Skaftafell Park was its own national park until 2008 when it was integrated with the new Vatnajökull National Park and its 8500 km² of wilderness. This particular gem is not to be missed if you stay in South Iceland.
Skaftafell one of the most beautiful parks in Iceland with a rich and fascinating diversity of landscapes with absolutely breathtaking vistas. Glaciers, birch forests, peaks, outwash plains known locally as sandur, and waterfalls... Skaftafell has it all.
Skaftafell Park is part of the huge Vatnajökull National Park, established in 2008 and registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 2019. This is the largest national park in Europe with a surface area of 14,141 km², that is to say 13% of Iceland!
Sjonarnipa viewpoint in Skaftafell - Skaftafellsjökull glacial tongue
Skaftafell began as a major farming operation, the ruins still visible near Eystragil. The farm buildings were relocated just down the road, about 100 meters away in the 1830s and 1850s. A farm was since built in Sel, where, previously, there was only a sheepfold, and while the farm is no longer inhabited or operated at all, tours are possible (about an hour and a half on foot).
Located south of Vatnajökull, Skaftafell Park's famous Skaftafellsjökull glacier is one of the main attractions. It is surrounded by major glacial landscape features: Skeiðarárjökull (the largest glacial valley in Europe) to the west, Morsárjökull to the north, Skaftafellsjökull to the east, Svinafellsjökull to the south, and finally the impressive glacier known as Öræfajökull.
Skaftafell is actually protected from the worst of Iceland's weather by the glaciers themselves, making it the sunniest region in the south of the island with a fairly mild climate. The park covers more than 1700 km² of which a mind-boggling 87% is covered in actual glaciers. On Öræfajökull, the Hvannadalshnjúkur volcano is actually the highest point in the country with its 2,119m.
Of course, Skaftafell is well known for the beautiful Svartifoss waterfall, located right in the middle of the park and can be reached via a pleasant hiking trail.
Just as if not more impressive than Svartifoss, in 2011, the highest waterfall in Iceland was discovered in the Skaftafell Park: Morsárfoss plunges 227 m as the waters of the Morsárjökull glacier and its Morsár river rush over the lip.
The park also includes the Baejarstadaskogur forest, one of the major forests in the country boasting a wide variety of tree and shrub, including birch, willow, and mountain ash.
A rich population of birds occupy the park thanks to this rather rare vegetation in Iceland. Expect to see thrushes, starlings, snow buntings and other swamp snipes in the park, for example. There are also numerous Arctic foxes in Skaftafell.
Skaftafellsjökull - Photo credit: jarcosa @fotolia
Next to the car park in Skaftafell you'll find a very popular campsite (for tents, campers, and caravans), a service station, and last but not least the information center where you can buy a map of the park, very useful for the many trails that crisscross the park.
There is also a souvenir shop as well as a cafeteria that offers soups, sandwiches, coffee, cookies, and more...
The Skaftafell campsite has an excellent reputation and can accommodate a huge number of visitors to pitch their tents (see image above). Specifically, the campsite can accommodate around 400 tents.
Regarding camping, you should know that it is forbidden to camp or sleep in a camper or caravan outside the campgrounds reserved for this purpose unless you have a special authorization from the park ranger (which is unlikely).
Aside camping... well there's not much. There are strangely few accommodations in this region and you may struggle to find a guesthouse that is not a long drive away.
The only ones availble are quickly booked out, as is the case for hotels and camping. Many tourists end up spending the night a little further away in Kirkjubaejarklaustur or even Höfn.
But if you can book early, here are a few well-known hotels close to Skaftafell:
Skaftafell is very easy to get to, the park being located along Road number 1 between Höfn and Kirkjubaejarklaustur. The park is very well indicated and can be seen from the road, you simply have to exit onto Road 998 and continue 1 or 2 km to reach the parking lot.
From Reykjavík, it takes approximately 4 hours to drive 325 km. As Road number 1 is well maintained in winter and the south coast is relatively free of snow, you can get there all year round (subject to weather conditions, of course).
While the bus ride is a bit long between Reykjavík and Skaftafell (just over 4 hours...), it's a great option if you don't have a rental.
Two bus companies will get you to Skaftafell:
The Salt Farm in Skaftafell in October
The park is open all year round but as you can imagine, the ideal period for hiking is the summer from May to September.
Skaftafell summers make it a land of rich contrast, with abundant flora, but there are some advantages to going there outside of summer.
After September the torrent of tourists reduces to a trickle and the park remains a joy to explore, so rest assured Skaftafell in winter has a lot of charm.
Keep in mind that some excursions (see the end of the article for more details), such as visits to the famous Skaftafell Ice Caves, are only possible during the winter period between October and March.
Hiking trails in the park are almost too many to count, so we recommend you obtain a map of Skaftafell at the information center with all the main hiking trails indicated, all of which start from the car park. These paths crisscross the park in every which way, so you can wander to your heart's content.
From 1-hour strolls to 12-hour marathon trails, everyone can find something in their weight class!
Official hikes are named with a letter (M, S) and a number (from 1 to 6), the best known being the S2, S3, S4, and S6 trails.
Among the possible walks in the park, the most popular will take you to the Svartifoss waterfall (S2). This 20-meter high fall is known for the magnificent basalt organs standing tall around it. A few kilometers away, further west, is Sjonarsker which features a promontory with an orientation table where you can follow the cardinal points to choose your path while admiring the stunning view from this high point in the park.
For details on the most well-known hikes in the park, check out our dedicated articles:
To the east of the park, a 1-hour trail will take you to Skaftafellsjökull, a magnificent glacier. Continuing east you can reach Kristinartindar (S4), two peaks that dominate Skaftafell Park. It takes one day to complete this walk and conquer these mountains.
West of the park lies Baejarstadaskogur, a small birch forest where stand the tallest trees in Iceland, a place of abundant vegetation where you can even find mountain ash trees, if you can handle the 5h30 to 6h hike.
Near the old farm road lie several beautiful waterfalls that are well worth a visit: Hundafoss (dog waterfall) or Magnusarfoss and Þjofafoss. North of the park, after 6 or 7 hours on foot, you can reach the Morsadalur site with its endless banks of volcanic sand that are quite simply out of this world.
Farther away is the ice tongue of Morsarjökull which runs over a steep cliff. And the bravest among you (or those who have the most time), we recommend a trek to the Kjos region where majestic mountains rise around you in fantastical colours (10 to 12h walk).
Whatever hike you choose, the views are truly exceptional, in particular the Skeiðarársandur, a 56mk sandur in Iceland (outwash plain formed by the melting of a glacier) which would be the largest in the world. Beyond lie 1000 km² of black sand which continues to expand every year.
Skaftafell Park is clearly an unmissable experience when visiting Iceland, so if you are on the south coast, don't hesitate.
In addition to the hikes in the park, a number of guided tours and excursions can be enjoyed in winter and summer. Local companies offer a flight over the largest Sandur in the world, or a visit to a local ice cave (winter only), and even a glacier hike.
Here are a few excursions you can enjoy in Skaftafell Park: