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Kristínartindar - Skaftafell, Iceland
(Vatnajökull National Park)
View of the Skaftafell glacier from trail S3.
Many people visit the Skaftafell area of the Vatnajökull National Park in southern Iceland to see the magestic Svartifloss waterfall, which involves a short 2km stroll from the Skaftafell visitor centre. However, it is possible to do this as part of much longer hike. This longer route involves stopping at Svartifloss and climbing the summit of the Kristínartindar mountain for amazing views of both the Skaftafell and Morsár glacier tongues and of the Morsár valley itself.
Start of hike on trail S5 crosses a wooded area. Watch out for the yummy wild blueberries if you are there in late summer
From Reykjavik, it will take you about 4 hours by car (or about 6 about by bus) to reach Skaftafell. Note that there are limited accommodation options in the area so it is best to book early. There is a camping site at the Skaftafell area, in fact very close to the start of this hiking route. The camping site has shower and laundry facilities and can accommodate tents, caravans and campervans.
The Skaftafell visitor centre is the starting point of the hike. This visitor centre serves the southern part of Vatnajökull National Park and provides information on the park's surroundings, nature, history, trails and other recreational activities and services. There are toilet facilities there; make sure to use them because there are none further along the route.
View of the Skaftafell glacier tongue from trail S4
According to my smartphone's GPS, this hike is 18.3 km long. The route I recorded in this way is available for download in .gpx format. The general and close-up maps from the national park website are available for download. Check the Icelandic Met Office weather forecast for the Skaftafell station to select the best day for the hike.
Descending Kristínartindar on trail S4 while heading south
Due to the length of the route and the position of the sun through the day, the best photo conditions involve starting the hike in the morning on the eastern side of the mountain and descending on the western side in the afternoon. It is best to stop at the Svartifloss waterfall on the way down. Therefore take trail S5 on the eastern side of the mountain and then continue further up on trail S3. Note that if you are there in late summer there are plenty of wild blueberries to be munched in the wooded area at the beginning of the hike.
Descending Kristínartindar on trail S4 while heading west towards the Morsár valley and glacier tongue lookout point
Once one reaches the S4 junction, there are 2 options depending on time availability, energy levels and fear of heights:
1. Crossing to the western side of the mountain on trail S3 and heading to the Morsár valley and glacier tongue lookout point or,
2. First climbing and then descending on trail S4, then rejoining trail S3 and heading west to the Morsár valley and glacier tongue lookout point. This option offers the thrill of a steep climb over a distance of approximately 800 meters and the most incredible views of the Skaftafell glacier tongue.
Morsár valley and glacier tongue lookout point
After viewing the Morsár valley and glacier tongue, one descends on trail S3 along the western side of the mountain and detours towards the Svartifloss waterfall. The wall of this waterfall consists of spectacular hexagonal basalt columns, a geological wonder which merits a stop to rest and to shoot a bunch of photos.
Svartifloss waterfall with its spectacular hexagonal columnar basalt wall
It takes between 7 to 8 hours to complete this hike if, like me, you stop along the way to eat wild blueberries as well as your packed lunch and stop countless times to take photos of the spectacular scenery.
View of Svartifloss and bridge
The starting point is at an altitude of 150 meters above sea level (MASL). If you go all the way to the top of the mountain, the maximum altitude reached is 1126 MASL whilst if you skip the detour on the S4, the maximum altitude reached is 1000 MASL. The climb's difficulty level is easy along trail S5, easy to moderate along S3 and difficult along trail S4.
A happy hiker having reached the first major lookout point along trail S5
Since you will be completely knackered after completing this hike, it is wise to stay overnight in the area. Besides, it is worth combining the visit to Skaftafell with the following nearby activities:
1. A stop at the Reynisfjara black sand beach to see the basalt columns (yes, basalt columns are found all over Iceland).2. Just before sunset, follow road 218 all the way to the parking lot next to the cliffs and witness the beautiful puffins returning to their nests. The birds are as cute as it gets. 3. Drive further east to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon; the colour of the icebergs and the layers of ash trapped in them is absolutely stunning.
These suggestions are based on my personal experience on this trail. The selection criteria are based on quality and weight. My assumption is that this will not be your last hike on a trip and that the lighter your backpack, the more you will enjoy hiking.
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Shoes/socks. Those doing the whole circular route are probably better off wearing hiking boots because of ankle protection; lightweight trail running shoe-inspired boots are a good compromise (see examples: male or female). A good quality light-weight hiking sock with extra padding is essential to avoid blisters (see examples: male or female).
Clothing. Zip-off water repellent stretch hiking trousers are a comfortable and convenient option (see examples: male or female). If the weather is warm and sunny, a thin long-sleeve base layer will help avoid getting burnt (see example: male or female). As a minimum, take a lightweight wind jacket (see examples: male or female). However, if it’s likely to be a bit cold, add a fleece (see examples: male or female) or replace the wind jacket and fleece with a lightly insulated softshell jacket (see examples: male or female). Also take waterproof gloves and a couple of Buffs (preferably a normal buff and a polar buff) to protect head and neck. If it’s likely to rain, a good (as opposed to high) quality waterproof jacket will suffice since low weight on the daypack won't cause a reasonably good jacket to leak in the shoulders (examples: male or female). Note that it can be extremely windy in Iceland (as in wind-crazy), so don't even think about bringing just a poncho, no matter what material it is made of.
Hiking poles. Take hiking poles if you plan to climb to the top of the mountain because there are sections with loose material.
Photographic equipment and power. An ideal hiking camera should be lightweight, have a large aperture for handling low light scenes and should have a wide angle lens with a minimum full-frame equivalent focal lens of 24 or 28 mm. If you opt for a heavy camera, there are camera straps combining neoprene and elastic to absorb the shock of movements. These straps are so comfortable that they actually make the camera’s weight seem much lower. If you want to record the track using your phone and plan to take photos with it as well, take a powerbank along to avoid running out of battery power.
Other supplies. A responsible hiker takes emergency equipment along. The bare minimum consists of a first aid kit, a headlamp capable of at least 150 lumens, a whistle, a compass (a global compass works in both hemispheres), a map and if cold temperatures are expected, an emergency blanket. Finally, protect your face and lips using sun cream lotion and chap stick.
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