Skaftafell Nature Preserve Travel Guide

Iceland is home to some of the world’s most iconic and captivating landscapes. Immense natural forces have forged otherworldly scenery here in the Land of Fire and Ice, leaving visitors, including Hollywood and TV producers, mesmerised.

And Skaftafell Nature Preserve, located within Vatnajökull National Park, showcases some of the most awe-inspiring terrain our island has to offer.

At Ice Guardians, we provide Iceland adventure activities in and around Vatnajökull National Park, so we know Skaftafell and its surroundings inside out. We’ve used our expertise to write this guide, providing the essential information you need to plan adventures in this one-of-a-kind place.

Scroll down to get started on our Skaftafell Travel Guide! If you think of any questions while reading, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

What is Skaftafell Nature Preserve?

Skaftafell Nature Preserve is a jewel within the greater Vatnajökull National Park which covers a staggering 5,459.9 square miles (14,141 sq km). Known for its stunning, diverse landscapes, Skaftafell is a place where fire and ice meet to create a captivating environment.

The reserve is renowned for its unique combination of rich flora, cascading waterfalls, vast black sand deserts, soaring mountains, and majestic glaciers. It is a microcosm of Iceland’s natural wonders and a haven for hikers, adventurers, photographers, and anyone seeking the awe-inspiring beauty of our country’s wilderness.

Skaftafell was still one of our country’s most remote areas until the 1970s. This was when the last glacial river at the sands of Skeiðarársandur was bridged to complete the Ring Road. But, because of its jaw-dropping beauty, Skaftafell had already been designated as a national park in 1967. It remained this way until 2008, when it became part of the larger Vatnajökull National Park.

This integration was part of a drive to protect the region’s rich natural heritage while establishing sustainable tourism practices. Skaftafell’s landscapes are a living testament to Iceland’s remarkable geological history, and we want to preserve it for future generations to enjoy as much as we do.

Where is Skaftafell Nature Preserve?

Skaftafell Nature Preserve is located in the southeastern part of Iceland, nestled between the vast glacial outwash plain of Skeiðarársandur to the west and the sweeping glacial tongues of Vatnajökull to the east.

Most people travel from west to east when visiting this part of our country, starting in Reykjavik. The capital is around 205 miles (330km) away, or a four-hour drive. But keep in mind that the south coast is home to some of Iceland’s most famous attractions, so this journey will take longer with stops included. Read our sample Iceland south coast itinerary to learn more about travelling through this area of exceptional beauty.

Skaftafell Nature Preserve lies approximately halfway between the towns of Vík and Höfn, making it a convenient stop along the Ring Road (Route 1) that encircles Iceland. The nearest village is Kirkjubæjarklaustur, about 69 kilometres (43 miles) to the west, while Höfn is the closest major town, around 136 kilometres (84 miles) to the east.

The reserve’s location makes it a perfect starting point for those wishing to delve into the wonders of Vatnajökull National Park, offering numerous trails, scenic viewpoints, and visitor facilities. Check out our Full-Day Vatnajökull Glacier Hike and Vatnajökull Hiking and Ice Climbing Tour for an insight into the kind of adventures waiting for you!

Exploring Skaftafell from West to East

As mentioned in the previous section, most visitors approach Skaftafell from the west having set out from Reykjavik on a tour of the stunning south coast — so that’s exactly what we will do here! As we take a closer look at Skaftafell’s highlights below, we will do so moving in a west-to-east direction.

There’s something for everyone to enjoy in this incredible nature preserve, from people simply seeking amazing views to intrepid, experienced hikers. Our choices reflect the diversity of activities you can find on your visit to Skaftafell!

Encounter Otherworldly Scenes at Skeiðarársandur

As you approach Skaftafell from the west, your journey takes you across the vast glacio-volcanic sand plain known as Skeiðarársandur. This expansive area covers over 1,300 sq km (502 sq mi) and is a truly jaw-dropping sight. The flat, barren landscape is defined by a vast expanse of black sand dotted with scattered rocks and patches of moss.

Skeiðarársandur sits at the foot of one of Vatnajökull’s largest outlet glaciers, Skeiðarárjökull. When volcanic eruptions occur beneath the Vatnajökull ice cap, they create massive glacial outburst floods known locally as jökulhlaups. Torrents of water carrying debris fill the glacial rivers, rushing across the sandur towards the sea. When you look out over Skeiðarársandur, you see all the material deposited by the surging water along the way.

One of the highlights of this area is the mighty Lómagnúpur, a towering mountain that rises abruptly from the flat plains. Near this imposing landmark, you’ll find a new car park that provides easy access to explore the sandur. It’s an excellent spot to take in the sheer scale of the landscape and appreciate the forces that have shaped it.

