south iceland: finishing our hike at vatnajökull national park and heading to vik

Monday, August 22:  The final section of our 5.5km loop hike at Vatnajökull National Park takes us around the traditional turf-roofed farmhouse of Sel.

Sel
Sel

The farm Sel in Skaftafell was built in 1912 and is a good example of the farms in this area until the middle of 1900.  Until 1974, the area was very isolated because of the glacier rivers on both sides.  Therefore the inhabitants had to provide themselves with whatever was needed.

These houses, for example, are built from driftwood collected from the coast.  The last residents in Sel were Ólöf Sigurðardóttir and her husband Runolfur Bjarnason, in 1946.  The farm is now under protection of the National Museum of Iceland.

The traditional turf-roofed farmhouse Sel
The traditional turf-roofed farmhouse Sel

From the vantage point at Sel, we can see the huge Skeiðarársandur stretching endlessly to the ocean.

Sel
Sel
Sel with the sandur backdrop
Sel with the sandur backdrop

I love this photo of an Icelandic horse standing on a slope with the sandur sprawled out behind and beneath him.

an Icelandic horse with the sandur behind
an Icelandic horse with the sandur behind
Skeiðarársandur
Skeiðarársandur
Sel
Sel
Sel
Sel

We go into the farmhouse where we find beds and a stove.  They’re no longer used today, but we can see how these hardy souls once lived.

We continue to follow the loop at Vatnajökull National Park, heading downhill all the way.

Sel
Sel
Sel
Sel
Sel
Sel
me in the backyard at Sel
me in the backyard at Sel
Mike at Sel
Mike at Sel

We cross a bridge over the river we had seen at the beginning of the hike and then get on the well-traveled trail.

finishing out hike at Vatnajökull National Park
finishing out hike at Vatnajökull National Park

Though it was tough climbing uphill at the beginning of the hike, I’m more wary heading downhill.  It’s very steep and gravelly, and since I’ve taken many a tumble on steep slopes covered in gravel, I proceed with caution.  Some areas luckily have rubber erosion matting, which helps me to keep my grip on the ground.

final views at Vatnajökull National Park
final views at Vatnajökull National Park

Below is a map of the national park.

the lay of the land
the lay of the land

I’m so happy to reach our car in the parking lot so I can finally sit down.  I’m exhausted.  Now we have a long drive ahead to Vik, where we’ll spend the night.

The Ring Road in this part of the country passes through some bizarre landscapes.  There is a vast desert-like plain of black volcanic sand with tufts of grasses, the Mýrdalssandur, where material from the Mýrdalsjökull glacier has been deposited.  Water from that glacier flows out to sea through this plain.

We also pass through an otherworldly landscape of rocks covered in a mossy brownish-green fuzz.  We get out to take a picture, and the wind is so strong it nearly lifts us up and carries us out to sea!

landscape east of Vik
landscape east of Vik
landscape east of Vik
landscape east of Vik

We pass through more endless sandy stretches with black rocks strewn haphazardly about.  Finally, after what seems like a drive to the furthest isolated reaches of the world, we arrive at the very nondescript Hotel Puffin, right in the center of Vik.  The wind is howling in this place!

Hotel Puffin is quite expensive and when we booked, the only room available was one with a terrace.  Though we had thoughts of sitting on a terrace having a glass of wine an overlooking a nice scene, we were on the first floor and overlooked a trashy looking building and a garbage bin.  No matter how we tried, we couldn’t get the terrace door open, so we finally gave up, knowing that it was too blustery and cold to use it anyway.

The rooms have an interesting volcanic pebble floor, which we haven’t seen in hotels elsewhere in Iceland.

our room at Hotel Puffin
our room at Hotel Puffin

After a bit of a rest, we head to dinner at Ströndin Bistro & Bar, which sits on the main road behind the N1 petrol station.  The place is packed.  Our waiter is Antonio, who hails from Germany but lived in New Zealand for 10 years;  he now lives here in Vik.  He is very helpful, trying to juggle a table of 10 and us; he seats us at the only empty table – for four – and asks if we would mind sharing a table with another couple; soon he brings a Swiss couple, Julie, a secretary for a law office, and Sebastian, a chemist.  They speak French, as well as perfect English.  They tell us that though some Swiss speak German, and they have studied German for 11 years, they still can’t speak it with other Swiss people. Because of the mountains separating communities, it’s easy to drive 100km and not be able to speak or understand the German spoken in the next town.

Sebastian and Julie at Ströndin Bistro
Sebastian and Julie at Ströndin Bistro

We so enjoy talking with these two.  We ask them their thoughts about Brexit and they think it is the beginning of the EU’s dissolution.  If Germany leaves, they say, it will fall apart.  Poor countries like France, Spain, Greece, and Portugal are pulling the rich northern countries down. The Swiss voted down a referendum for more vacation time and the French didn’t understand it, they tell us.  I love hearing the perspectives of people living in Europe just months before our looming election in November.

Our time here is the highlight of our day, a bit of warmth and social time to top off a long, cold and blustery day.  I enjoy a wonderful dinner of Plokkfiskur með rúgbrauði, Icelandic Cod stew with potatoes and onions, served with rye bread and butter.  Mike has Pönnusteikt Fagradalsbleikja með salati, bakaðri kartöflu og dillsinneps sósu, pan-fried Arctic char, served with baked potato, fresh salad and dill-mustard sauce.

Total steps today: 19,388 (8.22 miles).  Only two full days left in Iceland, sadly.

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!

north iceland: dettifoss & selfoss to seyðisfjörður

Thursday, August 18:  We get back on the Ring Road after leaving Leirhnjúkur and then take one more detour, on Rt. 862, north for 24km on a sealed road. The landscape is as barren and desolate as any we’ve seen so far in Iceland. We’re heading toward the south end of Vatnajökull National Park.  There we’ll see the powerful Dettifoss, a waterfall known as having the greatest volume of any waterfall in Europe.

As we’re driving up this sealed road to the north, we can’t imagine where on earth a waterfall will emerge. It’s as flat as can be as far as the eye can see.

the long barren walk to Dettifoss
the long barren walk to Dettifoss

We finally arrive at a parking lot and see the footpath toward Dettifoss.  It’s a 2.5km loop walk to the canyon-edge view of Dettifoss and the smaller cataract, Selfoss.  We wonder if we have the energy to do this entire walk, as we’ve already walked our fool legs off today!  We decide we’ll just walk to Dettifoss and then see if we feel like following the loop to Selfoss.

The walk is as barren as the rest of the surrounding landscape.

the walk to Dettifoss
the walk to Dettifoss

After quite a walk, we finally reach the west edge of Dettifoss.  The roar of the 193 cubic meters of muddy water per second tumbling over the 44m high and 100m wide cliff is enough to take our breath away.  We can feel the immense power of this waterfall.

Dettifoss
Dettifoss
Dettifoss
Dettifoss

We’re lucky it’s a sunny day, because we can see rainbows over the canyon downstream from the waterfall, as well as directly over the waterfall.

rainbow at Dettifoss
rainbow at Dettifoss
rainbow at Dettifoss
rainbow at Dettifoss

The pathways down to the edge of the waterfall meander through a carpet of green, the only green to be seen for miles in any direction.

Dettifoss
Dettifoss
Dettifoss
Dettifoss
Dettifoss
Dettifoss
Dettifoss
Dettifoss
Dettifoss
Dettifoss
Dettifoss
Dettifoss
the great and powerful Dettifoss
the great and powerful Dettifoss
Dettifoss
Dettifoss
Dettifoss
Dettifoss
rainbow downstream from Dettifoss
rainbow downstream from Dettifoss
Dettifoss
Dettifoss
Dettifoss
Dettifoss

What a spectacular waterfall Dettifoss is!  We walk around on all the paths and see the waterfall from every angle.

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I love the blue skies dotted with gray-bellied clouds and the rainbows that shimmer in the mist and sunlight.

Dettifoss & rainbow
Dettifoss & rainbow

We’re so impressed by Dettifoss that we don’t want to leave the area.  We decide to continue on the loop to the smaller waterfall Selfoss.  We return to the trail through the rocky landscape.

the walk to Selfoss
the walk to Selfoss
the barren walk to Selfoss
the barren walk to Selfoss

We get our first glimpse of Selfoss.  Poor neglected Selfoss, which in any other place would be considered a major waterfall, is as pretty as any waterfall can be.

first glimpse of Selfoss
first glimpse of Selfoss

I suppose next to Dettifoss it isn’t much, but it’s quite beautiful in its own right.

Selfoss
Selfoss
Selfoss
Selfoss
me at Selfoss
me at Selfoss
Mike at Selfoss
Mike at Selfoss

I love the character and beauty of Selfoss more than the powerful, almost bullying, Dettifoss.

the fabulous Selfoss
the fabulous Selfoss

By this time, it’s nearly 5:00 and we still have to walk back to the parking lot, drive back to the Ring Road, and continue our drive to Seyðisfjörður where we’ve booked our hotel for the night.  We still have a long drive ahead. Once we return to the Ring Road, we hardly make any more stops, as it’s impossible to do so.  We go through nearly 100km of absolutely nothing, very little vegetation, no houses, no civilization of any kind.  The road is raised and there are few pullouts, so we can’t even stop to take pictures, which I’m sure is a relief to Mike who is awfully tired of me asking him to pull off at every opportunity.

I have some of my most stellar and lucid moments on this drive; I like to think it’s because I’m exhausted.  I don’t know if my mind stops working because I’m tired, distracted, or just getting old. 🙂  At one point, I see a waterfall and I blurt out, “There’s a watermelon!”  Later, some other tourists are taking pictures out of their car and Mike says, “It’s too dark to take a picture!”  At the same time, I say, “It’s too dark to take a people!”  We have a lot of laughs over my ridiculous blurts.

As we get closer to the Eastfjords, we come to a long area of unpaved gravel road, maybe 20km altogether.  As we get closer to the east, we start to see more green farmland, hills dotted with rotund sheep, and trees with silver-backed leaves that glimmer in the sunlight.

We finally reach civilization at Egilsstaðir, a town on the banks of the Lagarfljót river.  From here, we still have to drive east on Route 93 for about 17 miles, but it’s a slow drive over a mountain and down into the town that sits prettily on the fjord of the same name.  We check into our hotel, the Hotel Snæfell, at its sister hotel, Hotel Aldan, where we’ll also have breakfast in the morning.  By this time, it’s 8:30 pm and we’re starved, especially after the almost 10 miles of walking we did today, plus over 200 miles of driving. We head straight for the Skaftfell Exhibition Gallery & Bistro for dinner.  At the bistro, the late artist Dieter Roth’s book works are on display along with other interesting art books and book art.

Mike enjoys a Baldi lager while I stick with an Einstök Icelandic Pale Ale.

Mike at Skaftell Exhibition Gallery & Bistro
Mike at Skaftfell Exhibition Gallery & Bistro

Our dinner here is delicious; I have cod with risotto and arugula and Mike orders a Skaftfell pizza with minced beef, bacon and onions.

Cod with risotto & arugula
Cod with risotto & arugula
Skaftell Pizza - minced beef, bacon and onions
Skaftfell Pizza – minced beef, bacon and onions

We head back to the Hotel Snæfell, where we’ll be staying for the next two nights, and are disappointed to find our room is impossibly tiny.  It does have its own bathroom however, which several of our hotels don’t have.  However, for $166/night, I think it’s over the top!

the smallest room imaginable at Hotel Snæfell
the smallest room imaginable at Hotel Snæfell

We’re pretty exhausted after our long day today, so we don’t have much trouble falling asleep.  Tomorrow, we look forward to exploring the area around Seyðisfjörður.

Total steps today: 22,463, or 9.52 miles.  Yikes!  It’s no wonder that Mike is starting to come down with a cough and a cold.