After leaving Kirkjubaejaklaustur, our drive began to get a bit more interesting as we approach Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier. The day was still perfect with sunny blue skies but we met with some windy conditions. As such, sections of the Ring Road was strewn with snow. If we were going fast and we hit a patch of snow, we could actually feel the car slide just a bit! Not used to that at all, the best thing we did was to just slow down.
We learned later that the windy conditions in Iceland are sometimes called Katabatic winds. This is a wind caused by the downward motion of cold air rushing downhill from steep mountains and glaciers. These pesky gusts are well known in Iceland and can get so strong that they have been known to blow cars over! (Believe it or not, we did see one incident of a campervan lying on its side by the road getting rescued!) Luckily for us, these sections were few on our drive.
Soon enough, we could see the fingertips of the glacier, nestled in between mountains. Like drippy icing on a cake, that’s what Vatnajökull looks like if you see it from the air or on google maps. It covers a huge area southwest of Iceland, enveloping entire mountains, valleys and even volcanoes. The glacial ice is massively thick averaging half a kilometre throughout. If you like an idea of how much water is frozen here, we read that it would take 200 years to carry all of it to the sea via Ölfusá, the river with the greatest flow in Iceland!
That is a quite simply a lot of water.
Not surprisingly, glacier walks are popular here and so are the ice caves in winter. We had hoped to go on a tour of the ice caves but the season ended a couple of weeks before we arrived. It was already getting too warm and we were told that the caves were no longer safe to go into. So we were a bit disappointed. At least, we figured it is still something we have to look forward to next time!
It was just about lunch time when we arrived at the Skaftafell Visitor Centre. Skaftafell was a national park by itself before it was merged with Vatnajökull National Park. Despite this, many still consider Skaftafell to be the jewel in the crown. There are lots to do here of which hiking is the most popular. Since our ice caves tour was out and we weren’t really interested in going for a glacier walk, we were going to hike to Svartifoss, a famous waterfall also known as the Black Fall. After parking our car in the spacious parking lot, we headed towards the visitor centre. It is quite well equipped with quite a lot of information and friendly staff. So, if you are interested in hikes, this is the best place to start. Other than the visitor centre, there are also other tour companies set up here next to the parking lot. So, you can easily find out about the various tours and book yourself into one if that’s what you are after. We wanted to of course, to find out about the hike to Svartifoss and how to get there.
It is one of the most popular attractions in the area unique for the dark basalt columns that flanked the waterfall on both sides. No doubt I was looking forward to it. However, we were disappointed to learn that the hike to the waterfall itself was closed due to icy conditions. I am sure you can see the irony of it. its too warm for the ice caves but still too cold and icy for the hike. Nevertheless, we were told that you could still go almost all the way which will give you a view of Svartifoss from a distance. Then the downward trail to the base of the fall itself is treacherous due to the ice. We experienced some of it at Skogafoss so we knew what it must be like. You literally have to hang on to something to prevent yourself from slipping on the ice.
But since we were already here, we decided to go anyway. Besides, it was a beautiful day for a walk (and the winds had died down as well). So, after having a packed lunch, which was a great idea, as there’s no restaurants or food kiosks out here, we followed the clearly marked signs and set out for Svartifoss. The hike/walk is actually quite an easy trail. And it is not a long walk either. We just took our time and other than Svartifoss, there are also other waterfalls worth stopping along the way to appreciate.
And then just like the guide said at the visitor centre, we reached the top of a hill where we could see Svartifoss in the distance. We could also see the trail leading down to the falls. We noticed some who took the risk to hike down to the falls itself but thought better of it ourselves. Frozen ice and sneakers don’t always make good friends.
We were glad we did the 1.5km hike. Svartifoss surrounded by dark lava columns is certainly quite unique looking. We could see where it got its name from. In Iceland, where you are spoilt for choice when it comes to waterfalls, this is easily in the favourites list though. But for us our top pick is still Skogafoss! After we hiked back down to our car which was a lot quicker than we thought, we were ready to make our way to the last stop in our journey, Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon