Skaftafell: Everything you need to know
Skaftafell is a truly spectacular location. From glaciers to volcanoes, to mountains and canyons, this is the perfect place to soak up Iceland’s most outstanding natural beauty.
In the past, Skaftafell was a National Park in its own right. It has now joined together with several other protected areas to form part of the enormous Vatnajökull National Park. Visitors love to hike the extensive trails, immersing themselves in the breathtaking landscapes that Iceland is so famous for.
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Skaftafell is also a meeting point for Ice Climbing, Glacier Walking, and Ice Caving tours. For the most serious outdoors people, you can also find Iceland’s highest summit at Skaftafell. The epic Hvannadalshnjukur Summit takes up to 15 hours to conquer. Don’t worry; there are plenty of more relaxed walks for you to enjoy as well!
Whether you are looking for an easy walk to Svartifoss waterfall or a once in a lifetime hiking challenge, here is everything you need to know about your visit Skaftafell.
Getting to Skaftafell
One of the easiest ways to get to Skaftafell is by renting a car.
Skaftafell is located in the South East of Iceland right by Route 1, the best-maintained road in the country. The drive is seriously scenic, so we recommend leaving plenty of time to stop and enjoy the fantastic views.
For ideas of things to do on the way to Skaftafell, you can check out our article about planning your Icelandic Ring Road adventure.
It will take you around 4 hours to drive direct from Reykjavik to Skaftafell.
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In Winter, the extreme weather and long hours of darkness can make the drive more challenging. With this in mind, you should leave plenty of extra time when driving in the wintertime.
Although the drive to the parking lot is easy, there are no roads inside the Skaftafell area. To enjoy the waterfalls and glaciers, you will need to bring a good pair of hiking boots and walk the rest of the way!
On arrival, you will have to pay around USD 6 for parking. This money goes to preserve and protect the area for future generations. If you forget to pay, the bill will be increased and forwarded onto your car hire company. To save yourself some bother, try to get it right the first time!
If you are camping, you can use your camping receipt to register for free parking.
Insider Tip: It is a good idea to reserve your car before arriving in Iceland. You can pick it up when arriving at Reykjavik airport via a shuttle bus to the nearby car hire complex. For lots of helpful Icelandic driving tips, you can check out our article about keeping safe in Iceland.
By Organised Tour
If you prefer to sit back and enjoy the scenery, consider visiting Skaftafell as part of an organized tour.
Several different tour companies organize bus trips from Reykjavik to Skaftafell. Your local guide will take on the burden of planning the trip while ensuring you stop off at all the best locations.
To make the most out of the gorgeous South Coast, the bus tours that stop at Skaftafell are often two or even three days in duration.
By Public Bus
If you prefer to have more independence than you’d find on a private tour, you could consider catching a public bus to Skaftafell.
We recommend that you take this journey over a few days, so you have plenty of time to enjoy each destination along the route.
Although they are not frequent, the buses in Iceland are very reasonably priced. If you have time to savor the journey, you could catch a bus from the Reyjavik to Skaftafell.
Here is the bus route from Reykjavik to Skaftafell:
- From Reykjavik, catch the 72 bus in the direction of Flúðir. After 45 minutes you would get off at Selfoss
- Take the 51 bus from Selfoss to Vík í Mýrdal. This will take 1hr 45 mins.
- Finally, from Vík í Mýrdal you take the 51 bus in the direction of Höfn í Hornafirði, arriving at Skaftafell after around 2 hours.
Traveling by public bus is an excellent option for those who are working to a budget. Bring along your tent and sleeping bag, because you will find campsites at Selfoss, Vik, and Skaftafell.
You can find out more details about the bus service in Iceland here.
What to do at Skaftafell
Skaftafell is an enormous playground for lovers of the natural world.
You can enjoy Hiking, Ice Caving, Ice Climbing, and Glacier Walking during your visit.
Don’t forget to pack your hiking boots and waterproofs, and stock up on plenty of snacks. The closest supermarket is 70km away!
Whether you are hoping for a short hike up to Svartifoss or an epic climb up Iceland’s tallest mountain, Skaftafell has activities for all levels of fitness and experience.
1. Explore the Hiking Trails
They say the best things in life are free. When it comes to hiking, it’s hard to disagree! Skaftafell offers a wide range of beautiful hiking trails.
Waterfalls and Glaciers
For a short and easy walk, you can reach the famous Svartifoss waterfall or Skaftafelljokull glacier tongue in around 1hr and 30 minutes. These paths are well marked and offer some spectacular views of breathtaking Icelandic scenery.
