Vatnajökull National Park is a must do if you’re spending more than a few days in Iceland. There are numerous hiking routes you can take, perfect for nature lovers. You need very little to become enamored with this place at the end of the day: good weather (we had a beautiful sunny day) and a companion you can talk to and enjoy the beauty of the park. You’ll be surprised by the uniqueness of the sights, but above all, I would recommend visiting the Vatnajökull National Park because you can enjoy the nature walks without worrying about wild animals.
With free parking and a camping area, Skaftafell servers as a starting point for several mountain routes for those who want to climb the highest peaks in the region. I mentioned parking- I was pleasantly surprised about how well tended to it was and how well serviced it was with two restrooms and a supermarket-canteen. As you walk from the parking area towards the park entrance you’ll go past some cabins from companies offering glacier walking tours, supplying their own equipment. I would wholeheartedly recommend taking those tours, we didn’t and it’s one of the few regrets from Iceland.
Mountain routes in the area
There’s a total of 9 routes available in the Vatnajökull National Park with various difficulty ratings, offering something for all visitors. I will only tell you about two of them, the ones that we took.
Svartifoss (Route S2)
An easy hike, of minimum difficulty and fairly popular, from the youngest of trekkers to people in their 60s or 70s. The trail is paved up until about its half, but fret not, it’s marked very visibly all the way up to the waterfall. As I was saying, it’s amazing to be able to walk about freely, without fear of wild animals, freedom that I don’t really have back home (I am irrationally afraid of bears and vipers and whatnot populates the forests and the mountains of Romania). The entire trail is very safe adn enjoyable- especially so when breathing in the clean air and when you can catch a glimpse of the glacier in the distance. And of course, once you reach Svartifoss, you’ll be welcomed by the beautiful rainbow that forms in front of it.
The sight at the waterfall is truly special, as the water tumbles down the basaltic columns which remind me of the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland.
The entire route took us about two hours and this only because we had to get to the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon later that day for our boat tour, but if you’re not in a hurry take your time and enjoy the trails.
Skaftafellsjökull Glacier (Route S1)
The starting point of this route is the Skaftafell parking lot as well. Just as popular as Route S2, but with a different destination: the wonderful Skaftafell glacier. The weather continued to be enjoyable, with a “scorching” sun for that period of the year (and by Icelandic standards let’s say that scorching means “some 17 degrees Celsius”). But, as we got closer to the glacier, the air became colder and colder and the wind started picking up.
A little lagoon has formed in front of the glacier, as the ice melts down and retreats. What I never read anywhere before getting to Iceland and nobody ever told me is that these glaciers work like magnets: once you see them, all you wish is to get as close as possible to them and if possible, walk all around on them. Or at least that’s how it was in my case, as I discovered I could not take my eyes off of a glacier if it was in my line of sight. I was in awe and was trying to grasp in how many thousands or millions of years they formed and how small and insignificant we are compared to them and what power of destruction they have compared to us humans- oh nevermind, we can probably do worse. But anyway, so many questions, so little time and nobody to answer them.
A trail which is supposed to take about two hours, can easily take more if you consider the endless minutes you spend admiring the glacier in awe and everything around it plus the mandatory photo session. If your itinerary is against the clock, you’re lucky the glacier sends the cool air towards you to serve as a subtle reminder that you should return to your car.
Once we were done with this trail, we got back on the road to continue on our itinerary. Just that at one point, we saw a minibus beloning to a company that offered glacier walks and decided to follow them. Seems like it’s a good idea to go wild in Iceland and follow your instinct, feels like there’s no better country for it. We followed them until they turned on a private road. A couple of minutes of Google Maps later, we discovered another road, this time public, which took us close to another foot of the glacier, where the howling wind was even stronger.
This road takes you even closer to the glacier, if there wouldn’t be that huge gap between the mountain and the ice, you could probably step on the glacier. The lagoon the glacier created here is even bigger, with icebergs larger than the ones we saw on the other lagoon. No, I couldn’t refrain from staring agape at what looked like an even more impressive glacier. I spent minutes on end sitting on a rock, on the soil, hoping somehow I could get closer to it.
Unforgettable sights and amazing feelings because of these ice giants. Bonus: a tanned skin at the “scorching” 17 degrees and blistering wind.