How to Plan Your Visit to Skaftafell National Park

travel guide , discover iceland
Svartifoss waterfall in Skaftafell
Svartifoss waterfall in Skaftafell

One of Iceland’s most iconic landscapes, no visit to the island is complete without an exploration of Skaftafell National Park. You’ll find it in southeast Iceland, around 330 km from Reykjavik. Before it was swallowed up by the larger Vatnajökull National Park, Skaftafell was a national park in its own right.

Today this nature reserve covers an area of around 4,817 km2 (2,884 square miles) - a vast area of wilderness that takes in mountains, river valleys, glaciers and waterfalls. Come and see for yourself!

Skaftafell was formed over thousands of years by recurring eruptions of Öræfajökull volcano. The flow of glacial rivers and flash floods snaked over volcanic rock and carved out numerous gorges and gullies. When Iceland was settled, attempts to tame and farm the land had little success.

The entire region was devastated by the 1362 Öræfajökull eruption and subsequent efforts to farm the land were routinely thwarted by glacial flooding and ash fall from Grímsvötn volcano to the north. Sometimes you just can’t argue with nature!

Skaftafell’s farmers finally threw in the towel in 1988. The farmers’ loss is our gain: Skaftafell today is a pristine landscape of lush green valleys, glacier outlets and lagoons, lava fields and rugged mountain peaks.

It offers some of the most diverse and scenic hiking in Iceland, whether you’re embarking on a multi-day trek or taking a saunter up to the iconic Svartifoss waterfall. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of an Arctic fox.

So, now you’re fired up to visit Skaftafell, but how to do it? One of the three base camps of Icelandic Mountain Guides is located in Skaftafell. These skilled nature experts know the area intimately and are the ultimate hub for information and activities in the national park. Hiking, glacier walking, ice climbing and cave exploration are all available. Book your Skaftafell tour well in advance to avoid disappointment.

Read on to get expert tips on planning your Skaftafell trip!

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When is the best time to visit Skaftafell?

The best time to visit Skaftafell is in summer when the weather is mild and the days are long - enabling you to trek for as many hours as you like. You can even hike under the midnight sun. Having said that, the park offers great opportunities all year-round, each season offering something different.

Winter is great for glacier hiking and ice caving. Some Skaftafell trails, however, become inaccessible in winter. While the national park and campsite are open all year, tent camping is not recommended from September to May because of challenging weather conditions.

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Before You Go: Plan your stay in Skaftafell National Park

How much time do you need in Skaftafell?

You will want to see other parts of Iceland, of course, so calculate the amount of time you can afford to give to Skaftafell. You can easily spend two to three days in the park’s reserve without getting bored, but if you have more time, there’s enough to keep you occupied for many days.

Most visitors spend here at least one full day, which allows you to book a proper glacier tour: a glacier hike, ice cave or ice climbing tour, and go for a short independent hike to see the Svartifoss waterfall or one of the highlights of the park (see the trail options further bellow).

If you are very short on time, there is a superb Skaftafell taster; the three to four-hour Glacier Walk Express tour takes you to Falljökull on IMG’s glacier bus for an easy glacier walk that showcases a wonderland of sculpted ice.

Accommodation options in the Skaftafell area

Hotels near Skaftafell

There aren’t many accommodation options in the area, even though it’s one of the most visited regions of Iceland. It’s best to book your accommodation well in advance. You can choose between contemporary hotels, more modest guesthouses and the campsite at the heart of the hiking trails. Head over to or Airbnb to select your preferred option.

Fosshótel Núpar

The elongated design of this chic, contemporary hotel means each room - from the back patio to the picture windows - takes full advantage of the wilderness outside, with dark basalt cliffs contrasting pure white glacial snow and ice.

Hotel Skaftafell

Sitting below the glacier, Hotel Skaftafell is the ideal base for exploring the national park. Service is front and centre for the hotel. It provides packed lunches, and booking tours on your behalf, and staff are happy to help with route planning.

Adventure Hótel Hof

Vatnajökull National Park is a three-minute drive away from the hotel. The accommodation is rustic with basic levels of comfort—breakfast and dinner options.

