Skaftafellsheiði Loop: Waterfalls, Scree, and the Local Jökulls

2015-07-15 13.15.22This hike started out inauspiciously. As is often the case, my excitement for getting on the trail led to a lack of mindfulness at the car, and, a half-mile up the Kvarnarkofalág Trail in the Skaftafell area of Vatnajökull National Park, I couldn’t remember if I’d locked the damned thing. All we owned in Iceland was in there. It was unlikely that anyone would have bothered it, but I didn’t want to hike with a niggling concern, so … our ten-mile hike would be eleven miles for me. I left Lisa sitting at a pleasant spot near a beautiful waterfall called Hundafoss and quick-stepped it back to the parking area.

2015-07-15 14.17.22When I returned, I took a few moments to enjoy the falls. The World Waterfall Database says about Hundafoss, “By Icelandic standards, this isn’t a waterfall to write home about.” Certainly (with the caveat), this is true, although hailing from the mid-Atlantic region of the United States we tend to get overly excited at any channel of falling water over twelve or eighteen inches. Hundafoss plunges seventy-eight feet in a single chute from a greyish rock face surrounded by thick vegetation, including that rarest of Icelandic plants: the tree. It has long been rumored that the Land of Fire and Ice is devoid of arboreal charms; that’s not true, but the trees growing there are generally more like shrubs. There’s a saying among Icelandic explorers, “If you find yourself lost in the forest – stand up.” While many of the trees around us were taller than we, it was not by much.

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Hundafoss

Another half-mile brought us to the gold-star water feature of our hike: Svartifoss. By the stats, it seems less impressive than the not-worth-the-ink Hundafoss. At sixty-five feet, Svartifoss is thirteen feet shorter than its neighbor and only five feet wide. So what makes this falls one of the most popular in Iceland? Inverted Columnar Basalt. Basalt is a fine-grained, igneous rock that contains generally 45 – 53% silica and less than 10% feldspathoid … riveting, right? No? Well, here’s the fun part: when basalt cools quickly, it cracks, often into hexagonal columns. And when the soil or softer rock erodes from under these formations? Boom! Now you’ve got your basic ICB. Svartifoss gushed in a picture-perfect plume from a narrow channel at the top of a shaggy cliff-face, its frothy-flood of glacial runoff framed by the nearly-black, columnar basalt.

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Svartifoss and inverted columnar basalt

This cataract’s name, which translates to “Black Falls”, is the perfect compliment to its inverted basalt surroundings. Although the falls are an effervescent white,  an inverted (or negative) photograph would result in a positively black waterfall.

Once we had adequately marveled at Svartifoss, we turned west and began to climb. We were now on the S3 Trail. Slowly, we worked our way to a rock-strewn plateau where the view opened up over a distant Skeiðarárjökull as it extended its ghost-white fingers toward the North Atlantic.

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Natural steps of columnar basalt

In the Icelandic language there are a couple of words one learns quickly, even if some pronunciations continue to elude. The first is “foss” which translates to “waterfall”. This word will be your constant companion as there is literally one of these around almost every corner. Foss is easy to pronounce – it reads exactly as it looks. Jökull is Icelandic for “glacier,” and contrary to my pun in the title of this post, jökull is actually pronounced somewhat like yo-kut, although the double L carries a T/L sound similar to the last syllable of “kettle”, only much more subtle.  

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Skeiðarárjökull in the distance

DSC_0284DSC_0287Iceland stretched out before us in shades of green and brown, daubed here and there with the white of snow and ice. We climbed a large knoll and came to a prominence that looked north up the Morsá River Valley. The Vatnajökull flowed around a magnificent mountain peak and an amazingly tall waterfall gushed in ribbons down the face of the mountain. This is Morsárfoss. At 787 feet, it is the tallest foss in Iceland. When we arrived, the peak was obscured, and Morsárfoss tumbled directly out of thick grey clouds. Moments later those clouds parted, and a curtain opened on a geologic one-act that starred some of the biggest names in earth science; Messrs. Mountain, Glacier, and Waterfall welcomed us to the greatest show on earth. To either side of the waterfall, the Vatnajökull calved and crept into the valley below. Soon, the clouds closed back in and the magnificent view was hidden from us. The curtain had fallen. We turned back to the trail.

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Morsárfoss just to the left of center

Pointing our boots east, we began a semi-circular traverse of Kristínartindar. Kristínartindar is a 3,694 foot mountain that stands between the Skaftafellsjökull and the river valley we had just left behind. Within a quarter-mile, we came to a trail junction with the S4. This was the route to Kristínartindar’s peak which was less than a mile and only 400 feet of elevation from where we stood. We had hoped to summit Kristínartindar; unfortunately, the melt from an unusually large snowpack had created dangerous conditions and the S4 was closed. We may not have reached the peak, but we still enjoyed a spectacular 270 degree view as we continued our traverse.

