A single road leads through town. It turns to gravel at Systrafoss, a pretty waterfall. At the top of Systrafoss is Systravatn, a pleasant lake surrounded by pasture. If you don't have a car to reach Fjaðrárgljúfur and just need a satisfying walk, a path ascends to Systravatn from the far side of the falls. Alternatively, the road continues past Systrafoss and soon ends at a parking area, where a path continues along the Skaftá River. Within 15 minutes' walk is the Systrastapa, a freestanding crag that looks like a giant molar. According to local folklore, two nuns were buried on top of Systrastapa after being burned at the stake -- thus the name, which means "Sisters' Crag." A steel cable and chain descend from opposite sides of the crag, but footing is dangerous.
Kirkjugólf (Church Floor), a designated national monument near Route 203 north of the central roundabout, is a kind of natural stone terrace formed by a cross section of hexagonal basalt columns.
For a short hike or picnic spot along this stretch of the Ring Road, look no further than Fjaðrárgljúfur, a 100m-deep (328-ft.) gorge formed during the Ice Age two million years ago. Its proportions aren't mind-boggling, but it wins high aesthetic marks for its indented cliffsides full of spikes, arches, and scary ledges. The walk along the eastern ledge is not challenging, and the most compelling views can be seen in a 1-hour round-trip.
To reach Fjaðrárgljúfur, turn onto Rte. 206 from the Ring Road, 6km (3 3/4 miles) west of Kirkjubæjarklaustur. In 2km (1 1/4 miles) or so, Rte. F206 branches off to the right; continue straight and the parking area is shortly ahead.
Laki Craters (Lakagígar)
Those with an eye for beauty within bleakness should particularly admire the Laki crater row, formed during the largest lava eruption ever witnessed. Starting in 1783, and continuing for 8 months, an estimated 14.7 cubic km (3 1/2 cubic miles) of lava emerged from over 100 craters along a 25km-long (16-mile) fissure, flowing as far as 60km (37 miles). The eruption could be seen all over Iceland and was followed by several earthquakes. The sun-obscuring haze lowered temperatures for the entire Northern Hemisphere by about 3°F (1°C-2°C), and reached as far as Asia and North Africa. Within 3 years 70% of Iceland's livestock had died, mostly from fluorine poisoning. Most water and food was not contaminated, but cold weather and famine, combined with an outbreak of smallpox, killed 22% of the Icelandic population in the same time frame. Today, Lakagígar's splattered, scabby landscape has a forlorn grandeur, and the volcanic craters are carpeted in grey mosses that turn bright green after a rainfall. In 2004, the Laki Craters were added to Skaftafell National Park's roster.
The crater row could be explored for days, but all visitors should at least climb Mt. Laki, the tallest of the craters, for astounding 360-degree views of the boundless lava flows and distant glaciers. The climb is not difficult, and takes about 45 minutes one-way from the parking area. Bring a strong flashlight, in case you run into any lava tubes to explore.
Reykjavík Excursions (tel. 562-1011; www.re.is) has one daily bus in July and August from Skaftafell National Park to the Laki Craters and back, with a stop at Kirkjubæjarklaustur and 3 1/2 hours to explore the crater row on foot. From Kirkjubæjarklaustur the price is 5,700kr ($91/£46). Útivist (tel. 562-1000; www.utivist.is) and Icelandic Mountain Guides (tel. 587-9999; www.mountainguide.is) both lead recommended trekking tours of the Lakagígar area.
En route to Lakagígar, make sure to have a look at the aptly named Fagrifoss (Beautiful Waterfall). The turnoff is marked from Route F206, roughly 22km (14 miles) from the Ring Road.
The Laki Craters are reached via Rte. 206/F206, which joins the Ring Road 6km (3 3/4 miles) west of Kirkjubæjarklaustur. This route has difficult river crossings, and should only be attempted in 4WD vehicles with high clearance; always check road conditions in advance.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.