Skaftafell Iceland, set in the heart of South Iceland, is a magical region full of waterfalls, glacier tongues that snake down to snow-capped peaks, and seemingly endless skies. Once an independent national park, it now holds its place within the vast Vatnajökull National Park, home to Europe’s largest glacier.
The Skaftafell area is a true example of how fire and ice have sculpted the landscapes of Iceland over the years, with volcanic eruptions causing glacial floods, swelling the Skeiðará River, and creating a sandy outwash plain between the glacier and sea.
Being quite an accessible region for visitors, Skaftafell Iceland is a great inclusion to any South Coast or Ring Road itinerary. This comprehensive article will serve as your guide to unlocking all the wonders of Skaftafell, including its history, how to get there, how to effectively prepare, and what there is to do in Skaftafell, Iceland.
A Brief Intro of Skaftafell: Is It Still a National Park of Iceland?
Formed over thousands of years, Skaftafell was once one of Iceland’s largest farms. It was named a national park back in 1967 and subsequently enlarged twice to become Iceland’s second-largest national park.
In 2008, Skaftafell National Park was made part of the larger Vatnajökull National Park, becoming an integral part of Iceland’s natural wonders. Despite the merger, the Skaftafell area still maintains a name for itself, with the region containing many iconic natural wonders such as Svartifoss, a cascading waterfall framed by mesmerizing basalt columns, and many glacier tongues of Skaftafellsjökull glacier that reach from the highlands to the sea.
Map from vatnajokulsthjodgardur.is
Where is Skaftafell Nature Reserve Located?
Skaftafell Nature Reserve is located within the boundaries of the Vatnajökull National Park, in South Eastern Iceland. As you plan your visit, the route map to the Skaftafellsstofa Visitor Centre is the best navigational guide and a great starting point, with lots of information about the area and trail maps to lead you ahead.
The closest towards are Höfn to the east and Kirkjubæjarklaustur to the west. Skaftafell Nature Reserve is easy to access by car via the Route 1 Ring Road and is surrounded by rolling farmlands, glaciers, and volcanic landscapes.
A Route Map to Skaftafell Visitor Centre (Skaftafellsstofa)
What is the Best Time to Visit Skaftafell?
When you’re planning any Iceland itinerary, it’s important to consider the time of year that you will be visiting. The weather in Iceland, while highly unpredictable, is much milder in the summer months, making June to August the optimal time to visit Skaftafell. As the area’s attractions are all outdoors, with many amazing immersive hiking trails, summer is the prime season for exploring the area. The valleys bloom with wildflowers, and the long daylight hours and midnight sun are the perfect fuel for endless hiking adventures.
However, the winter months in Iceland also have something special to offer, with Skaftafell transforming into a crystalized icy landscape, with the added opportunity of seeing the northern lights in Iceland. Additionally, the winter opens up activities like snowmobile expeditions and ice cave explorations that aren’t available during the summer months. If you do choose to visit during the winter, keep in mind that some hiking routes will likely be closed due to possible danger with bad weather and snow storms.
How to Get to Skaftafell by Rental Car?
Getting to Skaftafel by rental car is relatively easy, thanks to Iceland’s main route: Route 1. While public transportation links are few and far between, having a rental car will enable you to seamlessly integrate your visit to Skaftafell into the rest of your Iceland itinerary.
- From Reykjavik, it’s around 320 kilometers (200 miles) to reach Skaftafell. This journey takes around 4 hours without any stops, driving east along the Ring Road through Selfoss, Hella, and Vík Iceland. There are many places to stop along the way, including picturesque villages, waterfalls, and black sand beaches, along with multiple opportunities for glacier and volcano views.
- From Höfn, it’s around 80 kilometers (50 miles) to reach Skaftafell. The journey takes between 1-1.5 hours traveling east on the Ring Road. Along this route, you’ll have the chance to see the magnificent Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, where we definitely recommend stopping.
- From Akureyri, in North Iceland, it’s about a 400 kilometers (250 miles) drive to Skaftafell, which takes around 6 to 7 hours if you drive non-stop south on the Ring Road. This route allows you to experience the dramatic landscapes of North Iceland and East Iceland, including volcanic highlands, geothermal areas, and beautiful coastal scenery.
The Road Conditions and Weather in South Iceland
The road conditions and weather in South Iceland vary based on the seasons, but in general, most roads are open and passable throughout the year. Route 1 traverses the entirety of the South Coast, and it’s paved and well-maintained throughout the year. Keep in mind that it may become slippery when wet or icy, so always drive with caution regardless of the season.
There are gravel roads in the region, which are generally dry during the summer months but may experience snow coverage or closures in the winter. You can check road.is for current road updates and vedur.is for the most accurate weather reports.
What is the Best Rental Car Option to Get to Skaftafell?
Selecting the right rental car is paramount for a seamless Icelandic adventure. While a 2WD compact or mid-size car may be sufficient during the summer months, the winter landscape calls for the reliability of a 4X4 rental vehicle.
Additionally, a 4X4 will give you more versatility for the rest of your Iceland itinerary, as they are required if you plan to head to the Iceland Highlands or drive on any of Iceland’s F-Roads. Ensure your chosen vehicle not only navigates the Icelandic terrain with ease but also provides you with the safety and comfort needed for an enjoyable journey.
What to Wear When Visiting Skaftafell?
