Skaftafell was the second destination on our 9 day trip through Iceland. It’s one of the most popular parks in Iceland, probably because it’s so easy to access — right on the ring road, the main road that traverses the entire circumference of the island. No fjording rivers in your monster truck necessary, like some of the other more isolated parks in Iceland. Though you can easily drive your rental car to Skaftafell, we took the bus from our previous destination Thorsmork, using the convenient bus passport which allowed us unlimited rides over a period of time. It was about a 5 hour journey in total, with an hour and a half stop at one of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls, Seljalandsfoss. And while 5 hours may seem like a long time, I can almost promise you that you will never get bored while driving or busing in Iceland. No matter how hard I tried to sleep, I couldn’t take my eyes off the view out the window and the constantly changing martian landscape.
Seljalandsfoss is THAT waterfall, the one where you can hike behind the waterfall for that epic shot that seems to follow me around the internet. For whatever reason, I didn’t make the hike behind the waterfall. It was rainy and cold, there’s a ton of spray from the waterfall, our bus driver didn’t speak English, and I was SO worried that he would drive away without us while we were off gallivanting behind the waterfall. Completely ridiculous excuses, and I regret the decision. But in my own defense, we visited Iceland before the country hit the height of its popularity with backpackers and tourists, and I had no idea that the view from behind Seljalandsfoss would be so spectacular! Don’t believe me about how awesome this spot is? Enjoy this wikipedia photo that definitely did not come from our camera. And if you’re ever driving along the ring road, make a stop here and refuse to give into whatever reasons you give yourself not to make the hike around the falls. Then tell us all about how great it was.
After viewing the falls, we hopped back on the bus headed for Skaftafell. The park has a huge area reserved for camping, but we decided not to camp since we didn’t want to lug around our tent and sleeping bags and weren’t sure what the weather would be like in late summer. Luckily there used to be one option to stay in a B&B within the park – the lovely little Bolti Guesthouse, a short hike up above the campgrounds with a beautiful view. Sadly, Bolti Guesthouse is now closed, which means that travelers without a car will probably be stuck camping.
In any event, by the time our bus arrived to Skaftafell and we found our way to Bolti and settled in, it was probably close to 5pm. Luckily for us it was late summer and the sun didn’t set until probably around 11pm or so, so we had plenty of time left to explore the park. We hiked to Svartifoss waterfall, which most people rave about, but to be honest, it wasn’t the most impressive compared to other waterfalls in Iceland! Svartifoss is about an hour’s walk from the visitor’s center. We chose to keep going along the paths within the park, until we got hungry and it was time to turn around. You can read more about Skaftafell’s hiking trails here. None of our photos from our hike in Skaftafell adequately captured the enormity of this park. Once we made it past Svartifoss, the park opened up into fields of cotton swaying in the breeze, with views from above a vast valley across to the edge of an endless glacier, with water rushing down through a small hole melted in a literal wall of snow and ice. We hiked right to the edge, eventually stopped by our grumbling stomachs and concerns about the time it would take to hike down into the valley to reach the glacier. We headed back to cook dinner in Bolti’s communal kitchen, but could have kept exploring Skaftafell for many more hours.
Our second day at Skaftafell was spent exploring the local ice. To start, we took the bus to Jokulsarlon, a glacial lagoon about a 45 minute drive from Skaftafell. The bus will drop you off right by a picturesque bay of water full of floating ice, with a nearby cafe to warm up with hot drinks. The cafe is open all year round, and even offers boat tours. I’m sure that would be an unforgettable way to see the ice up close, but we simply didn’t have the time. Yet another reason that a car might be a good idea if you have the money – rental cars are extremely expensive in Iceland, but at least you could be on your own schedule.
If you make it to Jokularson, be sure to walk just a few minutes over the bridge to the black sand beach. It was a totally different yet equally spectacular view from the lagoon where the bus will drop you off, with the blue of the ice in such stark contrast to the black sand. The complete silence of the still, brisk air made for one of the most peaceful mornings of my life. I don’t know what Jokularslon looks like on a sunny day, but even in the clouds the endless shades of blue were simply stunning.
After we were done gawking at the scenery, we boarded the bus and headed back to Skaftafell in time for our afternoon glacier walk with Icelandic Mountain Guides, headquartered right in the Skaftafell visitors’ center. The mountain guides offer different levels of treks for every skill set.
This was our first time walking on a glacier, and it was beautiful, especially with the green Icelandic landscape in the background. Though there were pockets of the clearest, cleanest, electric blue water I’ve ever seen, be prepared because this may not be the crystal blue glacier of your dreams. Many parts looked dirty because of the ash. But that’s nature. Iceland is volcanic, people! Read more about the seasonal changes in Iceland’s glaciers here.
We spent the night at Bolti guesthouse again, and left early morning for the 5 hour drive to our next destination, Mars, otherwise known as Landmannalaugar. Keep reading for our Landmannalaugar highlights!