Svartifoss was perhaps the signature attraction of Skaftafell National Park (now merged into the vast Vatnajökull National Park).
Even though it’s technically in the East Region of the country, I thought that it felt more like the southeast region if there was such an official regional designation.
The reason for its notoriety was that it possessed pronounced hanging hexagonal basalt columns beneath a year-round 20m tall waterfall.
Although this combination of basalt columns and a waterfall was actually pretty commonplace (we had seen numerous examples of these around the world, especially in Iceland itself), this waterfall seemed to be the poster child of this phenomenon.
Perhaps its status was further enhanced by its well-developed hiking trail making it relatively easily accessible to the majority of tourists.
The trail also featured intermediate waterfalls as well as mindblowing views of neighboring glaciers (especially on a clear day), colorful volcanic mountains, and expansive glacial sand plains (or sandur).
In other words, this waterfall excursion packed a lot of the scenery that embodied all that was quintessential raw Icelandic scenery that was both pleasing to see and accessible for tourists.
Just to give you some more specifics about the scenery on offer here, of the other waterfalls that we encountered on the way to Svartifoss, we’ve also seen Hundafoss, Magnúsarfoss, and the hidden Þjófafoss.
And to extend our time here, we’ve also visited the glacier Skaftafellsjökull (“SKAP-tuh-fells-yewh-ul”) and the neighboring Svínafellsjökull (“SVEEN-uh-fells-yewh-kul”) as well as the viewpoint at Sjónarsker.
We’ll get into all of these options and features as we experienced them in the trail descriptions further below in this writeup.
The Basalt Formation
The name of the falls translated into something like “Black Falls” which might be attributable to the darkness of the underlying basalt columns.
We’ve typically found such features where there seemed to be evidence of basaltic lava being rapidly cooled by ice so it’s not surprising to see such places where there’s evidence of volcanoes coexisting with ice fields.
Some memorable examples of basalt columns throughout Iceland include Kirkjugólf near Kirkjubæjarklaustur, the Gerðuberg Cliffs near the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Reynisfjara Beach near Vík, and the Stuðlagil Canyon near Egilsstaðir.
Basaltic lava (said to be very iron-rich) tended to be very hard and erosion resistant.
Thus over time, the thermal stress of the rapid temperature fluctuations on the hard basalt resulted in fractures at the weakest joints the lava.
These joints happened to be vertical and at 120-degree angles thereby resulting in the hexagonal columns.
In fact, the columns of Svartifoss were such a distinctive feature that it was said to inspire Icelandic architecture, especially the Hallgrímskirkja in downtown Reykjavík.
Over the years, we’ve hiked to Svartifoss in two different ways.
The first way is a straightforward out-and-back hike along a wide and well-developed uphill trail for about 4.3km round-trip according to my GPS logs.
We hiked to Svartifoss in this manner when we first did this route back in July 2007.
The second way is a slightly longer loop hike that climbs between the west side of the Stórilækur Stream and the Böltavegur Road before rejoining the main Svartifoss Trail.
When we returned to Svartifoss in August 2021, we hiked on this loop route, where my GPS logs suggested we had hiked about 5km total.
The main benefit for extending the hike in this manner was the much quieter experience for as long as we were on the west side of the Stórilækur Stream.
This was especially important to us given how much more difficult social distancing was in the face of the spread of COVID-19 variants or mutations, especially given the increased popularity and tourist traffic for Svartifoss.
However, this longer trail also brought us closer to former farm sites, allowed us to witness the hidden Þjófafoss Waterfall, and provided a little more shade (if it happens to be sunny) among other things.
Anyways, I was made aware of the longer trail back on our 2007 visit to Iceland when we were able to drive the single-lane Böltavegur Road up to a small car park or trailhead that was closer than the visitor center.
I even noticed that a tour bus had deposited visitors to that trailhead, and this compelled me to refer to this route as the “Cheater’s Way”.
That said, I noticed that the closer car park was empty on our 2021 visit so perhaps there was infrastructure blocking or at least discouraging driving up this road.
Nevertheless, despite the longer hiking distance compared to the main Svartifoss route, I will still refer to the longer route as the “Cheater’s Way” for easy reference even though it’s no longer for “cheaters”.
Svartifoss Trail Description – The Main Route to the Junction by Magnúsarfoss
For the majority of visitors, we’d have to park in one of the large car parks that now require a fee (see directions below).
From there, we’d then walk about 200m towards the Vatnajökull (formerly Skaftafell) National Park Visitor Center, where there’s cantinas and WCs.
