Skaftafell National Park, East Region (Austurland), Iceland

About Svartifoss

Hiking Distance: 3km round trip
Suggested Time: 60-90 minutes

Date first visited: 2007-07-02
Date last visited: 2007-07-02

Waterfall Latitude: 64.02744
Waterfall Longitude: -16.97536

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Svartifoss was perhaps the signature attraction of Skaftafell National Park in the East Region of the country (though it felt more like the southeast region to us if there was such an official designation).

The reason why we made this claim was that it possessed pronounced hanging hexagonal basalt columns beneath a 20m tall waterfall.

Svartifoss_070_07022007 - Svartifoss

Although this combination of basalt columns and a waterfall was not unique (as we had seen numerous examples of these around the world, including Iceland itself), this waterfall seemed to get the lion’s share of the popularity and fame.

We suspect this might be because the basalt columns had an obvious geometrical shape.

In addition, the falls was relatively easy to access and admire from up close (while also giving us a bit of a geology lesson).

Finally, the falls possessed a year-round flow in a landscape that contained glaciers, volcanoes, and large tracts of black sand or sandur.

In other words, this waterfall embodied all that was quintessential raw Icelandic scenery.

Svartifoss_110_07022007 - Looking towards Magnúsarfoss with what I think was Þjófafoss partially revealing itself further upstream
Looking towards Magnúsarfoss with what I think was Þjófafoss partially revealing itself further upstream

While Svartifoss was worthwhile in and of itself, we were surprised to find that there were three other waterfalls in the area – Hundafoss, Magnúsarfoss, and Þjófafoss.

We also visited the glacier Skaftafellsjökull (probably pronounced “SKAP-tuh-fells-yuk-ul”).

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 (e.g. the Devil’s Postpile formation in the Eastern Sierras of California as well as Kirkjugólf near Kirkjubæjarklaustur).

Devils_Postpile_001_08202010 - Like Svartifoss, the Devil's Postpile formation featured pronounced basalt columns
Like Svartifoss, the Devil’s Postpile formation featured pronounced basalt columns

Basaltic lava (said to be very iron-rich) tended to be very hard.

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.

Reykjavik_006_06202007 - This is Halgrimskirkja in Reykjavik.  Do you see the inspiration from the basalt columns in the architecture?
This is Halgrimskirkja in Reykjavik. Do you see the inspiration from the basalt columns in the architecture?

We saw evidence of this when we visited the Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavík.

Experiencing Svartifoss

We started the Svartifoss hike from the visitor center (see directions below), and then we then proceeded to follow the signs and hike roughly 1.5km along a well-used and well-defined trail.

The hike began with a serious climb as the trail left the vast sandur and entered into more hilly terrain.

The bright side of the aerobic workout on the ascent was that it would be downhill on the return.

More than two-thirds up the ascent, we noticed a signpost and lookout for Hundafoss, which meant “Dog Falls.”

Svartifoss_009_07022007 - Hundafoss, which was the first of the waterfalls we encountered on the way to Svartifoss
Hundafoss, which was the first of the waterfalls we encountered on the way to Svartifoss

We weren’t certain how this waterfall got its name, but perhaps it had to do with a dog that fell over the falls for one reason or another and was named in its honor.

In any case, this was an attractive waterfall where we noticed plunging over a cliff and provided a nice photo stop to break up the uphill hike.

Just minutes after visiting Hundafoss, we then saw another signpost and lookout, but this time it was for the waterfall Magnúsarfoss.

This was a bit shorter than Hundafoss, but it featured a profile view of the ravine downstream of the falls while it appeared that some hikers scrambled to get right up to the waterfall’s top.

Svartifoss_046_07022007 - Magnúsarfoss was the second of the waterfalls we encountered on the way to Svartifoss
Magnúsarfoss was the second of the waterfalls we encountered on the way to Svartifoss

Beyond Magnúsarfoss, the climb finally started to flatten out.

After a few more minutes on the trail, we encountered a trail junction where the trail coming in from the left was from an alternate car park that we noticed tour bus passengers would come from.

It turned out that people who came from this path (which we dubbed the “cheater’s path”) would have missed out on Hundafoss and Magnúsarfoss, but they would essentially cut their overall hike that we were doing by around one-half to one-third.

Then, the trail undulated briefly over hills before making a final descent to the base of Svartifoss.

Svartifoss_060_07022007 - Context of Svartifoss as we were approaching its base
Context of Svartifoss as we were approaching its base

We were able to get distant views of the falls before we eventually crossed a bridge and ended up right at the plunge pool of the falls.

Right around the plunge pool, we noticed chunks of hexagonal blocks that have already chunked off the cliff while some of the pieces had moss growing on them fed by the spray of the falls.

Experiencing Skaftafellsjökull

In addition to the Svartifoss hike, we also hiked in the opposite direction from the Visitor Center.

This trail headed further to the east for about 2km round trip.

Skaftafell_029_07022007 - Skaftafellsjökull, which we saw at the end of a short 1km trail going in the opposite direction of Svartifoss
Skaftafellsjökull, which we saw at the end of a short 1km trail going in the opposite direction of Svartifoss

The mostly flat trail led us right to the terminus of the dirty glacier Skaftafellsjökull though we didn’t go further than the sanctioned lookout since the dirty ice could easily be mistaken for regular dirt.


