Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Iceland's Skaftafell National Park & Svartifoss Waterfall


There are three national parks on the island nation of Iceland.  The biggest, Vatnajokull, is made up of three 'former' national parks, combined to create one large park in 2008.  Vatnajokull National Park is the central portion and features the Vatnajokull glacier, Jokulsargljufur makes up the northern portion, and Skaftafell National Park rings the southern edge of the park and features some amazing natural features and waterfalls.

map of Iceland's national parks, Vatnajokull map, Skaftafell map
National Parks of Iceland

During our summer trip along the southern coast of Iceland, my husband and I had the chance to explore Skaftafell Park.  We were headed back to Reykjavik after driving the Ring Road to Hofn, then turning back. We'd skipped a visit to Skaftafell on our way east due to heavy, thick rainfall and intense fog.  Upon the return trip, we were determined not to miss the opportunity to do a little hiking and exploring.  It was a still a bit rainy and gloomy, but the clouds were patchy and the rain wasn't consistent, so we opted to give Skaftafell a shot.  We pulled into the parking lot, located about 30 seconds off the Ring Road (approximately 4 hours east of Reykjavik, or 50 minutes east of Kirkjubaejarklaustur).

I'm so glad we did!  As soon as we stepped out of our rental SUV, the clouds broke and the rain let up.  The sun peeked out and shot out a few weak rays - good enough for us! We bundled up in several waterproof layers (just in case), packed some water bottles, and headed inside the visitor center to find the best route to the Svartifoss waterfall, which is one of the main highlights of Skaftafell National Park (er, the former Skaftafell National Park - let's just pretend it's still a national park for the sake of this article and so that I don't have to keep side-noting this fact.)

Hundafoss waterfall Skaftafell national park, national park Iceland
Joey stands above the precipice of the Hundafoss waterfall in Skaftafell, Iceland.

Inside the visitor center, there are lots of books on Iceland, the park, glaciers and natural history, but not so much maps of the trails.  You could purchase a book on Skaftafell which featured a map section, but it wasn't cheap and we weren't interested in book-shopping that day.  There was also a store for sweaters and hiking materials, and a small cafeteria - but no trail maps!  I was a little bummed, particularly after perusing the 'museum' section of the tourist center that told the sad, sad tale of some missing and dead hikers.

Since you know I'm a morbid person deep down inside, you know I'm going to share that story with you now.  According to the placard inside the visitor center, two British undergraduate students from the University of Nottingham, Ian Harrison and Tony Prosser, came to Iceland to study the glacier Morsarjokull in 1953.  On August 2, they completed their measurement tasks of Morsarjokull for the day, and decided to do a little recreational hiking up to the peaks of the Oraefajokull glacier.  It was a nice day when they set out, but the afternoon brought strong winds and snow that lasted for 10 days.  The men did not return.  Search missions turned up nothing, and the hikers were presumed dead.

In 2003, a group of hikers discovered decrepit and rotting hiking equipment on the Skaftafellsjokull glacier, moved down the mountain by the flow of the outlet glacier.  The equipment's style dated back to the 1950s. No human remains were ever recovered, but it was assumed the equipment had belonged to the two unfortunate British students.  That same equipment is what you can find on display in the Skaftafell National Park visitor center - and the display is pretty powerful once you know the story.

Equipment found in 2003 in Skaftafell that once belonged to two missing British students.

Therefore, the main moral of the story was, from my interpretation: don't go hiking if you're not prepared and know where you're going.

Which led me full circle back to the case of the missing hiking maps in the visitor center. If anyone from said center is reading this... c'mon!  Just a basic brochure with some pretty colored trail maps is all anyone needs. One page.  Folded.  Easy peasy.

Luckily, outside the visitor center on the path towards the campground, there stood proud and tall a sign indicating all of the trails - where they began, where they led, and their level of difficulty.  Using my trusty iPhone, I snapped a quick pic of the trail sign, and that is what we used to guide our hike.  (Turns out, in the end, it is really easy to navigate Skaftafell park and really, trail maps aren't necessary.  But I wanted to tell you my tale!)

Svartifoss waterfall Skaftafell national park Iceland
The hiking trail to Svartifoss waterfall in Skaftafell, Iceland.

Hiking in Skaftafell is free.  The only cost associated with the park is the campground fee if you choose to stay overnight, and anything you might want to purchase in the visitor center.  Once Joey and I had found the entrance to the Svartifoss trail, off we went with the sun shining on us and not a raindrop in sight.  It was perfect!  The trail up to Svartifoss is relatively easy - I struggled a little being 4 months pregnant and getting used to some weird changes in my body.  But it was nothing I couldn't handle, and young kids and the elderly were passing me with ease, so I'm guessing the trail wasn't considered hard at all.

Hundafoss waterfall Skaftafell National Park Iceland
Hundafoss watefall in Skaftafell, Iceland. Quite beautiful!

We stopped to catch our breaths (okay, I stopped to catch MY breath while Joey waited patiently) at a pretty waterfall called Hundafoss.  From a rocky outcrop near Hundafoss, we had a spectacular view of what lay beyond Skaftafell National Park, on the other side of the Ring Road.  Desolation.  A black, barren lava field edges right up to the lush green forests of Skaftafell, and the juxtaposition couldn't be any more startling.  I loved it.

A view across the park and on towards the barren lava fields beyond.

Next up on the trail, after about 15-20 minutes of hiking, was the amazing Svartifoss waterfall.  I'd seen pictures of this natural wonder online, but seeing it in person was so much better.  It's not exactly the waterfall that is incredible, but the unique rock formations all around it.  Large, towering volcanic basalt columns ring the waterfall and make it seem as if Mother Nature built a fortified rock fence around her precious cataract.

You can hike down to the bottom level of Svartifoss, but you can't get right next to it due to trail restrictions.  Not that you'd really want to - the water is icy cold.  But standing in the belly of the cavern is very cool, as you are surrounded by these fantastic columns and can feel the misty spray of the falls on your skin.

Svartifoss waterfall Skaftafell National Park Iceland
Svartifoss waterfall in Skaftafell, Iceland - check out those basalt columns!

If you are so inclined, you can also hike across a bridge and up the other side of Svartifoss.  This trail then continues on to other parts of Skaftafell.  I was pretty winded by this point, and having seen my main goal, was ready to head back.  We were on our way back to Reykjavik and didn't have a lot of time to spend in the park, which was unfortunate, but I was glad we'd seen Svartifoss and had had the chance to hike in the first place.

Enjoying the beauty of Svartifoss!

If we'd been able to spend more time in Skaftafell, perhaps a couple of days, there is no shortage of things to do.  Other than hiking in the forested trails, you can hike on and alongside the glaciers (on your own or with a guided tour), visit Lac Polaire, or even take a small airplane ride above the glaciers with the Atlantsflug tour company.  And I'm sure that's only the tip of the iceberg!