Yen's Blog

Lens, Wheels, Skates, Keyboard

Vatnajökull National Park

In contrast to Snæfellsnes peninsula, only 80km to the north, where we drove in two inches of snow and under a steady flurry, it was relatively balmy albeit with a persistent shower. We set out at around 7h30 when the guesthouse was still dark, though the innkeeper caught up to us to find out if we wanted breakfast! We politely declined of course, but were pleasantly surprised. We had about a quarter tank of gas. Since I couldn’t get my debit card to work at any gas station, I decided to try an N1 station nearby which carried a prepaid card. A Shell station happened to be on the way, and luckily they let me pay by cash. I put in 3000kr—it wasn’t even half full. An ATM withdrawal and 5000kr later it was almost full. It would cost 10000kr or $85 for a full tank of gas.

We drove along the South ring road. We saw a brightly glowing rectangular building, which we also saw yesterday but was puzzled about it. As we pulled closer, the mystery was solved, it was a greenhouse, in fact five of them in a row. With little sun in the winter and abundant renewable energy, this isn’t a bad idea to grow vegetable. It was 9 but felt like 4. The southern horizon didn’t start to glow until about 10.

This is a beautiful place for a drive. The road was hemmed in by flat plateaus and towering mountains on one side and by the ocean on the other. Yellow grass covered the ground. The alluvial plain was rather flat. We saw Seljalandfoss and Skogafoss long before we got to them. They were quite a sight, a towering wall of white hanging like a shimmering curtain on the cliff side.

As the sun was rising, we stopped by a place called Laufskálavarða. The information sign has this to say:

According to tradition, there was a large farm known as Laufskálar at this site, but it was destroyed in 894 in the first recorded eruption of the volcano Katla. The lava mound was named Laufskálar Cairn after the farm. Everyone passing by it for the first time was supposed to add a stone to bring him good luck on his journey. The Public Roads Administration has moved a supply of stones to the site to enable modern travelers across Mýrdalssandur to continue this tradition.

Indeed there were quite a few rocks stacked in little pyramids.

An hour and half into the trip, we came to an almost alien landscape of egg-like mounds covered in green moss.

Then we came to a desolate lunar-like landscape. It was extremely windy. Maelstroms of black sand and small pebbles battered the car and left black streaks. The wind was strongest just before Vík but thankfully died down soon after.

The drive from Vík is purported to be the most beautiful in Iceland and we weren’t disappointed. We entered a wide-open landscape with outsized geological formations, eerily reminiscent of Monument Valley, but in place of red sandstone were black lava rocks and snow-covered peaks.

Iceland is like a waterfalls lover’s wet dream, and the southern coast is no exception.

This beautiful waterfalls was just by the side of the road, and no one even thought it worthy enough to give it a name.

And there were the usual critters.

We finally made it to the Skaftafell visitor center. Skaftafell used to be its own national park. But in 2008 it was absorbed into Vatnajökull National Park and reduced to just a visitor center. It has maybe the cleanest park bathroom we’ve seen anywhere, but that’s the norm for Iceland. Even the bathroom at the rest stop is as nice as those of most hotels! The attraction we wanted to see is Vartifoss. In warmer months you could actually drive to a secondary parking area closer to the falls. But by hiking from the visitor’s center we get to see 2 additional falls. This is Hundafoss.

Just a short while later, we came to Magnúsarfoss.

The view of the distant mountain is breathtaking.

Vartifoss is majestic, and the descending basalt columns give it unmatched uniqueness. It’s apparent how they inspired the exterior of Hallgrímskirkja.

Once we got back down, there were still a couple hours of daylight left, so we decided to hike to Skaftafell glacier, just 1.5 km away. The winter landscape didn’t have to be bleak, in fact the moss carpet was quite colorful.

The glacier might appear small from a distance, but up close it was anything but.

The drive back in the fading light was one to remember.

We stopped for gas at the bright and cavenous N1 station in Vík. The wind hadn’t died down at all. According to the attendant, a friendly kid probably in his early 20s, Brits, Americans and Germans are the most common visitors to the area. There were more visitors at this year than usual, which didn’t sound surprising for us considering the crowds we saw flying out of Boston. He also wanted to visit New York and maybe Boston, partly for eBay and Amazon!

Last visit: November 30, 2013