Vatnajökull National Park in Iceland is the largest national park in Europe and a natural world heritage site. The park was founded on 7 June 2008 and includes the former Skaftafell and Jökulsárgljúfur National Parks. Containing 12,000 km2 the park covers about 12% of the surface of Iceland. The park is home to Iceland's highest mountain (Hvannadalshnúkur), largest glacier (Vatnajökull), and Europe's most powerful waterfall (Dettifoss).
The park lies on the west side of Vatnajökull - Europe's largest glacier. Skaftafell is the name of the hill that runs along one of the glacier fingers and between the mountains. There is a visitor center (open til 16:00) and campsite (open mid-May) with full amenities and disability access.
Skaftafell is mentioned early in the Saga of Burnt Njal (a popular Icelandic Saga). It is home to some of the best fertile land in the country and so has a long history of farming. Unfortunately, it also has a history of severe flooding, when volcanoes under the Vatnjökul glacier cause mass melting and flooding of the low lands. As a consequence, farmers abandoned their lush lowland farms and moved to higher ground.
Lowland, rivers, black sand, a very big glacier, some picturesque mountains, hills, waterfalls, quicksand, quiet brooks - what more could you ask for?
The Skaftafell is the hill where farmers settled to avoid the floods from the giant glacier. There are well established hiking paths up the hill where you can access viewpoints that look across the glaciers, several stunning waterfalls, and a mixture of fauna and bird life. The high point of the hill is around 600m and takes around two hours to reach the highest point. One of the highlights of the trek is Svartifoss (Black Falls), with stunningly beautiful black basalt columns around the falls. There is a road that goes to quite near the top allowing disabled access to the stunning views.
Flora and fauna
The Eastern side of Iceland is the leeward side getting less precipitation than the Western side. Consequentially, this sea-level area is part of the low desert in Iceland, the high desert being represented by the area East of Mývatn.
Skaftafell information center is open everyday all year round, from at least 10:00-16:00 (longer in summer). Free toilets, expensive shop, very expensive Internet (including Wi-Fi), about 1000 kr/hour.
The staff may not always be aware of the current state of the tracks and paths, despite what they say.
Fees and permits
Free entrance to the park.
- 1 Dettifoss. Europe's largest waterfall
- 2 Ásbyrgi. A very unusual, and very large, cliff formation 60km east of Húsavík, said to be the hoofmark of Odin's horse. Within Vatnajökull National Park.
- 3 Jökulsárgljúfur. Further inland, along the glacial river that once shaped Ásbyrgi are the canyons through which the mighty river still flows. Among the sights in the area is Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Iceland. Previously a national park of their own, Jökulsárgljúfur are today a part of the Vatnajökull National Park.
- Ice caves and tunnels
- January-March, find a guide to ski Hvannadalshnúkur.
- Hike up the hill and see all the waterfalls and great views.
- Glacier Guides. Offers tours, ice walks and ice climbing around Skaftafell
- Bergmenn Mountain Guides. Iceland's only certified mountain guides, offering guided ascents within Vatnajokull National Park.
- Adventure tours on Vatnajokull (Vatnajokull.com). Organized skidoo tours, snowmobile, superjeep safari, ice-climbing, trekking and sailing between the icebergs in Jökulsárlón.
- Icelandic Mountain Guides, ☏ . Have offered easy glacier tours and ice climbing from Skaftafell since 1994 as well as guided hikes to Hvannadalshnúkur, Iceland's highest peak.
There is a small road side service station around 5km East of the park, opposite the Skaftafell Hotel. The food is good and reasonably priced, but the choice is limited. There is also a mini supermarket within the service station, where you can buy many things from tea to soap at high prices.
Fosshotel Nupar has a restaurant open for lunch and dinner. À-la-carte dishes and group menu are offered. There is also a bar.
- Hostel Hvoll. The closest hostel, located about 40 km to the west, on the Ring Road. Add another 4 km on a bad gravel road. Reasonably cheap, but really isolated (and no Internet at all!)
- 1 Fosshotel Nupar, Freysnesi, 785 Oraefum, ☏ . Hotel offers rooms with private facilities: single, double and superior with views of the glacier and Hvannadalshnjukur. Restaurant open for lunch and dinner. Wi-Fi internet access in all the building.
- 2 Fosshotel Vatnajökull, Lindarbakki, 781 Hofn, ☏ . Hotel with panoramic view of the glacier Vatnajokull. MNRooms with private facilities, internet access in the lobby, bar, TV lounge. Open May - September. From €239.
Several huts are in the area. All of the huts have cooking facilities and an bathroom. Some huts have showers. Camping facilities are available nearby.
- 3 Dreki. Hut run by the Akureyri touring association. 7,500 kr a night per person.
- 4 Dyngjufell. Hut run by the Akureyri touring association. 5,000 kr a night per person.
- 5 Botni. Hut run by the Akureyri touring association. 5,000 kr.
- 6 Bræðrafell. Hut run by the Akureyri touring association. 4,000 kr.
- 7 Þorsteinsskáli. Hut run by the Akureyri touring association. 6,500 kr.
- 8 Heilagsdalur. Hut run by the Icelandic touring association. 3,000 kr.
There is a large campsite which opens late May to 1st September and gets very busy during the summer months. No tents for hire.
Stick to the paths and don't venture onto the glacier without a guide - danger of death.
Note that there are few gas stations in the area. One is located a few kilometers east from the Skaftafell National Park entrance, on the Ring Road #1.