Skaftafell is a nature reserve located in Vatnajökull National Park in the south-east of Iceland. It is an oasis of this nation’s diverse landscapes and features, so beautiful it was once a national park in its own right.
Skaftafell is notable for its rich flora, growing between sands and glaciers, and for its amazing, contrasting scenery. Visitors will find a wealth of natural attractions, from cascading waterfalls to glacier lagoons, geological formations to black sand deserts.
The rugged region is known for its fantastic photo opportunities, with many awe-inspiring panoramic views.
Like many areas along the South Coast of Iceland, Skaftafell Nature Reserve is known for its glorious hiking trails, often called a ‘hiking paradise’. Unlike in the Highlands, where hikes tend to go on for multiple days, here there are far shorter. There are easy treks that lead to diverse sites such as the waterfall Svartifoss which is surrounded by bizarre and beautiful basalt columns, as well as to glaciers such as Svínafellsjökull.
With a qualified guide, it is an excellent region to try your hand at a spot of either ice climbing or glacier hiking; both activities are two of the most authentically Icelandic experiences you can partake in whilst in the country.
The nature reserve is also the perfect base camp for those seeking to climb Iceland’s highest peak, Hvannadalshnúkur, or for those wishing to spend a number of days exploring the region's attractions, including Vatnajökull glacier, Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon and the nearby Diamond Beach.
Just off the Ring Road in the south-east of the country, it takes approximately four hours to reach Skaftafell from Reykjavík. The South Coast, however, is one of the regions most popular sightseeing routes, so the journey usually takes much longer, as visitors will want to make several stops along the way.
Examples of the beautiful natural features found en route to Skaftafell include the waterfalls Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss, the glaciers Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull, the black sand deserts of Sólheimasandur and Skeiðarársandur, as well as the dramatic coastal rock formations at Dyrhólaey and Reynisdrangar. The villages of Vík and Kirkjubæjarklaustur are also along Route 1 if you need to stop and refuel on refreshments.
Those who have made it all the way to Skaftafell will want to be sure to check out the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, a giant lake filled with enormous icebergs breaking from a glacial tongue, and slowly drifting to sea. At the nearby Diamond Beach you can watch them wash upon the shore, and in both the sea and lagoon are many seals which can routinely be spotted.
You will find a Visitors Centre at Skaftafell which acts as the main information and meeting point for tour operators and independent travellers. At the Skaftafell Visitor Centre, you will find answers to virtually any questions you might have about the greater Skaftafell area, including its history and geology. The Visitors Centre also contains information about nearby hiking trails, recreational options and accommodation.
There is also a hotel at Skaftafell, though it tends to book up very early. Luckily, the south-east is dotted with hotels, cabins and cottages in which you can stay, and the area is not far from the settlements of Höfn or Kirkjubæklaustur.