Foss Hotel Glacier Lagoon

This modern wood-clad hotel is pleasingly minimalist inside with splashes of colour. It’s 29 km from Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon and 27 km from Svartifoss Waterfall in the national park.

Skaftafell camping

Skaftafell campsite is located next to the visitor centre. With 400 pitches, just turn up and choose your spot. Showers, laundry and dish-washing facilities are located at the centre of the campsite.

Can I wild camp near Skaftafell National Park?

Wild camping with any motorised vehicle is strictly prohibited in Iceland. Tent camping outside designated campgrounds isn’t allowed in national parks or protected areas such as Skaftafell.

However, there is an exception for multi-day backpacking trips on foot, where a tent may be pitched for one night above 400m altitude. Please be respectful and set a good example by not promoting or engaging in wild camping in Iceland.

A person lying in the green moss, photographing the view over a glacier tongue from a viewpoint
Viiewpoint over a glacier in Skaftafell

What to do Before Visiting Skaftafell National Park

As Skaftafell National Park is in an isolated area, you’ll need to do some planning in advance. If you’re hiking in the wilds, be prepared for the weather closing in and dress accordingly, or, if necessary, wait for better weather. You’ll also need to ensure roads are open before setting out, particularly in winter.

Here’s what to do in preparation:

  • Stock up on supplies in town before leaving for Skaftafell.
  • Check the weather forecast, and road and trail conditions. Get an accurate local forecast from or the nine-day forecast for Skaftafell Consult for road and trail closures or diversions because of floods, deep snow, landslides and even volcanic activity. This is particularly important in winter.
  • Book tours in advance: you can cancel up to 24 hours before the event.
  • Decide on the trails or areas of the park you want to visit and plan your route accordingly. Hiking trails in the park range from easy to challenging. Choose those that match your level of fitness and experience.
  • Download an offline park map to your phone or GPS before setting out or get one from the visitor centre. It’s easy to get lost, especially if the weather closes in. Don’t depend on signposts; sometimes they are hard to detect, especially when the mists roll in. The website not only gives you information about road and trail closures, It also gives you information about the terrain and the difficulty of a hike.
  • It’s important to have travel insurance when travelling to Iceland. If you’re exploring the park, make sure your insurance covers any outdoor activities you’re participating in, including hiking.
I hiker standing on a green cliff overlooking a thrilling icefall of a glacier
Fantastic scenery in Skaftafell

Getting to Skaftafell National Park

You can drive from Reykjavik by car without any trouble but public buses are available daily throughout the summer months and a few times per week during winter. Hiring a car is an easy option from Reykjavik.

Join a two-day Icelandic Mountain Guides’ south coast tour that includes Skaftafell. Their Adventure Ground service - with a host of fantastic outdoor activities - includes transport from the capital.

Skaftafell Visitor Center

The visitor centre is open year-round with variable opening hours. Pretty much everything you need to know about the area is available from the centre - from Skaftafell’s history, geology, flora and fauna to trail information, accommodation and activities on offer.
Things to See in Skaftafell National Park

Things to See in Skaftafell National Park

A hiker’s paradise of arresting mountains, rich green valleys, lava fields, glaciers, lagoons and waterfalls, the most iconic attractions of the area are:

Svartifoss Waterfall

Fed by the meltwaters of Vatnajökull, the waterfall tumbles 20 metres over a cliff surrounded by long basalt columns akin to the organ pipes of a church. The black columns contrasting the curtain of water make this waterfall one of the most famous in Iceland.

 a waterfall surrounded by basalt columns
The beautiful Svertifoss waterfall, one of the many highlihgts of Skaftafell

Skaftafellsjökull Glacier

Skaftafellsjökull is around 10 km in length and around 2 km wide. Surrounded by jagged mountains and the glaciers Vatnajökull and Öræfajökull, walking this glacier wonderland is a thrilling experience.


A sculpted landscape of snow and ice, Svínafellsjökull is surrounded by the lunar-like landscapes of Sólheimasandur and the black sand beaches of the south coast. There are expansive views over Vatnajökull National Park, its glacier outlets, forests and mountains.

