Skaftafell National Park was designated in 1967, and the variety of vegetation, wildflowers, and butterflies shows what can happen when grazing sheep are kept out for 40 years. The park's hiking trails are mostly on the Skaftafellsheiði, a scrubby green oasis wedged between Iceland's largest glacier and its flood plains. The glacier next door makes the weather milder and more hospitable to plant life. Most visitors, however, are not leafing through their field guides but gazing at the astonishing vistas, comprising some of Iceland's most imposing and picturesque mountainscapes, as well as the glacier and the vast black desert to the south.
In 2004, park rezoning tripled its size: it now includes most of Vatnajökull as well as the Laki crater row. It is already the biggest park in Europe, but will soon expand farther north to absorb Jökulsárgljúfur National Park.
Getting There -- Visitors can park either next to the tourist information center or farther into the park, near the Bölti Guesthouse. The second parking area is a few minutes closer to most walking destinations, but you miss three nice waterfalls on the way there (Pjófafoss, Hundafoss, and Magnúsarfoss). In any case, the visitor center is essential if you don't have a trail map. It also has an exhibit on local flora and fauna, and continuous screenings of thrilling footage from the 1996 Grímsvötn eruption.
Hiking -- Skaftafell is most rewarding for those who penetrate farthest into the park. The easiest trail leads from the visitor center to the glacial tongue Skaftafellsjökull, and takes about 30 minutes each way. The glacier has retreated for several years, as witnessed by moraines marking its old borders, and you can observe how vegetation reasserts itself in the glacier's wake. Some visitors poke around on the glacier itself, but they're taking a significant risk. This walk is perfectly nice but rather misses the point of the park, since you can drive right up to several equally interesting glacial tongues east of here. [Svinafellsjökull, a stranger, spikier, less touristed version of Skaftafellsjökull, is reached by leaving the park and turning left on a signposted gravel road, just east of the entrance. You can park 300m (984 ft.) away and walk right up to it, though climbing on it is unsafe.]
An ideal 2- to 3-hour hike takes in the magnificent Svartifoss waterfall, the Sjónarsker viewpoint, and the turf-roofed Sel farmhouse, built in 1912. Svartifoss (Black Waterfall) was named for its striking formation of black basalt columns eroded from below, forming an overhang resembling a pipe organ. The Sjónarsker viewpoint is about 20 minutes past Svartifoss. The farm site known as Sel (which simply means "Hut") was originally 100m (328 ft.) farther downhill, but was relocated in the mid-19th century to escape the encroaching sands.
Skaftafell's three premier hikes are much longer but worth the effort. One ascends through Skaftafellsheiði past Skerhóll and Nyrðrihnaukur and loops back along the eastern rim of Skaftafellsheiði, with incredible views throughout. An easier if slightly less recommended hike heads northwest, sloping down off the Skaftafellsheiði into Morsárdalur (the Morsá river valley). The trail then crosses a footbridge and leads to the Bæjarstaður, Iceland's tallest stand of birch trees. From there, continue southwest along the edge of Morsárdalur, past streams descending from the Réttargil and Véstragil gorges. On the far side of Véstragil, a trail leads uphill to a small, natural geothermal pool that's not shown on the park map. It's often perfect bathing temperature -- and built for two. On the way back to the parking area, take the easier route through Morsárdalur without re-ascending Skaftafellsheiði.
The hike to Kjós through the Morsárdalur is perhaps best of all, but takes at least 10 hours round-trip. Kjós is a steep-sided river valley surrounded by magisterial, spiky peaks and exotic mineral coloring. Camping is permitted at a designated site, but only with a permit from the visitor center. Bring extra footwear for fording streams.
Organized Tours -- Icelandic Mountain Guides (tel. 587-9999; www.mountainguide.is) sets up a base camp at Skaftafell from June to August, and runs several recommended hiking and ice climbing tours on Svinafellsjökull and Vatnajökull. Another trip connects Skaftafell and Núpsstaðarskógar.
From Coast To Mountains (tel. 894-0894; www.hofsnes.com) offers a range of adventurous glacier excursions on Svinafellsjökull and Vatnajökull, including hikes, ski mountaineering, and ice climbing.
Atlantsflug (tel. 486-2406; www.atf.is; June-Sept), based at an airfield right across from the park entrance, leads unforgettable aerial tours of Skaftafell, Núpsstaðarskógar, the Laki Craters, and Landmannalaugar, with prices ranging from 9,000kr to 14,000kr ($144-$224/£72-£112) per person. At press time, their plane held three passengers, though by now they may have an eight-seater. Flights are often cancelled because of weather conditions.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.