Accounting for 8% of the country’s landmass, the expansive Vatnajökull glacier is Iceland’s largest ice cap, and is clearly visible from space. Its scale is impressive and its beauty staggering. The Vatnajökull National Park includes the area of Skaftafell, a popular tourist draw as it sits near Route 1, the Ring Road that circumnavigates the country. Whilst the glaciers that curve down from the ice cap are visible from the highway, this is really an area for getting out on foot and exploring.
Whilst reading up on my trip to the land of fire and ice, I came across a recommendation for a half-day hike in this national park, known as the Skaftafellsheiði loop. I had set off early from Kirkjubæjarklaustur to make the most of the morning, but had managed to find myself with little in the way of supplies. As a seasoned hiker, I know how foolish it could be to head off on such a hike having had no breakfast and with little more than water and nuts for sustenance, so I was forced to wait for the cafe at the visitor’s centre to open at 10am to get something more filling.
It’s a popular tourist destination with a large campsite next to the visitor’s centre, and a myriad of walking routes of varying intensities starting here, as well as a base for glacier hiking companies too. The visitor’s centre has information boards detailing the local geology and this is the only place in this section of the park with facilities. From here, walks either start by cutting through the campground to the west, or by cutting past the visitor’s centre to the east.
I really recommend doing the hike in a clockwise fashion, as for me the views just got better and better and the best view was saved till the return leg. The Skaftafellsheiði loop begins by following the marked path through the campground that indicates the track for Svartifoss (S2). On leaving the campground, the path immediately starts picking its way up the hillside and it isn’t long before the expanse of the Skeiðarársandur ‘wasteland’ can be fully appreciated. This was an exceedingly popular section of trail as the waterfall is less than an hour to reach, so is a suitable destination for people short on time. When the path eventually reaches the summit of this section, Magnúsarfoss comes into view and from here, one of many path junctions can be found. It is possible to walk the loop track without going to Svartifoss, but it’s not much of a detour to include this on the walk, so I continued to follow the signs for S2 and head up river.
First, there is a viewpoint on the east side of the river which looks upstream to Svartifoss. Here the path splits, but keeping to S2, the path picks its way down to the river bed where you can walk up to near the base of the waterfall. As beautiful as all Icelandic waterfalls are, I was actually more drawn to the rock columns that appeared to dangle from the cliff edge like basalt stalactites. Crossing the bridge near the falls to the west bank of the river, the path climbs back up onto the plateau where the signs for Sjónarsker (S3) are to be followed.
It felt really barren and desolate on this section of the plateau, the ground rocky underfoot, and the vegetation patchy and low. But despite the gloom of the grey skies, it was possible to see across the sandur (wasteland) to the Skeiðarárjökull glacier. There were far fewer people on this part of the trail, and those that were, were all heading on the same route that I was. From the viewpoint at the track junction, in quick succession, we all took the S3 route to head up the plateau. The path continued on its rocky way heading towards the mountain peaks with the braided river behind me, snaking its way across the plains.
Finally the vegetation began to change as first dense grass and then small bushes began to spring up. The track varied in its roughness, but for the most part was on the flat until finally it started on one of many inclines up the flank of Skerhóll to a short plateau prior to one of the steeper sections. To the east, the snow-tipped mountains peaked intermittently through the clouds that constantly circled them and to the west the peaks of Skaftafellsfjöll dominated the backdrop.
With the ongoing ascent up the steepest (though by no means challenging) section, the views to the west grew ever more impressive. The expanse of the Morsárdalur valley became visible and the Morsárjökull glacier came into view. This long plateau provided plenty of opportunity to ogle over this valley and the low clouds over the neighbouring mountains in both directions continued to provide a dramatic backdrop for what was for me, an impressive vista.
Another small ascent lead to the highest point of this hike, with a couple of options for a final view over the valley. The first of these was a rocky knoll, and further up, and ignored by what few other hikers there were, was a dead-end path that lead to a large rock which was the perfect spot for lunch with the most incredible view to the Morsárjökull glacier and its terminal lake at the bottom of a large cliff where waterfalls cascaded down from an immense height. I spent a long time here on my own, lapping it all up.
Only when my solitude was disturbed did I leave there. Backtracking only a short distance, the loop track starts to head east. Banks of stale snow shrouded parts of the track and I had to crunch and slide my way across to follow the otherwise well-marked trail. Skirting the foot of Kristínartindar, a path separates to head up its summit after rounding its flank. Normally I would have taken this route to summit the 1126m (3694ft) peak but not only did I not have time, but the cloud base had dropped and the summit wasn’t visible. It would have spectacular views on a clear day, but I didn’t see the point that day. Surprisingly (or perhaps not, given my experience on Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest peak), most people turned up this route despite the inevitable lack of view. Instead, I continued on S3, crossing more snow and a small stream before the path turned south to skirt another mountain base. As it turned the corner at the end of the mountain, the Hafrafell mountain peaks to the east came into view. The terrain once more was barren, although a little bird flitted around the rocks along side me. I saw in the distance a steady stream of people walking up the path that I would be heading down, and on reaching the junction with it, the view in front of me just blew me away.
I wasted no time in taking the left track to Gláma where the vista was one of the most incredible sights I’ve ever seen, and one of the highlights of my Iceland trip. Below me stretching for miles was the massive expanse of the Skaftafellsjökull glacier curling down from the giant ice cap. A mix of brilliant white and dirty morraine, I felt like my jaw was dragging on the ground as I looked at it, and I felt excited to be there. There was so much to take in, as even the jagged cliff edge of the surrounding mountains was dramatic.
From Gláma, the S3 track heads south along the cliff top of this spit of land, with the glacier in constant sight. This whole section of the track was popular, with some people just walking to Gláma and back, and others doing the loop track anti-clockwise. For me, this section was the highlight of the hike, and I was glad to have it as the end portion of the hike. Whilst the western half of the loop was still incredible, I feel that walking it in an anti-clockwise manner might have made the west side seem less so after the incredible views on the east side. I think leaving the best till last is the way to go. There are various view points along the route, and at one particular spot where some rocks jutted out, I took the opportunity to do a little rock climbing down a path onto a promontory for a more solitary viewing spot. Here, the dramatic cliff face seemed so tall, and the people walking along the clifftop path appeared tiny in comparison.
Eventually, the path neared the terminal lake where a collection of icebergs floated on its surface. Here at Sjónarnípa, the S3 split into the S5 which stayed on the outer edge of the spit of land, and the S6 which cut inland. I followed the S5 which slowly began to descend towards a lookout over the terminal lake. I lingered here a while to absorb the view of the glacier a little longer, but eventually I had to push on, and I left Skaftafellsjökull behind and followed the S5 round the front of the hill. It was a long descent down Austurbrekkur where the track was undergoing maintenance making it a little uncomfortable under foot in places. This section felt like it took forever as the visitor’s centre, now within sight, slowly got nearer. Passing above the centre, then above the campsite, it emerged from the bushes to join the lower path that headed to Svartifoss. Then it was just a matter of turning left back down the hill and cutting through the campsite back to the facilities.
To really make the most of this park, a minimum of 5-6 hrs needs to be dedicated to complete this loop, or better still, stay the night to enjoy several of the walks here. With more time, I would have walked to the terminal lake of Skaftafellsjökull as well as hiking up the Morsárdalur valley. Whilst I’ve read about many incredible day and multi-day hikes in Iceland, I think this is a definite must for those of average fitness to include on any Iceland tour.