Skaftafell: Black Ice, Black Falls, Hyper-Colourful Experience

Skaftafell: Black Ice, Black Falls, Hyper-Colourful Experience

Haukur S. Magnússon
Photo by
Julia Staples

Standing around in the Skaftafell Visitors Centre during midday is more akin to being in a crowded shopping mall than at a nature reserve. It’s busy. Real busy. Don’t let that scare you off however—the busloads of tourists are all on their way to somewhere, and the Skaftafell region is large and bountiful enough to satisfy everyone.

The Skaftafell Visitors Centre is an offshoot of Vatnajökull National Park (Skaftafell used to be its own National Park, called Skaftafell National Park, until it was united with Vatnajökull National Park in 2008). It is in direct view of Iceland’s highest peak, Hvannadalshnjúkur (2119 m) and encompasses glacier-tongues Skeiðarárjökull and Skaftafellsjökull, glacial rivers, lagoons, waterfalls and several other stunning sights and places to visit. It has been a local favourite for decades, and is now, as we learned, really popular with visitors to Iceland.


Inside the centre, we met park ranger Auður Hafstað, who took time off from directing visitors to Svartifoss and selling them stamps to tell us a little bit about life as a park ranger. “The job involves welcoming tourists and travellers, and giving them any information they need. We do various acts of maintenance on the park and its facilities, and then we lead guided walks with a geological theme twice a day, every day—in Icelandic at 11 in the morning and then in English at five in the afternoon.”

“This is my second summer here,” she continues,” I was here in the summer of 2001 and I’ve returned now, ten years later. I’ve been here all summer and I can tell you, it doesn’t get boring—even though we’ll often get the same question a thousand times a day. July brings 3500–4000 visitors to the park each day, and usually 2000 of those stop by at the information centre. Most of those wish to know how to get to Svartifoss, and giving directions to there every two minutes is not without its charm, actually. It’s no wonder they want to go there, though it is a fascinating waterfall surrounded by basalt columns, and the walk there leads you by two other waterfalls, Magnúsarfoss and Hundafoss, that are also very beautiful. I definitely understand the appeal and am happy to facilitate people visiting it.”

While removed from friends and family, Auður says the life of a park ranger is far from tedious. “Honestly, I love it here. The best bit is probably just being so close at all times to nature’s magnificent powers. All these contrasts and opposites: breathtaking beauty that goes with destructive and dangerous forces. Just being here, the land formed by glaciers and fire and is still in formation. I try and go on short trips or hikes every day if I can. Every day, I wake up excited.”


Has a lot changed in the ten years since you last were park ranger in Skaftafell?
“Yes, I couldn’t believe how much the glaciers, Svínafellsjökull, Skaftafellsjökull and Skeiðarárjökull, have receded in that decade. They are receding at an astronomical speed—Skeiðarárjökull has all but disappeared, and Skaftafellsjökull has receded a few hundred metres in those ten years and left a huge lagoon that wasn’t there the last time I was. It’s exciting really, and nothing to fear, as these glaciers have grown and shrunk through the ages. It’s the forces of nature. We are seeing new land being formed, and one can’t help but be excited about what the receding glaciers will reveal.

Has the amount of visitors increased a lot? Are you worried that these large groups of travellers might damage the local environment?  
“We have a lot more tourists now than ten years ago, that’s for sure! But as long as everyone makes sure to follow our rules and guidelines, such as staying in the marked path and making sure they don’t litter, we should be good. We are constantly working on improving and fixing the paths here, and are fortunate enough to enjoy the assistance of groups of volunteers that come from all over the world to help preserve the region.”

Auður was at this instance accosted by a woman who wanted to buy stamps to Europe before hiking to Svartifoss, so we left her to her devices. Be sure to say hi if you drop by. And ask her how to get to Svartifoss.
Tel: +354 4708300

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