The Ultimate Guide to Skaftafell

travel guide , discover iceland
Svartifoss waterfall
Arinbjörn Hauksson

There’s really something special about Icelandic nature. The wide open spaces, the surprisingly diverse flora, the uniquely stunning vistas in every direction. It’s a nature-lover’s dream come true. Heck, it’s even downright dreamy for those more akin to taking in the passing scenery from the comfort of their car.

But for those inclined to leave their vehicle in park and get up close and personal with the great outdoors — and since you’re reading this blog post, we’re going to assume that’s you — there are few better places to explore than Skaftafell.

In this blog post we’ll explore what makes Skaftafell so special, outline the many ways you can experience and explore Skaftafell, how best to do it (with Icelandic Mountain Guides, of course), and more.

So charge your camera and lace up your hiking boots, because your ultimate guide to Skaftafell starts now.

A man in a blue jacket taking a photo of Skeiðarárjökull glacier
Gréta S. Guðjónsdóttir

All about Skaftafell

We’ve already typed “Skaftafell” six times, so it’s about time for an explainer on what exactly this mysterious natural wonderland is.

Located in Southeast Iceland, roughly 330 km from Reykjavík, Skaftafell is a nature reserve in the much larger Vatnajökull National Park. With lush green valleys, glacial tongues and rugged mountain peaks, it is an area well worth exploring while hiking or trekking in Iceland. Whether you’re embarking on a multi-day trek, a camping trip or you’re in the mood for a short hike to scope Iceland’s famed waterfalls and possibly spot an arctic fox, Skaftafell is the place to be.

Before being folded in to Vatnajökull National Park, Skaftafell was a national park in its own right, founded in 1967 and measuring some 4,807 km2 (2,884 mi2). Like much of Iceland’s rugged landscape, the peaks and valleys of Skaftafell have been formed over thousands of years by consecutive eruptions of the Öræfajökull volcano, and the flow of glacial rivers and flash flooding snaking over volcanic rock, carving numerous gorges and gullies into the earth.

Back in the days of Iceland’s settlement, all of Skaftafell was a farm and a place where the community would meet. The entire region was wiped out by the 1362 eruption of Öræfajökull, and any attempts to farm the land after that were routinely thwarted by glacier flooding or ash fall from the regularly erupting Grímsvötn volcano to the north. Being a stubborn bunch, Icelanders persisted in farming the land between disasters until throwing in the towel in 1988.

people hiking and listening to their guide with a glacier in the back.
Björgvin Hilmarsson

Why visit Skaftafell during your trip to Iceland

A view of Icelandic nature from on top of Svínafellsjökull glacier.

Amazing Landscapes

We know one of Iceland’s major claims to fame is its otherworldly, etherial landscape. And Skaftafell has the greatest hits of Icelandic nature on full display. There are the majestic glacial landscapes of the surrounding Vatnajökull, Svínafellsjökull, Skaftafellsjökull, and Skeiðarárjökull glaciers giving the valley a big, beautiful icy hug. The imposing peak of ice-capped Hvannadalshnúkur — Iceland’s tallest mountain at 2,110 m — rises to the east. The iconic Svartifoss waterfall, surrounded by towering basalt columns lined up the pipes of an organ, is a sight to behold, as is the barren Skeiðarársandur flood plain just outside the nature reserve. In truth, every square metre of Skaftafell is its own amazing landscape.

Varied Hiking Trails

Each of the natural wonders to be found within Skaftafell is accessible on foot. Some areas, like the green oasis at the heart of the park and the Svartifoss waterfall, can be explored via a series of hiking trails of varying lengths and difficulty levels. The glaciers in the region can also be climbed and traversed with the guidance of an experienced glacier guide. For those taking a DIY approach, the Skaftafell Visitor Centre is the starting and ending point for the trails in the reserve.

Two hikers posing with ice axes on Hvannadalshnúkur mountain.

Great weather

OK, so “great” is subjective, especially when used to describe the notoriously finicky weather in Iceland. But the weather in Skaftafell is typically about as nice as you can hope for, with the landscape creating somewhat of an oasis, with a lower chance of precipitation than in other parts of the country.

Location, location, location

The old real estate adage rings true for nature reserves, too: location is everything. And if you’re camping your way around Iceland, or just pitching your tent for a couple nights, Skaftafell is a great place to set up your home base away from home. Once in Skaftafell, you’re just a stone’s throw from the famed Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and adjacent Diamond Beach, and not far from the basalt Kirkjugólf or “church floor” of Kirkjubæjarklaustur.