Svartifoss resides in the East Region near Höfn, 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.

Skaftafell_001_07022007 - We could already see Skaftafellsjökull in the distance from near the Visitor Center
Skaftafell_007_07022007 - Before hiking up to Svartifoss, we took a brief detour to check out the Skaftafellsjökull Glacier
Skaftafell_008_07022007 - The brief side hike to the terminus of the glacier Skaftafellsjökull probably took us about 45 minutes round trip
Skaftafell_016_07022007 - A small tarn near the terminus of the glacier Skaftafellsjökull
Skaftafell_023_jx_07022007 - Sign pointing the way to Svartifoss
Svartifoss_001_07022007 - Julie on the uphill climb
Svartifoss_011_07022007 - This was our first look at Hundafoss.  It provided some welcome (albeit momentary) relief from the uphill section of the trail up to Svartifoss
Svartifoss_034_07022007 - While at our near the overlook of Hundafoss, we tried to see how else we could experience this waterfall
Svartifoss_025_07022007 - Another angled look at Hundafoss as the sun was coming back out
Svartifoss_040_07022007 - Looking back at the trail and the sandur below after continuing the hike past Hundafoss
Skaftafell_026_jx_07022007 - Signage confirming that we did indeed see Magnúsarfoss
Svartifoss_051_07022007 - Long-exposed contextual look at Magnúsarfoss
Skaftafell_028_jx_07022007 - Not long after Hundafoss was Magnúsarfoss
Svartifoss_053_07022007 - Looking ahead from Magnúsarfoss towards more of the trail leading to Svartifoss backed by striking mountains
Svartifoss_054_07022007 - When we finally made the initial climb, the trail opened up and flattened out
Svartifoss_063_07022007 - Finally starting to see Svartifoss as we're approaching it
Svartifoss_075_07022007 - Long-exposed closeup look at Svartifoss backed by pronounced basalt columns
Svartifoss_079_07022007 - Paying closer attention to some of the chunked off basalt fragments that were getting sprayed by Svartifoss
Svartifoss_084_07022007 - Closeup of flaked off basalt columns at the foot of Svartifoss with the waterfall spilling right on them
Svartifoss_087_07022007 - Looking right up from the base of Svartifoss
Svartifoss_089_07022007 - Context of Julie checking out Svartifoss
Svartifoss_094_07022007 - Julie hiking ahead on the descent back down to the sandur
Svartifoss_099_07022007 - Julie way out ahead of me on the return hike as I was busy admiring the sandurs and watercourses in the distance
Svartifoss_102_07022007 - I caught up to Julie at this point of the downhill hike back to the trailhead
Svartifoss_104_07022007 - We decided to spend some time investigating the road to the cheater's trail, which yielded this view of the obscure Þjófafoss fronted by Magnúsarfoss
Jokulsarlon_018_07022007 - Jokulsarlon. Don't miss it!
Jokulsarlon_040_07022007 - Jokulsarlon

The turnoff for Skaftafell National Park is off the Ring Road (Route 1).

It was about 54km west of the icebergs at Jökulsárlón (“YUK-ul-sour-lohn”), 133km west of the town of Höfn (sounds like “HUP”, almost rhymes with cup) and 67km east of Kirkjubæjarklaustur (“KIRK-hew-buy-ar-kloi-stir”).

Once on the turnoff, take it to the car park by the Visitor Center.

If you’re interested in doing the “cheater’s route” by parking at the alternate car park, continue driving on the park road west past the Visitor Center.

Svartifoss_109_07022007 - If you go past the visitor center and up what I call the 'cheater's way', then you might catch a glimpse of the elusive Þjófafoss (the upper waterfall in this picture)
If you go past the visitor center and up what I call the ‘cheater’s way’, then you might catch a glimpse of the elusive Þjófafoss (the upper waterfall in this picture)

The road will eventually narrow into an almost single-lane road as it would climb steeply up switchbacks until reaching the small car park.

However, on the way up, we were able to stop the car at one of the switchbacks where we were able to get a distant view of the rather obscure waterfall labeled Þjófafoss on my Gapmin Iceland map (though I somehow bent that CD so I can’t install it anymore without buying a new copy).

While visiting Svartifoss, we thought it was definitely worth checking out the glacier lagoon Jökulsárlón, which featured deep blue icebergs and glaciers.

Actually, since we visited this area as part of the long drive from Egilsstaðir (which was 372km further to the east), Jökulsárlón was on the way.

For further geographical context, Kirkjubæjarklaustur was 248km (3 hours drive) east of Reykjavík and 380km (5 hours drive) west of Egilsstaðir.

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Approaching the falls

Closeup look at the falls. Guess who that is in the foreground taking a photo of it?

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Tagged with: skaftafell, national park, hundafoss, mangusarfoss, thjofafoss, basalt, east region, austurland, iceland, waterfall

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Hundafoss in Skaftafell National Park, Iceland March 1, 2019 11:51 am by John Moerk - Hundafoss is the tallest (78 feet) and first of three waterfalls encountered on the Bærjargil stream along the popular trail to Svartifoss in the Skaftafell region of Vatnajökull National Park, ...Read More

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