As you prepare for your Icelandic adventure, the ever-changing climate of Skaftafell (and Iceland in general) demands careful consideration of your Iceland packing list. Pack sturdy hiking boots, waterproof layers, warm hats and gloves, and sunglasses. Don’t forget sunscreen, even in winter, as the reflection off the snow can impact sensitive skin. You’ll also want to bring multiple pairs of warm socks and a swimsuit for taking a dip in the Iceland hot springs.
The key to dressing for a trip to Iceland, regardless of the destination or time of year, is always to dress in layers. Layering will allow you to easily adapt to changing temperatures throughout the day.
What to Do in Skaftafell?
Skaftafell is a playground for nature enthusiasts, offering a diverse range of activities that cater to various interests and adventure levels. Here are some of the best things to do in Skaftafell:
Hiking Inside the Area
One of the primary Iceland attractions of Skaftafell is its extensive network of hiking trails, each leading to a unique and breathtaking destination. From more leisurely strolls suitable for families to challenging treks for seasoned hikers, Skaftafell has it all.
You’ll find a mix of lush green valleys with vibrant plant life in the summer, or an otherworldly icy landscape in the winter. Hiking trails like Skaftafellsheidi offer panoramic views of glaciers and volcanoes. Or, for a more relaxed experience, follow the Skaftafellsgöng path for gentle stroll through moss-covered lava fields and birch forests.
All the hikes basically begin from the Skaftafellsstofa Visitor Center, where you can find maps and more information about each hike and its difficulty.
The Svartifoss Waterfall Hiking Trial
The Sjónarnípa View point Hiking Trial
Glacier Hiking and Ice Climbing
For those who want more of a challenge, Skaftafell offers the unparalleled experience of glacier hiking and ice climbing. Guided by professionals who understand the nuances of the icy terrain, visitors can hike across the glaciers of Skaftafell and feel the ancient ice crushing beneath them.
Glacier hikes are suitable for most people with a good level of physical ftiness, but you’ll need to take a guided tour and use special equipment, such as crampons, to navigate the glaciers safely. Additionally, Skaftafell is home to blue ice caves, which are naturally formed caves and tunnels that you can explore with a guide.
The Skaftafell Ice Caves can be visited most of the year, while the actual cave you visit will vary based on the specific conditions at the time you visit. That’s because the caves are constantly changing due to ice melt.
Witnessing the Natural Attractions
Skaftafell is home to some of Iceland’s most iconic natural wonders, and exploring these attractions is a must. The waterfall Svartifoss is a beautiful Iceland waterfall framed by naturally formed basalt columns. You can reach the waterfall via a relatively easy hike from the Skaftafell Visitor Center, which is around 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) each way on a well-maintained gravel trail.
Skaftafellsjökull glacier, which is a glacial tongue that descends from Vatnajökull, has breathtaking views along with multiple different hiking trails and guided hike opportunities. You can hike to the Morsárjökull glacial lagoon, where icebergs float across the deep blue lagoon, the morsárdalur valley and you can also find Morsárfoss, the tallest waterfall in Iceland.
As mentioned above, the Skaftafell Ice Caves are one of the region’s most unique attractions, giving you the opportunity to see the inside of hidden ice caves that have been sculpted by nature, with their bright blue and white hues that are best seen in the winter months.
Nature lovers will appreciate the opportunity for wildlife observation in Skaftafell. The area is home to a diverse range of animals, including many birds, like arctic terns, ptarmigans, and snow buntings. You may also have the opportunity to see field mice, minks, and arctic foxes. If you venture down to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon or Diamond Beach, just a short distance away, you can also see seals basking on the shores.
Photographers, both amateur and professional, will find Skaftafell to be one of the best spots in the country for getting great shots. The region’s ever-changing light with spectacular sunrises and sunsets helps to enhance the dramatic landscapes. The glacial formations and the icy tongues, which snake down the slopes, are a beautiful backdrop for photos, along with the contrast of the ice against the black sand and lush green valleys.
Where to Stay in Skaftafell?
When visiting Skaftafell, there are two main options for accommodation: hotels or camping.
Camping is a fantastic way to immerse yourself in the natural landscapes and tranquility of Skaftafell. Skaftafell campsite is located right next to the visitor center and has 400 pitches in total, so you can just show up and pick a spot.
The campsite has showers, laundry, and dish-washing facilities onsite. Keep in mind that Iceland camping is best done during the summer months and that tent camping outside for designated campgrounds is not allowed in National Parks.
If you’d prefer to stay at a hotel, there are a few options nearby that provide added comfort, modern amenities and delicious Icelandic food for guests with proximity to the wonders of Skaftafell.
Hotel Skaftafell provides the most luxury, with views of Skaftafellsjökull glacier and an onsite spa. There is also the Fosshotel Nupar, which is a modern hotel near Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, and Adventure Hotel Hof, which is housed in a former farmhouse.
Adventure Awaits in Skaftafell Iceland
Skaftafell, Iceland is an incredible Iceland destination that should not be missed, shaped by the forces of fire and ice to create a beautiful natural landscape. Whether you visit during the vibrant and mild summer months, with blooming valleys and seemingly endless daylight, or brave the elements in the winter to explore the blue ice caves, Skaftafell is a must-visit location in Iceland.
The route to Skaftafell with a rental car is an adventure in itself, with villages, waterfalls, beaches, and hiking trails to enjoy along the way. Start planning your Iceland adventure by booking your rental car online and in advance with Hertz Iceland. With a large selection of rental vehicles available to help you reach your destination, a rental vehicle is the most essential piece of the puzzle for designing your perfect Iceland holiday.