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Skaftafellsheiði

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.

Image source: www.vatnajokulsthjodgardur.is THE LOOP TRACK IS HIGHLIGHTED IN BLACK

THE LOOP TRACK IS HIGHLIGHTED IN BLACK. (Image source: http://www.vatnajokulsthjodgardur.is)

 

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.

Wasteland near Vatnajökull

Magnúsarfoss

 

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.

Looking upstream towards Svartifoss

Basalt columns behind Svartifoss

 

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.

Looking across to the Skeiðarárjökull glacier

The path through the stony plateau

Hikers following S3 towards the mountains

Braided river cutting across the sandur

 

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.

Vegetation becoming more prominent

Walking through the alpine bushes

Boardwalk through the alpine vegetation

The first small ascent

Wispy clouds over the neighbouring mountain range to the west

Looking ahead to the steepest section

Clouds over the mountain tops to the east

 

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.

Looking across the valley to the west

Beautiful snow-capped mountain

Morsárdalur valley

Morsárjökull glacier peaking behind the nearby ridge

 

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.

Looking towards the final ascent

Incredible ice cap and waterfall

Cloud shrouded mountains

Cloud shrouded mountains to the west

The path about to head east

Panorama from the rocky knoll

Panorama from the lunch rock

 

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.

Crossing a snow bank

Large bank of snow crossing the path

More snow to cross

The view down the plateau

The low cloud shrouding the trail up Kristínartindar

Looking east to the mountains of Hafrafell

Little bird accompanying me on the trail

Rocky terrain

 

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.

Skaftafell glacier

The top of Skaftafell glacier

 

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.

Giant cliffs towering above the glacier

Skaftafellsjökull halfway along

 

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.

Terminal lake

Panorama at the terminal lake

Skaftafellsjökull terminal lake

 

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.

Iceland’s Southern Coast

Iceland’s Ring Road, Route 1, took me east from Skógafoss where it snaked round a mountain and led me down to the coast. The little settlement of Vik rests near the black sand beach where the Atlantic waves pound the shore. Finding my way to the car park by the beach, I took myself onto the sand and looked out at the uninviting surf and the expanse of water in front of me. Standing on the shore by Iceland’s most southern village, looking directly south there is no landmass until you hit Antarctica. Amongst the gloominess of the grey sky, and finally away from the crowds of the morning, it was easy to feel isolated and I embraced the solitude.

 

It’s a popular place to stay and being so small, accommodation here books out fast. I had tried to book my stay 6 months in advance of the trip, and already prime areas in Iceland were booked out and I had to change my plans a couple of times. With no affordable accommodation available here, I was forced to head east to find somewhere to sleep that night. But despite this, I had a few hours to enjoy the place. Walking along the sandy beach, the calls of sea birds filled the sky as they circled around the cliffs that dominate the western end of the beach. I watched them for a while before turning and pounding the sand in the other direction.

 

The expanse of black sand spreads east for quite some distance, but I walked it as far as the river mouth where a man made water break juts out into the sea. A path lead through a beautiful patch of lupins to a memorial for those lost at sea. I absolutely adore lupins and they were in full bloom throughout my trip to Iceland. Some Icelandic ponies trotted by with their riders as I meandered amongst the flowers, and I looked up at the church which sat below the cloudy peaks that frame the village.

 

The church itself is elevated enough to give a good view over the village and out to sea where a collection of sea stacks sit close to the cliffs to the west. Even here the lupins were everywhere and I followed a path up the hill a little to admire them some more. Across at the cliffs, I had read about a walk up the cliff face and tried to make it out. On seeing where it started from, I drove across to the small area at the end of some houses and left my car behind to start the hike.

 

By now, I was a little low on fitness, so I puffed my way up the zig-zagging path that picked its way up the slope towards the top of the cliff. Vik grew further and further away as I climbed until I reached the top and looked over the village directly and out to sea. With the occasional sheep and bird for company, I followed the well-trodden path along the cliff top, hoping to see puffins but spotting none. First approaching and then passing the sea stacks, it eventually came out at a building with an unknown purpose and here the path petered out. I kept walking west though and not far from here found myself at the top of more cliffs overlooking the expanse of another black sandy beach, Reynisfjara, which was backed by a large lake.

 

Below me there were plenty of cars and tourists, but I was level with the soaring fulmars who thermalled around me, coming and going from their nests. Shortly after I arrived, I spotted a paraglider who was also making good use of the thermals to float with ease over the scene below. I was completely on my own and it felt great to have this view to myself after all the clamour of bus loads of tourists to the west. The sky was still so grey but it didn’t detract from the peacefulness. Retracing my steps along the cliff, I still saw no puffins, and finally made it back to the path that returned me to my car. I bade Vik farewell and continued on my journey east. The landscape turned barren as the ring road crossed a glacier flood zone and headed inland, and before long the heavens opened and a deluge came down. I discovered that my rental car was a little lacking in good windscreen wiper blades, and I had to slow right down as I struggled to see far in front of me. It remained this way for the rest of my drive.