The hike then proceeds to the west as it passes by an extensive open space and campground until it reaches a fork about 250m from the visitor center.
The well-signed main trail then ascends the fork on the right as it climbs persistently for at least the next 1.5km with the steepest section being in the first 400-500m.
At about 550m from the fork, the trail entered a lush side gully spanned by a footbridge where I was able to hear but not see a waterfall (which I believe is called Heygötufoss) dropping further downstream.
At about 650m from the start of the ascent, we then reached a lookout for the attractive Hundafoss, which seemed to have been much more developed over the years to better handle the increase in foot traffic.
Hundafoss means “Dog Falls” though we’re not certain how this waterfall got its name as we can only speculate that perhaps a dog fell over it for one reason or another.
In any case, this waterfall plunged over a cliff and provided a nice photo stop to help break up the persistently uphill hike.
Just minutes after visiting Hundafoss (roughly 200m further up the trail), we then saw another signpost and lookout for another waterfall called Magnúsarfoss.
This was a bit shorter than Hundafoss, but it featured a profile view of the ravine downstream of the falls while we noticed some hikers have managed to scramble to get right up to its top from the other side (via the Cheater’s Way).
It seemed like the lookout for this waterfall had become overgrown over the years so I was actually able to see less of it in 2021 than when I first saw it in 2007.
Just beyond Magnúsarfoss, the trail then reached a junction, where the hike continued to climb to the right, but the path on the left crossed a footbridge over the Stórilækur Stream at the top of the “Cheater’s Way”.
So this junction (about 900m from the fork at the start of the climb) would be the point where the Cheater’s Way would join up with main Svartifoss Trail.
Svartifoss Trail Description – Final Stretch to Svartifoss
Beyond the trail junction, the hike continued to climb though not as steeply as earlier on as the views became more expansive.
Throughout this stretch, I noticed more of those non-slip grids while I also started to notice parts of the Vatnajökull Ice Field to my right as well as some colorful volcanic peaks straight ahead.
The climb would ultimately persist for another 600m from the junction until reaching the highest point of this trail at Miðheiði.
At this high point, there was a distant view towards Svartifoss, some signage, and some trails branching east towards Austastaheiði.
Then, the trail descended for another 200m before reaching another trail junction by a footbridge over the Stórilækur Stream.
Besides getting some views towards Svartifoss fronted by the stream, there was also an optional 650m uphill hike to reach a viewpoint with distant glacier views at Sjónarsker.
Anyways, continuing around 50m past the footbridge (but not crossing it), the trail eventually terminated at a lookout platform fronting Svartifoss.
We used to be able to scramble around the jumble of basalt chunks at the foot of the waterfall when we first visited this place in July 2007.
However, there was fencing set up to try to discourage any more scrambling to get closer to the falls due to the volume of visitors since that time, which inevitably caused more erosion and rockfall danger.
When we showed up on our second visit to Svartifoss on a beautifully sunny day in early August 2021, we happened to see a rainbow about an hour before noon.
This marked the turnaround point of the main trail to Svartifoss, where we pretty much got to look forward to the all downhill hike to the visitor center (besides the climb back up to Miðheiði).
In addition, we were also treated to expansive views of both the glacial plains as we looked towards the ocean and the glaciers as we looked to our left (especially towards the end of the descent), which kept things interesting.
Svartifoss Trail Description – The Cheater’s Way
The quieter alternate trail started at the fork by the Skaftafell Campground where instead of going up the right fork, we kept left on the flatter trail.
For the next 400m, the trail stayed alongside the northern edge of the campground before veering to the right over a couple of bridges and trail junctions where there used to be farms.
The farms had to be abandoned due to frequent glacial flash floods or lahars (Jökullhlaup in Icelandic) on the Skeiðará River burying anything in the way.
Such flash floods resulted from volcanic eruptions beneath the wide Skeiðarárjökull arm of the Vatnajökull Glacier.
By the way, this was probably the main reason why the Ring Road wasn’t fully paved on our first visit to Iceland in 2007 as we found ourselves driving directly on the black-sanded plains (though we saw it was fully paved as of our 2021 visit).
Anyways, upstream from the first footbridge, there was a small hidden waterfall that was a nice and serene deviation.
At about 600m from the fork (or about 100m from the footbridges), we then reached a trail junction with signage for the alternate trail near Lambhagi.
According to my Icelandic dictionary, hagi means “pasture” so Lambhagi means “lamb pasture”, which is probably another throwback to the days when farms were in existence prior to the glacial floods.
There was a side trail about 50m uphill from the alternate trail signage, which then led about 30m to a calm and peaceful part of the Stórilækur Stream.
