One of my fondest memories of Iceland!
Before introducing the glacier Falljökull and the hike we did, let me tell you about Skaftafell National Park. It is a beautiful park located at the foot of the largest glacier in Europe, Vatnajökull. Both of them are national treasures.
The story of Skaftafell
When Iceland was first colonized, Skaftafell was a large farm. In 1362, an eruption of Öræfajökull, the neighboring volcano, wiped out the entire local community. The district was then renamed Öræfi, the “wasteland.”
The rebuilding of Skaftafell was swift, as it did for many other farms. But the harsh climate and frequent eruptions of a neighbor volcano, Grímsvötn, made agricultural production increasingly difficult, leading to the abandonment of agriculture in the region in 1988.
Skaftafell National Park was established in 1967. It contained the Morsárdalur Valley, Kristínartindar Mountain, and Skaftafellsjökull Glacier — a spur of the Vatnajökull ice cap.
It was not until 2008 that it was merged into the Vatnajökull National Park.
The Skaftafell region is famous for its many hiking trails, including a walk to Svartifoss, one of the park’s wonders. The name Svartifoss, literally “black waterfall,” comes from the black basalt columns surrounding the body of water.
On the practical side, Skaftafell National Park has a visitor center, cafe, golf course, swimming pool, and a good campsite.
The majestic Vatnajökull glacier is the largest in Europe, covering about 8,000 square kilometers, approximately 8% of Iceland. The ice cap rises to an altitude of 1,600 meters. Beneath the glacier lies Grímsvötn, one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes, largely infamous for its latest eruption in May 2011.
The glacier we chose to climb was the Falljökull glacier, a gigantic cascade of ice that descends from the Vatnajökull glacier to the ocean. Its name means “the falling glacier.” It is one of the most accessible glaciers but also one of the most impressive in Iceland. Currently there isn’t a lagoon at the glacier foot, just a small lake, but that doesn’t mean there never will be one. With global warming and glaciers’ retreat, lagoons form rapidly and naturally.
For this glacier hike, we booked a tour with a guide, which I highly recommend. The organizers provided us with all the necessary equipment, including winter hiking boots. Another aspect is that glacier walking can be dangerous if you don’t know the area well. We are never safe from crevices. And finally, guides always teach us a lot, which was the case during this walk.
We started with a short-approach walk that took us to the foot of the glacier. The weather is superb and the view magnificent. We saw the glacier in the distance and crossed a land with short, colorful vegetation.
After a 20-minute walk, we reached the ice and could finally put on our crampons. Following advice from our guide on how to walk with them, it’s the long-awaited moment. We set off to storm the glacier!
We took great care to follow in the footsteps of our guide because there are crevices. Some are visible, but you may come across one covered by a snow bridge. A deathly terrifying trap!
After a few meters, we reached a small underground cave.
It is not deep, but deep enough to admire azure ice, one of nature’s most remarkable hues. It’s always surprising, knowing that snow is white.
Why? The quick answer is that layers of frozen snow absorb the spectrum’s other colors as sunlight passes through them, and only the blue color remains visible.
We left the cave and climbed the glacier. The walk was not challenging, which allowed us to fully enjoy the beauty of the landscape.
Those little balls of foam are a unique phenomenon that only appears on glaciers. They are small pebbles that roll very slowly on the ice as the glacier moves and become covered with foam. They transform into little, soft, and light balls that can be picked up by hand. They are called “glacier mice.”
After a short photo break at the end of our ascent, we started our descent.
Our guide explained to us why the glacier takes this particular shape, like a succession of triangles. The glacier follows the terrain on which it evolves. So when the land slopes steeper and steeper and the glacier follows this depression, the ice cracks on top of the glacier and forms these little triangles.
And it was with caution, taking care to plant our crampons in the ice so as not to slip, that we made our way back to our car.
Prior to starting our hike, the guide pointed to our destination, approximately in the middle of the glacier. We were surprised because from afar, it looked close. But in the end, it took us five hours for a whole hike — five hours of discovery and wonder.