Skaftafell National Park is definitely my favorite place in Iceland! I was a volunteer for two and a half months and I walked the park through all the hiking paths!
In my opinion, Skaftafell is a site you can't miss if you come to Iceland. The landscapes, the proximity of the glacier, all the different kind of activities that you can practice there are reasons why you must stop in Skaftafell, not to mention that the park is accessible all year and by the ring road!
Why Should You Visit Skaftafell?
Skaftafell (pronounced Skaff-ta-feTL) is a wild area in the Vatnajökull National Park in the south-east of the island. Vatnajökull is the largest glacier in Europe and has many glacial ramifications, such as Skaftafellsjökull and Svínafellsjökull but also Morsárjökull and Skeiðarárjökull.
So when you get to Skaftafell, you're just basically surrounded by glaciers (and unpronounceable names). Not far from Skaftafell, just a few kilometers away, is Öræfajökull, a volcano under the glacier that has just started to wake up recently (but nothing to worry about).
Here is the park where you can find all the "most": the highest peak in Iceland, Hvannadalshnjúkur, 2119 meters above sea level and also the largest volcano in Iceland, the oldest and largest forest in the country in the valleys of Morsárdalur and Bæjarstaðarskógur, the highest waterfall of Iceland, Morsárfoss, more than 227 meters and the largest "sandur" (outwash plain) of the world, Skeiðarársandur, which covers 1300 km².
With such a resumé, it's hard to ignore Skaftafell. Beyond the records, it is just an incredible place to hike, for example to the top of Mount Kristinartindar, icehike or iceclimb the Fallsjökull, get lost in the forest, get amazed by the black sand desert, "the incredible moon", hear the roar of Morsárfoss (the ice blocks that fall from 200 meters make quite a noise!)... I have so many examples!
Find Skaftafell Tours here.
How to Reach Skaftafell?
Skaftafell is reachable by the ring road (route n°1). From Reykjavik, it takes about 4 hours driving without stops (hum). The road is open all year long, but is often subjected to mild weather conditions. Beware, the south of Iceland is the place where the weather can change really quickly and sometimes be dangerous, most of the time due to strong winds and gusts. Always check the Icelandic weather website before going for a drive in Iceland. Before your road trip, always check also these websites : road conditions / safety during your trip
A piece of advice or rather a warning: respect the instructions given on the roads or by the authorities when you drive. And yes, the closed roads are not there to annoy you but for your safety. When I was in Skaftafell in the middle of summer, several vehicles were blown away from the road and one of the driver did not survive. Same if you are planning a hike, take a good look at the weather conditions and especially the wind.
Nevertheless, the car rental is the best option if you want more freedom and if you travel in group. Note that if you choose this solution, you will have parking fees (about 5€, regardless of the time you stay).
Another option: the bus! You only need to check the bus schedules. There are more buses running between June and early September but a few still run when fall arrives. For more information, you can have a look at the websites of the bus companies:
- Sterna: possible departure from Reykjavik and many other stops on route n°1
- Straeto: choose the line 51 - be careful it is necessary to consult the schedules
What Can You Do in Skaftafell?
After spending two and a half months as a volunteer in Skaftafell, I'm pretty sure that anyone going to this park will be satisfied. Skaftafell is a paradise for hikers of any level. And of course, the park is just next to a glacier so the glacier hike is also a must do. Below, I present you some suggestions...
Find all the activities in Iceland during summer here.
The map below shows the easiest hikes in the park and those departing from the visitor center.
Hiking from the visitor center to Skaftafellsjökull (1h30 - 2,5km - no difference in altitude)
A simple hike to get closer to the glacier (without going on the glacier). Accessible to everyone, there are some signs during your hike that will allow you to discover informations on Skaftafellsjökull (pronounced Skaf-ta-feTLs-yeu-cuTL). Ask for the brochure that accompanies this self-guided tour at the visitor center, it is available in Icelandic and in English! Put on at least sneakers or hiking shoes.
Hiking on the Fallsjökull glacier (2h30 to 4h - distance and differences in altitude can vary, usually short distance on little difference in altitude)
If you want to go on the glacier, you will need to book with a company! Near the visitor center, you will find several companies and several types of hikes. If it's your first time, go for the easy-level discovery trek that lasts around 2,5 hours. Note that glacier tours are all year round! However, I strongly advise you to book in advance to make sure you have a place for the tour.
Some ideas of Skaftafell tours here. More informations on how to go for a glacier hike here.
Hiking from the visitor center, to Svartifoss then Sjónarsker, Vesturheiði and return by Morsárdalur to the visitor center (4 hours without photo stops - distance about 10km - difference in altitude about 150m)
If you have time in Skaftafell and don't want only to stay for 1 hour, I suggest this hike. This loop is a hiking proposal that will take you more or less 4 hours depending on your level of hiking but also your stops. This is my favorite hike that I did very often as a volunteer. If you want to feel more confident, you can buy the hiking map at the visitor center.
Once you arrive in Svartifoss, the rest of hike will be on "flat". This hike is great to discover the park: the black sand desert and the oldest forest in Iceland. You will also have some spectacular views and you will not cross a lot of people. This loop allows you to first discover the local attraction: Svartifoss (literally "the black waterfall"), a waterfall framed by splendid dark basalt columns.
After enjoying the waterfall, you will take the direction of Sjónarsker (M1/2/3). From here, you will have on a clear day, a magnificent panoramic view on Skeiðarársandur, the largest sandur in the world (!!!) with its 1,300 km². From here, there are several hikes including a hike to Morsárdalur (literal translation: the Morsá Valley (the name of the river)) - the direction can also be noted "Vesturheiði" or M1/2/3.
You will arrive on the other side of the mountain after an hour of walking (still without stop) from Sjónarsker, you discover the viewpoint on Morsárdalur, Skeiðarársandur and Skeiðarárjökull.
Finally, after descending into the valley through the forest, take the path back to the visitor center. The return path may seem long and monotonous but if you are attentive, you will certainly see some birds (skua, ptarmigan...).
You will find the hiking map of the whole park here. For other proposals, feel free to send me a message!
You can also for simplicity (or desire), book tours from Reykjavik, which will allow you to combine the visit of several tourist sites nearby (including Jökulsárlón - see my article about it), will save you the rental car and the drive (you can watch through the windows of the minibus / bus to admire the scenery), and potentially booking a hotel.
Booking a tour is especially good since the road in winter as in summer is not always very practicable, depending on the weather conditions. There are tours for everyone and every budget. In addition, just remember that even when you book a "first price" vehicle in Iceland, you will have to spend some money... and sometimes the option "tour" remains an economically interesting solution.
In any case, just remember that nature in Iceland is fragile: staying on the hiking path is the rule. Even if you want to take the best picture ever, don't step on the moss, on the vegetation that takes years to grow.
Where to Eat in Skaftafell?
In Skaftafell, you will find all year round the cafeteria (Kaffistofa - to pronounce as such for once) and in summer, a food truck sells fish & chips.
The nearest supermarkets are quite far away. On the road to Reykjavik, Kirkjubæjarklaustur, 1 hour drive, you will find a small grocery store near the N1 station. To the east, on the road to Höfn, 2 hours drive, you will find several small shops including a supermarket Bónus and Nettó, where the choice of products will be wider.
Where to Stay in Skaftafell?
Skaftafell has one of the most beautiful campsite of Iceland. This will be the cheapest solution. As a reminder, don't forget that wild camping is prohibited in Iceland. Otherwise, there are some other accommodations nearby: hotels, hostels and bed & breakfast.
Have a nice trip! Góða ferð!
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