Bordered by Öræfajökull to the east and Skeiðarárjökull to the west, Skaftafell National Park covers 1700 square kilometres of barren lowland sandurs, highland slopes brimming with wildflowers, sharp mountain ridges and, of course, glaciers. The two major sights here are Svartifoss waterfall and the icy tongue of Skaftafellsjökull, and the park is also one of Iceland’s premier hiking venues, featuring paths that offer anything from an hour’s stroll to a demanding full-day trek. Aim first for the Visitor Centre, just north off the Ringroad on Route 998, to get advice and maps.
Morsárdalur is the 10km-long, flat-bottomed glacial valley west of the Skaftafellsheiði plateau; you can get here either by following trails from Svartifoss, or along a flatter path direct from the Visitor Centre. The main target here is Bæjarstaðarskógar, a small wood of willows and birches, close to a sublime geothermal pool just big enough for two people. To extend the hike, continue up Morsárdalur and then bear west in front of little Morsárjökull glacier for Kjós, a strikingly beautiful canyon of bare, fractured boulders and sharp yellow crests.
A rewarding, 6hr trail circuits the moors atop the Skaftafellsheiði plateau. Note that cloud, rain and fog can move in quickly, and you’ll need Mál og mennings’ 1:100,000 Skaftafell map, which has a 1:50,000 detail covering the Skaftafellsheiði area.
Beginning at Svartifoss, aim for Sjónarsker, a stony 310m ridge where the upper trail to Morsárdalur diverges – it makes a good general orientation point, as you can see from the coast right up to Vatnajökull from here. Heading due north the path weaves through knee-high birch thickets, silent except for bird calls, towards Skerhóll’s steep front, and then climbs the gently sloping rear of this platform. Next comes a short ascent up to Nyrðrihnaukur, a long grassy crest from which you can spy down on Morsárdalur’s spread of crumbly grey cliffs, flat valley floor with intertwined streams, and encroaching glaciers.
By now you’re about two hours from Svartifoss, right at the foot of Kristínatindar, a scree-covered peak rising 1125m to a jagged set of pinnacles. One trail heads eastwards around its south side, but you can also follow unmarked trails over Kristínatindar itself, starting from where the main path curves into a “bowl” between the two main peaks – the ascent is nowhere near as hard as it looks, though tiring enough. You emerge onto an icy saddle, the wind suddenly tearing into your face, with the main peak on your left and the minor summit to the right. The mountain is surrounded on three sides by ice, its wedge-like spine splitting Vatnajökull’s outflow into the two glaciers which run either side of it – eastern Skaftafellsjökull is closer, a broad, white ribbon, crinkled and ribbed by the vast pressures squeezing it forward. The trail heads down towards it – you have to cast around to find the steep, indistinct track – landing you at Gláma, at the top of the sheer-sided valley filled by Skaftafellsjökull, where the trail meets the marked track around Kristínatindar. From here, you simply follow the stony cliff edge for an hour or so south to Sjónarnípa, a vantage above the glacier’s front, where the path continues along the edge back to the campsite via birch scrub at Austurbrekka.
One of Skaftafell’s shortest walks runs from the Visitor Centre to the front of Skaftafellsjökull itself, an easy thirty minutes through low scrub around the base of yellow cliffs. The woods end at a pool and stream formed from glacial meltwater, beyond which stretch ice-shattered shingle and the glacier’s 4m-high front, streaked with mud and grit and surprisingly unattractive. Look seawards to appreciate how much the glacier has retreated in recent times, leaving behind gravel hillocks known as moraines. Don’t climb onto the glacier: crevasses and general instability make this extremely dangerous.
Top image: Skaftafell glacier, Vatnajokull National Park in Iceland © Guitar photographer/Shutterstock