southeast iceland: a hike to svartifoss & sjónarsker at vatnajökull national park

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).

Vatnajökull National Park
Vatnajökull National Park

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.

Vatnajökull National Park with Skeiðarársandur in the background
Vatnajökull National Park with Skeiðarársandur in the background

As we climb, we see a river that flows into the sandur.

the river leading to Skeiðarársandur
the river leading to Skeiðarársandur
Vatnajökull National Park with Skeiðarársandur in the background
Vatnajökull National Park with Skeiðarársandur in the background

We continue our climb along a canyon until we get a glimpse of a minor waterfall, Hundafoss.

the gorge downstream from Hundafoss
the gorge downstream from Hundafoss
Hundafoss
Hundafoss
Hundafoss
Hundafoss

As we continue up, we can see the tips of other mountain peaks in the distance.

Climbing through Vatnajökull National Park to Svartifoss
Climbing through Vatnajökull National Park to Svartifoss

And of course, to the south, we can still see the immense sandur.

Climbing through Vatnajökull National Park to Svartifoss
Climbing through Vatnajökull National Park to Svartifoss
Climbing through Vatnajökull National Park to Svartifoss
Climbing through Vatnajökull National Park to Svartifoss
Svartifoss
the river leading to Skeiðarársandur

Finally, we reach a point where we get our first glimpse of Svartifoss, or Black Falls.

Svartifoss
Svartifoss
Svartifoss
Svartifoss
Svartifoss
Svartifoss

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).

Svartifoss
Svartifoss
me at Svartifoss
me at Svartifoss
walls at Svartifoss
walls at Svartifoss
Svartifoss
Svartifoss
Svartifoss
Svartifoss

After hanging out a bit at the waterfall, we cross a footbridge downstream from the waterfall, where we continue climbing to Sjónarsker.

Mike at Svartifoss
Mike at Svartifoss
Vatnajökull National Park with Skeiðarársandur in the background
Vatnajökull National Park with Skeiðarársandur in the background

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!

the view from Sjónarsker
the view from Sjónarsker
Sjónarsker
Sjónarsker
view from Sjónarsker
view from Sjónarsker
view from Sjónarsker
view from Sjónarsker
view from Sjónarsker
view from Sjónarsker
view from Sjónarsker
view from Sjónarsker
view from Sjónarsker
view from Sjónarsker
view from Sjónarsker
view from Sjónarsker
view from Sjónarsker
view from Sjónarsker
me at Sjónarsker
me at Sjónarsker
Mike at Sjónarsker
Mike at Sjónarsker

We can even see another glacier tongue to our west.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
view from Sjónarsker to another glacier tongue

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.

view from Sjónarsker to Skeiðarársandur
view from Sjónarsker to Skeiðarársandur

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!

4 thoughts on “southeast iceland: a hike to svartifoss & sjónarsker at vatnajökull national park

  1. You must be quite blase about waterfalls by now, Cathy 🙂 🙂 That basalt looks incredible but my favourite bit is the views up on the top with all those crags. What an adventure, and oh your poor legs! 🙂

    1. We certainly did get a lot of exercise on this trip, Jo. Some waterfalls were more impressive than others, that’s for sure, but you’re right, by the end, we bypassed a number of them thinking we’d seen enough waterfalls!🙂

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