A Guide to the Skaftafell Nature Reserve in Iceland

Nestled in the sprawling Vatnajökull National Park is the ever-popular Skaftafell Nature Reserve. As a must-see destination, it boasts an incredibly diverse landscape, lying under Iceland’s highest peak- the Öræfajökull volcano. You can expect to see various natural attractions on your travels, such as the famous Svartifoss waterfall. In summer, it is home to a green oasis of arctic birch, where good weather conditions are common, even as the rain falls. These trees are a welcome contrast to the black sand beaches and glacial peaks in the area.

Gréta S. Guðjónsdóttir

What glaciers are in the Skaftafell Nature Reserve?

Vatnajökull. Rather than being in the nature reserve, Vatnajökull, in fact, surrounds  Skaftafell and more. As one of the largest ice caps in Europe, there are numerous ice fields, ice caves and lagoons in the area. It is also the home of Hvannadalshnúkur, Iceland’s highest and most impressive peak.

Falljökull. Falljökull is an outlet glacier of Vatnajökull. Meaning ‘the falling glacier’, it is made up of steep, staggering icefall.. This is one of the most unique glacial landscapes in Iceland, where jagged ice fields and sloping ice walls are scattered across the area.

Svínafellsjökull. Svínafellsjökull has traditionally been one of the most popular glaciers in Iceland for adventurers, and is an outlet glacier of the larger, Vatnajökull glacier. Unfortunately, due to potential rock fall, it can no longer be used for tours due to the risk of danger.

Skaftafellsjökull. As one of the smaller glaciers in Skaftafell Nature Reserve, Skaftafellsjökull showcases some of the area’s most beautiful sights in a tour as short as one hour. There are both steely sea views to the south and glacial inland views to the north.

Things to do in Skaftafell

Glacier Hike. There is one activity everyone must do when they are in Skaftafell: glacier hiking. As the best way to experience Skaftafell, you will see ice fields and rugged ice walls. With tours to suit all levels, everyone will enjoy being guided through this icy wonderland.

Ice Cave tour. In winter, there are various ice caves tours close to Skaftafell, on smaller, outlet glaciers. Every year, the best caves and accessibility differ. They are created from meltwater, blue ice and clear ice, and you can find more spectacular caves by the glacier lagoon. For a unique tour, visit the Katla Secret Ice Cave near Sólheimajökull and Vík.

Hiking. Hikes in Skaftafell are an excellent way to take in the summer landscape. Conditions are favourable here, and you can attempt various routes. The 21km Morsárjökull hike gives glimpses of the glacier towering over the Morsá Valley.

Waterfalls. Most waterfalls can be seen on hiking excursions, such as Svartifoss. Its name means ‘the black waterfall’, thanks to its lava columns. To get there, you must pass through a thick birch forest.

Camping. If you’d like to get up close and personal with Skaftafell, you can camp there on both warmer evenings and biting winter ones.

Gréta S. Guðjónsdóttir

What to wear on a glacier hike in Skaftafell


There are a few essential items you should pack to prepare for the temperamental Icelandic weather conditions all year round:

A waterproof jacket. It rains a lot in Iceland.. This means your jacket should not only be light, but also waterproof.

Hiking boots. Aside from your warmest boots, you will need a sturdy pair of hiking boots for when you go on glacier walks and countryside hikes. Ideally, go for waterproof styles like GORE-TEX, which are ideal for use with crampons

Layers. Iceland is always a lot warmer than people think it is. You will need to layer up with some thermal items, which assure you stay toasty in winter, but are also easy to peel off and pack away whenever you need.

Comfortable pants. You are likely to be spending lots of your time in the great outdoors in Iceland, meaning comfortable pants are a must. Stay away from rigid, heavy jeans, and stick to flexible, breathable pants. It is a good idea to pack rain-proof pants to prepare for the changes in weather.

Accomodations in Skaftafell

Camping has always been a popular lodging option for people wishing to reconnect with the natural world and in Skaftafell you find a large campground with all amenities.
A couple of hotels are in the area, Hotel Skaftafell and the 4* Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon.

Between Skaftafell and the towns of Kirkjubæjarklaustur to the west and Höfn to the east, there are some guesthouses, hotels and hostels. One is the Fosshotel Núpar west of Skaftafell, and Vesturhús is a basic hostel on the east side.

 Höfn is around 2 hours away from Skaftafell, and Kirkjubæjarklaustur only about an hour. They offer anything from basic lodging to luxury rooms all year round.

Top attractions near Skaftafell

Höfn. A stunningly charming fishing town, Höfn sits on the edges of Vatnajökull National Park, overlooking the silvery southern sea. People visit this town to get a taste of Icelandic living, where they can experience the best of coastal views and the nearby glacial landscape.

Jökusárlón. There are lagoons all over Iceland, but none quite like Jökusárlón. This impossibly serene location is now part of the national park and is home to smiling seals in the winter, and floating chunks of ice throughout the year.

Diamond Beach. The ice chunks from Jökusárlón don’t stay in the lagoon for long. Eventually, they wind up on the nearby black sand to form the mesmerising Diamond Beach.

What waterfalls are in Skaftafell?

Svartifoss.

The sheer size of Skaftafell means there are a number of waterfalls scattered throughout the area, but the most famous is Svartifoss. Otherwise known as The Black Falls, this lava-defined waterfall is surrounded by black sand.

Hundafoss.

It is almost impossible to miss Hundafoss, as you will see it on the way to Svartifoss. Smaller but equally as beautiful, make sure you take time to indulge in the scenery.

Morsárfoss.

As the highest waterfall in Iceland, Morsárfoss stretches to 228m. Located in the Morsárjökull glacier, it was only discovered in 2007, but has become an important part of the Icelandic landscape.

How to get to Skaftafell from Reykjavik?

The drive to Skaftafell from Reykjavik is a manageable and scenic 4 hours to 4 hours and 30 minutes, spanning about 326km. The journey is simple and non-stop, as you follow Route 1 south-east of the capital, turning off when you see signs for Skaftafell Nature Reserve. Along the way, you will see some of Iceland’s other natural wonders, such as the black sand beaches of Vík and Reynisfjara, and the flowing waterfalls of Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss.

Skaftafell Visitor Centre information

If you have any more questions about outdoor activities, trails and lodging when you arrive, you can get all the information you need at the Skaftafell Visitor Centre. Opening hours (as of 2019) are:

·       January- February: 10am-6pm

·       March-May: 9am-6pm

·       June-August: 8am-7pm

·       September-October: 9am-6pm

·       November-December: 10am-6pm