A large part of Iceland is protected within its three national parks: Snæfellsjökull, Vatnajökull, and Þingvellir. The most recent addition, Vatnajökull, was formed only in 2008. Prior to that, there were two other national parks in Iceland that were absorbed by Vatnajökull after its creation. These were Jökulsárgljúfur National Park and Skaftafell National Park. These two parks were combined, and more land added, to create the largest national park in the country today. The Skaftafell area is very popular among locals and tourists alike, with many natural wonders to behold. Let’s take a closer look.
What’s at Skaftafell?
Skaftafell nature reserve, located on Iceland’s south coast, is full of big things. Iceland’s tallest peak—Hvannadalshnjúkur—is in Skaftafell, as is its tallest waterfall—Morsárfoss. It’s also home to Skaftafellsjökull glacier, and one of the country’s best birch forests, Bæjarstaðaskógur. That’s a lot of long words, so let’s look at each of them separately.
At 2,110 meters (6,921 ft), the peak of Hvannadalshnjúkur is the highest point in Iceland. It is part of the Öræfajökull volcanic glacier, which last erupted in 1727. The peak is covered in ice year-round and is possible to ascend in one day, although only with experienced guides. The climb to the top is only undertaken in the summer months, as Iceland’s winter conditions make the route impassable. Previous climbing experience is not required but you must be in good physical shape, as the trip takes 12-15 hours. The view from the top is of course phenomenal, so bring your camera.
Skaftafell’s own glacier is a tongue of the much larger Vatnajökull glacier, but it’s still huge at 10km long. It’s possible to complete a Skaftafell glacier hike, but only with a private glacier tour company, as specialist equipment is required. Alternatively, you could just hike from Skaftafell Visitor’s Centre to the foot of the glacier, a 2.5km journey each way. Because Iceland’s glaciers are melting, glacial lagoons are forming on their edges, including one by Skaftafellsjökull. There are also ice caves near to this glacier, and some famous waterfalls, formed from glacial meltwater.
At 228 meters (748 feet) Morsárfoss is the tallest waterfall in Iceland. It was actually only discovered in 2007 after the Morsárjökull glacier receded to reveal it. There are hikes where you can view the waterfall from a distance, but getting up close is a different matter. To reach Morsárfoss you need to hike over a moving glacier, which requires a professional guide and ice climbing equipment. If you do want to see Iceland’s biggest waterfall up close, find an experienced guide who can take you there. There are other waterfalls in Skaftafell that are much more accessible, such as Svartifoss.
Svartifoss means ‘black falls’, so named because the waterfall is framed by black basalt rock columns. These columns are a wonder of nature, being formed into hexagonal shapes by the powers of Iceland’s volcanoes. You will see these columns represented in the design of Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavík- Iceland’s largest church. The waterfall is 20 meters (65 feet) high and can be reached via a marked trail from the Visitor’s Centre. The trail is a circular loop of 5.5 km (3.4 miles). This trail takes you up to the waterfall, then above it, and back down the other side.
Other Waterfalls Leading to Svartifoss
There are actually three waterfalls on the way to Svartifoss. Þjofafoss (Thieves’ Falls) is first, followed by Hundafoss (Dogs’ Falls). Lastly is Magnúsarfoss. Note that because of tree coverage, these falls are better viewed on the way back from Svartifoss. The way there will take you along the east bank, and the way back along the west bank. Keep an eye open for these falls, because although they are hard to spot, they’re well worth the effort.
This is a 22-hectare birch and rowan forest, deep in the nature reserve. Bæjarstaðaskógur can be reached via a 15.8 km (9.8 miles) hike from the Visitor’s Centre, a journey of several hours. Although fairly long, the hike is not too difficult, with few changes in altitude. The forest may look out of place, as it’s surrounded by wide stretches of flat sand and bare mountains. The trees are up to 12 meters tall and are surrounded by beautiful Icelandic wildflowers. From the forest, you will be able to see Morsárjökull in the distance if the sky is clear.
How to Get to Skaftafell from Reykjavík
Reaching Skaftafell is an easy journey. Head out of Reykjavík with your car rental in Iceland and join the ring road (Route 1) going counter-clockwise. Follow Route 1 for a few hundred kilometers until you see the turn for Route 998 on the left. This road is also known as Skaftafellsvegur and will take you to the Skaftafell parking. Overall, it’s a journey of around 4 hours, and it’s best to spend at least a full day in Skaftafell. So, you could make your way slowly to the nature reserve, stopping at the beautiful places along the south coast. Then you could stay at the Skaftafell campground overnight and start fresh the next day, and explore this wonderful area.
Where to Sleep in Skaftafell
Free camping is illegal in Iceland, and so it is only permitted to camp in designated areas. Fortunately, there is a campsite right at the edge of the Skaftafell nature reserve and it is easily accessible. If you’re just there for the day, follow Route 998 around to the right and park in the car park. If you are camping, continue straight on at the junction onto Hæðavegur road and then turn right into the campground.
Campgrounds in Skaftafell
The campground is split into eight sections with trees to separate the blocks and to provide cover. There’s room for about 400 tents and the campground never runs out of the room so there’s no need to book. That is unless you are traveling with a group and require an electricity hook-up, then you must book through here.
There is a specific area for campervans and trailers, with electricity access if necessary. There are showers, toilets and sinks in the campsite’s center, and washers and dryers near to the Visitor’s Centre. The campground is open year-round but the reception’s opening hours are dependent on the time of year. If you arrive too late to pay at the reception, you can pay the next morning. There are also two places to eat next to the campsite: Kaffiterían Skaftafelli and Glacier Goodies. If you’re looking for the guidance of which hike to choose, head to the Visitor’s Centre. There you can take a look at a Skaftafell trail map.
Stops on the Way to Skaftafell
Iceland’s south coast is widely regarded as one of its most picturesque areas. You wouldn’t want to miss out on all the great things to see as you drive to Skaftafell. About 128km (80 miles) out of the capital, along Route 1 is Seljalandsfoss, one of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls. It’s 60 metres (200 feet) tall and is one of the only waterfalls in Iceland that you can walk behind. Standing by the waterfall and facing away from it offers stunning views of the surrounding area. A popular photograph position is to walk behind the waterfall and capture both Seljalandsfoss and the landscape in the picture.
Next along the ring road is Reynisfjara beach, one of the most famous black sand beaches in the country. It’s 61km (38 miles) from Seljalandsfoss and is found next to the town of Vík. Not only is it a popular spot for bird watching, but it’s also where the famous Reynisdrangar rock formation is found. This is a series of basalt stacks out at sea and is surrounded with folktales. The most well-known story of Reynisdrangar is that it is two trolls and a ship turned to stone. Reynisfjara is 151km (94 miles) from Skaftafell.
Skaftafell in Iceland is one of the most beautiful areas of the country. It showcases many features that characterize the land of fire and ice: volcanoes, glaciers, lava rock formations, and more. Because of its inclusion in one of the three national parks, it will remain untarnished for generations to come. So, jump in your rental car and see what Skaftafell has to offer. Remember to do your part to protect it by taking nothing but photographs, and leaving nothing but footprints. Keep Skaftafell looking clean and free from excess human damage.
Samuel Hogarth, Cars Iceland.