Svartifoss waterfall is over 20 meters (80 feet) high. It is surrounded by beautiful basalt columns, formed by the rapid cooling of lava after an ancient volcanic eruption. Skaftafell is rich in both glaciers and volcanoes, whose power has created the stunning landscapes that you will enjoy on your hike.
If visiting in winter, the trail to Skaftafellsjökull glacier is more accessible than the trail to the Svartifoss waterfall. The glacier is stunning in wintertime. What’s more, the trail to the glacier is safer and less slippery than the one leading up to the waterfall.
For serious outdoor lovers, you could consider trying one of the more challenging hiking routes.
Valley of Kjos
There is a wonderful circular route that takes you through the valley of Kjos. Make sure you bring lots of provisions because this walking trail can take up to 10 hours to complete. Your hard work will be worth it, with woodland, gorges, dykes, glaciers, and waterfalls all waiting to be explored.
Due to the limited daylight hours, this route should not be attempted in the winter months.
You will need good quality hiking shoes and warm, waterproof layers. It is a good idea to tell someone where you are going, so they can alert the local rangers if you don’t come back at the expected time.
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Hvannadalshnjukur Summit is the highest summit in Iceland.
The climb takes between 12 and 15 hours and is seriously challenging. Due to the difficult terrain, the summit should not be attempted without the presence of a certified mountain guide.
This is an extremely challenging hike, but you will be rewarded with incredible views of craters, glaciers, volcanoes, and pristine Ice Sculptures.
Even if you are an experienced mountaineer, you shouldn’t try to climb without a local guide who knows the route. The trail does not require technical equipment like ropes or harnesses, but it is a serious mental and physical challenge.
For more inspiration about possible hiking routes, check out the National Park Website. You can buy a map at the Skaftafell visitor center!
Insider Tip: Hvannadalshnjukur Summit can only be attempted in the Summer. The extremely icy conditions and limited daylight hours make the route very dangerous in wintertime. Guided climbs are only available between April and July, with good reason!
2. Ice Caving at Skaftafell
If you are visiting Iceland in the winter months, you can go on an Ice Caving tour at Skaftafell!
After meeting your guide at the Skaftafell visitor center, you will head out to explore the breathtaking Glacial Ice Caves.
Visiting Iceland’s Glacier Caves is a once in a lifetime experience. They are formed when meltwater flows beneath the surface of the ice in summer months. In wintertime, the new caves and tunnels freeze solid and are safe to explore with the help of an expert guide.
Each ice cave is unique, and the electric blue ice looks like something out of a fairytale. In Summer, the glacial caves melt and collapse, but they are reformed every year. You can find out more about caving in Iceland in this article.
You should wear good quality hiking shoes and warm clothing, including a waterproof jacket and trousers. Tour companies will provide all the specialist equipment, and it is also possible to rent the waterproofs and hiking boots from some providers.
Insider tip: Some Ice Caving tours have age limits for children. If traveling with your kids, Make sure you check about this when booking.
3. Glacier Walking at Skaftafell
There are some excellent opportunities for Glacier Walking at Skaftafell.
Glaciers flow all the time, carving out new valleys and forming deep fissures in the ice sheet. For your safety, you should never attempt to get up on the glacier without an expert guide.
Glacier walking is a really wonderful experience. It can be done throughout the year. Whilst the glacier is busier and less impressive in the Summer months, the longer daylight hours makes for much better visibility of the surrounding natural beauty.
In Winter, the glacier is truly spectacular. However, there is a higher chance that the tour would have to be canceled due to bad weather, and the tours have to be short enough to fit inside the reduced hours of daylight.
For more information about Glacier walking in Iceland, you can check out this article.
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4. Ice Climbing at Skaftafell
While some prefer a gentler walk on the glacier, others want to get their adrenaline pumping by scaling the ice walls with their axes and crampons.
Depending on the conditions and time of year, some tour guides will also incorporate Ice Climbing into the glacier walks. Ice Climbing is much like rock climbing, but instead of finding your way in the cracks between rocks, you use axes and spiked shoes to make a path up the ice wall.
Beginners and experts are equally welcome to try Ice Climbing. All of the specialist equipment like ice axes, ropes, and helmets will be provided. After meeting your group at the visitor center, you can go out to explore the glacier with your guide.
Not all glacier walking tours will have any climbing components. To avoid any disappointment, you should check the details with your specific tour guide when booking.
