Of the many splendors that Iceland has to offer, the country’s cascades are probably one of the most prominent. With over 10,000 dramatic drops and chutes to choose from, where to begin? While a dozen or so have become the most famous ones, today I’d like to examine one of the top entries in particular. You may have heard that there is an Iceland waterfall that is black, and you’re absolutely right. Svartifoss waterfall, located in the Skaftafell zone of Vatnajökull National Park, is indeed known as Iceland’s black waterfall.
The Black Waterfall in Iceland
So what exactly causes a black waterfall? Now before your mind starts conjuring up images of black water careening over the side of a cliff face, that’s not exactly what I mean. While the name “svartifoss” does translate to “black waterfall” in Icelandic, its moniker doesn’t come from having pitch-black rapids. Although that would be really cool. It actually comes from something else, which I’ll explain.
The name comes from the dark, hexagonal basalt columns on the waterfall’s cliff face. You’ll find similar structures at Reynisfjara beach in along Iceland’s South Coast. They look a bit like the tubes of a pipe organ. In fact, even though many people think that the facade of Hallgrímskirkja Luthern church in Reykjavik was inspired by the organ inside the church, this isn’t true. Architect Guðjón Samúelsson actually drew his inspiration from the landscapes of Iceland, including the basalt columns in places like Svartifoss.
What Causes Svartifoss to be Dark?
This is a great question, and like many of Iceland’s unusual physical and geological features, the answer comes down to volcanic activity. Let’s do a quick science lesson. Iceland has had volcanic activity for millennia due to its position between tectonic plates. When there’s an eruption, the magma that was churning deep inside the earth comes to the surface in the form of lava. This scorching hot liquid rapidly cools when exposed to cold elements like air, snow, and ice. This dried volcanic rock is known as basalt.
Due to its chemical composition, the quickly-dried lava produces dark lava columns that form a hexagonal shape. And when they break, they break into the same geometric shape. What you see are the remnants of broken off columns. I have to be honest; maybe I’m biased but I think this is one of the coolest things you’ll see here. I don’t know of any other waterfalls in the world that have this unique physical feature. It always looks like it’s hanging from a thread and could fall any minute.
The waterfall itself is not particularly tall. It only measures 20 meters (66 feet), which is dwarfed in comparison to some other Iceland waterfalls. But what it lacks in height, it makes up for in uniqueness and aesthetics. The columns hang suspended, like an inverted pipe organ and look like they could fall at any moment. In fact, the rocks down below are pieces of basalt that have succumbed to the forces of gravity and broken off. Visiting this well-known waterfall is one of the favorite activities of visitors to the park.
It’s quite easy to reach and you only need to trek a short way to get there. There’s a visitor’s center in Skaftafell and they’ll give you the information you need on how to arrive. Traveling along Iceland’s Ring Road (Route 1) you’ll turn onto road 998 which leads you directly to the parking lost, information center, and Skaftafell campsite.
There are multiple parking lots close to this attraction. You absolutely want to park near the closest one as the others quite a bit further. Once you’ve found a spot in the parking zone, it’s time do the Svartifoss hike. There’s a path called the Svartifoss trail which starts at the visitor’s center. From there it takes about 45 minutes to complete the 1.5 km (1 mile) hike and arrive at the waterfall.
Please note that the hike to the waterfall is uphill, so it might be a little strenuous for some. But you know what that means! The way back will be downhill. And to be honest, I prefer it that way rather than the other way around. So you’ll need about 90 minutes to complete the hike back and forth to Svartifoss. Add in any time you want to spend taking pictures and exploring the area.
Svartifoss: The Black Waterfall in Iceland
So now you’re an expert not only in Icelandic geology and basalt columns, but you can also tell people all about the black waterfall Iceland has. If you’re visiting South Iceland and decide to make a stop in Vatnajökull, I highly suggest making your way over to this one of a kind cascade. Of the many Iceland waterfalls, this one is truly special and is one of my all-time favorites.