On the drive to Skaftafell, Jamie and I and our French hitch-hikers stopped often to explore Iceland’s version of “roadside attractions” — thousands of tiny rockpiles clustered on a hill with an Icelandic sign that we can only surmise reads “elf colony;” twisted steel beams from flood-rushed bridges, because these things happen when erupting volcanos suddenly melt glaciers; glaciers themselves, glistening tantalizingly in the not-so-distant distance, so that we would try to walk close enough to touch them. (They were tricky as the horizon, always staying just a few hundred feet out of reach.)
Just off of Ring Road, before you reach the Visitor’s Center for the national park (all of which was once a manor supporting three farmsteads), there’s a place to park and a trail winding alongside the Vatnajokull glacier (covers 8% of Iceland and the largest in Europe). We could hear the ash-marbled ice cracking and shifting.
At the Skafatell Visitor’s Center, we said goodbye to the “little French peanuts,” and Jamie and I watched a short doc about the 1996 eruption of Grimsvotn (the backstory of the damaged steel bridge), which is near the center of Vatnajokiull. A passing aircraft noticed cracks in the glacier hours before black ash shot 500 meters in the air and melt-waters raised the levels of nearby bodies of water, in some cases, 150 feet. Portions of Ring Road were completely wiped away.
Grimsvotn erupted again in 2004, but the effects were much less dramatic.
From the Visitor’s Center, we began a series of easy, rewarding hikes. First we headed along the 5.5 km loop, hitting Svartifoss, a unique waterfall tumbling over a sort of amphitheater of basalt columns. You’re able to see the waterfall from above, below and in a larger context, as a hole in the surrounding hills and scrub forest, fed by a thin, snaking river.
Farther along, we hit a small sod farm, built in 1912, abandoned in 1946 and maintained by the Icelandic government since 1972. There’s a kitchen, living space, bedroom and barn open to the public.
Near the sod farm, there was a smaller waterfall, Mangusarfoss, and a couple of modern farmhouses that are still inhabited. We also found the remains of a small hydroelectric power plant on the River Skeioara, built in 1925 and used until 1973.
Then we came to a vanished farmstead, Gömlutun, which was slowly relocated up the hill between 1830-50, away from the ever encroaching river (those glacial melts, remember?).
Back at the Visitor Center, we walked about a half hour across a black lava desert to get close to Skaftafellsjokur. Except for the ribboned glacier and looming mountains, the lagoon felt like a modern sculpture garden. Their were huge, sharp-edged chunks of ice floating, transparent enough to betray their internal tension and curves.
Jamie plucked a tiny floater out of the water and we sucked a small corner of it, because we wanted the glacier to become a part of our bodies.
Skaftafell has a campground and by the time we got back from our second glacier stroll, it was around midnight (and still daylight!). But rather than camp, we purchased tokens (to save) for five minutes of a hot shower and headed back down the road to sleep in the Nupsstadur church.
We layered up, curled into ourselves and froze, but it was probably warmer than a tent and anything seemed better than the car. The next morning, very early, we returned to the (yet-to-be-opened) Visitor’s Center and warmed up with quick showers, before trekking farther up Ring Road towards Myvatn.