Written by Vignir. Edited by Alondra Silva Munoz.
Skaftafell and its surrounding area has been gaining popularity over the past few years. Due to its stunning nature and otherworldly scenery, Vatnajökull and its outlet glaciers have been used for shooting many movies and TV Shows and have even earned the name of the ‘Hollywood Glacier’. Skaftafell is a beautiful area and Vatnajokull is a national park for a good reason. It has been nominated to be included in the World Heritage List of UNESCO, so it is our duty to protect it to be able to enjoy it for the next decades. In this comprehensive guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know about Skaftafell area and Vatnajökull National Park from your favorite local adventure experts, Tröll Expeditions.
Where is Skaftafell and what is it?
Skaftafell is located on south-east coast of Iceland, some 300 km east from Reykjavík by Route 1 and 136 km west of Höfn in Hornarfjörður. It′s also close to the well-known glacier lagoon Jökulsárlón, but from Route 1 there are only 2 km to Skaftafell Visitor Center. Skaftafell is known for its natural beauty where travelers can enjoy hikes in forested areas and visit impressive waterfalls along with its close proximity to Vatnajökull, Iceland′s biggest glacier and in fact Europe′s biggest glacier. Nowadays Skaftafell is part of the national park that takes its name from Vatnajökull. Skaftafell is also a popular spot for travelers visiting the glacier and do a glacier hike from there.
The Vatnajökull National Park is an extensive park that covers the Skaftafell area, the glacier Skeiðarárjökull which forms part of Vatnajökull and other parts of Vatnajökull. Skaftafell is therefore the main center for visiting the glacier and for hiking trails close by, where travelers can see breath taking views of the glacier and its surroundings. I had not been on a glacier before so when I got the chance to visit Skaftafell, I booked a tour with the Trolls to get to know the glacier.
2. How to get to Skaftafell and Vatnajökull area
Getting to Skaftafell is easy because you can drive there from Reykjavík in your own car or in a rental car which would take a bit over four hours driving. It is also possible to take the public transport bus there but then the journey would take around 6-7 hours with line 51 from Mjódd. More information on the bus system can be found here (bus.is). If you are going the whole Route 1, then you can also reach Skaftafell from the North. From Akureyri the driving takes 7 ½ hours so we recommend stopping on the way in one of the beautiful towns in the North East of Iceland or at the lake Mývatn.
I took my own car since I live in Iceland and planned to stay one night near Skaftafell, so I booked a room at Hotel Skaftafell beforehand. If you are driving, you can see the road from above in this picture, just turn left 😉
3. Services and accommodation in Skaftafell
During the summer there is cafeteria operated in Skaftafell which offers hot soups, sandwiches, cakes and coffee, along with some dairy products, bread, biscuits and fruits. The nearest super market is located in Kirkjubæjarklaustur (called Klaustur for short) which is 70 km west of Skaftafell or to the east in Höfn, some 140 km away, so make sure you have done most of your shopping in these towns before heading to Skaftafell and Jökulsárlón.
If you forget you can always visit the restaurant in Freysnes, which is only 5 km away from Skaftafell.
4. What to do in Skaftafell
4.1. Glacier activities
When you have arrived in Skaftafell the fun can begin, if you are interested in visiting the glacier I recommend you look at the fun tours the Trolls offer. You can take the 3-hour tour (click HERE) to get to know the glacier with the Trolls.
However, if you are interested in something longer, but not overly challenging, especially if you have some experience going hiking. A good idea for those more adventurous is to check the 5-hour glacier hiking and gets you to explore way higher up on the glacier (click HERE).
Obviously, Global Warming is having a big impact in Icelandic glaciers, but glaciers are still there! So, no worries! It’s always nice to try something completely different like an ice climbing and hiking tour (click HERE) in the summer.
In the winter though, the most popular activity is ice caving. Every winter season there are blue ice caves appearing on the different outlet glaciers. Next time you go, check out the Blue Ice Cave with the Trolls (click HERE) and revisit the glacier and one of the rarest natural phenomenon.
4.1. Flying tours
Those feeling extra adventurous should check out FLYING over the glacier! Atlantsflug/Flightseeing offers flightseeing tours around Iceland and have been flying over Skaftafell all the way since 1995. The tours are done by either fixed wing aircraft or helicopter, and every passenger gets a window seat view of the stunning landcapes.
Go by fixed wing over Grímsvötn on Vatnajökull glacier and all the way to Landmannalaugar (click here) or explore the glacier lagoons of the National Park and land by helicopter to stand and walk where once was a massive glacial lagoon at Grænalón (click here).
Once in Skaftafell you can go on the glacier, take a boat ride on the lagoon or just enjoy Skaftafell national park. By flying there you get unique view of the magnificent landscape of Iceland that very few people get to see. On the flight you will see Reykjavík, Þingvellir, the glacier Mýrdalsjökull, Skaftafell and Vatnajökull, all with a birds view. This is truly something to try once in your life!