5. The Skaftafell Visitor Center
Don’t forget to pop into the Skaftafell Visitor Center whilst you are here.
There is an exhibition room where you can learn about the history and geology of the area through information boards and film.
This is also the perfect place to ask any questions about the hike you are planning to take. You can pick up some maps or a locally crafted gift for your loved ones back home.
Insider Tip: The Skaftafell Visitor center is also the meeting point for most of the guided tours and walks that take place at Skaftafell. You should double-check this is the case when booking with your specific tour guide.
Where To Stay at Skaftafell
If you are planning on exploring Skaftafell, it is a good idea to arrive the day before your planned activity. This is particularly true if you have booked a morning tour and don’t want to risk being late.
No matter what your budget, there are plenty of hotels and guesthouses on hand!
Hotels Near Skaftafell
Distance from Skaftafell: 5km
Hotel Skaftafell is a family run business, located right off Road 1. It is one of the most affordable options in the area and is in a great location for exploring Skaftafell. The facilities are basic, but the reasonable price and convenience make it a great contender for your stay.
Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon
Distance from Skaftafell: 27km
Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon is located in the town of Hof. Although it is a little further away than Hotel Skaftafell, it is very highly rated. Guests recommend the onsite restaurant and appreciate the convenient location for visiting both Skaftafell and Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon.
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The Potato Storage
Distance from Skaftafell: 8km
For a more personal stay near Skaftafell, you could consider staying in a holiday apartment like The Potato Storage. These cozy apartments and cabins offer a relaxed and comfortable stay.
Guests particularly appreciate the warm welcome and spectacular scenery. Don’t forget that the closest Supermarket is 70km away, so stock up on food for self-catering accommodation before you leave the city.
For travelers that don’t require the comfort of a soft pillow, Skaftafell has a large campground that is open all year round.
You can pitch your tent at the base of the gorgeous mountains, enjoying the views of snow-capped peaks even in the summer months. Camping at Skaftafell is the perfect way to explore the many stunning hiking trails.
Using your tent as a base, you can spend several days exploring the outstanding natural beauty of the Skaftafell walking trails. It is not generally possible to make a reservation in advance, but the campground is very large, and they never run out of space.
The facilities are very basic, but it is the perfect place to set up your base camp for a hiking adventure.
You can expect access to toilets, Showers, a dishwashing area, and washing and drying machines. There is also an excellent 3G network coverage at the campsite, but there aren’t any indoor cooking or eating facilities.
Insider Tip: It is not possible to hire camping equipment here, so you should bring your own tent and sleeping bags along with you
Wild Camping at Skaftafell
In order to protect the local flora and fauna, you are required to stay at designated campgrounds when camping at Skaftafell.
There is an exception to this rule for mountaineers pitching more than 400 meters above sea level in The Kaftafellsfjöll mountain range. Depending on your hiking plans, it may also be possible to wild camp in the valley of Kjos.
You will need to talk to the park rangers for up to date information about wild camping permissions.
Where to Eat at Skaftafell
Nothing spoils an adventure like an empty tummy.
Whether you are traveling on a budget or celebrating a special occasion, here are some suggestions of where to eat during your visit to Skaftafell.
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On a Budget
Self-catering is always the cheapest way to eat.
If you are traveling on a budget, you should consider getting bread and sandwich fillings at the supermarket.
The next cheapest option at Skaftafell would be eating at the Visitor Center’s cafeteria. The cafeteria offers simple meals like soups and sandwiches, which are more affordable than the other nearby food outlets.
For more information about traveling Iceland on a budget, you can check out this article.
In the Middle
The Glacier Goodies Food Truck can be found near the visitor center at Skaftafell.
This offers a high-quality fast food experience. You can expect local ingredients and delicious, fresh food. The fish and chips and fresh lobster soup both come highly recommended.
For a special treat, you can head to the restaurant at the Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon. They serve a mixture of European and Scandinavian dishes, with lots of local seafood on the menu. There are also options for vegetarians, which can be difficult to find in many Icelandic restaurants.
Although this is the most expensive option, you can enjoy a proper restaurant experience at Fosshotel.
Geology and Wildlife of Skaftafell
Now you’ve had a hearty meal and good night’s rest, you can start uncovering the geology and wildlife of Skaftafell.
You don’t have to walk far to discover the natural beauty waiting for you here. The midnight sun will allow you many happy hours in the canyons and mountains of Skaftafell. Even in winter, the lower trails remain open.
