When it comes to things to do in Iceland, Vatnajökull National Park should be at the very top of everyone’s list. Covering 13% of Iceland’s surface, this is the largest national park in Western Europe, and has a range of outstanding natural wonders which truly capture the interplay between fire and ice.
In this region white glaciers descend to black sands, hot streams erupt from frozen banks of ice, and the park is home to Iceland’s highest mountain, (Hvannadalshnúkur), largest glacier (Vatnajökull), and Europe’s most powerful waterfall (Dettifoss). Things to do in Vatnajökull National Park Iceland
Travelers can witness the long canyons and enormous waterfalls at Jökulsárgljúfur, Skaftafell’s high moorland and paired glaciers, the wilderness of Lónsöræfi, and the remains of Lakagígar’s catastrophic volcanic event which will occupy you for days. Attractions in Vatnajökull National Park Iceland
You can drive snowmobiles across Europe´s largest glacier, sail among icebergs, or explore black sand dunes on ATV´s. Hiking, ice-climbing, skidooing and even dog sledding are also among the adventurous activities offered within this enormous park; there is truly so much to do!
The following are the highlights of Vatnajökull National Park. Most sections of the park are completely inaccessible in winter, closed due to bad weather or lack of transportation. Plan for a trip between July and August to have more options and access to locations throughout the park.
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This is the largest glacier in Europe, and is characterized by a subglacial landscape which includes numerous broad and narrow glacial valleys and spectacular canyons. Natural attractions of Vatnajökull National Park Iceland
It covers roughly 8% of Iceland’s entire surface, and sits on a highland plateau, reaching 600-800 m altitude. It often dominates the views inland from the south west, with a dozen or more glaciers descending off it’s top.
Vatnajökull was named after subglacial lakes in a very volcanically active region in its centre. You can go ice-caving, and at least one active volcano smolders underneath. Grímsvötn is currently Iceland’s most active volcano, hidden 400m beneath the massive icecap. This volcano has the highest eruption frequency of all the volcanoes in Iceland, and when it explodes it causes significant glacial floods. How many National Parks are there in Iceland
This is the highest point in Iceland; a rocky peak protruding from Vatnajökull’s icecap at at 2,199 m (7,215 ft), and an unforgettable hike with breathtaking panoramic views stretching over the rugged outlet glaciers of Vatnajökull glacier and the vast sandy plains of the glaciated rivers which run off it.
On a clear day you can see the summit from Skaftafell; it appears as a pyramidal peak on the northwestern rim of the summit crater of the Öræfajökull volcano. National parks of Iceland National Parks
The hike is both physically and mentally challenging, so you do need considerable experience to be able to climb it, though no special technical skills are required. The route to the top is a popular climb though numerous and frequently hidden crevasses means the climb calls for experienced mountain guides. What to do in Iceland’s national parks
Lón county is home to some of the most remote and challenging hikes in Iceland. This is the most eastern area of the Vatnajokull Region, and the location of the colourful rhyolite Stafafellsfjöll mountains, also called Lónsöræfi.
The mountains dominate the skyline east of Vatnajökull glacier and are home to Iceland’s largest protected wilderness area. Hiking here is demanding as the landscape is made up of deep rugged canyons, and some trails require substantial river crossings. There are also lushly vegetated and sheltered valleys where it is possibile to spot reindeer.
Check the official website for Vatnajökull National Park for up to date trail information and ideas for different hikes. Keep in mind that the only road into the reserve is the F980, a rough track off the Ring Road that is only suitable for super-Jeeps and experienced drivers (there is a deep, fast-flowing river to cross and small 4WDs won’t cut it here). Fallastakkur does organize hiker transport to/from Lónsöræfi. Things to do in national parks in Iceland
Skaftafell National Park
Skaftafell is an older National Park which was integrated into the newly established Vatnajökull National Park in 2008.
This park, extending over 1,700 sq km of accessible highland plateau, offers superlative hiking along marked trails. Home to the “Black Falls,” do not miss Svartifoss; a strikingly beautiful waterfall framed by hexagonal granite, falling against a contrasting backdrop of pitch black basalt columns.
The largest, most powerful waterfall in Europe, Dettifoss will blow you away with its sheer volume and size. Ripping through a glacial river and plummeting into an enormous gorge, this is Iceland’s version of the Grand Canyon.
The falls are 44 meters in height, 100 meters wide, and have a flow of about 500 cubic meters per second. The ground beneath you trembles as you approach the falls, its beauty belying its tremendous power.
Directions: Travelers can view Dettifoss from both sides of the river, though most approach from the west. There are two separate roads that lead from the Ring Road to each side of the falls; from Road 1 (the Ring Road), take Road 864 to the East side (32km), or Road 862 to the West (20km). Note that these roads are not in service during the winter time, and often close during snowy periods.
Lakagígar is a 25km row of volcanic craters which erupted with a vengeance in 1783. This was the eruption that changed Iceland forever; the countryside split open and divided the country into nearly two equal halves, the tear in the earth belching fire and poisonous fumes for seven whole months.
Today you can spend days exploring the area, and have the choice between walking trails which range from 20 minutes to 2 hours long, as well as the cones and expansive lavafields which are now partly buried under a thick matting of moss and heather. Directions to Dettifoss how to get to Dettifoss
There is no accommodation on site, though mountain huts and campsites can be found along the road. Seasonal buses from Skaftafell National park run here via Kirkjubæjarklaustur and the 37 mile F206.
Ásbyrgi is an enormous horseshoe canyon with steep sides formed by cliffs up to 100 meters in height. It was most likely formed by glacial flooding from the the river Jökulsá á Fjöllum after the last Ice Age, however the Vikings believed that the canyon was formed when the norse god Óðin’s eight footed horse Sleipnir touched one of it’s hooves to the ground here.
Ásbyrgi is divided through the middle by a 25 meter high cliff which extends for more than half its length. This is called the Island or “Eyjan”, and there is a hiking trail located at the campsite which leads to the top and offers hikers spectacular views. Best national parks in Iceland
The canyon is part of the former Jökulsárgljúfur National Park. This park was integrated into the newly established Vatnajökull National Park in 2008.
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Photo credits: Vatnajökull glacier by Diana Robinson. Ice Caves by Jesús Rodríguez Fernández. Vertical Hvannadalshnúkur photographs by Mouser Williams. Horizontal Hvannadalshnúkur shot by Jesús Rodríguez Fernández. Svartifoss waterfall (also featured photo) by Clifton Beard. Close up Svartifoss waterfall by Johan Wieland. Boy exploring Lakagigar craters by Leon Dolman – photo has been cropped. Moss covered Lakagigar by Federico Moroni. Lakagigar craters by Leon Dolman – photo has been cropped.