5. Vatnajökull Glacier
I got to Skaftafell and parked and immediately located the hut of the Trolls. I let them know I was here and ready for my glacial adventure. Immediately I was greeted by a friendly Glacier Troll that introduced itself and then showed the safety gear we would be using, a helmet, a harness, an ice axe and showed me how to put on the crampons which I would be needing on the glacier. Then I waited while other fellow travelers were getting ready and I enjoyed some complimentary hot cocoa with the other Trolls. I brought my own hiking boots, but you can also rent them from the Trolls if you didn′t bring your own or are not experienced with hiking.
Then we got on the Troll bus that took us to the edge of the Vatnajökull glacier. I liked that the Troll bus really looked like it was made for Trolls, with huge tires and cool retro look in the seating. It looked like something from a movie and the Trolls probably had acquired it from the Army surplus sale or from someone that sold huge Troll-buses. Excitement was also in the air since we were getting closer to the Vatnajökull glacier with our Troll guides. They also told us a bit about the glacier, its age and how long people have been hiking on it and researching. That was even surprising to me as an Icelander since I didn′t know all this history connected to the glacier, but actually Skaftafell and the region Öræfi used to be quite isolated and hard to reach by foot or by horses since the region was cut off by massive glacial river to the west and to the east.
Then our Troll bus arrived at its destination, then we went with your Glacier Trolls walking for some 15 minutes to the roots of glacier. There we put on our crampons and practiced walking the ice using the crampons and our ice-axe. What I really liked about was that we took our time to get to know the glacier gear and we didn′t start hiking on the glacier until everybody was ready. But the wait was worth it, because we hadn′t hiked very far when we saw some amazing glacial formations. This was in the summer so some parts of the Vatnajökull glacier were melting and due to effects of Global Warming the melting of the glacier is stronger then ever and Iceland′s glaciers are getting smaller every year. Our Troll guides told us about this sad fact when we observed a beautiful small glacier river that was flowing through the glacier. The flow had forged a hole into the ice where the water was flowing.
We went even higher up and caught a great view of the Vatnajökull glacier, Skaftafell and its surroundings, all to the south coast and the ocean to the south. I took a lot a of pictures during our hike up and it was not difficult at all. I had expected it to be more challenging so next time I′m determined to be more adventurous and spend more time on the glacier. Three hours also seems like a long time but when it was time to turn back and get down off the glacier I realized our time had been flying by. It was other worldly and interesting to be on the glacier so it′s hard to describe it. It′s definitely something I will try again soon.
When we got back down from the glacier we could remove the crampons and I had to get used to walking normally in hiking boots which was a funny feeling. Then I got a ride with the Troll bus back to Skaftafell. I was a bit tired after the glacier hike and luckily, I had booked accommodation in Hotel Skaftafell so I drove there to relax and to get something to eat.
6. What is Jökulsárlón “the glacier lagoon”
The day after I had planned to explore Skaftafell a bit more, visit the waterfall Svartifoss (the “black waterfall”) and then go to the glacier lagoon Jökulsárlón. I started my walk to Svartifoss and found it without difficulty since the walking routes are extremely well marked in Skaftafell. Svartifoss was also impressive since it flows between huge black basalt columns and it is very different to other waterfalls in Iceland. Being there in summer time also added to my experience but since the region has so many trees the climate there is hotter and so Icelandic as most parts of the country. It almost felt like I was not in Iceland anymore.
In the summertime, there are kayak tours available where you get the change to paddle between icebergs. This is a truly special activity and if you are lucky enough you might even be able to get close to a seal, all of it while you are admiring the beauty of the one and only glacier lagoon, Jökulsárlón.
That changed when I started to head to the glacier lagoon Jökulsárlón because the weather started to chance and become gloomier. I have been to Jökulsárlón before so it doesn′t worry me, and I know it is going to be great. I arrived there and took a walk around the lagoon, it′s also possible to take boat ride on the glacier lagoon, which I did. It was great, but still the high-point of the trip was my hike on the glacier. Next time I will definitely want to add the experience of visiting Crystal Blue Ice Cave (click HERE) along with visiting the glacier again.
7. How to stay safe in Skaftafell and on the Vatnajökull glacier
First of all, I also felt very safe with the Troll guides on the glacier, they really knew what they were doing since they are Glacier Trolls that go up there every day and know the conditions like the back of their hand. Going alone, without proper gear or experience was also never a thought that occurred to me and I would strongly recommend against it. It is recommended to always go with a certified guide and people tried going on their own have gotten lost and need, or worst yet died on the glacier. Other than that, it is hard quite hard to get lost around Skaftafell since everything within the Vatnajökull National Park is well marked and several maps show the hiking trails. For longer hikes I would make sure someone knows where I’m going. For general travelling in Iceland I also recommend checking safetravel.is for weather alerts and information on road conditions, that is the best way to stay safe in Iceland!