Fjallsarlon glacier lagoon.

Best tours to take in and around Skaftafell

So we’ve established that Skaftafell is amazing in more ways than one, but how should you go about exploring it? Here are Icelandic Mountain Guides’ favourite ways to experience Skaftafell.

1. Walk on a Glacier

Venturing up on top of a glacier is really akin to stepping into a whole other world. Glaciers are living masses of ice, containing the history of tens of thousands of years within their frosty layers — years of cooling, warming, and volcanic ash creating varying textures and colours in the ice. Explore the labyrinth of always changing ice formations and take in the surrounding area from a cool new vantage point.

2. Climb Some Ice

Maybe you’ve tried you hand at rock climbing, but have you ever thought of ice climbing? The ridges and crevasses of a glacial tongue make them exciting surfaces for those looking to experience a glacier on the vertical plane. With the instruction of a glacier guide and equipment provided by Icelandic Mountain Guides, the experience isn’t limited to those with prior climbing experience. Seriously, just try it. You won’t be sorry.

3. Check Out an Ice Cave

Why stay on top of a glacier when you can go inside one? The flow of water under and through glacial ice carves out canyons and caves that take on the appearance of glittering sapphire- and diamond-like cathedrals. Venturing inside an ice cave delivers a magical new perspective on nature and its always surprising beauty.

4. Conquer the Peaks

Skaftafell is home to Hvannadalshnúkur (2,110 m/6,900 ft), Iceland’s highest peak, and the neighbouring Hrútsfjallstindar (1,875 m/6,150 ft), giving visitors to the nature reserve a chance to summit two bucket list worthy peaks (not at the same time, of course) and be rewarded with unbeatable views of Vatnajökull National Park. Note than neither of these treks are for the inexperienced. Conquering either peak requires a strenuous 14-16 hour hike over ice, snow and rocky terrain.

5. Go for the Greenery

Skaftafell is a whole lot more than frosty glaciers and lofty peaks. There is lush greenery, waterfalls and forests to explore in this world class nature reserve, and there’s no better way to explore these aspects of nature than by lacing up your hiking boots and hitting the trails. As we’ve already mentioned, the Skaftafell Visitor Centre is the starting point of a number of marked trails through the area, including to the popular Svartifoss waterfall, but we’d recommend really immersing yourself in all this natural beauty on a multi-day hiking and camping adventure that you’ll never forget. There’s simply too much beautiful nature to squeeze into a single day when it comes to Skaftafell.

Planning your trip to Skaftafell

How does the old saying go? Fate favours the prepared? Then there’s got to be some cosmic connection between Iceland and fate, because this is one place you must be prepared.

We’ve already hinted at the unpredictability of Iceland’s weather, but it really bears repeating: you can really experience all four seasons in one day up here in the North Atlantic — and those seasons can change quickly and take you by surprise.

A group of people hiking over Virkisjokull glacier with the ice fall in background
Robert Konopka

How to prepare for your trip to Skaftafell?

A lot of what you’ll do and see in Iceland will be dictated by the weather — and that includes your wardrobe. Definitely consider the weather conditions when planning how to dress for your day trip in Skaftafell.

When embarking on a glacier climb or ice cave tour with Icelandic Mountain Guides, you’ll be provided with the appropriate glacier gear and safety equipment, but you should wear your own layers of warm, weather-appropriate clothing to ensure your comfort. Rain gear and hiking boots may be available to rent, so ask when booking if you don’t have your own or you don’t want to take up the space in your luggage.

The rule of thumb here is that layers are your friend. Remember, You can always take a layer off if you’re too warm, but you’ll just be left cold, wet, miserable and in potential trouble if you don’t have enough (and appropriate) layers to begin with.

Here is what we would recommend wearing for any hike or trek in Skaftafell:

  • Base layer: Start with a base layer of clothing made from wool, silk or polyester. The base layer is meant to wick moisture away from your skin and provide light, quick-drying insulation. Don’t wear a cotton base layer — it will absorb your sweat and make you colder.
  • Mid layer: Add a layer to provide insulation and retain your body heat, while remaining breathable. The best materials for this layer are wool, fleece or goose down.
  • Outer shell: Top it off with an outer layer that will protect the other layers — and you — from the rain, wind and snow. This layer should be lightweight and quick-drying, like Gore-Tex or eVent.
  • Footwear: Choose appropriate footwear for your hike and the weather conditions, including wool or synthetic socks, and sturdy hiking boots or hiking shoes.

