The Skaftafell area is one of Iceland’s major must-see destinations. It is a precious natural gem and one of Icelanders’ most beloved recreational sites. This special nature preservation area is a rare oasis for flora. Skaftafell is filled with lush birch forests, colorful meadows, jagged mountains, and breathtaking glaciers. A great network of amazing hiking trails makes Skaftafell a true hiker’s paradise.
Skaftafell National Park was founded in the late ‘60s as Iceland’s second national park. A few decades later, in 2008, the site became part of the vast Vatnajökull National Park. Today it is the largest national park in Europe (13,952 km2 / 5,387 sq. miles).
Skaftafell is located in the southeastern part of Iceland, nestled at the foot of the mighty Vatnajökull Glacier. The giant ice cap dominates the landscape. Insanely impressive outlet glaciers give Skaftafell a special character and atmosphere.
Skaftafell’s landscape it has been slowly formed over thousands of years. The enormous forces of volcanic eruptions, massive earthquakes, glacial movements, powerful rivers, and severe weather have together created this unique scenery.
Öraefajökull, Iceland’s tallest volcano, is located in Skaftafell. The peak of this giant is 2118 meters (6,950 feet) above sea level. This is also the highest peak in Iceland, called Hvannadalshnúkur. Its 14 square kilometer caldera measures five kilometers by four kilometers across. Öraefajökull is the second-largest volcano in Europe, after Mount Etna, and is the largest and oldest active volcano in Iceland.
One of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls is also located here. What makes Svartifoss waterfall so popular is not its height, but rather the spectacular black basalt columns that frame the gorgeous cascade.
This odd structure is what geologists call “columnar jointing.” It is most commonly formed out of basalt rocks and is made up of hexagonal columns. They are formed during volcanic eruptions when melted lava erupts at the Earth’s surface. The lava quickly cools down and the rocks contract. When melted rock contracts, it often cracks or fractures. This is how the hexagonal fracture pattern develops.
Columnar jointing is always a joy to observe and Iceland is proud to have some of the most beautiful specimens of this unique geological feature.
Some of the most impressive glacier tongues of Vatnajökull are also found in Skaftafell. The most well-known outlet glaciers are Skaftafellsjökull, Falljökull, and Svínafellsjökull. All the glacier hike and ice climbing tours in the area operate on the latter two glaciers as they are the most easily accessible. Svínafellsjökull is often referred to as the “Hollywood glacier” as it has served as the filming location for many illustrious movies and TV shows.
The glaciers in Skaftafell are home to some mind-blowing blue ice caves. Blue ice is a rare phenomenon which only appears when the ice does not contain air bubbles. Glacial ice is formed over thousands of years through compression under a huge amount of weight. This process pushes the air out of the ice.
Iceland’s ice caves are sometimes called Crystal Caves in reference to the crystal clear texture of the ice. This allows you to look deep inside the body of the ice as if it were pure crystal. These ice caves are a truly mesmerizing wonder of nature!
The hiking and walking trails vary in length and level of difficulty in Skaftafell. There are short, easy hikes over paved roads and a fairly comfortable gravel surface. There are longer circular routes that offer an amazing view of the highly scenic Skaftafellsjökull glacier. Finally, there are longer and more challenging circular routes that are up to 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) long which take you through varied landscapes of stunning waterfalls, lovely birch forests, and deserted black plains.
Regardless of which one you choose, a memorable hike is guaranteed. Detailed hiking maps can be purchased at the Visitor Center.
Glaciers are some of the most impressive highlights of Icelandic nature. Hiking on a glacier is another must-do in Iceland. Walking on the surface of these incredibly stunning natural formations will provide an amazing memory that will last a lifetime. You will be surrounded by majestic scenery and experience the powerful atmosphere of a living glacier. A glacier hike could be the highlight of your Icelandic holiday.
You will need to book a guided glacier tour if you want to hike on a glacier in Iceland. You are not permitted to step on a glacier without being accompanied by a professional, equipped glacier guide. There are huge, terribly deep crevasses in the body of the glacier into which one could easily disappear in an instant.
Local glacier guides know this landscape very well and work in this environment every day. They are equipped for and trained to avoid dangerous situations and locations. As for the level of difficulty, glacier walks usually range from fairly easy to moderate. Ice crampons attached to your hiking boots help you to walk safely on the ice. Organized glacier hiking tours are completely safe for anyone that is comfortable with walking on uneven surfaces and is over 10 years of age.
Compared to other parts of the south coast, Skaftafell has a fairly mild climate. Namely, Skaftafell is a protected valley, sheltered by Iceland’s highest volcano and the mighty Vatnajökull glacier. In the lower areas, birch trees and rowans form a charming and short but lush forest - a rare phenomenon in Iceland.
Since Skaftafell became protected and sheep stopped grazing in the area, vegetation in the valley has prospered. Gorgeous flowers have begun to grow and fill the area with beautiful, colorful flowers in summer, such as garden angelica, wild angelica, sea pea, and arctic river beauty.
There are 250 types of vascular plants which grow in Skaftafell, providing excellent nesting places for around 30 different species of fowl. The valley is noisy with the chatter of arctic birds. Redwings, redpolls, and wrens are very common, but snipes, ptarmigans, golden plovers, and meadow pipits also frequent the higher slopes. As for mammals, cute Arctic foxes tend to like Skaftafell as well as abundant mink and field mice, enjoying the benefits of the protected valley shelter.
There is a spacious camping ground with room for about 400 tents. Facilities are available such as toilets and a laundry room with washing machines and dryers. A large self-service restaurant, souvenir shop, and Visitor Center await travelers.
Park wardens provide up-to-date information on trail conditions and weather. Brochures, hiking maps, guidebooks, and scientific books about Iceland’s geology, flora, and fauna are sold in the Visitor Center. Guided glacier walking tours start in the park center and go to the surrounding glaciers.
Skaftafell is located on the south coast, approximately 320 km from Reykjavík. The Ring Road (Route 1) leads directly from Reykjavík to Skaftafell. The drive is only 4 hours long, but remember, Iceland’s south coast will not allow you to just drive along without stopping. To see the most beautiful waterfalls and black sand beaches, plan for at least 3 - 4 stops, each stop lasting about 30 - 40 minutes.
From the Ring Road, you will see a sign directing you to Skaftafell. Take Route 998 (2 km) which leads to the Visitor Center. From Skaftafell, Route 1 continues to east Iceland. There are no roads inside the park, only the one that takes you to the Visitor Center where you can park in a large parking lot for 600-900 ISK per day.
The distance from Skaftafell to the next town to the east, Höfn, is 136 km. The distance to Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon is 56 km.
Public transport buses are scheduled daily between Reykjavík and Skaftafell. The bus ride takes about five hours and costs 10120 ISK (2018 rate) one way.