Vatnajökull Glacier National Park is the second-largest national park in all of Europe and will almost certainly be a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the near future. Dominated by the vast Vatnajökull Glacier, the park is home to a myriad of waterfalls, volcanoes, mountains, glacier lagoons, and glacial rivers. If you want to see why Iceland is called the land of fire and ice, then Vatnajökull is the one place you need to visit!
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Vatnajökull Glacier National Park was created in 2008 when the government combined the 3,205 mi² (8,300 km²) Vatnajökull ice cap with two other national parks, Skaftafell and Jökulsárgljúfur. This created a massive 5,444 mi² (14,100 km²) national park that covers a staggering 14% of the entire country of Iceland, which makes it the second-largest national park in Europe! Within its limits, it houses some of Iceland’s most spectacular natural wonders, including glacial rivers, volcanic cliffs, and basalt columns. Game of Thrones fans may also recognize Vatnajökull Glacier, as it appeared in Season 2 of the famous HBO series.
Vatnajökull Glacier National Park covers a mammoth 14% of Iceland’s entire landmass, making it quite difficult to locate precisely. However, it extends to Ásbyrgi in the North and to the flatlands in the south. It reaches the highland lake Þórisvatn in the west and Fljótsdalshreppur Municipality to the east.
Scientists believe that Vatnajökull began to form around 2,500 years ago, thanks to changes in climate and its high elevation. Massive ice caps and glacial rivers meant that life was once always been quite abundant in the park valleys. The Skaftafell region was especially fertile, attracting shepherds and farmers at the time of Settlement. For centuries, the region kept a fairly large population until a notable volcanic eruption in 1362. This activity caused huge glacial melts that wiped out most farms in the area, which has been known as Öræfi (the wasteland), ever since. Farming continued sporadically in Vatnajökull until 1988 when the last farm officially closed. These days, it attracts nature enthusiasts and ice climbers from all over the world.
Vatnajökull Vatnajokull Glacier National Park is divided into four distinct regions:
The northern region of Vatnajökull is distinguishable by the glacial rivers of Skjálfandafljót and Jökulsá á Fjöllum that run through it. Jökulsá is especially notable for its many waterfalls. The river is also the source of Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe. In this region, you’ll also find Jökulsárgljúfur, a dramatic 394-ft (120-m) deep river canyon that is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful river canyons in the world.
The most notable features of the eastern region of Vatnajökull are the Kverkfjöll mountains, whose snowy peaks dominate the skyline. A central volcano rises between them with two calderas that sandwich and outlet glacier. This natural phenomenon creates the famous valley of Hveradalur, where you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the creepingBrúarjökull outlet glacier.
The southern region is noted for its outlet glaciers, one being the easily accessible Skálafellsjökull glacier, widely considered to be one of the best hiking places in the whole park. The region also contains Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier, responsible for creating the iconic Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach. Hidden beneath the ice cap is Öræfajökull – a notorious and massive volcano that has erupted several times throughout Iceland’s history. It is also home to the Skaftafell area, Svartifoss Waterfall, and a host of other amazing sights.
The western part of Vatnajökull is known for its subglacial volcanoes, surging glacial rivers, and black sand deserts. The region hides Grímsvötn, Iceland’s most active volcano, along with the famous Skafta river.
The sheer size of Vatnajökull Glacier National Park makes it difficult to give precise directions on how to get there. We strongly recommend asking for directions based upon the place that you’re planning to visit. That being said lots of the tours and activities that operate in the park run from Skaftafell. Directions to Skaftafell are below.
Skaftafell is situated 203 miles (327 km) from Reykjavík. The nearest town to Skaftafell is Kirkjubæjarklaustur.
If you are driving from Reykjavik, then follow the main Road 1, also known as the Ring Road, east for approximately 4 hours. It will take you straight to the Skaftafell Parking Lot.
Remember, the roads in Iceland can be dangerous in all seasons and you may need a 4x4 vehicle to complete the trip.
The weather in Vatnajökull National Park is highly erratic, thanks to the glacial conditions and sheer size of the area.
Rain is common throughout the year and temperatures largely depend on altitude. The low-lying areas beneath the snowline typically range between 50°F (10°C) and 68°F (20°C) in the summer and reach a low of around 14°F (-10°C) in the winter. At higher altitudes, it is much colder, with temperatures rarely rising above freezing in the summer and reaching lows of -22°F (-30°C) in the winter.
Most visitors to Vatnajökull Glacier National Park come during the summer when the temperatures are milder and life flourishes throughout the park. Many of the attractions in Vatnajökull National Park are best explored with a guide. A seasoned guide can ensure your safety and provide you with fascinating facts about the amazing sights you visit. This is especially true in winter, when the snow, changing weather, and lack of light promises to give even the most experienced outdoor adventurers some trouble.
There are no places to stay in the center of Vatnajökull Glacier National Park, meaning visitors will have to stick to areas along the outskirts of the park. Where exactly is right for you will depend on what you want to see and do within the park during your stay. Here is the breakdown of our favorite hotels near Vatnajökull Glacier National Park:
Vatnajökull National Park is a vast glacial wonderland offering a never-ending stream of incredible activities. From glacier hikes to ice caving tours, here are some of our favorite ways to spend time in Vatnajökull National Park:
The sheer number of glaciers in Vatnajökull Glacier National Park makes it one of the best places in the world to go on a glacier hike. The majority of the tours available in summer often combine other activities such as ice-caving or sightseeing.
Vatnajökull National Park is home to some of the most impressive ice caves in the world, offering a one-of-a-kind chance to see these majestic natural phenomena in person.
Snowmobiling is less common on Vatnajökull than on Iceland's second-largest glacier Langjökull, which makes this snowmobiling tour even more special. Get ready for an exhilarating ride in Vatnajökull National Park!