Glacier Lagoons

Visit the glacier lagoons edging Vatnajökull National Park from your Skaftafell base with their dazzling aqua-blue waters of floating icebergs. You can try kayaking at Sólheimajökull’s Glacier Lagoon or take a boat trip on Jökusárlón.

Panoramic Views

Sjónarnípa Trail and the Kristínartindar Mountain Trail offer some of the best views on the reserve.

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Things to Do in Skaftafell National Park


Hiking is one of the biggest draws to Skaftafell with its expansive network of pathways crossing pristine wilderness. From a short ramble to Svartifoss waterfall to an ascent of Iceland’s highest peak,Hvannadalshnúkur, or the panoramic views from the Sjónarnípa and Kristínartindar trails, there’s something for everyone.

Check out some of Skaftafell’s best hikes listed below. For a classic hike, book a place on the guided Núpsstaðaskógar Skaftafell tour.

Nature Observation

Apart from its striking geology and volcanic and glacial landscapes, Vatnajökull National Park, including Skaftafell is home to around 314 moss species and 287 lichen species with birch and rowan trees growing on mountain slopes.

Inside the park you can find glacier buttercup, mountain avens, angelica, and Arctic thyme. Waders and waterfowl inhabit the outwash plains, Arctic char and brown trout in the rivers and deer and Arctic foxes on the uplands.

Glacier hiking

Skaftafell is the starting point for a thrilling range of outdoor activities with Icelandic Mountain Guides. From the sales hut near Skaftafell Visitor Centre - or online - book your next adventure.

From ice climbing, ice caving and glacier walking to mountain climbing on Iceland’s highest peak, Hvannadalshnúkur, we have an adventure for you.

A happy hiker posing on the summit

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Popular Hiking trails in Skaftafell

All these hikes begin at Skaftafell Visitor Centre. Before striding out, pick up information and maps from the centre. There’s a mix of challenging all-day hikes and easy rambles. All of them include stunning viewpoints. Enjoy meandering river valleys and waterfalls in the raw beauty of the National Park.

Svartifoss Trail

From Skaftafell Campsite, the trail heads right uphill to Svartifoss, meaning the ‘Black Falls’. The signed path takes you to a viewpoint above the waterfall after 1.5 km, with a climb of around 140 metres. It’s well worth the effort: the basalt columns are broodingly dark and majestic behind the curtain of water.

From here, the trail drops down into the ravine, crosses a footbridge and climbs up the basalt column steps on the other side. From the viewpoint, at Sjónarnípa, the route returns you to the Skaftafell Visitor Centre via the old turf house at Sel and Lambhagi—an easy 5.5 km ramble.

Skaftafellsjökull Trail

The easy 3.7-km ramble combines comfortable paved and gravel surfaces, finishing near the gleaming glacier of Skaftafellsjökull.

Sjónarnípa Trail

For a more challenging hike, choose the 6.4 km hike, following the Svartifoss Trail towards Svartifoss before heading for Sjónarnípa. From Sjónarnípa, the route returns to the visitor centre via Austurbrekkur.

Kristínartindar Mountain Trail

Another challenging but rewarding hike to the top of Kristinartindar mountain with fantastic views over Vatnajökull. The 17.9km route follows the path to Svartifoss and Sjónarsker viewpoint, then heads up Gemludalur valley before branching off to ascend the mountain summit. Return along the valley to the visitor centre via the Sjónarnípa viewpoint.

Morsárdalur Valley Trail

For a satisfying and challenging full-day 20.9 km hike, the Morsárdalur Valley Trail ticks all the boxes. Follow the signed path to Morsárdalur, then the marked trail between Grjóthóll and the glacial lake below Morsárjökull. Return to Grjóthóll and continue along the Morsá river, crossing two footbridges before returning to Skaftafell Visitor Centre.

