I had read about how remote and stunning the scenery was in Southern Iceland. It is considered by many to be the most striking in the whole country. Lava fields, huge waterfalls, glaciers, glacial lagoons, black sand beaches, craggy mountains, ice caves, horses with their manes blowing in the wind, the ever violent ocean. What more could a free spirit want than a magical day at the glaciers?
I chose to visit Southern Iceland for two days at the very end of my trip. I was attracted to the idea of saving the best for last. Feeling as though I was exploring unchartered territory, in awe of all that lay before me. Of course, there are many other tourist on this circuit, but the vast space and eerie twilight allowed me to maintain my fantasy for some moments.
I departed Reykjavik late morning and eight hours later, I arrived in Kirkjubaejaklauster. Had I driven straight, I would have been there in three. But with those five extra hours I promise you, I only scratched the surface of exploration on that 150 mile stretch.
Waterfalls, Waterfalls, Oh My!
The waterfalls were absolutely remarkable and that is an understatement. Definitely an Icelandic highlight. I had visited some very pretty and highly regarded waterfalls in Northern Iceland. In fact, each one I read about was described in superlatives. I actually believe the hype was a disservice to tourists. On the whole, they were undoubtedly pretty, but not all that tall. Although the snowmelt in springtime apparently allows the width to grow to an impressive size.
I would happily trade the width of waterflow for height any day. With that in mind, the waterfalls on the south coast delivered. I spotted Seljalandsfoss from the road and pulled in to admire it. It actually was a series of three waterfalls. The largest one drops down 200 feet. What made it shine in all its glory was the mist that had accumulated around it and froze. Picture a surrounding icy pool, decorated with suspended icicles attached to the mountainside. It was no wonder so many tripods were set up to capture the moment!
Further down the road, in Skógar, Skógafoss was causing tourist jaws to drop. I am not sure if the legend is true about the hidden chest of gold behind the waterfall, but if you show up on a sunny day and bear witness to the expansive rainbow, you just may think you have struck gold. Truly, this was the one attraction where I declared “my timing is perfect. Skógafoss is in all her glory. These are the photographs that put Iceland on the map.”
It too is almost 200 feet tall and its mist has created a sheet of ice surrounding it. People were respectful about letting everyone snatch their Instagram moment. Also, there is a walkway, comprised of a few hundred steps, that leads up the east side of the waterfall. The top delivers bodacious views of the Vatnajökull ice cap and the Skoga River, which feeds the waterfall.
I spent the night in the Magma Hotel in Kirkjubaejarklauster, knowing I would only need to drive another 90 minutes the next day to reach Jökulsárlón. My ice cave tour was for 11:40 AM, which gave me the space to enjoy the morning at the glacial lagoon and Diamond Beach before the tour.
Exploring Southeast Iceland in All Her Glory
Several tourists I met earlier on the trip told me about Diamond Beach (LINK), which is the black sand beach at the outlet of the lagoon. I did not see any mention of it in the books. But if you are in the area, it’s a non-negotiable must do. The sand is black because it is volcanic rock that has been ground up into small granules, after years of being pounded on by the violent North Atlantic waves. I have seen a similar phenomenon in Maui.
If that is not enough raw beauty, then the chunks of blue tinged glacial ice strewn across the beach will stop you in your tracks. It did me. I have never seen anything like it before. It makes you rethink all what a beach can be. While I would not dare to lay out in a bikini drinking mai tais, I would relish throwing myself on the ice chunks and soak up the cosmic marriage of fire (volcanic sand) and ice (glacial chunks). And snapping a few photos while I am at it!
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention. While I was on Diamond Beach, I spotted a couple of whales in the ocean. They moved in unison through the frigid water, which was poetic. A completely unexpected, yet welcome treat.
Next, I was off to the cafeteria in the Jökulsárlón parking lot to meet up with the tour guides for Arctic Adventures (the umbrella for Extreme Iceland) (LINK). I was notified the day before that the cave tour I signed up for was not available due to flooding, but that an alternative tour was being offered to a different cave.
I have to admit I found the way that they handled the situation was in poor taste. They did ask me face to face, if I knew there was a change. I said yes and they let me know that they would offer a full refund, if I chose not to go. When I inquired, they said it was ten days since they last brought people in the cave. So, reaching out at the eleventh hour was insulting. And waiting to offer the refund until you have driven 225 miles was also insulting.
This being said, it was my last day in Iceland and it made sense for me to make the most of the day. On the whole, I was blessed with glorious weather almost my whole trip. The weather was mostly sunny, rarely rained or snowed, and usually above freezing during the day. Ironically, it was this good weather that made the cave flood a few weeks earlier than usual for the season. I reminded myself that one must be adaptable while traveling and especially to Iceland in the winter.
The Anaconda Cave Patiently Waits
We climbed in a massive jeep and rode 35 minutes (most of it off road, on the glacial plain) to the cave. I was scared at some points. For instance, when we were going downhill at a 45 degree angle. Yikes! We were greeted by Claire, an enthusiastic, knowledgeable and caring guide from Australia. Her formal studies of environmental science and her desire to become intimate with glaciers landed her in Iceland six months ago. We geared up with helmets and traction devices and headed down into the Anaconda.
