We were excited to get out of the city limits of Reykjavik to explore Skaftafell National Park. Since it was winter, we were limited to where we were able to hike. We chose Skaftafell because the weather tends to be more mild in the south than some of the other areas we were researching. We also did not want to be driving our whole trip. This part of the trip is my favorite. I realized I can survive in cold weather for long periods of time without hiking if I have warm enough cloths and the distraction of the aurora borealis to keep my mind off the climate.

This area had varying climates with snow and sand gusts blowing across the road to high snow covered mountains, volcanoes, and glaciers. I can’t wait to return to Iceland one day to complete the Ring Road drive.

Panorama of Jökulsárlón

Panorama of Jökulsárlón

Drive to Skaftafell National Park

We woke up around 7:30 am. Andy went downstairs to wait for the rental car drop off. I took a shower and packed what I needed for our time away from Reykjavik. We left the hotel around 9:15 am and started our drive out of the city heading southeast on Ring Road. We drove to Selfoss and found a grocery store. We arrived 10 minutes before it opened, so we waited with about a dozen other people waiting. We got groceries for the weekend and were on the road again. We stopped at the gas station we had the previous day to fuel up on coffee and continued to Skaftafell National Park.

During the drive, we saw some amazing landscapes. We stopped to take pictures of a waterfall and other landscape views. We saw glaciers, volcanoes, and the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean. Some areas were snow covered and others had the prairie look but with black, sandy soil. I did a time lapse video from the car by hooking up my video camera to my tripod in the front seat and letting it run for about an hour and a half of our drive. This became my new “project” for the trip when we had good views driving. Ring Road did not have too much traffic, so we made good time.

Ring Road Glacier

Views on Ring Road Drive

Approaching the park provided views of the largest glacier we have seen. Skeiðarárjökull glacier was massive and never ending. We continued to drive and started to see Skaftafellsjökull and Svínafellsjökull glaciers. We then turned off Ring Road to get information at the park’s visitor’s center. They did not seem to be extremely knowledgeable on the hikes we were interested in. The guy told us there was snow, so we should not attempt the one route. Andy bought a topography map with routes of hikes we were interested.

We then headed to check into Guesthouse Lækjarhús in Hof. It was a typical sized village for the area from what we saw on our drive. It did not have any gas or grocery stores, but it did have a soccer field in front of what appeared to be a school. We were at a foot of the mountains in a little cabin that looks like a nice wooden storage shed in the States. We paid cash and got the key to the little cabin and were surprised to find we had wifi in the cabin. The Hilton only had wifi in the lobby! The cabin had a fully stocked kitchenette, dining table, and two sets of bunk beds. This accommodation was more “us” than the Hilton. We spread out our sleeping bags and pillows (which we brought to avoid paying extra for bedding) and had a snack while deciding what to do for the rest of the day. This was the first time I pulled out my journal to write about the trip.

Laekjarhus Guesthouse

With being extremely excited for a decent forecast for the Northern Lights, we headed out for Jökulsárlón to see the glacier lagoon before heading the furthest east we would be on our trip to Höfn. Jökulsárlón is a lagoon of icebergs from the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier. We had good weather with some reflection. We stood on some icebergs close to the shore of the lagoon for pictures. Andy decided to take a time lapse of the iceberg movements, so I decided to walk along the edge and take in the massive views of the lagoon, glacier, and mountains. I took a small time lapse with my video camera until the battery died. The movement of the water was from the waves crashing into the shoreline from the Atlantic Ocean, and icebergs can take up to 500 years to exit the lagoon to the ocean. We were here for about an hour or two before decided to drive an hour or more to Höfn.

Andy was getting tired from driving all day, so we got to the town, which was larger than most we saw on our drive. The views on this section were amazing with the sun set colors lighting up the snow covered mountains and fjords. We were starting to get into the eastern fjords territory of Iceland. We also passed a few reindeer farms on this portion of the drive. Höfn did have a small grocery store and two gas stations. We decided to grab food to waste some time before searching for the Northern Lights. We both had reindeer burgers while I charged my video camera battery.

Eastern Fjords

Eastern Fjords

After our quick stop at Höfn, we headed back. I was kind of disappointed when Andy suggested watching for the Northern Lights on our drive and stopping just to look. He had a feeling that Saturday would be the better night for the lights. We woke up a little, and we stopped back at Jökulsárlón around 10 pm at the same place we were earlier today. We put on our down jackets and went outside to brave the cold to set up our cameras and wait for the show to start.

We waited for a while before Andy saw the “ribbon” of lights starting off to the northeast. We started taking long exposure pictures. Andy took a time lapse. I tried, but I could not figure out my intervalometer settings. I ended up doing a short time last by hand towards the end. We both were decently warm. My feet got extremely cold because I had had my low hiking shoes on. We probably stayed outside for about 1.5 to 2 hours. I lasted a little longer than Andy did before heading to the car. We were not extremely impressed until later in the cycle with the light formations staying low on the horizon. The forecast for the aurora borealis was rated to be moderate viewing, which made sense. We drove back to the cabin and went to bed around 2 am.

