The southern section of Vatnajökull National Park is called Skaftafell Nature Reserve, a wild area that is on the edge of Europe’s largest glacier.
Skaftafell is surrounded by glacier tongues and glacier lakes, volcanoes, and some truly magnificent waterfalls.
From the visitor’s centre, there are a range of walks that visitors can do. Some of them are epic, day-long hikes. Others are doable in just an hour or two, and are perfect for people stopping by for the day.
Hiking trails in Skaftafell
Before taking a closer look at the easy ones, here are the main walking trails in Skaftafell Nature Reserve.
Easy walking trails
- Skaftafellsjökull (3.7km round trip, 1-1.5 hours), a flat trail that leads to a glacier lake, and a close up view of the glacier.
- Svartifoss/Sjónarsker/Sel (5.5km round trip, 2 hours), an uphill hike to one of Iceland’s most incredible waterfalls.
Long or difficult trails
- Skaftafellsheiði (16.7km round trip, 5-6 hours), a challenging trek with amazing views of Kristínartindar mountain.
- Kristínartindar (17.9km round trip, 6-8 hours), another hike with wonderful mountain views, and challenging rocky terrain.
- Sjónarnípa (6.4km round trip, 2-2.5 hours), for viewpoints of the glacier and volcanoes.
- Svartifoss and Sjónarnípa (7.4km round trip, 2.5-3 hours).
- Bæjarstaðarskógur (15.8km round trip, 4-5 hours), which passes through forestland and some interesting geothermal pools.
- Morsárjökull (20.9km round trip, 6-7 hours).
- Kjós (29.8km round trip, 8-10 hours), an incredible rocky valley.
Skaftafell for people staying one day
For those with limited time, and don’t want to do some of the epic hikes, I recommend doing two, back-to-back. The Skaftafellsjökull, to get a good look at the Vatnajökull glacier and the glacier lake, and then the Svartifoss, to see the basal column waterfall.
The walk from the visitor’s centre to the glacier outlet at Skaftafellsjökull is the easiest hike to do. A flat march through low, hardy bushes and flowering mountain plants takes around half an hour to reach the glacier lake. Small posts marked the trail, but it was impossible to get lost because the glacier is visible from miles away.
The fun part about this walk is watching the immense scale of the glacier become more and more pronounced as your approach. Cresting the final hill to the plain where the glacier melts, a huge field of black stones is met by a cool blue sliver of ice in the background.
Clambering over the last hills of volcanic stone by foot, we started to make out the individual ice blocks in the frozen cascade. Up close, the wall of ice was dirtied and veined with black volcanic mud.
And then, at the shores of the glacier pool, the glacier suddenly seemed twenty metres high and hundreds of metres across! The muddy lake, where blocks of ice calved off into the murky water, was spectacularly cold to touch. A few icebergs drifted and melted slowly in the lake. I picked up a small one.
It might have been the only remaining piece of ice from a block the size of a house. I considered the hundreds, or thousands of years it may have taken to travel from mountain top to bottom. And now it was time for this last piece to finally melt.
Next, from the visitor’s centre, we set out on a 1.5km trail to see one of the most astounding waterfalls on earth. The walk is about an hour in each direction, and you’ll want to spend some time for photos when you arrive!
It was uphill for much of the hike, through rich green shrubs, but not too difficult, especially considering the reward at the end.
Svartifoss is very elegant. The 20-metre drop ran down into a rocky enclave. Framing the waterfall were hundreds of vertical basalt columns that gave Svartifoss a very organised, geometric look. The hexagonal columns actually served as inspiration for Reykjavik’s iconic church.
Because it’s not directly accessible by road, there are minimal visitors. So if you’re lucky, you might have your own private Svartifoss!
Camping at Vatnajökull glacier
We camped that night in a field, under the shade of the glacier. In a cordoned off section of grass, hikers began to unroll their tents.
While we set up, horses stood in a nearby paddock and watched us, their luxurious hairstyles blowing in the wind. Iceland’s horses were accompanying us from time to time on our road trip, and we often saw them gallop across the highway.
They are a breed unique to the island, with a characteristically short, stocky stature, and bushy manes and tails. Sheep also bounded across the roads from time to time, scrabbling furiously with their tiny legs to bound out of the way of oncoming traffic.
Getting to Skaftafell National Park
Like many of Iceland’s tourist attractions, Skaftafell is accessible from Route 1, the country’s superb ring road.
How do you know when you’re close? Vatnajökull glacier is immense, and visible from kilometres and kilometres away. It’s a beautiful drive, like sneaking up on a colossal wbiye giant draped across the mountains.
A beautiful, remote highway
We stopped, realising there were no other cars in sight. I stood in the middle of the highway, and watched it disappear into the distance. There was just Vatnajökull, looking down on us.
All around us was a lunar landscape of black volcanic soil, and endless rocky plains which stretched from mountain to sea. Iceland is magical.