Curving alongside the southeastern tip of Iceland lies the immense Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap outside of the poles which has over 30 glacial tongues sliding down its mystical ice mass to the volcanic ground. A drive around the Ring Road passing the “Glacier of Lakes”, the Icelandic translation of Vatnajökull to English, is a magical, wondrous journey. It is a drive that encompasses some of the most spectacular glacial scenery on earth passing by nostalgic Icelandic farms with everlasting green, Icelandic horses, glacial tongues falling from the sky, the black sand beaches of Vik, the waters of the sea and the dreamy glacial lagoon Jökulsárlón with its sensational icebergs floating harmoniously atop its aquamarine waters. The South of Iceland is so incredibly striking that it feels like a dream.
We left Jökulsárlón around noon continuing our incredible drive south along the Ring Road. I had remembered this very drive from 13 years ago when I first came to Iceland and was mesmerized by her beauty. At each bending turn, one is rewarded with an enormous frozen valley of ice jetting off from the ice cap down into the black, hardened lava fields and dead gray sand.
If it is a cloudy day which is frequent in this part of the world, the view is even more fantastic and mystical. At times it looks like the ice cap rising above is floating high up in the sky like a cloud. It is such an impressive sight that the drive took us double the amount of time to account for each and every stop along the way to take photos of these mammoth glaciers. The glacial tongues seemed to be everywhere and go as far as the eye can see. I continually had to pinch myself to see if I was really there in such an unbelievable place, in a world that is still in the process of being created.
The Vatnajökull is not only the biggest ice cap in Iceland, but in all of Europe and outside of the poles. It covers over 8100 km2 (over 8% of the total area of Iceland) and has over 30 outlet glaciers. Besides its incredible landscape of glaciers, mountains, earth and sea, it is also home to the largest National Park in Europe. The Vatnajökull National Park was founded in 2008 on the foundation of Skaftafell National Park and the Jökulsárgljúfur reserve. The park encompasses an enormous area in south Iceland and covers an area of 12,000 square kilometers (4,600 square miles). It is so mammoth and diverse, it could be explored and hiked for weeks.
When I was first in Iceland in 2009, I had visited the glorious Skaftafell National Park and spent a day hiking inside this breathtaking place. It was a place I’d never forget and I made a promise I’d go back again someday. Fast forward 13 years and there I was with my family pulled alongside the very place. Unfortunately we couldn’t exactly find the place where I’d began my hike and at a loss asked a worker at the nearby gas station where to go. She looked at us and smiled, “The entire glacier is a hike and you can literally pull over almost anywhere alongside the road to reach it”.
So that is exactly what we did. We drove a little further down the Ring Road until we saw an enormous flowing glacier swooping down to the ground, and we pulled over, got out of the car and walked. Just like that we were approaching the Skaftafell glacier, the very glacier I saw all those years ago.
I hung back marveling at the incredible peace and beauty of this place. Unlike Jökulsárlón or the other famous parks and sites around Iceland, we had this glacial walk all to ourselves. It was incredible! While we had missed finding the original trailhead to the hike I’d done with my dad 13 years prior, in the end this was exactly what we needed. An hour walk along a lonely, gravel road to one of several outlets to the Skaftafell Glacier.
As we reached our car and headed towards Vik, all I could think of over and over again was I wish we had more time. It was a common feeling throughout the trip and even more powerful in Southern Iceland where you could spend weeks exploring its stunningly wild landscape.
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