Hiking in Skaftafell

We woke up around 8 am and cooked eggs for breakfast. We then put on our hiking gear and headed back into Skaftafell National Park.  We parked at the Visitor’s Center, where the winds were howling. We debated which hike we should do. Originally, we were planning on hiking to Kristínartindar, but the wind changed our plans fast. Instead, we decided to get to Svartifoss at least, which was a waterfall with unique dark lava columns as the cliff the water falls over. Andy took his tripod. This portion of the hike was through brushy areas that reminded us of Alaska because of the red colors. We both were hiking with our hoods tied completely around our faces, trying to block as much wind as possible.

After getting to Svartifoss, we walked around to take pictures. We decided to continue and see Sjónarsker, which was a total of 6.5 km (~4 miles) from the trailhead near the Visitor’s Center and was a loop trail. The loop went to a viewpoint of the Skaftafellsjökull glacier before looping back to the parking lot.

Svartifoss

Svartifoss

We walked through the low brush, with the mountain and volcano tops peeping above red and brown foreground. We took a few pictures and kept hiking debating to go further to  Kristínartindar. However, we had too late of a start to complete the hike and probably not enough water. This hike was by no means as difficult as it was rated. We actually did get into some thin wooded areas, which are rare for Iceland, where we saw a few ptarmigans still with their winter white feathers. They were not very camouflaged. Some parts of trail started to get muddy with snow melting down.

Kristinartindar

Kristinartindar

It was not as windy now, so we decided to try to see how close we could get to Svínafellsjökull, which was more scenic than Skaftafellsjökull, with blue tinted seracs and carved banks. We ventured off the paved road and headed down a pot-holed covered dirt road. Thank goodness we were both used to this type of driving with practice growing up in Pennsylvania. We found a parking area and then walked up the one bank to take pictures. Andy continued to have an urge to break things this trip, so he tried throwing rocks through the sheet of ice at the foot of the glacier that is normally a lake. We then decided to head back to the cabin for lunch. I wrote some post cards and charged my camera batteries to get ready for more picture taking.

Svínafellsjökull

Svínafellsjökull

We decided to check out the beach near Jökulsárlón, where the icebergs wash up on after exiting the lagoon. We drove back to the lagoon and headed to the beach around 4 or 5 pm. The lighting was excellent on the icebergs with the black sand and waves crashing against the larger ones. We took pictures and headed to the main parking area east of the bridge that crosses the lagoon. We walked to the left from the parking lot to watch seals play in the lagoon. We took a few pictures, but the sun had already set behind one of the mounds on the west side of the lagoon. We decided to head back to the cabin for dinner. On our drive back, the winds continued to pick up and was blowing snow across the road at some points. I took a time lapse of the drive as we were trying to find a new place other than the lagoon to photograph the aurora borealis.

We got back to the cabin and took turns making our Campbells noodle meals. I tried to write some more in my journal. I also messed with my intervalometer to get the settings ready for a time lapse. Andy also monkeyed with it until we figured out how to work it. We routed our drive back to Reykjavik tomorrow by driving part of the Golden Circle route until it was dark enough to head back to Jökulsárlón. We dressed warmer with some of the lessons learned from the night before and headed back to the lagoon.

The aurora borealis started earlier than last night and had a better show. It was definitely colder and windier. We found spots from the main parking lot we were in earlier, which caused concern for tour buses entering the area. The tourists from the tour buses stayed in the parking lot and their camera flashes did not ruin our time lapses. Andy wanted to wait for the lights to start before getting out of the car. We set up our tripods and started our intervalometers. We then set back and watched the light show once again. The movements were not as linear and there were more levels to the movements. We were joined by other photographers with one that entered my frame a few times. The first time he apologized and then moved again further away but was still in my shot. I then went up to him and told him I was about an hour into my time lapse, and he could not stay where he was. I suggested where he could move to be out of everyone’s pictures. He was trying to get a picture of him silhouetted by the Northern Lights.

Jökulsárlón Aurora Borealis

Jökulsárlón Aurora Borealis

I was much warmer tonight. Andy’s time lapse included a slight reflection from the lagoon. the lights went in phases again from little activity to bright streaks in the sky. Andy again headed to the car earlier than I did. There was something spectacular about the aurora borealis that made me forget that is was cold out. I finished my time lapse and headed back to the car. On my way back, the solar winds picked up again, so I took a few pictures near the car.

We headed back to the cabin around midnight, so we were out for two to three hours. We went to bed and decided to re-pack for departure in the morning.

Below is the combined time lapses from Jökulsárlón:

Here is a time lapse of us driving Ring Road near Skaftafell National Park:

What other things can you do at Skaftafell?

More in this series:

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