Basalt Wasteland, Waterfalls, and Glaciers

This is part of a set of posts on a trip to Iceland by our family of 5.

Our first day in Iceland was packed with brief stops along the southwestern corner of the country.  One of the goals of that first day was to place us in a position for the long drive across the south of the island to Jokulsarlon, the glacial lagoon.  We were also interested in stopping at Skaftafell in the Vatnajokull National Park.

We left earlyish – around 8am – and headed south through Vik, where we filled the car with gas.  This was our first experience with the self-service gas stations.  You need to use a credit card at the pump or have a pre-paid card.  The pumps are not maintained by the small grocery or convenience store attached, as far as I can tell, and we saw a North American-style gas station only once on the trip.

Lava Fields

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Plants growing on hardened lava in southern Iceland

As you round the southwestern corner of Iceland, you are almost immediately into one of the stranger landscapes that I have ever seen.  Everything seems rounded and slightly green tinted.  There are giant lava fields that have hardened in their undulations and are now covered with a lichen or similar plant life.  These are not small areas, but cover hundreds of square kilometers.

We were about halfway across when we came to the Laufsakalvarda.  It’s a place where many cairns have been placed by travelers for good luck.  At first it looked like a large pile with a few on top and then you see dozens spreading out from that pile for a hundred yards or so, every few feet or so.

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Traveler cairns built out of lava rocks in Southern Iceland at Laufskalavarda

 

 

The next populated town we arrived at was Kirkjubaejarklaustur, where the road doglegs and you head out into the vast black basalt sand plain before arriving at Skaftafell and Vatnajokull.  The road along here is two lane – one each direction – and it was empty when we were going along.  We occasionally would stop to take a photo and just idle in our lane, since there was no traffic anywhere to be seen.

 

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The Sands (a.k.a Mordor)

Now we left a firm foothold on planet Earth to see a site we hadn’t anticipated at all.  The area past the town flattened out and we seemed to see small puffs of smoke.  We had arrived at “The Sands”, Skeidararsandur.  At some point in Iceland’s history, there were rivers and plant life here but it’s almost entirely gone now.  Instead, there is a vast – our travel book said 20 kilometres by 30 kilometres – of black sand.  The smoke was in fact blowing sand and, as the day went on, we saw more and more blowing sands, to the point where that was all you could see.

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Crossing the Skeidara – the “a” at the end means river so Skeidar River – and pausing on the long bridge as the sand whips past the end, obscuring the road ahead.

The road rises above this desolation and occasionally a bridge will lift you over a river carrying runoff from the glaciers to the north.  The view is quite spectacular, glaciers, rocky hills, a vast black desert and, in the zig zags of the road, the ocean.

The sand was the worst at the ends of the bridges.  While the sand would gust across the road every so often, it seemed to really pick up speed on the river edges.  At one point, I put on my high beams and slowed right down as if I was in a heavy snow storm.  It was made more odd as you could see over the sand and could see the cloudy sky above it.

There are many warnings against driving off into the highlands, which we adhered to religiously.  But even on the main road, you sometimes felt as though you’d left civilization when you couldn’t see the hard asphalt in front and behind you.  The miles unfolded and we followed the road as it turned north and brought us to the largest national park in Europe.

Climbing to the Black Waterfall

We were captivated with photos we’d seen of the Black Waterfall, Svartifoss (waterfall=foss).  It is an easy hike from the tourist information center at Skaftafell, which is part of the Vatnajokull National Park.  Vatnajokull and Skaftafellsjokull are also glaciers (jokull=glacier).  There are age limits which prohibited us from going up onto a glacier as a family but you might find them worth a look if the youngest member of your group is over 12 and you have a half day to spend hiking.  Neither of those fit us:  our youngest was 6 and we were thinking of something in the 2 hour range.

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The tourist center is very nice, with interesting information about the area as well as a very small shop, washrooms, and helpful rangers.  One of them was quite concerned about my footwear in particular.  I was wearing a pair of patent leather Doc Marten boots and I think their shine caught his attention.  “You should probably change your boots, because I do not think they will be so shiny when you come back from Svartifoss,” he said.  It was a very kind suggestion and I didn’t take him up on it [I wear these boots everywhere] but we have had many a laugh about it since.  I hope he was able to regale his colleagues with a “weird tourist” story.

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Black sand storms on the desert below Skaftafell hiking back down from the Svartifoss “Black Waterfall”

He made us aware that many hikers up to Svartifoss stop before they actually reach it, because the gorge it is at the top of actually has a number of quite spectacular waterfalls.  The ranger said that it should take you 45 minutes to reach the waterfall and, if you turned around before that, you probably hadn’t reached it.  In the end, it took us just over an hour to make the climb and it was well worth it.

The view as you climbed up was pretty spectacular.  The hill rises up about 420 feet from the Skaftafell visitor center, plateauing every so often.  The path is well-maintained and, although not paved once you leave the flat at the bottom, is well-packed earth and just a bit of rockiness on it.  We passed a group of university students from Florida who were repairing parts of the path.

