On Saturday morning, I headed east through rain and fog so thick the hills and mountains disappeared. They only reappeared when I was a few miles away, and then they were only dark shapes. Shortly after passing through Vik, I passed into the lava fields below one of Iceland’s largest volcanoes, Katla. This expanse is mostly flat and covered with miles of moss-covered pahoehoe lava formations. Because of the fog, I couldn’t see the mountains to the north, and so it looked incredibly barren. Few people live in this region, thanks to the lava formations, the remoteness, and the danger of living below a large volcano like Katla.
Highway 1 eventually took me back north toward the mountains, and though the fog and rain hardly let up, I could see the ancient sea cliffs that help produce the hundreds of waterfalls that dot Iceland’s landscape. I couldn’t help but think that half the waterfalls I saw would be worthy of their own parks back home in the US, but in Iceland, they were almost a dime a dozen.
Soon enough, though, the highway left the edges of the highlands and took me into the sand flats. The Skeiðarársandur sand flats are a vast region of barren land covered in sand and gravel left behind by Iceland’s largest glaciers. There is little vegetation, but some hardy grasses grow here and there. The flats are broken up by many rivers fed by the glaciers, and drivers must cross many of these rivers with one-lane bridges. I found these bridges to be unnerving at first, but I quickly grew used to them. They are generally short enough that you can see to the other side, and if a car is crossing the bridge– or about to cross– drivers on the opposite side have space to wait for oncoming traffic to finish crossing. The larger rivers have two-lane bridges.
Skeiðarársandur used to be impassable, and the only way the eastern villages kept a connection to the western part of the island was by sea or if someone was brave enough to make the treacherous crossing via the glacier. In the 1970s, however, bridges were finally designed and built for this unique area, and so the east and west could finally be connected via the land. When a sub-glacial volcano erupted in 1996, though, the massive flooding far exceeded anything the engineers predicted, and one of the longest bridges was completely destroyed. Two of the steel I-beams, twisted and bent by the onrush of water and ice, are on display at a roadside stop to remind us of how powerful nature can be.
Though the GPS assured me that I was nearing my destination of the former Skaftafell National Park (which was absorbed into the much larger Vatnajökull National Park in 2008), I could not see any of the mountains that I knew were there. Vatnajökull National Park is home to glaciers, volcanoes, and beautiful waterfalls. The fog had yet to lift. So I trusted the GPS– and eventually the roadsigns– to guide me to the park.
Eventually, I turned off Highway 1 onto the road that led me to Skaftafell. I parked, paid the 700 krona to park, and found the trailhead that led toward Svartifoss.
The trail to Svartifoss is 1.8km (1.11 miles) long, and is largely uphill, though it is well-marked and wide enough in most places to stop, enjoy the view, and catch your breath without impeding other hikers’ progress. The trail is marked as “easy”, but there are other trails ranging from moderate to difficult, depending on your experience level and where you want to go in the park.
One stopping point is Hundafoss (Dog’s Falls), which is just off the trail. It falls 23.7m (78 feet) into thick foliage. The overlook doesn’t provide the most impressive view– that would happen from the bottom of the falls, which are surrounded by cliffs and difficult to get to, but it is still a lovely waterfall.
From Hundafoss, you continue up the trail toward Svartifoss, which comes in and out of view as the trail winds over hills and through dense foliage. The last part of the trail is narrow and extremely rocky. I arrived in the rain, so it was also quite slippery but manageable with care.
Once you arrive at the end of the trail, a small gorge lined with sheer basalt columns opens up before you, with Svartifoss at the far end. ‘Svartifoss’ means “black falls”, and is named for the basalt columns. Though it is not the largest or the most powerful waterfall in Iceland, many consider it to be the most beautiful.
Once, tourists could walk among the rocks at the base of the falls, but because the basalt columns can fall at any time and kill someone standing below, and because the delicate plants were being trampled by too many feet, there is now a small viewing platform. It provides a wonderful view, but it is rather small and fills up quickly.
Another trail winds around to the opposite side of the gorge and up again, but it is quite steep. My ankle was bothering me again, so I decided against it and stuck with the trail I had come in on.
When I finally left Svartifoss and headed back down the trail, the fog and rain had cleared, allowing me to see the mountains that make up Vatnajökull National Park and the Vatnajökull glacier that covers vast swathes of the country. I also paused to focus on the little things. Iceland is not known for its flowers, as they are quite small, but when you stop to pay attention you’ll see that they are beautiful.
I decided to head back to my hostel near Reynisfjara after that. It takes a little over two hours to drive from Vik to Skaftafell, and I wanted to go back to the beach for a while on my second and last night there. Because the rain and fog had largely cleared, I could see the mountains that were invisible to me before. It didn’t make the sand flats or the lava fields any less bleak, but the highlands were incredible to see. I spied many more waterfalls and was able to see more of the glaciers.
I only made a couple of stops on the way back. One to see a waterfall I passed on the way east, and another stop where several people had gathered at the side of a river.
The wind picked up while I was driving through the lava fields, and created hazardous driving conditions once I drove up into the mountains surrounding Vik. Being from windy Nebraska, however, the winds didn’t trouble me too much, and I headed back to Reynisfjara in spite of the conditions. I was not the only one, and though we had to be extra cautious when it came to the waves, a few dozen tourists took the opportunity to photograph the effects of 33mph (53kph) winds on the incredible waves of Reynisfjara.
While the wind did not bother me very much (save for a few times when it almost knocked me off my feet– I’m not a very big person), it did make for rather cold conditions. I made two stops in the Black Sand Restaurant to warm up, purchasing hot cocoa and soup the first time, and a piece of chocolate cake the second. But I kept heading back outside until darkness had nearly fallen.
I’m glad I went because being on Reynisfjara in those conditions was an incredible experience.
Eventually, wind, cold, and the growing darkness sent me back to the hostel so I could warm up, pack up, and prepare for the next day’s journey.
Next: Jökulsárlón, the Diamond beach, and Höfn