Since early times, the Stafafell estate has been the largest in SE Iceland. Its church was the principal place of worship in the region for many years, and it had its own minister until 1920. The estate included several smallholdings. The main farm now is Brekka, which developed from one of the smallholdings. The enclosed pastures and the grazing rights for the mountains of Stafafell are the private property of these two farms.
A mountain wilderness
A ring of mountains, valleys and barren plains known as the Stafafellsfjöll Mountains dominates the skyline east of Vatnajökull. The colourful peaks and plains are criss-crossed with canyons and gullies. The landscape in the area displays a wide range of tints and hues because of presence of large
quantities of rhyolite, amygdales and other attractive stones. There are many sheltered, lush valleys, and there is a good chance of spotting reindeer when travelling through this region. The Stafafell area is perfect hiking territory for nature lovers.
The western part of this area between the ice cap and the River Jökulsá í Lóni became a Designated Area in 1977 with the landowners' approval in accordance with the Nature Conservation Act. Lónsöraefi is a relatively new name for the area, not much used by locals.
Covering 320 km², this is one of the most extensive protected areas in Iceland - its status is equivalent to that of a national park. The area is surrounded on three sides by high mountain ranges crowned with snowy peaks that reach over 1000 m above the narrow lowland strip. High glacial tongues from the eastern part of the Vatnajökull ice cap overflow into deep valleys.
Mt Grendill, in the west, is the peak (1570 m), while Snaefell (1833 m) in the north-west is high enough to be seen from many locations.
Geological formations and biosphere
Diverse and colourful geological formations dating back 5-7 million years characterise this area. The remains of many central volcanoes, several million years in age, stand within or near the protected area. They are all characterised by acid rock, rhyolite and intrusions. More recent formations also exist, from the last Ice Age.
Thermal activity has also played a part in giving the area its distinctive colourful rock formations. Springs with high mineral content are further evidence of geothermal activity. Kollumúlaeldstöd is a caldera of approximately 35 km². Large quantities of fused rocky fragments north of Illikambur are the result of an explosive eruption within the caldera.
The immense erosive forces of the Ice Age carved deep gouges in the landscape, giving it the striking appearance it bears today. Glaciers hollowed out two deep valleys: Jökulsárdalur and Vídidalur. Rivers running through the depressions cut even deeper chasms.
Many waterfalls further enhance the beauty of the area. Deep in Vesturdalur valley, a beautiful cascade falls from high up on Vatnadæld in the south; another fall pours down the slopes of Mt Sudurfjall, across from the Tröllakrókar cliffs; several falls create breath-taking steps in the River Vídidalsá.
Birch woods grow in many places along the banks of the River Jökulsá, thickest in Leidartungur and south of Kollumúli, where rowan trees also grow. Mountain plants such as glacier buttercup and Arctic poppy grow on the scree slopes that spill down to the lowlands. Yellow saxifrage is a characteristic plant of Iceland's eastern region.
Historical sources from the 19th century mention reindeer in this area, and since 1964 these animals have been seen in considerable numbers.
Farms and farming
Two deserted farms, Eskifell and Grund in Vídidalur, are a reminder of the nature reserve's history and reveal the extraordinary living conditions that residents had to endure during the 19th century. Eskifell was inhabited from 1836 to 1863. Families lived at Grund for a total of 20 years during three separate periods between 1835 and 1897.
Around 1900, the farmers at Stafafell began to herd their sheep, especially the wethers and weaned lambs, to summer pastures north of the River Skyndidalsá. Many place names refer to such farming practices by including Lamba- in their names. Sheep were later herded into the Lónsöræfi area where they were sheared and earmarked before the lambing season. This practice died out after 1960, and the reduction in the number of sheep in the area during that decade gave the vegetation a chance to recover. However, since 1971, farmers have allowed their sheep to roam in this area and the vegetation once again shows the effects of grazing.
Old mountain trails and tourism
In days gone by, a highland trail crossed this area along the eastern edge of the Vatnajökull ice cap. The usual mode of transport between districts was on horseback - men from the north of the country used the path as they headed south to the fishing stations. A large number of old cairns are relics left by these travellers from earlier centuries.
The occupation of the farms in Vididalur during the 19th century attracted attention, and visitors began using the wilderness trail between Fljótsdalur and the Lón district. The farmers set up tow-ropes with small rafts to cross the most powerful rivers. One of the most eminent early visitors was Thorvaldur Thoroddsen, the first natural scientist to come to the area. The trail is still visible today, along Illikambur.
Cabins and bridges
In 1953, the locals built a footbridge over the River Jökulsá near the cabin at Nes. An increasing number of walkers subsequently began using the paths to Illikambur, generally camping below the ridge.
In the early 1990s, touring associations built mountain cabins at Nes and beside Lake Kollumúlavatn at an altitude of 630 m. Another cabin had been built in an earlier period on the north slope of Mt Geldingafell. These three cabins are spaced at suitable intervals for hikers making their way between Stafafell and Snæfell or Fljótsdalur.
A footbridge goes across the River Jökulsá at Austurskógar along with a resting place. This will provide a continuous chain of cabins along the hiking route between populated areas.
The usual rules for protected areas apply to this nature reserve. Visitors to the area should note the following additional information:
- All driving is prohibited, except on the track to Illikambur.
- The area is open for hiking.
- A park ranger is stationed in the cabin at Nes during the summer months. He can provide information on hiking routes.
- Another ranger is stationed in the Snæfell cabin.
- Detailed information about the area can also be obtained from the travel service at Stafafell Farm.