If you’re heading off to explore Skaftafell on your own, you should bring a backpack with essentials to make your hike a happy one.

Here are some items you might want to pack:

  • Water: You’ll need around 1 litre of water for a two-hour hike. There will often be water sources along the trails of longer hikes, but you’ll need to start with a decent amount of water so you’re not getting dehydrated before you reach them.
  • Snacks & Food: Consider packing trail mix or granola bars for shorter hikes, and energy gel for more strenuous treks. If you’re going on a multi-day trek, carefully what you’ll eat for each meal and snacks so you don’t find yourself with a grumbling stomach or with depleted energy at the half-way point.
  • Sun protection: Iceland isn’t a tropical destination, but it’s still very easy to get sunburnt. Protect your eyes and skin with sunglasses and a high SPF sunscreen.
  • Map & compass: Google Maps is all fun and games until you hit connectivity issues. A good old fashioned map will get you from point A to B with reliability. Study it in advance to know where you’re going and make sure you know how to use your compass.
  • A phone or Personal Location Beacon: If you find yourself in trouble on the trail, you’ll want a way to call for help. PLBs can be rented from is.
  • First aid kit: At the very least, your first air kit should include bandages and blister pads, but it would also be wise to have disinfectant wipes, hand sanitiser, painkillers (like ibuprofen or paracetamol), a Swiss-army knife, and even duct tape.

The number one thing you should do before embarking on any self-guided hike or trek in Iceland is to let people know where you’re going and when you’ll be back. You can register travel plans with SafeTravel.is and check in with them for weather alerts and travel conditions.

People entering a blue ice cave near Skaftafell
Björgvin Hilmarsson

When is the best time to visit Skaftafell?

The Skaftafell Nature Reserve is beautiful in all seasons. As you’ll have noticed in our list of our favourite ways to experience Skaftafell, there are certain timeframes throughout the year that are more suitable for one activity or another. Some tours are available year-round, while others outings in Skaftafell are only suitable during the summer months. Many of the longer hiking trails in Skaftafell are also only accessible during the spring and summer. They’ll be closed for your safety and to protect the delicate nature for long stretches of the year.

The months of June, July and August boast long days and the best forecasts. Though the average summer temperature rarely surpasses 20º C, and the weather can be unpredictable, the extremes won’t be as severe during the summer months, so hikes and tours are far less likely to be cancelled or postponed due to weather.

Another very big perk of visiting Skaftafell during the summer is the midnight sun. All that sunlight really brings the vegetation alive. And there’s just something particularly fun about climbing on ice and snow at the height of July!

Why book a guided tour in Iceland?

There are many benefits to taking a guided tour while in Iceland. While you can see many of the same things on a guided or DIY hike or trek, only an experienced glacier guide can safety bring you or your travel group up on top of a glacier or into the glacial caves that are off the beaten path and far from other travellers clambering to score that epic Instagram shot.

And ice climbing? That’s most definitely an activity when you’ll want an experienced guide at your side.

Another perk of booking a guided tour of Skaftafell is that it gives you the chance to not just see the amazing nature reserve, but to actually learn about it, too. Icelandic Mountain Guides’ guides are trained and knowledgeable experts on the areas they’re guiding in. They’re sure to drop some fascinating trivia along the way that you’ll regale your friends with later while forcing them to look at every single one of your vacation pictures.

Should you book in advance?

Yes! We highly recommend booking your Skaftafell tours in advance. The last thing you want it to get all the way to Iceland to find the tour of your dreams is fully booked — heck, we’d hate that for you!

If the hike or tour you're interested in is fully booked, be in touch and Icelandic Mountain Guides can suggest other options that will tick all your boxes.

Don’t want to miss out on the adventure of your dreams; secure your spot on the tour of your choice ahead of time on mountainguides.is.

Check out all our Skaftafell tours

We offer a wide selection of tours and activities from Skaftafell.

About the Author

Catharine Fulton

Catharine Fulton

Catharine is a professional writer and editor living in Reykjavík. She's a cautionary tale of the dangers of travelling to Iceland, having been seduced by the country's culture, nature and tall, bearded men (or man, singular) while trying her damndest to get home to Canada. That was more than a decade ago; she's done for.

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