Continuing on the uphill climb another 100m beyond the Lambhagi detour along the Cheater’s Way, we then reached a lookout with a view of the Þjófafoss (Thieve’s) Waterfall.
This lookout also yields a partial view of the Hundafoss Waterfall, which provides a bit of a preview of what’s ahead.
Next, the trail continued climbing through a grove of thin birch trees, which provided some degree of shade from the sun (at least when compared to the main trail on a sunny day).
After another 250m along the uphill trail, we then reached a pleasing lookout for the Hundafoss Waterfall, where we could also see it backed by the Vatnajökull Ice Cap.
Next, the trail started to climb less steeply as it continued another 200m beyond the Hundafoss View to the old Cheater’s Way car park.
Along the way, I noticed a spur trail that I suspect went towards the west side of Magnúsarfoss.
Finally, in the next 100m (keeping right at the first trail junction leading up towards Sjónarsker by way of Vörðuskarstofa), we rejoined the main Svartifoss Trail right after crossing over a footbridge spanning the Stórilækur Stream.
The rest of the hike would proceed in the same manner as the main hike to Svartifoss described earlier.
Options for Extending Time in Skaftafell
While the main Svartifoss hike could easily occupy three hours of your time, I’ve found the scenery was compelling enough to spend even more time here.
The first of these options was to the Sjónarsker landmark, which was like a compass with expansive views towards the Skeiðarárjökull and the glacial plains as well as the Vatnajökull Ice Cap.
There were several trails leaving from this compass, including an 8km trail to the top of Kristínártindar Peaks for a somewhat closer but still distant view of Mórsárfoss and the Mórsárjökull terminus.
The detour to Sjónarsker extended our Svartifoss hike by at least another 1.3km in total, but you’re looking at another 16km round-trip to pursue Kristínártindar.
The second option involves hiking a mostly flat trail from the Skaftafell Visitor Center to the “dirty” terminus of the Skaftafellsjökull Glacier.
When we first did this hike in 2007, we only had to go 2km round-trip to reach the end of the trail, but with Global Warming, that distance increased to at least 3.7km round-trip as of 2021.
We didn’t go further than the sanctioned lookout since the dirty ice could easily be mistaken for regular dirt thereby making it very dangerous to traverse the barricades.
Finally, there was a nearby road leading to the western terminus of the Svínafellsjökull Glacier until a landslide put an end to that access.
So we drove to the next turnoff leading 800m from the Ring Road to an alternate car park near Freysnes.
From there, we then did a short 1.6km return hike to a view of the attractively blue terminus of the glacier.
Svartifoss resides in the East Region near Skaftafell, Iceland. It is administered by the municipality of Sveitarfélagið Hornafjörður. For information or inquiries about the general area as well as current conditions, you may want to try visiting their website.
It’s a bit of a stretch to drive from Reykjavík to Skaftafell and back as a day trip so I’ll start the driving directions from Kirkjubæjarklaustur.
From the main roundabout in Kirkjubæjarklaustur just north of the Skaftá River, we’d continue on the Ring Road east for 66km before turning left onto the well-signed Skaftafellsvegur towards the Skaftafell Visitor Center.
This turnoff was towards the eastern end of the vast Skeiðarársandur Plains with enticing views of both Skaftafellsjökull and Svínafellsjökull.
From there, we then drove about 1.6km to the signed turnoff for the car park for self-drivers on the right (the next turnoff after the one meant for tour buses).
Overall, this drive would take about an hour.
Coming in the other direction from Höfn, we’d drive 5km north to the Ring Road before heading west for 129km.
Then, we’d turn right onto Skaftafellsvegur before reaching the car park for self-drivers another 1.6km later to the right.
Overall, this drive would take over 90 minutes.
If you’re interested in doing the “cheater’s route” by parking at the alternate car park, you’d continue driving on the Skaftafellsvegur west past the turnoffs for the visitor center and car parks towards the campground.
At about 750m beyond the car park turnoff, the road veers and narrows to the right as it climbs the single-lane Böltavegur.
After another 600m, the alternate car park would be on the right.
However, I have to remind you that if this was the common way to go, there would have been many cars there, but as of our latest visit in 2021, that lot was empty which suggests that perhaps there’s some restrictions to that single-lane road.
Anyways, for overall context, the hamlet of Skaftafell (or Freysnes) was 73km (about an hour drive) east of Kirkjubæjarklaustur, 131km (over 90 minutes drive) southwest of Höfn, 307km (over 4 hours drive) southwest of Egilsstaðir, and 328km (about 4.5 hours drive) east of Reykjavík.
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