Hiking in Skaftafell, Vatnajokull National Park

Hiking in Skaftafell, Vatnajokull National Park

James Taylor James Taylor
31. Jul 2020 ∼ 7 min. read

There’s no other way to put it – the hiking in Skaftafell is incredible. With easy access to glaciers, wonderful geographical features, and some of the most inspiring views on earth, there’s nowhere else like it. Cradled between the icy arms of Vatnajökull glacier, trails throughout the bowl-shaped reserve explore every facet of the glacier’s power. You can hike through valleys of flat, black sand, where glacial floods push out sediment towards the coast. Others explore the wild heath of the hills, protected from the outside winds by the ice on either side. Trails that head deep into the reserve scale the mighty peaks, dwarfed in turn by the glacier itself.

For campers, spending a few days hiking in Skaftafell is immensely rewarding – visitors who stop for just a short walk before moving on miss out. For extended stays, there’s a campsite inside the reserve, and a popular spot not too far away at Svínafell as well. It’s also one of the best spots to get up and onto the glacier, which is a must-do in Iceland. But without further ado, let’s look at the best hiking trails in Skaftafell.  

1.      Svartifoss Waterfall Hike

By far the most popular trail in Skaftafell is the hike to Svartifoss. This waterfall is a picturesque sight, rushing perfectly over a cliff of black, hexagonal basalt columns. It’s from these basalt columns that the waterfall takes its name, which in English translates to Black Falls. It’s one of Iceland’s more unique waterfalls, and as such attracts a lot of first-time visitors to Skaftafell.

The trail, like all others, begins from the Skaftafell Visitor Centre. At first, it’s a steep incline, but it’s well maintained by the rangers manning the visitor’s centre. The hike to Svartifoss takes about 40 minutes, one way. If you want, it’s possible to continue to towards the Sjónarsker viewpoint nearby, and then swing by the old farm Sel on your way back to the trail. In total, the hike to all three sights would take about 2 hours (5.5km round trip).

2.      Sjónarnípa Viewpoint

The second most popular trail leads towards the Sjónarnípa viewpoint, northeast of Svartifoss waterfall. From the viewpoint, hikers are offered one of Skaftafell’s most astounding vistas: an uninterrupted view over the Skaftafellsjökull glacier tongue spilling down through the valley. Located above the glacier tongue, the viewpoint allows hikers to see all the way up the ice spill towards where it meets the glacier itself. The ice is streaked black with ash, and as it retreats year by year it reveals further lagoons underneath.

The trail to get here starts along the same path leading towards Svartifoss waterfall but turns off before you reach it. After you’ve reached the viewpoint, it heads back down towards the visitor centre by following along the edge of the cliff, trailing through a small forest. In total, it takes about 2–2.5 hours (6.4km round trip).

3.      Skaftafellsjökull Glacier

The easiest trail in the area is one that heads out towards the base of the Skaftafellsjökull glacier tongue. It’s great to see the ice up closer after seeing it from above and getting a different perspective. For the most part, it’s over relatively flat ground, paved for half of the way and then a gravel path the rest of the way. Once at the end, hikers are close to the base of the glacier tongue. Getting even closer is allowed, but always pay attention to any warning signs about what you can/cannot do. The hike will take about 1–1.5 hours (3.7km round trip).

Looking for a longer, multi-day hike? Check out the best trails in Iceland here.

4.      Kristínartindar Mountain

One of the longer hiking trails in Skaftafell is the one leading to the top of Kristínartindar mountain. The peak offers hikers an uninterrupted and incredible view over Vatnajökull. On a clear day, there’s also a view of Morsárfoss, Iceland’s tallest waterfall at around 240m. The waterfall was revealed in 2007 as Morsárjökull glacier tongue retreated over the cliffs.

To start the hike, follow the trail up to Svartifoss and the Sjónarsker viewpoint. Instead of turning back, the trail then leads upwards to the Gemludalur valley. From here, the steep trail to the top of the mountain branches off. Once you’re back down from the mountain peak, the trail continues through Gemludalur and heads back down towards the visitor centre past Sjónarnípa viewpoint. Like mentioned, the hike is a long one, taking around 7–8 hours (17.9km round trip). It’s also nice to ignore the tough mountain and continue through the valley instead.

5.      Morsárjökull Glacier

It’s also possible to get up close and personal with the Morsárjökull glacier tongue, located in the northwest of Skaftafell. Much further north than the Skaftafellsjökull glacier tongue, it takes a longer while to get here. But it’s worth it; hardly any hikers come out in this direction. It’s a fast-retreating glacier tongue, retreating to reveal jagged mountains, cliffs and more. It’s one of the more apparent areas in which you can see just how Iceland’s glaciers are disappearing.

Trails head west from the visitor’s centre towards the valley Morsárdalur, filled with black sands and glacial streams flowing towards the coast. The hiking is mostly done over tough black sand, and the trail to the glacier tongue leads up the eastern side of the valley to finish at the base of the glacier tongue. Here there’s also a glacier lagoon that has been revealed, and you can see up towards Morsárfoss waterfall as well. The return hike will take about 6–7 hours (20.9km round trip).

6.      Bæjarstaðaskógur Forest

Also located in the western valley Morsárdalur is the forest Bæjarstaðaskógur, a beautiful forest at the edge of the sand flats. One of the larger forests you can find in Iceland, it’s always a treat to find yourself underneath trees again after spending time in the country. The birch trees are up to 12m in height here, making them some of the tallest in the country. It’s a pleasant place to escape the crowds, as many visitors hiking in Skaftafell never come out this direction.

To get here, again head west from the visitor centre towards the valley Morsárdalur. As you walk up the eastern side of the valley, a path branches out across the black sands and braided rivers running towards the coast. A return trip will take between 4–5 hours (15.8km round trip).

7.      Kjós Glacial Valley

This is what hiking in Skaftafell is all about, and what a lot of people unfortunately miss. The most isolated of areas in Skaftafell, Kjós is for the serious hikers looking for a remote escape away from the crowds. Located in the far northwest of the Morsárdalur valley, Kjós is a former glacial valley that’s now free of ice and ripe for exploring. There are no marked trails to follow, so hikers are free to explore at will.

To get here, take the same route towards the forest Bæjarstaðaskógur. Continue along this side of the valley north, and you’ll eventually reach the end of the marked trails. Afterwards, it’s up to the hiker to make their own way into the valley. It’s a long, gruelling hike, taking anywhere between 8–12 hours depending on your fitness level (29.8km round trip).

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