Scenic view with a glacier and mossy ridges
Scenic view in Vatnajökull National Park

Where to eat near Skaftafell Nature Reserve

  • Set in lava fields, Fosshótel Núpar offers great chews with a view. Eat in the restaurant or bar with the bonus of a Happy Hour from 4-6pm.
  • Glacier Goodies is just a mobile shack with some outdoor setting between Skaftafell campsite and the visitor centre with some outdoor benches, but it offers some delicious takeaways: lobster bisque and soup, fish and chips and spare ribs.
  • Chic but cosy, Cafe Vatnajökull is great for morning coffee, lunchtime or afternoon tea. Soup, pastries, brownies and decent coffee are all on offer.
  • The restaurant at Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon finds itself under Iceland’s highest peak of Hvannadalshnúkur at 2110m. Treat yourself to Icelandic fusion cuisine, beautifully presented.

How to Dress and What to pack for Skaftafell National Park

With the changeable weather in Iceland, dressing in breathable layers is important, including waterproof and windproof outer layers. Sturdy, ankle-supporting hiking boots are a must, and if you’re camping at Skaftafell Campground, you’ll need a good quality tent that can withstand wind and rain.

For multi-day hiking, ensure you have decent equipment, including an all-weather backpack. If you’re glacier walking with us, we’ll provide crampons and an ice axe, along with a helmet and harness if necessary. Check out our tips for what to wear on a glacier walk.

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Staying safe in Skaftafell

Winter hiking is only recommended for experienced hikers. Even in summer, always ask about the trail conditions in the visitor centre, and check the weather forecast. If the weather is unsafe, rearrange for another day if you can.

If hiking alone, download the “SafeTravel Iceland app” and submit your travel plan Inexperienced hillwalkers should hike with a guide. Glacier hiking should never be attempted alone - and never attempt to step on floating icebergs in the lagoons, even if it appears to be frozen.

How to be a responsible traveller in Iceland

  • There are some easy rules to follow when hiking in Iceland:
  • Stick to designated paths
  • Leave no trace
  • Respect wildlife
  • Book a guide if you’re glacier walking

Find out more on how to be a responsible tourist in Iceland.

A group of hikers traversing the glacier in fantastic scenery
A group of hikers traversing the glacier in fantastic scenery

At a glance - your questions answered

Where is Skaftafell National Park?

The reserve is located in southeast Iceland around 330 km from Reykjavik, and is part of the larger Vatnajökull National Park.

Is Skaftafell worth a visit?

Its pristine wilderness, jagged peaks, brooding lava fields, green valleys, waterfalls and glacial landscapes are not to be missed.

How long is the Skaftafell hike?

The Skaftafell Trail is an easy 3.7 km ramble.

How do I get to Svartifoss waterfall?

From Skaftafell Visitor Centre, the well-signed path takes you on a 1.5 km long trail to the waterfall.

Is Skaftafell free?

There’s a €5 car parking fee at the visitor centre.

Can you hike Skaftafell on your own?

Yes, the visitor centre provides information and maps, but it’s a much more enriching experience if you book an Icelandic Mountain Guide tour. The guides have a wealth of local knowledge, great stories to entertain you with and they’ll take you out on the best hikes.

What is the best trail in Skaftafell?

It depends on how long you want to hike and what you want to experience. The short hike to the magnificent Svartifoss waterfall is one not to miss along with the easy Skaftafellsjökull Trail that will bring you to the edge of the glacier. If you’d like to bag a summit, you can climb Iceland’s highest peak, Hvannadalshnúkur, or Kristínartindar.

How far is Diamond Beach from Skaftafell?

Forty-five minutes by car.

How much time to spend at Svartifoss waterfall?

You’ll need around an hour to reach it and return, but you’ll want to linger at this spectacular waterfall. Factor in another half hour or so.

How do I get to Skaftafell National Park?

Ground Adventure does pick-ups from Reykjavik. Buses from the capital link Skaftafell via Selfoss. Alternatively, book an Icelandic Mountain Guides Skaftafell tour that includes the South coast with transport from Reykjavik included.

How do you pronounce Skaftafell?

One of the easier Icelandic place names to pronounce! Sound it out ‘Skaff-ta-fetl’ with a nice Icelandic lilt.

Raring to go? For the very best experiences, explore Skaftafell National Park with Icelandic Mountain Guides. We have an adventure lined up for you, whether it’s hiking, mountain climbing, ice climbing, glacier walking, ice cave exploration or lagoon kayaking.

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Viktória Komjáti

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