bobbing around the lagoon for a few years. It is also possible to take a boat ride in the lagoon (for a fee of course), which will get you more up and close and personal with some of the icebergs. I took a boat ride on my first trip to Jokulsarlon, but we elected not to this time.

South Iceland glaciers-8

The lagoon itself is quite large, with most of the iceberg chunks clustered in an area together, and you can see the parent glacier off in the distance. This lagoon is accessible year round, though as you can imagine, the views are a bit different in the winter when it is colder. This is one of those sites where you see it literally when you get out of the car. There is a small hill where you can get a good vantage of the overall lagoon, but this is one of the easier beautiful nature sites to visit. You could spend a lot of time just taking in all the different glaciers and imagining what the different shapes represent. My favorite icebergs were the blue ones, just because it really added a lot of icy winter beauty to the scene.

South Iceland glaciers-11

Our last stop for the day was just down the road at the other glacier lagoon of Fjallsarlon. This glacier lagoon is sort of the junior version of Jokulsarlon, because it is much smaller. The lagoon itself isn’t as big, nor are there are many icebergs as Jokulsarlon. However, you are much closer to the parent glacier. It isn’t a small thing off in the distance, but rather right in front of you. This glacier is easily viewed from the road at quite a distance, and it wasn’t until we got closer, we realized this was actually our destination of Fjarllsarlon.

South Iceland glaciers-9

Unlike Jokulsarlon, you will have to walk a little bit from the parking lot, but it’s only several hundred meters of a gravel path, and then you find yourself standing on the shores of the lagoon, looking up into the glacier. It is also possible to walk between the two glaciers on a path several kilometers, but since it was late in the day, I wasn’t exactly feeling it. I wanted to get to our hotel and relax.

South Iceland glaciers-10South Iceland glaciers-7

The next day, we visited a couple of sites, such as Skaftafell National Park (covered in an upcoming blog post), where we hiked out to the resident glacier. But on our way back, we stopped at another glacier, called Svinafellsjokull. This is another glacier that is easily accessible to the public, though instead of being just off the road, the parking lot is down a very rutted gravel road. I had visited the glacier on my first trip, but for whatever reason, I either thought I couldn’t drive down to the parking lot, or wouldn’t be able to get my car, because I ended up walking the 2 kilometers each way to the glacier. This time I didn’t make the same mistake.

South Iceland glaciers-13

The trail to the glacier viewing site is a short hike from the parking lot, and the view soon opens up to see the glacier itself and its own lagoon. Even though it has only been six years since my first trip to Iceland, I could see where the glacier has receded and opened up the lagoon even more.

South Iceland glaciers-12

Once you get to the best viewing site, it is possible to scramble over the rocks a bit more to scramble up the canyon, though I don’t think you will necessarily get a better view farther up. On many of the glaciers in Iceland, it is possible to visit and hike on the glaciers as part of a guided tour. There are numerous warning signs around many of the glaciers cautioning people from attempting to walk on the glaciers themselves, because there are all sorts of hazards and dangers that can hurt or kill you if you don’t know what you are doing.

South Iceland glaciers-14It is remarkable that in so many other parts of the world, glaciers are considered these exotic things, farflung from civilizations and hard to access, but in Iceland, they are literally just down the road and easily accessible for all to see.South Iceland glaciers-15