I wrote about this experience in my article about Oh So Worth it Splurges in Iceland and this is the excerpt:
It can be so hard to clearly define a best day or activity on a long trip. But on this trip, touring through an ice cave wins the prize! It is truly one of those moments where you say to yourself “yeah, this is the Iceland I’ve been dreaming about.”
The ice cave tours are only offered in winter, they flood in the other seasons, only to drain and refreeze and reform again next winter. I signed up a month in advance as things were getting full, so plan ahead on this one! I went with Extreme Iceland (LINK) as the guides. The pictures of undulating walls of blue ice had me yearning to get close up and personal with the cave. The ice caves are near Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon, which is about a five hour drive from Reykjavik. (Options are also available to be picked up in Reykjavik.)
The Crystal Cave is the famous blue cave, which happened to be flooded when I was there. So we went in the Anaconda Cave instead. It was not as blue, but much, much larger. Our guide taught us about the glaciers and encouraged us to look inside at the sediment and to see the boulders that it carried into the cave.
It is hard to envision the glacier and cave as an entity that is constantly shifting and morphing, since we picture ice as frozen in one place. But once you are inside, you will understand through feeling it. While it is not technically a living organism, it is very much alive. Toward the end of our tour, we entered a region of the Anaconda Cave and shut our headlamps off. It took a few minutes for our eyes to adjust, but when they did, WOW! We were amidst tunnels of mystical blue ice, as if we just stepped onto another planet. It was everything I had envisioned plus more.
In the spirit of being unoriginal, I will just say a picture is worth a thousand words:
Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon Is One of a Kind
After returning to the parking lot, I lingered a while longer to see the glacial lagoon. Well, see and feel it that is. There was not as much glacial ice floating around as I expected. This is simply because it was winter and the glacier was not calving. Yet, there were some ice sculptures that looked like mini icebergs. They slowly drift through the lagoon, as dictated by the wind, with no destination in mind. Any given chunk can be there for five years before it travels down Iceland’s shortest river to Diamond Beach.
On the southwest corner, there was a lot of flat ice. Chunks ranging from 20-80 square feet. They were pieces of a frozen puzzle that didn’t quite fit neatly together. But edges were close enough that if you were both careful and didn’t look down, you could step from one to another. Sort of like flagstone pavers in my garden. I of course made the mistake of looking down and filling my body with fear. But insanity won out and I slowly made my way out on the lagoon.
The prize was seeing rows of seals! It was just amazing to get so close to them. Some were swimming in the lagoon. Most were laying on the mini icebergs. Others were playing with each other, climbing and rolling around. So sweet. None of them were drinking mai tais. I really could have staked a claim on my own private iceberg and watched them all day, but alas, there were other things to experience en route back to the hotel.
Skaftafell National Park – A Magical Day at the Glaciers
Skaftafell National Park is home to waterfalls, rivers, birch trees, mountains (actually volcanoes under ice) and rivers of moving ice, otherwise known as glaciers. With good reason, tourists flock here and try to take it all in.
Since I only had a few hours of daylight, I could only take a couple short hikes at the periphery. With more time and warmer weather, one should really consider exploring it more fully. Since it is so heavily touristed in the summer, you may want to consider getting deep into the park, to be able to appreciate it without gazillion of your best friends. Fun fact – the park gets 500,000 visitors annually. The nation of Iceland has 350,000 citizens.
Svartifoss is a waterfall with a backdrop extraordinaire. The rock face is comprised of basalt columns. What is interesting is that they are even at the top and vary in lengths. So it appears as though someone just cut them off in midair. And there they hang, suspended. With water pouring over them. It was another “I’ve never seen anything like it moment.”
When I mentioned Svartifoss to Claire, she said I’d probably have enough time to do that hike and another short one as well. The second one was out to Skaftafelljökull Glacier. The hike itself is on land. And the path is flat. The only thing that made the hike a challenge was how windy it was. The biting frigid wind cut through me every which way. I was bundled up, yet my face felt like it was frozen in place.
That mattered not. Because in the distance about a mile away was the tongue of the glacier. And with each step, I was that much closer to it. It was massive and mighty. Ancient and wise. Vast and all encompassing. Intimidating and inviting. Magnetic and vital. Static and dynamic. It was so many things, some of which contradicted each other.
Reaching the glacial plain was momentous for me. Ice sculptures that the glacier released last summer lay at her feet, frozen once winter struck. A thin coat of ice covered the plain. It was water making its way back into the soil, that didn’t make it in time, because winter possessed it in its grasp. It will transform this spring, but for now, for this moment, the glacier stops in its tracks. And the inner child in me, or perhaps it was the inner seal in me, had to know the icebergs.
I carefully made my way on the thin ice until I reached a glacial chunk that bore a slight resemblance to a chaise lounge. It was bigger up close than it I estimated. And slippery to climb on. And chilling to touch, even through layers of wool. But absolutely worth the effort.
Click here to see the rest of the story.
The glacier touched my soul. Sadly, in modern times, glaciers are short lived and at the end of their lives. Our lives are short as well. How special that we came together, in that moment, in Skaftafell National Park. I will always feel grateful.