As often as I’ve visited Skaftafell, I still get goose bumps when I see the mountains in a distance as you approach the national park. Skaftafell national park has been my favourite spot in Iceland for many years. However because of its location it hasn't gained as much popularity as other places in Iceland. The national park is located at the South East Coast of Iceland at the roots of Vatnajökull, the biggest glacier in Europe. It's difficult to describe the beauty of the area in words, but the scenery in Skaftafell is like no other; here you'll find stunning glaciers, black beaches and some of the highest peaks of Iceland.
With plenty to keep you busy, the more active person will find a great choice of activities where as those in search of a more relaxing stay can discover the unspoilt environment. Whether you choose to go glacier hiking, bird watching, ice climbing or trekking peaks, you'll find an adventure everyday in Skaftafell. Read about my experience going glacier hiking and ice climbing in Iceland.
Trekking is probably the most popular sport among visitors. The geographical and natural diversity makes Skaftafell an ideal place for trekking and exploring. The trails are well marked and different colours will indicate the difficulty of the trek (blue - easy, red - moderate and black - challenging). Take the trails at your own pace, and rest when you need to. How much ground you’ll cover depends on what you want to see in a given day and your physical level.
One of the shorter treks will lead you to Svartifoss or "black waterfall". It's undoubtedly one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland with black hexagonal basalt columns surrounding the 20m tall waterfall. The hiking trail to the waterfall is 1,5 km long and starts at the visitor center. The view of the waterfall is simply unbelievable and if you're feeling up for it and have the time, you can continue up to Sjónarnípa.
When you have taken your time and admired Svartifoss you should walk back to the crossroads right before the waterfall and there you'll will find a signpost indicating Sjónarnípa to the right. Sjónarnípa is a viewpoint that shouldn't be missed out on, with a view over the mighty Skaftafell glacier and the surrounding mountains. You can follow the trail all the way to the sightseeing point and from there is a another trail back towards the visitor centre. The entire round-trip along with Svartifoss and Sjónarnípa is 7.4km and takes about 3 hours at a comfortable pace.
Ingólfshöfði Cape is an isolated bird cliff on the coast surrounded by black sands and perilous rivers. This historical nature reserve is home to thousands of nesting seabirds, like puffins and great skuas. The cape is named after the first settler of Iceland, Ingolfur Arnarson, who spent his first winter here in 874 before moving further west.
The landscape is breathtaking and makes for some dramatic pictures. In order to get to the cape you need to get a ride with a tractor from one of the local families that will happily take you there for a small fee. The drive takes about 25 minutes each way, crossing 6 km of streams, marshes and sands in a tractor-drawn hay cart. I can promise you, it's simply a unique experience!
If you are interested in visiting glaciers during your stay in Iceland, then Skaftafell is the right place to go. Originally that's where operated glacier tours in Iceland started, in order to help locals and travellers to enjoy the extreme nature in a safe way. Hiking on one of the glacier tongues or exploring the constantly reforming ice caves is one of the best experiences you can find in Iceland.
There is a vide selection of glacier tours from Skaftafell; you can chose from easy 2 hour hikes or longer hikes with ice climbing. Some travellers ask me how to get there on their own, but that's not something we'd recommend at all. You need to go on a guided tour in order to get all the necessary equipment like crampons and a harness. On top of that the glaciers are constantly reforming with new cracks and holes forming every day resulting in deadly traps for inexperienced hikers. Sadly, a number of tourists have died in Iceland due to the extreme nature. Just recently we had a terrible accident where a French hiker fell under a snow cap. It reminds us that the Icelandic environment should not be taken lightly.
To be on the safe side, read about things that can kill you in Iceland.
You don't feel like a real Icelander until you have conquered the highest peak of Iceland, Hvannadalshnjúkur. The peak is located on Öræfajökull and is 2.110 meter high. This unforgettable hike will test the hikers stamina and willpower. Usually the hike is done within a day, starting in the middle of the bright summer night and reaching back to town before dinner time.
When the top is reached it provides unique views in all directions where you can see the black coastline, as well as panoramic views of surrounding glaciers and the beautiful valleys below. The hike doesn't require any technical skills but it's both physically and mentally challenging.
Hvannadalshnjúkur peak can only be reached over a short period of time every year. Usually the season ranges from May to late August, depending on snow conditions of the peak.