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Lisa at the S4 junction to the summit

A mile of relatively level hiking brought us to the southwest face of Kristínartindar. There, the mountain fell away into another great valley, this one hosting the Skaftafell Glacier. Skaftafellsjökull ground imperceptibly past on its slow march toward the lagoon near the southern boundary of the park. Over a mile and a half away on the opposing valley wall, a nameless cataract plunged in twin chutes over a precipice and down to the edge of the glacier. Looking north, we could see Skaftafell breaking away from its massive glaciological parent, Vatna. Vatnajökull is 1,250 feet thick and covers an impressive 3,100 square miles of Iceland’s interior. Believe it or not, this does not even place Vatna in the top five largest glaciers in the world. Regardless, it still makes this ice cap larger than our neighbor state of Delaware. We rested, sitting on a large stone and drinking in the inspiring views of one of Iceland’s rivers of ice.

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Skaftafellsjökull

DSC_0297DSC_0304When we turned our attention back to the trail, it was to begin our descent. For a short time, the trail continued to wind through soft, verdurous tundra, but that was not to last. Our route soon transitioned into an ill-defined track through an expansive field of scree. Great. We were looking forward to two downhill miles on loose, ankle-breaking, maddeningly-uneven, grey-brown talus. The upshot? The view – and that the dislodged stone made a pleasant tinkling sound as it slid away down the incline – not unlike the notes of  ceramic wind chimes. Of course, those dulcet tones were invariably preceded by a stumble, slip, or other misstep that threatened to send one of us careening down the hillside in a sure-to-be painful fall. Our pace slowed … but, all the better to enjoy the view.

DSC_0300We were exhausted by the time we reached Sjónarnípa, a popular viewpoint near Skaftafellsjökull’s southern terminus and glacial lagoon. From that point we could still see all the way up this outlet glacier to its origins at the icefall that divides Skaftafell from Vatna. Right in front of us and over 700 feet below was the lagoon. The pool was dotted with calved chunks of ice, and a massive charcoal-grey expanse of moraine stretched across the valley beyond the lagoon. We hadn’t encountered many other hikers on this loop, but Sjónarnípa is a relatively easy one and a half mile trek from the trailhead, and we encountered several fellow hikers here. We took each other’s pictures and chatted for a bit before moving on.

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From Sjónarnípa

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The scree vanished, and we again found ourselves on a smooth dirt path flanked with green ground cover. The vegetation proliferated as we resumed our descent; soon we were again among the diminutive and windswept trees of this island nation. The trail, now called Austurbrekkur, switched back down a 120 foot drop before continuing gently downward for the last mile to the trailhead. Soon we were back at our absolutely and most definitely locked rental car.

Once called Skaftafell National Park, this area was incorporated into Vatnajökull National Park in 2008. Vatnajökull now covers 5,460 square miles and is by far the largest national park in the nation. The glacier covers most of the park’s land and boasts a lot of great hiking in and around the Vatnajökull’s outlet glaciers. We would hike the following day on Falljökull (read here), an outlet just southwest of Skaftafell. The park is also home to highest peak in Iceland, Hvannadalshnúkur, roughly five miles northwest of Falljökull.

Screen Shot 2020-06-11 at 4.45.19 PMThe Skaftafellsheiði Loop is a stunning ten miles of hiking. The 2,674 feet of elevation gain is spread out enough that it feels less strenuous than it could. Don’t misunderstand, it is a rigorous hike, but we did not feel unduly taxed over the several hours we took to complete this circuit. Climb Kristínartindar if you can but, if, like us, you find that you cannot, don’t despair – this loop has plenty of views without the extra mile and 400 feet to bag that summit. You could collect Svartifoss and the panoramic view from Sjónarnípa in under five miles but you would cheat yourself out of hours of sublime tundra-tramping and a continuous filmstrip of expansive Icelandic vistas.  The view up the valley to a distant Morsárfoss was worth the trek in and of itself, so you might as well see the rest of the things on this loop! If ten miles and 2,700 feet of elevation feels like the high-end of your hiking faculty, and you don’t want to make it unnecessarily longer, take a moment before you set off and make sure you’ve locked your car!  ♦


Date: July 15, 2015
Location: Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland
Trailhead: 64.016579, -16.971459
Distance: 10.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,674 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

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