No matter what time of year you visit, a 1-2 hour trail walk will bring you right to the edge of a spectacular glacier tongue.
Geology of Skaftafell
Geology and nature lovers will be right at home in Skaftafell.
Glacier tongues, mountains, valleys, volcanoes, mineral deposits, and ice sculptures are just a handful of geological formations to be enjoyed.
The bedrock is an incredible 5 million years old in places!
Wildlife and Plants of Skaftafell
The harsh conditions in Iceland make it difficult for trees to grow. To build their houses, old Icelanders relied on washed-up shipwrecks, driftwood, and timbers that had escaped from Danish rivers on their way to the sawmills.
However, the warm sea breeze makes the Skaftafell climate unusually mild. Thanks to this climate and the shelter of tall mountains, you will find birch, willows, and rowans at Skaftafell.
Skaftafell is also abundant in Icelandic wildflowers. As a result, you will find a much wider range of pollinating insects at Skaftafell. These wonderful creatures help support a vibrant food chain that includes many rare species of birds, mink, and even the elusive Arctic fox.
Try to keep to marked paths to avoid damaging the wild blooms!
The History of Skaftafell
Although Skaftafell may look unchanged by time, it has a rich cultural history. Many hardy people have carved out a life for themselves on this land, overcoming the formidable elements. Although most of the farmers have now abandoned the area, the turf roofs of their homes can still be spotted from the trails.
From Farmland to National Park
Skaftafell used to be farmland.
The beautiful mountain landscape was formed by volcanic eruptions and the movement of glaciers. Thanks to the ocean breeze, the climate stays mild in the lowlands all year round. This made Skaftafell a brilliant location for raising sheep.
After the majority of its inhabitants left, it became Skaftafell National Park. In the absence of grazing animals, the wildflowers are now thriving. In 2008, Skaftafell National Park joined together with other nearby parks to become Vatnajökull National Park, the second largest National Park in Europe.
A Tragedy of Volcanic Proportions
In 1362, tragedy struck at Skaftafell.
The entire local community was killed in the enormous Öræfajökull eruption. Öræfajökul is the largest active volcano in Iceland, covered by snow and ice year-round. The 1362 eruption destroyed the local region, triggering devastating floods, ash clouds, and falling pumice.
As a result, the surrounding area had the nickname of ‘wasteland’ for many years.
The People of Skaftafell
Photo by Gudmundur Ogmundsson
After a period of 40 years, many of the farms were inhabited again by new settlers. Nonetheless, it was tough to make a living here. Frequent volcanic eruptions covered the crops in ash and sand, and the changing temperatures made farming too unstable to continue at a commercial level.
You can still see examples of the Skaftafell farms.
For example, the abandoned farmhouses at Sel have been preserved by the National Museum and can be viewed from some of the Skaftafell hiking trails Built-in 1912, farmers and their livestock shared these simple buildings. Downstairs you would find the cattle, and the family would live upstairs.
The farmers had to be very creative in their building process. Isolated from the rest of the world, they built the walls from driftwood from the coast and covered the roof in a thick layer of turf.
There are still a couple of inhabited farms left in Skaftafell, but they make the majority of their income from tourism now.
When to visit Skaftafell
Photo by Anjali Kiggal
Thanks to the close proximity to the Ring Road, you are are able to visit Skaftafell year-round.
In Summer, the long daylight hours and milder climate will allow you to spend long days exploring the trails. The midnight sun can also make it difficult to sleep in a tent, so don’t forget to bring an eye mask to block out the light!
You can also visit Skaftafell in the winter. At this time, the glacier is at its most beautiful, but booked activities could also be canceled due to bad weather.
If this happens, the tour company will do everything they can to organize another time and date that is convenient for you. If you are only visiting Iceland for a few days, there is a risk that you wouldn’t be able to take part in the activities that you had planned for.
That being said, Skaftafell is one of the mildest places to visit during the winter months. A warm ocean breeze keeps the lower trails reasonably clear of snow and ice. Usually, you would still be able to walk to Svartifoss waterfall and Skaftafellsjokull glacier tongue in the winter months.
Make sure you wrap up in lots of warm layers and remember that the daylight hours are very short during the wintertime.
See you soon!
We hope you enjoyed this article about Skaftafell. Whether you are planning to summit Iceland’s highest mountain or take a short guided walk across the glacier, Skaftafell is rich in geology, wildlife, and unbelievable views.
Don’t forget to bring your hiking boots, and we look forward to seeing you out on the trails.