Skaftafell is one of the most visited areas in Iceland, popular because of its beautiful hiking trails, stunning glaciers and also it is one of the few places in Iceland that has some trees. Now, we know how overwhelming it can be to plan a trip to Iceland. There are so many things to think about, from renting a car, booking all the accommodation, to the weather and what to wear for your Iceland trip. We have put together a list of some places that are popular and visited by the majority of travelers here. We have also added some lesser known locations we personally like to visit in our free time. Since there are many places to visit in Iceland, you can expect more articles with tips on where to go. Today we will start with Skaftafell, where we are located.

HOW TO GET TO SKAFTAFELL

You can find Skaftafell when you drive the Ring Road in Southeast Iceland. Drive from Reykjavík to Skaftafell takes approximately 4.5 hours. Travelers are also often coming from Vík, which is 1 hour 45 minutes away. If you are coming from the east, then it is gonna take you around 1 hour 40 minutes from Höfn or 40 minutes from the Jökulsarlón (glacier lagoon).

a simple map of iceland showing the way between skaftafell and reykjavik

SKAFTAFELL NATURE RESERVE

Skaftafell Nature Reserve was established in 1967 as a national park and in 2008 it became part of the newly established Vatnajökull National Park. In total, the park covers an area of 14.141 km², making it the second largest national park in Europe. The park follows the outlines of Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull and also covers extensive areas around it. In July 2019 Vatnajökull National Park was added to the UNESCO world heritage list, making it the second site in Iceland on UNESCO’s list.
If you want to enter Skaftafell Nature Reserve by car you have to pay a service fee of 750 ISK for smaller cars(5 seats) and 1.000 ISK for larger ones(6-9 seats). If you have booked a tour with Melrakki Adventures, you do not need to pay this fee since we are located right outside of the park, where you will have free parking.

SKAFTAFELL VISITORS CENTER

Skaftafell visitor center is an information center where all the Skaftafell hiking trails start from. There you can learn more about the nature and history of the park as well as finding more information and maps of the hiking trails. If you are planning to embark on one of the longer hiking trails, we recommend asking the park rangers about the trail and weather conditions. Part of the information center is a gift shop that offers local wool products, books and other small items and souvenirs. In the same building you can also  find a cafeteria.

SVARTIFOSS

One of the more popular hiking trails in Skaftafell, is the one leading to Svartifoss (Black Fall). Svartifoss is 20 meters tall waterfall framed with tall basalt columns. The black hexagonal columns, which gave Svartifoss its name, are formed over an extended period of time by cooling basaltic lava. The ice cold water of the falls comes from melting ice cap (Vatnajökull) above. Along the way you will pass a few smaller waterfalls. The hike to Svartifoss starts at the Visitor Centre in Skaftafell, it is slightly up the hill, takes about 45 minutes each way and is one of the easier hikes in the park.

svartifoss waterfall in skaftafell iceland. thin waterfall surrounded by dark basalt columns

SJÓNARNÍPA

If you want to make your hike to Svartifoss a little bit longer, then we recommend heading to Sjónarnípa. From the viewpoint above Svartifoss you will turn right and follow the marked trail until you get to an amazing viewpoint overlooking the stunning Skaftafellsjökull glacier. This place is usually not very crowded, so if you are looking for some less busy locations, Sjónarnípa is definitely the place to go to. Round-trip from the Visitor Centre in Skaftafell including visit of Svartifoss usually takes between 2,5 and 3 hours.

overview of skaftafellsjökull taken from a viewpoint above it. view over the lagoon and surrounding mountains and glaciers.
a lot of snow covering the blue ice on skaftafellsjökull glacier in skaftafell

SKAFTAFELLSJÖKULL

Skaftafellsjökull is one of the glacier tongues flowing down from Vatnajökull glacier. You can get to it by walking from Skaftafell Visitor Center. The hike takes approximately 40 minutes one way on an easy marked path. In winter the path can be very slippery, so we recommend bringing microspikes with you. It’s not meant for people to walk on the glacier there, but rather just to enjoy the beautiful view. Accessing the glacier can be incredibly dangerous, there is a powerful glacier river flowing in front of it and the glacier itself can be very difficult to walk on. Skaftafellsjökull and Svínafellsjökull were connected in front of Hafrafell in 1940 but since then they have receded quite rapidly and are no longer connected. In the last 20 years, Skaftafellsjökull alone has receded almost 1.000m.

SVÍNAFELLSJÖKULL

Another popular place to stop is Svínafellsjökull. This magnificent outlet glacier has gained popularity by being a filming set for the movies Interstellar or Batman Begins as well as very popular TV series Game of Thrones. The view over the deep glacier lagoon to sharp ridges is breathtaking even after you see it one thousand times. The ice is partly colored by black volcanic ash making the view even more other worldly. In 2018 the glacier tours were moved from here to Falljökull glacier, due to crack discovered in the mountainside on the east side of Svínafellsjökull. Check safetravel.is for more information. 

You can get to Svínafellsjökull driving from the ring road. It is only a gravel road, so be careful when you’re driving there. Another option is a newly created hiking path from Hótel Skaftafell.

people walking in the distance on Svínafellsjökull outlet glacier.

GLACIER HIKING IN SKAFTAFELL

Glacier hiking has been growing in popularity over the last years, now a few hundred people go glacier hiking every day around Skaftafell. Walking among the other worldly ice formations, crevasses, moulins is a feeling like no other. Glacier tours are operated there by multiple operators the whole year round. Unless you are experienced and have the gear needed (harness, crampons, ice axe) you should always go on the glacier with an experienced guide. If you don’t want to get lost in a crowd and you are looking for more personal, friendly experience, you can look at our selection of glacier tours here.

ICE CAVING IN SKAFTAFELL

Ice caves in Skaftafell, but generally ice caves in Iceland, are accessible only in the winter time. Usually the period is between November and the end of March, but of course it can change depending on the weather conditions. You should always visit ice caves with an experienced guide, as it can be very dangerous to enter them without proper knowledge. Ice caves are changing every year, some years we are lucky to find beautiful, large blue ice caves, some years they can be smaller and darker. Always research the tour you want to participate in and make sure the advertised photos are recent.

A person photographs blue ice cave that is only reachable by helicopter

WHERE TO STAY

There are not so many options for accommodation around Skaftafell and during the high season they tend to be fully booked, so it is best to book them well in advance. Hotel Skaftafell is located just outside the nature reserve and offers an amazing view over Iceland’s highest mountain, Hvannadalshnjúkur. The Potato Storage is a newly renovated guesthouse with beautiful modern apartments located just a few minutes away from Skaftafell. Svínafell offers sleeping bag accommodation and during the summer times they also operate a campsite. Another possibility for camping is a campground operated by and located in the national park.

WHERE TO EAT

Options on where to eat in Skaftafell are very limited. You can find a cafeteria in Skaftafell (right next to the Visitor Center) which offers soups, sandwiches as well as some deserts. Little bit out of Skaftafell there is a gas station- Freysnes, where you can find soups, burgers and a menu of the day. On a bit more pricey side there is Hótel Skaftafell restaurant (right across the road from the gas station) where you can also find a bar.