Since Iceland has a diverse terrain, mountain biking is another popular activity. It offers environmentally sound way to explore the magnificent landscape and hidden trails of the national park. When I last visited Skaftafell with a group of friends, we decided to rent a mountain bike and went for a ride into Bæjarstaðarskógur, a beautiful forest lying 15 km from the visitor center. Our journey started at the camp site in Skaftafell and continued from there into Morsárdalur. During the most part of the journey we bicycled on dried up riverbeds which makes the ride quite bumpy. Later on we reached the forest where we followed a trail further in, leading us to some beautiful ravines.
Mt. Lómagnúpur has in my eyes always been one of Iceland's most majestic mountains with its prominent peak of 688 m. Its particularly famous for it's unique shape and location. There are small hiking trails that lead up the mountain which offer scenic views of the ocean and surrounding Skeiðarársandur black sand. Around the mountain are obvious remains of landslides that happened in 1790 and 1998. Like other promontories at the south coast of Iceland, Mt Lomagnupur was the tip of a fjord, surrounded by the ocean during the ice age. Now the area has filled up with sand.
Mt. Lómagnúpur plays a role in some old Icelandic folk stories, where the mountain was believed to be the home of a giant named Járngrímur. The story describes how Flosi Þorgeirsson from Njál's saga dreamt that Járngrímur came to him from Lómagnúpur and foretold the fates of a group of men that had murdered Njáll and his family.
Later on the giant of Lómagnúpur has been believed to be a guardian of Iceland that scared off foreign kings who tried to invade the country. Our local Regína has spent some time in the area and wrote an interesting article about it.
Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon
The Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon is a magical place that no traveller should miss during his visit in Iceland. The lagoon lies at the tip of a glacier's tongue, where ice bergs regularly break off and fill the lagoon. The feature of the lagoon changes daily; it can be full of floating icebergs or it can be pretty much empty. The lagoon is connected to the ocean making it salty which prevents it from freezing.
The area is really spectacular and watching the icebergs float around, surrounded by mountains is a unique sight. However the lagoon deserves the utmost respect, as the beauty of it can transform into a hazardous situation with icebergs breaking and flipping over. That's why we don't recommend travellers to step on the ice.
The lagoon is conveniently located at the ring road with a short 1 hour drive from Skaftafell.
Did you know that Iceland has a diamond beach?
Just next to Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon lies a black beach filled with ice cubes that have been carried with the stream down to the ocean. The black beach forms an unbelievable contrast with the diamond-like ice. I recommend visiting during the golden hour when the glowing rays shine through the ice. The ice-chunks are in all sizes and shapes as they get polished by the ocean and wash ashore again.
How to get there?
Skaftafell is easy to reach lying about 300 km from Reykjavík on the south coast. Since you will be driving the whole way on road Nr. 1, (an asphalt road in decent condition) any car type will do. Throughout the summer you an also find public busses that take you all the way. There are no roads in the park itself but a lot of different hiking trails.
Find the cheapest rental cars in Iceland here.
Where to stay?
It can get a little bit tricky to find accommodation in Skaftafell, however along the ring road there are campsites, guesthouses, hotels and homestays. However as tourism is booming in Iceland, accommodation in Skaftafell sells out fast, so if you are not planning on camping you should reserve in time. Another possibility is to book accommodation in the nearest towns like Kirkjubæjarklaustur (69km to the west) or Höfn (130km to the east). You can look through accommodations here.
Remember to respect the nature
Skaftafell national park has been protected since 1967. Always show respect and enjoy the nature without spoiling it. It is a good idea to determine what rules apply. It is not allowed to drive off-road like elsewhere in Iceland or light fires except at specially marked places. Educate yourself by reading through the dumbest things to do in Iceland.
What to bring with you for a stay in Skaftafell
If you are planning on visiting Skaftafell I would recommend bringing with you warm clothes and good hiking shoes. There are endless outdoor activities in the area, but it's a very remote place so there are no stores for gearing up. Dress up here.
For budget option: Bring camping gear
The park has a pretty spacious campground close to the visitor center which is open from 1 May to 30 September. While visitors can enjoy hiking throughout the entire park, camping is only allowed in these designated areas. It's not necessary to make reservation beforehand as it hardly fills up. It has all necessary facilities like showers, washing machine and a dryer, however you need to bring your own cooking facilities.
Time to hit the road
You won't find a more spectacular experience than spending time beneath Europe's biggest glacier far away from the crowds, with nothing but the flora and fauna for company. There are several tours to choose from in Skaftafell. So now it's time to hit the ring road!