Located halfway between Kirkjubæjarklaustur and Skaftafell National Park, on the western edge of the Skeiðarársandur, Núpsstaður -- a tiny, turf-roofed 1850 chapel and collection of century-old farm buildings -- is under the care of the National Museum. Access is free at all hours, so consider a stop to contemplate this remote settlement between a waterfall, the table mountain Lómagnúpur, and the lifeless sands.
Núpsstaðarskógar, near the western edge of Skeiðarárjökull along the Núpsá river, is a scrubland area rife with beautiful gorges, waterfalls, and glacier views; yet it remains one of Iceland's better-kept hiking secrets. The day-tour operator for Núpsstaðarskógar resigned in 2007. Until he is replaced, the only way to get there is via the very difficult 4WD road, by hiking in yourself, or -- as we would advise -- by signing up for a tour with Icelandic Mountain Guides (tel. 587-9999; www.mountainguide.is). This recommended organization leads 5-day hikes between Núpsstaðarskógar and the Laki Craters, and a 4-day hike through Núpsstaðarskógar to Skaftafell, traversing the Skeiðarárjökull. Participants carry their own camping gear. Also check with Útivist (tel. 562-1000; www.utivist.is), which schedules one yearly trip through the area.
A sandur is not just any desert. Sandur is the English as well as Icelandic term for a flood plain full of sand and sediment deposited by subglacial volcanoes. Skeiðarársandur, formed by flood bursts from Vatnajökull, is the largest sandur in the world. This flat, interminable expanse, braided in meltwater streams and drained of life and color, was impassable until the Ring Road was completed in 1974.
In 1996, after a volcanic eruption at Grímsvötn, underneath Vatnajökull, a huge floodburst was anticipated for several days. Shortly after the film crews from the foreign media got bored of waiting and went home, a torrent of water and sediment rivaling the Amazon in size and force crashed down into the Skeiðarársandur, with house-sized icebergs bobbing along like corks. Once the sediment had settled, Iceland was 7 sq. km (2 3/4 sq. miles) larger. No one was killed or injured, and no communities were destroyed.
Approaching Skaftafell from the west, the Ring Road crosses three bridges. The first, Núpsvötn, was undamaged by the 1996 floodburst, even though water cascaded right over the roadway. The second bridge, Gígjukvísi, was pounded by icebergs and completely washed away. The third and longest bridge, Skeiðará, was partially demolished. A temporary road was ready in 3 weeks, and replacement bridges were completed in 9 months. A monument to the 1996 eruption, constructed from twisted hunks of the demolished bridges, lies between the new bridges and the Skaftafell park entrance.