South of Djúpivogur, the fjords recede into the background and you enter the altogether different world of southeastern Iceland, a coastal band between the East Fjords and Vík which is dominated by Europe’s largest ice cap, Vatnajökull. Covering eight thousand square kilometres, almost 150km wide and up to 1km thick, Vatnajökull’s vast size gradually sinks in as it floats inland for hour after hour as you drive past, its numerous glacier tongues flowing in slow motion from the heights to sea level, grinding out a black gravelly coastline as they go. Vatnajökull National Park (wvatnajokulsthjodgardur.is) covers 12,000 square kilometres of this unspoiled wilderness – an extraordinary eleven percent of Iceland’s total landmass – accessible by hiking, four-wheel-driving or even by snowmobile. Flying is perhaps the only way to absorb Vatnajökull’s full immensity: glaring ice sheets shadowed in lilac; pale blue tarns; and grey, needle-sharp nunataks – mountain peaks – poking through the ice.
Given Vatnajökull’s proximity, Iceland’s “mini ice-age” between 1200 and 1900 hit the southeast especially hard – not to mention the devastating jökulhlaups that flood out from beneath Vatnajökull’s icy skirt from time to time – and it remains a thinly settled area, even though all glaciers here are actually retreating as the climate warms once more. Vatnajökull’s eastern flank is accessed at Lónsöræfi, a private reserve managed by Stafafell farm, close to the regional hub of Höfn. There’s the stunning sight of icebergs floating on the lagoon at Jökulsárlón; and the ice cap’s southern glaciers and adjacent heaths to explore at Skaftafell National Park and Skeiðarársandur, a huge glacier-induced wilderness between Vatnajökull and the sea. Moving away from Vatnajökull, Kirkjubæjarklaustur is the southeast’s second settlement, near where lava fields and craters at Lakagígar stand testament to one of Iceland’s most violent volcanic events. Note that the only shops and banks in the entire region are at Höfn and Kirkjubæjarklaustur, which are 200km apart.Read More
On the Ringroad 75km west of Höfn and 55km east of Skaftafell, Jökulsárlón is a large, deep-blue lagoon between the nose of Breiðamerkurjökull and the sea. Formed after the glacier began shrinking rapidly in the 1940s, the lagoon is chock-full of smallish, powder-blue icebergs which have calved off Breiðamerkurjökull’s front and float idly in the lake as if performing some slow ballet. A large gravel hill has been created as a lookout point on the lakeshore; check iceberg ledges for basking seals.
Once you’ve seen the lagoon, make sure you cross the road and walk down to the black-sand beach. The seafront here is littered with transparent ice boulders, the remains of the icebergs which have washed down the 1km-long Jökulsár (Iceland’s shortest river) and into the sea – their weird, incredibly sculpted shapes are a striking sight on such a desolate shore.
- Skaftafell National Park
Grímsvötn and jökulhlaups
Grímsvötn and jökulhlaups
Jökulhlaups are massive, volcanically-induced flash floods that regularly burst out from under Vatnajökull, carrying untold tonnes of boulders, gravel, ice and water before them. One cause of these floods is Grímsvötn, a smouldering volcano buried 400m under the ice cap inland from Skeiðarársandur. The volcano’s last major eruption was in 2011, but the biggest event of recent times occurred in October 1996 after a 6km-long vent opened up under the ice. For ten days the volcano erupted continuously, blowing steam, ash and smoke 6km into the sky; then, at 8am on November 5, the melted ice suddenly drained out underneath Skeiðarárjökull, sending three billion litres of water spewing across Skeiðarársandur in a 5m-high wave, sweeping away 7km of road and – despite design precautions – demolishing or badly damaging several bridges. Fourteen hours later the flood rate was peaking at 45,000 cubic metres per second, and when the waters subsided a day later, the sandur was dotted with house-sized chunks of ice ripped off the front of Skeiðarárjökull. Aside from the barren scenery, there’s very little evidence for any of this today – the ice has long gone and the bridges are repaired – though if you’re heading to Skaftafell, look out for the twisted remains of Skeiðarárbrú, one of the Ringroad bridges destroyed by the event, which are on display by the roadside.
Hiking through Lónsöræfi
Hiking through Lónsöræfi
A dozen or so demanding hiking trails run north through Lónsöræfi and right up to Snæfell. This is a remote area: don’t hike alone, and bring everything you’ll need with you – warm clothing, food, water and a tent – as weather or navigation errors can see even one-day walks accidentally extended. You’ll also want Mál og menning’s Lónsöræfi 1:100,000 map. Note that the reserve’s waterways are all glacier-fed, making for unpredictable flow rates in summer. Hiking huts along the way are operated by Ferðafélag Íslands (wfi.is).
A short, easy hike (5hr return) follows erratic marker pegs uphill behind the Stafafell Farm hostel onto the moor, above but away from the east side of the Jökulsá í Lóni river. It’s slightly boggy heathland, with spongy cushions of moss, low birch thickets and hummocks of gravel; there’s a tight grouping of fells looming to the northeast, while the west is more open. Following a general northwest bearing, after a couple of hours you’ll find yourself above the shattered, orange and grey rhyolite sides of the Grákinn valley; scramble west down the scree and then crisscross the stream to where the valley appears to dead-end in a wall of dark cliffs. Push through a short canyon and exit to the Jökulsá í Lóni, which you follow southeast downstream along a dull jeep track to the highway and the farm.
Lónsöræfi to Snæfell
The hike from Stafafell Farm to Snæfell takes at least four days. Contact the farm to arrange a lift in a vehicle across the Jökulsá í Lóni at the start of the hike; at the other end there is no public transport from Snæfell to Egilsstaðir, so you’ll need to risk finding somebody to hitch with, or contact Tanni Travel (wtannitravel.is), who can arrange pickups. There’s one short glacier traverse along the way, requiring a little experience; otherwise you just need to be fit.
Once over the multi-streamed Jökulsá í Lóni, there’s a hut and campground at Eskifell. From here, you follow an ever-tightening gorge due north to another hut and campground at Illikambur, around 25km from Stafafell, from where there are several day-walks along side-gorges and up nearby peaks, including a route west up to Rauðhamar for views down onto Öxarfellsjökull, Vatnajökull’s easternmost extension.
Back on the main track, around 10km north of Illikambur is Víðidalur, an attractive valley with a campground to the south and lakeside hut 2km to the northwest at Kollumúlvatn, where there are further glacial views and trails northwest to a collection of wind-scoured outcrops known as Tröllakrókar, “troll spires”. The next 17km follows Vatnajökull’s northeastern edge to the Geldingafell hut; from here, the final stage to Snæfell is a lengthy 35km (avoiding unfordable rivers), first westwards over the tip of Eyjabakkajökull, then bearing north at Litla-Snæfell to the Ferðafélag Íslands’ hut on Snæfell’s west side.