Monday, August 22: After leaving the Interstellar scenes at Svínafellsjökull, we head further inland to the south end of Vatnajökull National Park, known as Skaftafell. We had been in the north end of this huge park when we visited the waterfalls Dettifoss and Selfoss. This is Europe’s largest protected reserve and was formed when the northern Jökulsárgljúfur National Park merged with Skaftafell National Park to the south in order “to protect the Vatnajökull ice cap and all its glacial run-off under one super-sized preserve,” according to Lonely Planet Iceland.
This area is Iceland’s most heavily touristed wilderness and apparently there are myriads of trails, both long and short, easy and difficult, here. We’re aiming for a moderate hike, the 5.5km round trip hike from the visitor center to Svartifoss to Sjónarsker and finally to Sel, which I’ll cover in a different post.
As you can imagine, since we start at the bottom edge of the mountains, near the sprawling outwash plain of Skeiðarársandur, the hike is all uphill.
As we climb increasingly higher, we can see the sweeping Skeiðarársandur, the largest sandur in the world, which covers an area of 1,300 km2 (500 sq mi). It was formed by the “Skeiðarárjökull Glacier, a large outlet glacier draining south from Iceland’s largest ice cap Vatnajökull. This glacier is well-known for the massive glacier outburst floods, jökulhlaup, that are generated by Iceland’s most active volcano, Grímsvötn” (From a Glacier’s Perspective).
As I mentioned in a previous post, a sandur is the outwash plain of a glacier; silt, sand and gravel are scooped up from the mountains by the glacier, carried by glacial rivers or glacial bursts down to the coast, where they’re dumped in huge desert-like plains of gray-black sands and rocks (Lonely Planet Iceland). Skeiðarársandur is the prototype sandur for which all other sandurs are named.
As we climb, we see a river that flows into the sandur.
We continue our climb along a canyon until we get a glimpse of a minor waterfall, Hundafoss.
As we continue up, we can see the tips of other mountain peaks in the distance.
And of course, to the south, we can still see the immense sandur.
Finally, we reach a point where we get our first glimpse of Svartifoss, or Black Falls.
As we get close to the falls, we are bowled over by the geometric black basalt columns that flank the waterfall like ominous soldiers. These columns are similar to those seen at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, and the island of Staffa in Scotland (Wikipedia: Svartifoss).
After hanging out a bit at the waterfall, we cross a footbridge downstream from the waterfall, where we continue climbing to Sjónarsker.
It’s exhausting, all this uphill climbing, but we’re rewarded at the top by magnificent views of the surrounding mountains and Skeiðarársandur. Many people continue longer hikes from here, but we’re not geared up to do such a thing. Not to mention that it’s awfully windy and cold up here at these heights!
We can even see another glacier tongue to our west.
Of course, we have amazing views of Skeiðarársandur with the river snaking out to the North Atlantic Ocean. It’s so immense that it boggles the mind.
From here, we get to walk downhill, thank goodness, to visit the traditional turf-roofed farmhouse, Sel. By now, I’m pretty exhausted from all our walking today!