Hiking in Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland
A light layer of clouds hung above us — a bit of a change after days of sunshine during our drive around Iceland. It wasn’t cold or rainy, but we wore an extra set of underclothes, just in case the wind picked up or the clouds thickened. The five of us hovered over a map, discussing the path we would walk that day.
There are three national parks in Iceland, and Vatnajökull National Park, located in the eastern part of the country, is the largest one. It covers 11 percent of Iceland, and it protects the entire Vatnajökull glacier and Dettifoss, Europe’s largest waterfall by volume. Skaftafell, the southernmost part of the park, is the most visited of the wilderness areas in Iceland, and the parking lot, though not massively huge compared to lots in the United States, was completely full as we packed our day bags from the contents of our trunk.
Though it is a large park, most people who visit Vatnajökull tend to stay relatively close to the visitors center, but we decided to trek something a bit more ambitious — the Skaftafellsheiði loop, which was nearly ten miles long.
Climbing away from the visitors center through some scrub bush, we made our way to Svartifoss, a small waterfall compared to others we encountered in Iceland but beautifully framed in basalt columns. A few dozen people leap frogged over rocks at its base to get a closer look at the waterfall. One guy had inconveniently placed himself close to the pool of water it tumbled into, making it impossible to take a good, clear picture of the falls without capturing him in them.
From Svartifoss, we continued to hike up and away from the visitors center, leaving most people and the scrub bush behind. We climbed through a rock-strewn, wildflower-laden field, which flattened out for a bit and we were able to see grand views out across the highlands and down into the valleys from which we had come. The sun hid behind the clouds and a bit of a breeze kicked up, but it was still warmer in the higher elevation than it had been by Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, which we’d stopped by just a few miles outside of the park earlier in the day.
A small pond surrounded by marshy land sat isolated on the land. We stopped only to stretch our legs and get a drink of water before soldiering on. Hundreds of thousands of tiny purple, yellow and white flowers, hardly larger than a dime surrounded us on all sides. At one time, sheep were allowed to graze in the park, but since they’ve been banned, these fields of flowers have been able to flourish once again.
On the plateau, we could see a couple miles ahead of us toward a few mountain peaks in the distance and across the highlands where we would eventually see the Vatnajökull glacier below. On the farthest northwest side of the hike was a point called Nyrðrihnaukur, where a giant cairn marked the land before the path started across the highlands to the east side overlooking the glacier. Clouds darkened even more and we bent to refill our water bottles in a frigid stream running out of the mountains as we walked to the other side of the plateau.
Finally, we could see Vatnajökull glacier, which overwhelmed the land and squeezed into the crevice created by two higher points. It shrunk in size, speckled in years of collected and compacted dirt and debris, until it faded into the untouched land below. A waterfall in the distance hit the ice below and huge clouds of mist and steam rose up from the ice.
I stood looking out at the glacier feeling humbled and small, like a miniscule piece of a great big, beautiful world. Turning my back on the scene, I headed back down the path, now rugged with loose, sharp pieces of scree. We had to move fast, before the sky opened above us.
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