An Iceland Waterfall: Svartifoss is Iceland's Hidden Gem

Iceland's Svartifoss water with hexagonal black basalt columns

Iceland’s waterfalls are famous throughout the world. From Dettifoss waterfall, which served as the setting of a mythical alien encounter in Ridley Scott’s cinematic masterpiece Prometheus to Seljalandsfoss, known as Iceland’s most beautiful waterfall.

It’s quite impressive that a small island the size of Kentucky is home to over 10,000 cascades, including the largest waterfall by volume in Iceland and Europe (the aforementioned Dettifoss). And one of Iceland’s most stunning and unusual falls lies hidden in the Skaftafell zone of Vatnajökull National Park.

Svartifoss waterfall, also known as the black waterfall in Iceland, is the perfect complement to the country’s black sand beaches. Both were formed by volcanic activity, and once you see this that looks like a giant onyx-colored pipe organ, you’ll understand why so many travelers speak breathlessly about the splendor of our island’s natural beauty. So what caused the unusual shape, color, and natural formations of Svartifoss, our one-of-a-kind Icelandic waterfall?

Iceland’s Waterfalls: What Makes Svartifoss Exceptional

Mother Nature really went above and beyond when sculpting the landscapes of the place we so affectionately call The Land of Fire and Ice. Volcanoes and their eruptions have shaped both the color and scenery of our land.

Natural wonders like Svartifoss waterfall exist because of volcanic eruptions and the geological alchemy that happens in their wake. Svartifoss simply means “black falls” in Icelandic, and when looking at this particular cascade, one of its distinguishing features is the dark, hexagonal basalt columns on either side of the chute. You’ll see the same raven-colored pillars at Reynisfjara beach in South Iceland.

The scientific explanation is quite simple, yet fascinating nonetheless. You see, when a volcano like Hekla or Eyjafjallajökull erupts, it sends ash and smoke spewing into the air. The superheated magma that had been churning deep inside the volcano now overflows and comes out of the crater as lava.

This iron and magnesium-rich liquid cools rapidly once it’s exposed to the air. The quickly-cooled lava forms a fine-grained, dark, volcanic rock known as basalt. Due to its chemical structure, basalt has a tendency to crystallize into the shape of a column. You can see this on display at Svartifoss waterfall as it is surrounded by these oddly-shaped rock formations rather than a standard rocky cliff face. Once you’ve looked at pictures or have seen it up close (and maybe even gotten sprayed a little), you’ll understand why it’s one of Iceland’s coolest natural attractions.

It’s directly off the Ring Road like Skógafoss and other popular Iceland waterfalls but not as far inland as Gullfoss on the Golden Circle route. You need to make a specific trip to Skaftafell within Vatnajökull National Park to experience Svartifoss. It’s 100% worth it though. In my opinion this is the best waterfall in Iceland.

Svartifoss in Skaftafell is an Iceland waterfall with black volcanic rock on the cliff face

Activities at the Iceland Waterfall Svartifoss

Skaftafell is actually quite the hiker’s paradise. There are several treks you can do, with the Svartifoss hike being one of the easier ones. It’s a short distance (around 1.5 km or less than a mile) from the Visitor’s Center.

Take it at your own pace, and once you arrive, enjoy the magnificent view of this spectacular Iceland waterfall. If you’re a more active type of person, you can take one of the longer trails. Vatnajökull National Park was thoughtful enough to mark the different trails for hikers according to the level of difficulty. Blue represents an easy hike, red means moderate difficulty, and the most challenging are the trails are the ones marked in back. So whether you’re extremely fit or are just looking for a nice walk, there’s something for you. Lace up your hiking boots and get trekking!

Svartifoss Waterfall: Directions and How to Get There

It takes around four hours to get to Svartifoss waterfall by car. If you’re already staying close to Vatnajökull National Park, it’s much closer. The black falls are located in the Skaftafell section of Vatnajökull close to Skaftafell glacier. When coming from the Ring Road, take road number 998 and follow it for around 1.86 miles (3 km) to the Visitor’s Center. Park your Iceland car rental there and then you can hike to the falls.

An Iceland Waterfall: Svartifoss is Iceland's Hidden Gem

Svartifoss waterfall is an iconic gem of our small island and a highlight on a tour of Iceland waterfalls. The 80 foot (20 meter) drop careens over the cliff’s edge into a beautiful ravine even inspired the Icelandic state architect Guðjón Samúelsson, who designed Reykjavik’s Hallgrímskirkja. Take a detour during your road trip and see what makes this sightseeing stop so appealing and unforgettable.

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