Our 6 year old had no problem with the trail – it’s a 2.5 kilometer hike and not too steep a grade – but the wind whipped at us as we came above the trees onto a clear area.  There was a small stone cottage missing its roof and the kids, who had run ahead, were taking shelter behind the walls as we caught up.  The last few hundred feet drop down towards the base of the waterfall and there is a small bridge you can stand on to get an unobstructed view – and photos – of the water as it comes across.

I’m not accustomed to regularity in nature and so I find the waterfall remarkable to look at.  The basalt of which the rock face is made is all angular, hexagonal edged and, where it has snapped off at the bottom, lying in piles along the river bank.  It’s not the water that makes this waterfall so remarkable.  It was out of the way to get here but it’s one of my favorite memories of our trip to Iceland.

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The Black Waterfall – Svartifoss – at the top of the 2.5 kilometer trail at Skaftafell in the Vatnajokull National Park

  The Glacial Lagoon at Jokulsarlon

We continued our drive east, passing glacial tongues reaching down towards the road, heading towards the famous Jokulsarlon, a lagoon at the foot of the Breidamerkurjokull glacier.  The lagoon is full of floating icebergs which have broken off from the glacier.  You can see some remarkably colored ice but it is also remarkable to see such large pieces of floating ice so close to hand.

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Blue-colored ice in Jokulsarlon, the glacial lagoon in Iceland

There was snow everywhere along the ground once we were past the corner where the Skeidararsandur sands ended and the Briedamerkursandur began, near Kviarjokull.  One of the reasons we had shelved an early idea to drive around the entire island of Iceland was due to the dicey road conditions to the east, where snow was obscuring some of the roads.  The snow, cold, and bitter wind at Jokulsarlon was a good reminder of that and we were glad to return to the more temperate weather on the west coast for the remainder of the holiday.

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An unidentified bird looks for pickings in the car park at Jokulsarlon, Iceland

The ice is beautiful to see.  There was nothing dramatic beyond its immense size and colors as it sat in the lagoon.  There is a car park and small store and cafe at the lagoon.  There is also quite a large hill, about 20 feet high from which you can get a good perspective of the ice.  A small bird – I have still be unable to identify it, so if anyone reading this can do so, I’m still curious – landed behind our car but the land was otherwise without any animals that I could see.  It was a cold, wintry day and I’m sure the few animals that this sort of habitat could support were staying indoors.

It was about 3:30 in the afternoon and we turned around to head back west, to our farm cottage north of Skogar.  This was a very long day that involved a huge amount of driving.  Between the distance and the sand storms we passed through, it was one of the most draining but there would have been no way to see these sorts of environments without driving through them.  One thing that I was already noticing about Iceland is that, while certain locations get top billing – the “Golden Circle”, Jokulsarlon, and so on – there are many lesser known but just as beautiful places to see.  Depending upon your personal interests, some may actually be far more compelling to visit than the ones that tourists descend upon.  A good example was the Fjallsjokull glacier that also had a lagoon at its foot.  It was close to Jokulsarlon and I could imagine it giving different perspectives for people who were there to enjoy glaciers.  There is a gravel road that takes you very close to the lagoon and which has a turnaround at the end.

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A young photographer takes pictures of the Fjallsjokull across the lagoon at its base.

On the way back, we swung into Hof which was noted for having one of the best specimens of a sod-covered church.  The graveyard surrounding it was mounded with grass-covered lumps, which gave the whole church yard the feeling of having just emerged from the ground, pushing up the grass as it came.

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The turf-covered church at Hof, built in 1883, part of the National Museum’s properties.

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Looking east at Eyjafjallajokull and Myrdalsjokull from the top of Dyrholaey, Iceland.

We stopped at a grocery store in Kirkjubaejarklaustur on the way home and grabbed food for dinner.  It was just around 6pm when we rounded the coast at Vik again and we stopped at Dyrholaey, an island just off the coast.  When doing some preliminary reading before our trip, I had two thoughts about it:  it looks like the sort of place that Dumbledore and Harry visit to find Voldemort’s horcrux in a cave, and that it was an island.  We were curious to visit it but its remoteness seemed to indicate we’d just have to look.

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As we approached it, we saw that there was in fact a causeway that you can drive up onto the island.  It is quite steep when you get there – and pretty windy when we got out of the car – but it is a lovely view of the ocean and of Eyjafjalljokull to the east.  On this day, it was so cold and windy that our hands started to sting after about 5 minutes without gloves on.  There’s a frequently photographed hole in the side of the island and you are supposed to be able to see puffins and other birds there.  On a warmer day, it would be a lovely place to picnic.  If you look north from the highest point, near the lighthouse, you can see the dark black beach stretching off nearly straight with the surf crashing on it.

We got back to the cottage, had dinner and quickly went to bed.  We were leaving here in the morning for our more itinerant travels, planning to be far to the north by evening, in Grundarfjordur.

Previous:  Day 1:  the Golden Circle, Skogar, and the Black Beach  |  Next:  Day 3:  Thingvellir and the Fjords

 

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