Enjoying the Waterfalls and Glaciers of Skaftafell National Park

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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 icebergs  and a bigger lagoon.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

 

East and South Iceland Beautiful Nature Pleasures

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After spending more than a week enjoying a lot of the pleasures of Western and Northern Iceland, it was finally time to make our way down to the final leg of our trip, which was in South Iceland. That meant one very LONG day of driving, because we were starting our day in Myvatn and finishing it up at our hotel in the central part of South Iceland.

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This was our longest stretch of driving in a day, not necessarily in number of hours on the road, but rather the number of kilometers driven. We logged over 400 kilometers in our car, but thankfully 99% of the drive was on fully paved roads. Driving this long leg is not the most ideal, but I considered it rather necessary. Sure there are plenty of things to see and do among the fjords in Eastern Iceland, but we just didn’t have time to fit those things in along with everything else we wanted to see in two weeks. Hence, the very long day of driving to set us up for the final days of our trip.

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This is not the first time I made this drive, since I did the same amount of driving on my first trip to Iceland. That one was during the winter, and I ran into the same issues you can expect when driving on ice and snow. For reasons, I can’t quite figure out, once you get to the town of Egilsstadir, the main road splits. Sure that is understandable, because one takes you almost directly east to the coast, and the other one splits down and goes further south. What is odd is that only one of those roads is fully paved, and it’s not the one you think. No, it’s not the Ring Road 1, which is Iceland’s main highway that circumvents the island, but rather Routes 92 and 96. Sure, Ring Road 1 does continue south, but a good chunk of this portion of the road isn’t fully paved and it’s not even easily accessible during winter months if there is snow and ice on the road.

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I learned this point the hard way on my first trip. I tried to take a “shortcut” that would have cut my driving time significantly, but it was so laden with ice, that I had to turn around on a narrow road. I kept envisioning that I was going to slide off the road into the ditch and be stuck there for a very long time before help comes along (I had encountered that situation earlier on my trip in another part of Iceland), but thankfully I had made it back to the paved road.

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Even though the weather was clear on our second visit, I was completely over driving on gravel road and would rather take a little bit extra time to drive on paved roads. The drive east from Egilsstadir to the coast, is one of the most beautiful stretches of road I drove in Iceland. The road wound around the hills as we descended from the heights of northern Iceland to near sea level of eastern Iceland. The hills rose steeply around us, and we passed numerous beautiful waterfalls, easily viewed from the road. We stopped when we could, but I wish this road had more pullouts to stop to gawk and take photos.

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Once we hit eastern Iceland, the road followed the geography of the fjords, so we didn’t have too much to do, but just enjoy the scenery around us, and make occasional stops, such as an outdoor art exhibit of numerous stone sculptures in the shape of eggs of Iceland native birds. This exhibit is called Eggin i Gledivik, and makes for a short diversion. It’s a pretty exhibit in a pretty area, and is a good chance to stretch your legs from the long bouts of driving (at least it was for us).

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There is so much to see and do in South Iceland, that you will need at least a few days if you want to see most of it at a leisurely pace. It is also here when you know you have linked back up with the Iceland tourist blob. Sure there are tourists in other parts of Iceland, but the vast majority of tourists don’t venture too far outside of the Reykjavik tourist radius. That radius does extend as far south and east as Jokulsarlon (a site I’ll cover in my next blog post), and the closer you get to Reykjavik, the more tour busses and more crowds you will see. The difference is stark and very noticeable. While beautiful, this is not part of Iceland you go if you want to enjoy splendid isolation (that’s what the Westfjords are for).

South Iceland beautiful nature-12The farthest south you will see most daytrippers from Reykjavik is the town of Vik, which is on the western side of south Iceland. Among the numerous natural pleasures in the area or within short driving distance (which I will cover in future blog posts), one of the nicest (and therefore most popular) are the sites of Dyrholaey and Reynisfjara. They are two distinct areas, but you can see one from the other. South Iceland beautiful nature-16The first place we stopped was Dyrholaey, which is a beautiful rock formation, sea arch, and black sand beach. During nesting season, it is also home to a variety of birds (we visited out of bird nesting season). One of the viewpoints at Dyrholaey overlooks the western side of Reynisfjara black sand beach. From this viewpoint, you can see the sea stacks of Reynisdrangur. However, what captured my eye was the freshwater river that originated somewhere farther inland, most likely from one of the many, many glaciers in the area that flowed into the sea. I wanted to get close to it and see it for myself, but there is no easy way to walk down to the beach from the viewpoint. South Iceland beautiful nature-15At another vantage point, you can also see the sea arch off in the distance and a beautiful black sand beach down below. I remember this beach from my winter trip, because at the time I visited, it was covered in pure, virgin snow (except for a step of footprints), and I was entranced with the contrast between the pure white of the snow and the pure black of the sand. This time however, we weren’t supposed to go down to the beach, because it was closed.South Iceland beautiful nature-14After that, we drove a short ways down the road to Reynisfjara. While Dyrholaey is popular with tourists, Reynisfjara is another thing altogether. Hordes of tourist buses regularly show up and discharge their passengers for a short walk around the beach with a chance to look at a basalt sea cave, and a closer look at the sea stacks.South Iceland beautiful nature-18It is a very beautiful site, but as you see from the warning signs before you walk onto the beach, and what is apparent from just observing the beach for a few minutes, it can also be a very dangerous beach. This beach is notorious for sneaker waves, which are very powerful waves that can easily knock someone down or pull them out to sea. The occasional tourist death happens at this beach when people don’t respect the power of the ocean. The ocean is not placid at this beach, but rather filled with reasonably large, powerful swells, along with some powerful ocean currents. South Iceland beautiful nature-19This beach is also a good reminder that while Iceland has many, many beautiful beaches, this country is not what you would consider a “beach destination.” I mean beach destination in the sense that you would want to hang out on the beach all day and frolic in the water, even on beaches where the sea doesn’t rage as much. The ocean is simply too cold to swim or play in at all, even in the summertime (it doesn’t get that hot in Iceland in the summer). So beaches here are great to visit and enjoy the seascapes and beautiful nature, but not to play in the water. South Iceland beautiful nature-17From the entrance point to Reynisfjara from the parking lot, we could see the cliffs of Dyrholaey off in the distance, and it didn’t look TOO far away (though it proved to be around a couple miles). So we just started ambling down the beach, first to get away from the hordes of tourists mucking up the background of our photos, and then later just to see how far we could get. I was hoping to get close to the glacier river I saw at the Dyrholaey viewpoint, and eventually we found ourselves at the banks of that river. After taking in the view, we turned around and made our long way back to the parking lot. South Iceland beautiful nature-21South Iceland beautiful nature-22There are so many beautiful things to see and do in South Iceland, that I can’t do it proper justice in one blog post, but I have a few others coming up that highlight all there is to see and do in the area. Even though you do see daytrippers coming down on a tourist bus, that way is simply too superficial to really see everything. I would highly recommend you rent a car and see this area at your own pace. Just know that you will be one of many, many tourists taking it all in. South Iceland beautiful nature-20