Skaftafell is most known for the scenic Svartifoss, a basalt-columned waterfall at the base of Iceland’s largest glacier field. The hike to Svartifoss is as photogenic as the falls themselves. Plus, the rest of the mountainous park has more to offer than one marquee waterfall. It’s a worthwhile stop on a Ring Road tour.
I didn’t bother to show up at Skaftafell till about 9AM. If it’s a rainy day, there’s no point in catching the dawn light. So I slept in, enjoyed Skaftafell Hotel’s free breakfast and tossed my suitcase in the trunk.
Layout. The park is just a few miles off Rt. 1 (the turn-off is well marked) and there’s lots of parking. Once there, go to a kiosk at the Visitors Center to pay for parking. The Center is quite informative. A help desk, illustrations of the birds and beasts found in the area, stuff to buy, it’s all nicely done.
A big piece of the park is glacier and there are several companies located to the left of the parking lot that do tours each day. In addition, there are a number of hiking trails criss-crossing the non-glacier section of park, that long spit of land (above).
The rangers all seem to be total pros. The guy I spoke with gave me some good tips as to the more photogenic trails to take. The S2 trail goes to Svartifoss, S1 goes along the flatlands to the base of the glacier. S5 heads up a ridge for some great views.
The paved Svartifoss trail starts just left of the Visitor Center. It has a fair amount of vertical drop at first, then the trail levels out a bit. For me, things got interesting at a small bridge over a mountain stream. From the bridge, the view was nice but with too many branches and brambles to get a clean shot. So instead of following the crowd up to the marquee event, I found a path down and in front of the bridge.
From here I was close to the stream and some good foreground choices. With a 15-35mm wide angle, the shot just fell into place.
By now it was raining again so I grabbed the poncho from my day pack. After a bit more vertical, the terrain levels and gets scenic. Off to the left there are a couple of overlooks, for Hundafoss and Magnusarfoss. (Foss means waterfall.) Both falls have lots of vegetation so getting a clean photo is tricky. This one turned out OK.
Not long after these waterfalls, you can see Svartifoss up valley.
Most images you see of Svartifoss are taken from either that bridge or along the creek. Here I preferred to include more of the valley. Part of that was just the situation. The vegetation was just starting to take on that red-brown spring coloring. Plus from higher up, the valley, bridge, mountains behind become part of a context that humans are a tiny part of. These images remind me of the old Chinese pen and ink watercolors, travelers or a monk lost in a vast landscape.
But here’s an example of a more standard Svartifoss landscape shot from below.
The waterfall and the basalt columns are a more central part of the image from this viewpoint. But the creek itself is visually busy with all the boulders. If I do a 500px search for Svartifoss, the images that hold my attention are mostly the long exposure ones. Doing a longer exposure here would have hidden some of the busyness in the creek behind the gossamer texture. Who know, maybe I would have liked my creek level shots more with a 2-3 minute exposure.
I made one final discovery walking back. The Svartifoss creek and the trail were perfect leading lines for a photo of the entire area.
Tip: There’s a nice cafeteria next to the Visitors Center that’s a good value (by Iceland standards) and a great place to chill after a hike to a waterfall.