It’s likely you might miss Skaftafell on your way to Jökulsárlón , but we want to convince you that it’s well worth your time to make a pit stop there for a day or so. It is an impressive sight, a mountain surrounded on one hand by magnificent glaciers, and on the other by vast black sands. These sandy wastelands, created by regular flooding from the glaciers, make Skaftafell even more attractive, as it is surprisingly fertile–home to natural birch forests, many birds and arctic foxes.
Skaftafell is located at the southern edge of the Vatnajökull National Park, roughly midway between Kirkjubæjarklaustur and Höfn , only a short drive from the Ring Road . It has a large campground and visitors’ center, but farming there has been completely abandoned, mostly due to the regular flooding and volcanic eruptions.
There are several hiking routes around Skaftafell, and each has it’s own appeal. It is one of very few places in Iceland that is known for good weather, and especially so in the summer. In Skaftafell you are guaranteed to have a memorable hike, and here are some of our favorite routes:
A map of the area: Skaftafellsstofa and campground at the bottom.
Distance: 15.8 km/9.8 mi
Time: 4–5 hours
This hike takes you alongside Skaftafell, across the sands and Morsá valley, to Bæjarstaðaskógur, a natural birch forest. Although not particularly large, it is one of Iceland’s most impressive forests, as the birch there grows to be 12 meters high. It is a true oasis in the sands, and on good days an almost idyllic refuge from city life.
Walking across Morsá valley can be tiresome, as it’s mostly an endless sandy flatland, so on your way back you have the option of climbing up the side of Skaftafell all the way to Sjónarsker, a viewpoint above the campground. From there you can take a small detour to Svartifoss, or, if you’re already exhausted, just head straight back to camp.
Distance: 20.9 km/13 mi
Time: 6–7 hours
Here you follow the same path to Morsá valley, but instead of crossing it you walk up and all the way to the bottom of Morsárjökull, the glacier at the valley’s end. It’s a very long hike, and since the glacier can be seen from many of the other paths, only for the truly determined.
Morsárjökull has a towering presence, and rises almost vertically above the valley, with a small lagoon at its feet. On your way back you have the same option of climbing up to Sjónarsker before heading back.
Svartifoss and the surrounding black columnar basalt. Photo: David Barrena/Flickr
Distance: 5.5 km/3.4 mi (1.9 km/1.2 mi for Svartifoss only)
Time: 2 hours (40 minutes for Svartifoss only)
Svartifoss (Black Falls) is probably the most famous attraction at Skaftafell. This waterfall takes its name from the black basaltic rock in its background, and is easily reached from the campsite. There is a pretty steep climb at the beginning, but the path is very good and well maintained, so it should be suitable for almost all. From Svartifoss you can walk up to Sjónarsker viewpoint, before heading down again.
Panoramic view of Skaftafellsjökull from Sjónarnípa. Photo: ladigue_99/Flickr
Distance: 16.7 km/10.4 mi
Time: 5–6 hours
This hike takes you to Svartifoss and Sjónarsker, but instead of turning back at Sjónarsker you continue upwards and circle Gemludalur valley that lies through Skaftafell.
The top offers amazing views overlooking the sandy plains towards the ocean. Coming back down you will pass by Sjónarnípa, where you will get possibly the most impressive views the entire area has to offer: A precipice overlooking magnificent Skaftafell Glacier, descending like a flood from the larger Vatnajökull to the north.
Sjónarnípa can also be reached without going the whole circle, but we find this to be the most satisfying way to enjoy Skaftafell.
Other Great Hiking Areas in Iceland
In addition to Skaftafell, here are a couple of other areas in Iceland which are known for excellent hiking and trekking options:
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