Having arrived at Skaftafell wilderness area, we awoke early to enjoy a breakfast of free homemade waffles and prepare for a day of hiking. We looked out the window of our guesthouse only to discover that it had snowed overnight.
That’s not our guesthouse in the picture above, by the way.
We finished our waffles, boarded our trusty Duster, and set out, driving east along Highway 1 on our way to Skaftafell’s visitor centre. Here are a couple panoramas from when we pulled over during our drive:
We found during our trip that Iceland tends to be either completely flat or completely mountainous, with no intermediary stages. I like the contrast between the left and right sides of the road in the second picture.
We arrived at the park, filled our water bottles, and got a map from the large, deep-voiced, Paul-Bunyan-esque man behind the counter at the visitor centre, then set off on our hike.
Guess what the first stop was!?
Stop 1: Svartifoss Waterfall
If you guessed ‘yet another waterfall’, you would be correct!
Svartifoss is not a particularly large waterfall, and you can’t walk behind it like you can with Seljalandsfoss (I mean, you could, but it would probably be pretty uncomfortable). Instead, the draw of Svartifoss lies in the columnar basalt that surrounds the falls. Yes, those are the same rock formations that can be found at Reynisfjara beach, and if anything they are more prominent here:
Apparently the columns are what happens when liquid lava cools and solidifies, and they always form perpendicular to the cooling surface. In other words, vertical columns happen when a lava flow is cooled from above.
One of the neat aspects of Svartifoss is that the columns are slowly being eroded away piece by piece; you can see fallen chunks of hexagonal rock scattered near the waterfall pool and all along the river downstream of it.
Once we had seen all we wanted to see of Svartifoss, we continued on our way and hiked further upward into the scrubland. We saw many wonderful sights, including… scrub.
Sure, the scrub itself might not have looked like much, but the mountains in the distance were a sight to behold. The hike was also incredibly peaceful – we were the only ones on the trail, and due to the fact that Iceland has very little in the way of insects, birds, and small mammals, it was almost completely silent. The fog lifted as we kept walking, and the mountain in the second picture above became our point of reference. It was probably a volcano. We’re not sure.
End-to-end, our trek took about three hours. If you’re wondering why we invested so much time in climbing a muddy pathway up the side of a mountain, that would be for the spectacular view that could be found from the top:
The glacier you’re seeing in the pictures above is one of the tongues of Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe. At the foot of the glacier is a glacial lake containing a few sad icebergs, and beyond that are the green floodplains featured in the third image. In that same image, you can see several winding rivers flowing out into the ocean.
There was actually a path that went all along the lakeside, but we opted not to take it, since the day was wearing on and we wanted to leave plenty of time for our next stop. This would be our last major sightseeing stop in Iceland, and it would prove to be the best one of the entire trip. I am, of course, talking about Glacier Lagoon.
Stop 2: Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Jökulsárlón is one of Iceland’s most famous sights, and for good reason. At the side of the road east of Skaftafell (Highway 1, baby), you can pull over into a (free) parking lot, hike for about 10 seconds, and find yourself at the side of a glacial lake filled to the brim with icebergs of all shapes and sizes.
As has happened in this blog before, there are times when words just can’t do a place justice. Happily, we have pictures for that.
In the second picture above, you can catch a view of the glacier that is responsible for the bergs in the far distance.
One of the best things about Jökulsárlón is its interactivity. Because of the shape of the lagoon, bergs that are floating out to sea often wash up on the shore of the nearby beach, giving it the nickname ‘Diamond Beach’. Here you can walk among the bergs – some of which are big enough to stand on and others small enough to drop in a glass of water – and enjoy their presence in a myriad of ways. For example:
1. You can pose with them:
2. You can pick them up:
3. You can use them like funhouse mirrors to conceal your identity:
4. You can eat them:
I didn’t actually eat it. I was cold enough as it was. But there was something incredibly compelling about the bergs; The big ones had that cool blue colour that you don’t see anywhere else, and the small ones were so perfectly clear that they looked like they were made of glass (or diamond, I suppose).
Here is a ton of additional pictures:
(Note the tiny seal head in the last picture above. Jökulsárlón is known for its seal population, and they can often be seen swimming among the bergs or lounging on top of them. Unfortunately, we only saw the one during our visit).
We walked up and down Diamond Beach for over an hour, taking hundreds of pictures and videos. It wasn’t a particularly long walk, but we seemed to get a new angle on the icebergs every couple feet, and couldn’t keep ourselves from stopping one more time. By the end of the walk, we were both chilled by the wind, and my hands were freezing. It couldn’t have been from handling every single iceberg we came across, so it must have been for some other reason.
I should note that, as incredible as Jökulsárlón is, its existence is a reminder of the sad reality of climate change. icelagoon.is mentions on its homepage that the lagoon is a recent one – due to rising temperatures from 1920 – 1965, the lagoon has increased in size and the glacier has begun calving at increased speeds. It’s an easy thing to forget while you’re enjoying the spectacle of the lagoon as we were, but it would be remiss of me not to mention it now.
Having finally gotten our fill of the icebergs, we turned around and headed back to our car – and then took a hundred more pictures of the sunset over the lagoon. Then, once we were in the car, we immediately pulled over and took a hundred pictures of the sunset from the other direction.
By the way, that last picture above? That’s not the sunset – the sun was actually at our backs for that picture. When we first saw these rays of light on our way back from the lagoon, we were floored. They were massive – you can use the mountain in the bottom-left corner of the picture for scale – but they were on the wrong side of the sky. It looked like a second sun was rising opposite the for-realsies sun behind us. After getting home, we posted the picture online, where one of our friends (thanks Blake!) pointed out that they were probably anticrepuscular rays – regular sunrays that are actually parallel, but appear to be converging due to the fact that they’re running towards a vanishing point infinitely far out in space. Crazy.
With Skaftafell and Jökulsárlón under our belts, it was time to pack up and head back to Reykjavik. There we would be making two final stops before flying out from Keflavik airport; and while neither of them were quite as jaw-dropping as the Glacier Lagoon, both of them are worth blogging about!
– The Eh Team