Continuing east for about 15 to 20 minutes, keep an eye out for a basic car park with picnic tables on the north side of the road. This is a prime location for uninterrupted views of the Skeiðarársandur and the surrounding wilderness. It’s easy to miss, so drive slowly and stay alert.

For a deeper understanding of the sandur and the natural processes at play, stop at the famous Skeiðara Bridge Monument, which marks the site of a bridge that was destroyed by a jökulhlaup in 1996. The information boards and twisted metal girders provide fascinating insights into the devastating power of these glacial floods and their impact on the landscape.

If you’re unsure what time of year to travel to Iceland, our blog Iceland’s Weather, Climate, and Temperature Year-Round provides the essential information you need to plan a trip that’s right for you.

Learn More About This Stunning Region at Skaftafellstófa Visitor Centre

A visit to Skaftafell wouldn’t be complete without stopping by the Skaftafellstófa Visitor Centre. This modern facility is the perfect place to begin your adventure, offering a wealth of information about the area’s natural and cultural history. The centre features newly designed outdoor exhibits that provide an interactive way to learn about the geological forces that have shaped the landscape, the unique flora and fauna of the region, and the history of human settlement here.

Inside the visitor centre, you can watch an engaging movie that highlights the stunning beauty of Skaftafell and Vatnajökull National Park. The film is a great introduction to the park’s diverse landscapes and will inspire you to explore further.

The knowledgeable staff at Skaftafellstófa are always ready to assist with any questions you may have. They can provide maps, trail information, and safety tips to ensure you have an enjoyable visit. Don’t forget to check out the small shop, where you can purchase souvenirs, guidebooks, and other essentials for your adventure.

As we move into hiking recommendations, it’s important to note that you should always check the Icelandic Met Office forecast before setting out. Never head out alone, always tell someone your planned route or leave a travel plan for free with the Icelandic Search and Rescue (https://safetravel.is/travel-plans/travel-plan/). Phone reception is notoriously inconsistent in the wilderness, so walking with a local guide is highly recommended.

Head to Mórsárdalur for an Easy, Flat Hike

For those seeking a relaxed and accessible hike, the Mórsárdalur Valley offers a wonderful opportunity to explore the natural beauty of Skaftafell without strenuous effort. This flat, remote valley is perfect for a leisurely walk or bike ride and provides a peaceful escape into nature.

Trails M1, M2, and M3 lead you through this area, with its ancient farmsteads, lush forests, and open meadows. As you wander through the valley, you’ll encounter remnants of old farms that tell the story of the region’s agricultural history.

Of the three trails, M1 is by far the easiest to navigate. It’s 15.3 kilometres (9.5 miles) in a semi-loop and takes around four to five hours to complete on average. Along the way, you will pass the ravines at Bæjarstaður and Bæjarstaðurskógur, Iceland’s tallest Birch tree forest.

One of the highlights of hiking in Mórsárdalur is the view of a remote glacier that hosts Iceland’s highest waterfall — Morsárfoss. The trail takes you close enough to appreciate the glacier’s grandeur while enjoying the tranquillity of the valley. Mórsárdalur is an ideal destination for families, casual hikers, and anyone looking to connect with nature in a serene setting.

Skaftafell’s S1 Trail is the Easiest for a Glacier Visit

If seeing a glacier up close is on your bucket list, the S1 trail is your best bet. This easy, well-marked trail is perfect for all ages and fitness levels, making it an excellent choice for families and those with limited hiking experience.

Starting next to the Skaftafellstófa Visitor Centre, the well-marked trail leads to the impressive Skaftafellsjökull glacier, a breathtaking outlet glacier of the Vatnajökull ice cap. The trail is equipped with markers that correspond to electronic information points which provide educational insights into the glacier’s formation, movement, and the surrounding ecosystem. As you walk, you’ll learn about the dynamic processes that shape these icy giants and their importance to the environment.

The trail culminates in a viewing platform that offers stunning vistas of the glacier’s terminus and the surrounding mountains. It’s a perfect spot to take photos and marvel at the natural beauty of Skaftafell. The route clocks in at 4.1km, has an elevation gain of only 80m, and takes between one hour and 90 minutes to complete.

The S1 trail is part of the Melting Glaciers project, and you can see how the glacier’s retreat has shaped the landscape here. Keep an eye out for kettle holes, glacier gardens, and how vegetation has progressed at different levels.

Looking for a Challenge? Consider the S4 Trail to Kristínartindur

For experienced hikers seeking a more challenging adventure, the S4 trail to Kristínartindur is a must. This demanding 17.9km hike offers a thrilling experience with rewarding views, but it’s important to be prepared and cautious, as the trail involves exposure on a rocky summit ridge.

The hike to Kristínartindur begins at the Skaftafellsstofa Visitor Centre with a steady ascent through diverse terrain, including lush meadows, rocky slopes, and alpine landscapes. As you climb higher, the views become increasingly spectacular, with panoramic vistas of the surrounding glaciers, mountains, and valleys. Overall, the trail has an elevation gain of 1,215m and takes around six to eight hours to complete.