 

I spent the night in the small settlement of Kirkjubæjarklaustur (or Klaustur for short), a completely unpronouncable place that was little more than a petrol station, a small shop and a couple of accommodations. The owner of the place I was staying pointed out a couple of walks in the area, but with the rain, I decided to get up early to do one of them rather than head off that night. So duly setting my alarm, I was rather disappointed to wake up to fog. Nonetheless, I decided to take the path up the cliff face behind the village that leads to a crater lake above the settlement. I couldn’t make out the far side of the lake through the low cloud and it was so quiet. I followed the path for a short distance but didn’t want to go too far when there was no view, but as I turned to head back, my attention was caught by a ptarmigan. These birds can also be found in my native country of Scotland, but I have never seen one. I was stoked. It flew to the cliff edge as I made my way to the top of the path down, and the cloud by now had lifted a little that I could see the village below me.

 

Once again I cursed myself for not having got food supplies as I found myself with nowhere open to get breakfast but even worse, nowhere to get supplies for the hike I had planned for the morning. I had no choice but to push on, and the ring road brought me past yet another beautiful waterfall, Foss á Síðu, and a little further to Dverghamrar, a collection of basalt columns. At this early hour, the road was quiet, and a couple of camper vans were parked up here, their curtains drawn and their occupants still. I had the place otherwise to myself as I wandered around.

 

But eventually the ring road reached the wasteland, an area of barren sand and stone which is a glacier run-off zone from the expansive Vatnajökull glacier, Iceland’s largest ice cap. It felt eerie crossing this, but finally I reached the turnoff to the Skaftafell/Vatnajökull National Park office and I was one of the first cars to arrive. I had read about a hike here which would take half the day, but with no supplies, I was a little annoyed to be yet again reminded of the lack of early opening at Icelandic eateries. I reached a quandary: set off on a half-day hike into the wilderness with just water and nuts for sustenance, or be sensible and hang around until the cafe opened and get better supplies. I cursed my lack of forward planning with regards to food supplies, but I knew that having adequate food was the way to go, so I bummed around the visitor’s centre for over an hour waiting for the cafe to open.

The hike turned out to be one of the best hikes I’ve ever done, and I returned to my car at the end of it, tired but satisfied. With just 10 days to circumnavigate the island, there was so much to fit into each day, so there was little time to hang around before moving onwards. The views were incredible as the road hugged the base of the glacier and the snow-capped mountains dominated on the inland side of the road. I saw a turn-off to a glacier lagoon at the last minute and missed it, wondering whether I should turn back and take it but all of a sudden I was at the world-famous

Although the main carpark is across the river on the east side of the bridge, I pulled in at a smaller car park on the west side of the river. Right in front of me, floating on the river that leads out to the sea from the lagoon were some large icebergs. Rather than head straight to the lagoon though, I followed the river to its mouth at the sea and walked onto the black sand to admire the iceberg graveyard, where lots of iceberg shards bobbed in the shallows or lay strewn across the beach. Here, I was very much amongst the crowds again, but I didn’t care when there was so much beauty to draw my attention.

 

Back at the river, some ducks snoozed on the banks, oblivious to the goings on around them, not caring about the giant ice bergs that bobbed on the water just behind them. Following the river to the lagoon was a surreal experience, and whilst I had expected it to be amazing, it still blew me away. Although the glacier edge looked distant, there was so many icebergs close to the shore that there was no need to go on one of the boat trips out on the lake. It is a recommended excursion here, but having done the same kind of trip in New Zealand, I had opted to save my money and not do it here, and I didn’t for a minute regret that decision. The icebergs were so close, I didn’t feel that I missed out at all.

 

Even as I stood there, the movement of the tide pushed against the river causing the icebergs to be in constant movement, some quicker than others. I crossed the bridge and joined the hordes of tourists on the other bank to just wander around and admire them. The sun glared on the water from this side but with the tidal movements of the icebergs there was a constantly changing view as I meandered along the eastern shore, and as the hours headed well into the evening, a large flock of arctic terns noisily fed on whatever shoal of fish lay hidden below the surface. Boats continued to plough across the water touring the icy behemoths whilst I remained in my reverie enjoying the sight. I returned to the western shore and sat on the bank of the lagoon and watched the moving icebergs until an evening wind left me cold.

 

It was a long drive with the Vatnajökull glacier for company as I made my way to Höfn, my rest stop for the night. Out on a little peninsula off the main ring road, it was a quiet little place. The tiny cafe I had dinner in was packed with locals and tourists but away from here, it felt sedate. This next morning, the cloud was back and the glaciers just peaked out below the cloud base, the summit shrouded out of view. I headed past the small fishing harbour to the tip of the peninsula where a statue overlooked a small wetland reserve. From here, following the coast north, a walking path followed the western flank of the peninsula, and I had it almost to myself, being joined by a friendly cat for a while.

 

There were oyster catchers and ducks all along the shallows, and I watched them lazily as I made my way to the golf course before turning round and heading back again. Once back at the wetlands, I followed the narrow path round this area too which was full of bird life. Only when I was leaving were other people starting to appear. The small visitor’s centre was by now open so I had a wander round there which had a rustic display area with information about the fauna of the area as well as exploration and glaciation. I’d managed by now to kill enough time for the supermarket to open, and I was able to grab some breakfast and snacks for the road, ready to head north.

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