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Skaftafell is a protected area within the Vatnajökull National Park and its rugged scenery epitomises the untamed beauty of Iceland. Miles and miles of hiking trails pass by glaciers, rivers and tumbling waterfalls, making this spot an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. There is also the opportunity to join a guided glacier hike and explore natural ice caves at Skaftafell.
View of Hvannadalshnúkur peak and surrounding mountains in Skaftafell National Park, adorned with lush greenery and trees.
Best time to visit
All year-round
64.01630, -16.96755
Distance from Reykjavík

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Exploring the Protected Parkland of Skaftafell

History of Skaftafell

The name Skaftafell comes from a major farm that once existed in the area. It used to be a small settlement, but the catastrophic eruption of Öræfajökull in 1362 wiped out the entire community and the devastated area became known as Öræfi (the wasteland) ever since.

Skaftafell’s landscape has been formed by thousands of years of volcanic activity and shifting glaciers, creating scenery that looks like it belongs in a fantasy realm. It was this beguiling scenery that led the Icelandic government to grant Skaftafell national park status in 1967, protecting nearly 5000 square kilometres of land. In 2008, the Skaftafell national park was incorporated with the larger Vatnajökull national park, making it the largest protected area in Iceland.

Skaftafell weather tends to be slightly calmer and sunnier than the rest of the south coast of Iceland, so it’s an excellent place for hikers, especially in the long days of summer.

"Skaftafellsjökull glacier tongue snaking its way downhill, flanked by rugged, craggy hills, showcasing the raw beauty of Icelandic landscapes.

Skaftafell hiking trails

The hiking trails of Skaftafell are the main thing that draws visitors to Skaftafell. The protected parkland boasts miles and miles of well-marked routes. Each route is marked with a different colour and is easy to follow.

The most popular walking trail in Skaftafell is the walk from the visitor’s centre to Svartifoss waterfall, following the course of the river. From the main car park, it’s a 1.5-kilometre (about forty-five minute) walk to Svartifoss, and along the trail, you can also spot Magnúsarfoss and Hundafoss waterfalls.

Rather than walking the same route back to the carpark, you can opt for a circular trail to Svartifoss which is 5.5 kilometres long. You can add a stop at the beautiful Sjónarnípa viewing point which offers a panorama of Skaftafell’s stunning scenery, including the frozen expanse of Vatnajökull glacier.

he majestic peaks of Kristínartindar, rising gracefully against the sky, as viewed from the verdant expanses of Skaftafell,

Another popular short route from the visitor’s centre is the walk to Skaftafellsjökull glacier. The path is around four kilometres long and leads to a lookout point where you can admire the frozen white tongue of Skaftafellsjökull cutting through a rocky valley.

You can also summit a mountain in Skaftafell by following the Kristínartindar trail. This route also takes in Svartifoss but is long and involves a challenging uphill ascent. The entire route is around 18 kilometres. Finally, you can enjoy one of the few forest walks in Iceland along the Bæjarstaðaskógur trail which takes you through a birch woodland. Trees are sparse on this isolated island so this is a chance to see some rare scenery. The Bæjarstaðaskógur trail is around 15 kilometres long.

Another way to explore Skaftafell’s unique scenery on foot is by embarking on a guided glacier hike. Under the guidance of a professional, you can navigate the frozen surface of a mighty glacier, avoid the sinkholes and ravines hidden in the snow, and even enter the sleek, blue world of a natural ice cave. Those seeking a real adrenaline rush can try ice climbing on one of Skaftafell’s glaciers.

Two adventurers in vibrant red jackets and safety helmets stand atop a brilliant blue glacier, with jagged ice formations providing a dramatic backdrop.

Things to do around Skaftafell

Guided glacier hikes, ice climbing, and ice-caving tours make Skaftafell one of the most popular outdoor recreational areas in all of Iceland. Ranging from easy to challenging, a great variety of tours are available for nature enthusiasts. Ice caves form within the glacier every winter, offering once-in-a-lifetime experiences for visitors. These crystal blue ice caves are so clear that you can see meters deep into the body of the ice as if it were made of glass!

Two people seated in camping chairs beside their van in Skaftafell, gazing out at the expansive Icelandic landscape, enjoying a moment of tranquility and connection with nature.

Skaftafell Campsite

There is a large and spacious campsite in Skaftafell that's pobably the largest and most picturesque in the country. Skaftafell campsite is surrounded by a captivating landscape that is a blend of glacial tongues, rugged peaks, waterfalls, and verdant vegetation. The views of the Hvannadalshnúkur – the highest peak in Iceland – and the peaks of Kristínartindar are particular highlights for those camping in the area.

Equipped with essential facilities, the campsite caters to both tent campers and those with campervans. Clean restrooms, shower facilities, and a communal kitchen are provided to ensure comfort during one's stay.

Blue iceberg floating in the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon in the south coast of Iceland.

Attractions Near Skaftafell

Sitting on Iceland’s south coast, most people driving from Reykjavík stop at the myriad natural wonders of the south shore en route to Skaftafell. Enchanting waterfalls like Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss sit just off the Route One road, and you can stretch your legs with a walk along Reynisfjara's black-sand beach.

Skaftafell is just a forty-five minute drive from Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon where glowing blue icebergs float in the freezing-cold water. You can take a boat out onto the lagoon and see these icebergs up close. Just across the road, the Diamond Beach is a photographer’s dream where crystal orbs of ice litter the black sand, seeming to capture golden sunlight at sunset.

Hvannadalshnúkur, the highest peak in Iceland, proudly stands in the Skaftafell region, showcasing its snow-capped majesty against a vast Icelandic landscape.

Iceland's tallest peak

From Skaftafell, guided hiking tours leave to summit Iceland’s tallest peak. Hvannadalshnjúkur stands at 2110 metres above sea level and the hike lasts around fifteen hours. Guided groups leave in the small hours of the morning and it is a challenging day but the sense of achievement, looking out over the expanse of ice caps and mountains in Vatnajökull national park, is worth it.

All About Skaftafell

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