The final push to the summit of Kristínartindur is the most challenging part of the hike. The rocky ridge requires careful navigation and a head for heights, but the effort is well worth it. On a clear day, the summit offers breathtaking views of two glacier icefalls and the expansive Vatnajökull ice cap.

This hike should only be attempted in good weather conditions, as poor visibility and strong winds can make the ridge dangerous. Always check the weather forecast before setting out and be prepared to turn back if conditions deteriorate.

The S6 Trail to Svartifoss and Sjónarnípais a Perfect Happy-Medium

If you’re looking for a hike that strikes a balance between challenge and accessibility, the S6 trail is an excellent choice. This route takes you to the famous Svartifoss waterfall, known for its striking basalt column formations, and then continues to a fantastic cliff viewpoint over the Skaftafellsjökull glacier.

The hike begins at the Skaftafellsstofa Visitor Centre with a moderate ascent through a birch forest, offering shade and a pleasant atmosphere. As you approach Svartifoss, the sound of cascading water grows louder, building anticipation. The sight of Svartifoss, framed by dark basalt columns, is truly mesmerising and an unmissable photo opportunity. We chose visiting these falls as one of our 10 best things to do in Skaftafell.

After enjoying the falls, the trail continues upward to Sjónarnípa, a cliff that provides stunning views over the Skaftafellsjökull glacier. From this vantage point, you can appreciate the glacier’s intricate patterns and the vast ice field beyond. The S6 trail is a rewarding hike that offers a taste of Skaftafell’s diverse landscapes without requiring advanced hiking skills.

If you’re tempted to tackle this route, it’s 7.1km long, has an elevation gain of 310m, and takes around two-and-a-half to three hours to complete. If hiking in spring or early summer, you will encounter rich birdlife in the area, so please behave with the birds’ nesting and rearing activities in mind.

Do you want to elevate your experience in Skaftafell with a glacier hike? Read our Complete Guide to a Skaftafell Glacier Hike when you have finished here.

And One to Avoid... The Hollywood Glacier, aka Svinafellsjokull

While Skaftafell offers many incredible experiences, there is one area we recommend you avoid: the Hollywood Glacier, also known as Svínafellsjökull. Located across the road from the Freysnes Gas Station, this glacier has been featured in numerous films and TV shows, including Batman Begins, Interstellar, and Game of Thrones, to name only a few.

Despite its cinematic appeal, the Hollywood Glacier can be extremely dangerous. The glacier’s surface may look accessible, but it quickly becomes a hazardous environment off the trail. Crevasses, unstable ice, and sudden changes in the terrain make it treacherous for inexperienced visitors. Even experienced hikers should only venture onto the glacier with proper equipment and a knowledgeable guide.

If you wish to admire the Hollywood Glacier, there is a signposted car park just before the gas station on the left. From here, you can take a short walk to a viewpoint that offers a safe and spectacular view of the glacier. Enjoy the scene from a distance and stay safe.

Are you planning a journey along Iceland’s east coast too? If yes, be sure to read our picks for the best things to do in Iceland’s East Fjords!

What to Pack When Hiking in Skaftafell

Whatever hike you decide to take in Skaftafell Nature Preserve, it’s important to come prepared. Below, we have listed a few essentials that you should bring with you when you go on your Skaftafell hike:

Hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen

It’s easy to think that you won’t need any of these things while hiking in Iceland, but you run the risk of sunburn if you don’t lather up and cover up!

Water
bottle

Staying hydrated is vital when hiking, so make sure you have enough water to keep you going. The longer your hike, the more water you need!

High-energy
snacks

Having some snacks like trail mix, energy bars, and fruit will help to keep your strength up along the way.

Additional
layers

It’s always a good idea to pack additional clothing in your backpack, especially a waterproof jacket and spare socks and gloves. If the weather takes a turn, you can easily adapt and stay comfortable.

For a deeper dive into the topic of packing, be sure to read our blog A Smarter Iceland Packing List + What to Wear in Iceland.

Book Your Adventure Activities in Iceland!

We hope you have found this Skaftafell Nature Preserve Travel Guide inspiring and informative! If we have sparked your wanderlust, browse our full range of Iceland adventure activities to find out more about the adventures waiting for you in and around Vatnajökull National Park with Ice Guardians.

For some pre-trip reading, we recommend our Complete Guide to Hiking in Iceland. It’s filled with tips and advice from local experts that will help any would-be hiker make the most of their time in our country.

Our team is here to help however we can, so please just get in touch with any questions you may have.

What Our Customers Say

Check out our YouTube channel

Don’t miss a thing

Get update to special deals and exclusive offers.
Sign up to our newsletter!