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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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Vatnajökull

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

Hvannadalshnúkur

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

Lónsöræfi

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.

Dettifoss

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

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

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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Megan is an Australian Journalist who has been travelling and blogging since 2007, with the main aim of inspiring others to embark on their own worldwide adventure. Her husband Mike is an American travel photographer, and together they have made the world their home.

Committed to bringing you the best in adventure travel from all around the globe, there is no mountain too high, and no fete too extreme! They haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on their list.

Follow their journey on Facebook, TwitterYouTube, Pinterest and Instagram.

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 WielandBoy 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.

    22 Comments

  1. Iceland appears to be on the bucket list of many travel writers at the moment, our too.

    • Hope you can get there soon Paula! It’s one of those destinations which doesn’t disappoint. Can’t wait to get back to spend more time here :)

  2. Iceland is one of the countries I want to visit – but not a short vacation, but for a longer period. Or for more trips! I have many places I want to see, and this national park is one of them – especially for its waterfalls (yes, I love waterfalls!)

    • Iceland is definitely a country which calls for a longer trip if you have the time. We spent 8 days and still felt like we needed more time!

  3. Iceland is high up our list of places we are DYING to go to! Photos look absolutely stunning and the scenery is out of this world.

    • I hope you have the chance to visit soon! The scenery is just as stunning in person!

  4. Hi Megan- This is really informative! So far, my only experience in Iceland was a stopover with Icelandic Air and a trip to the Blue Lagoon. Though it was over 10 years ago and my study abroad group was just about the only group of people there!

    Matt and I are looking at returning in 2016 and Dettifoss and Vatnajökull National Park are in our plans. After our reading this post, I’d definitely like to add Lakagígar.

    Did you do all of this in one trip? How long were you in the country for?

    • Glad you enjoyed the post Alana :) We actually didn’t make it to the Blue Lagoon while we were there – did a drive around the ring road but didn’t have enough time to take in the Lagoon too. Will hopefully also get back soon!

      We did the whole ring road in one trip, and took 7 days. Though this meant that we were only spending a couple of hours in each place, and didn’t have a great deal of time to spend at each attraction past that.

      A lot of the places like Lakagígar have some fabulous hiking trails though so if that’s something you want to do, have a good look into it and plan out how many extra days you would need to take. Though if you’ve been before and only interested in the south this time you obviously wouldn’t need to drive the whole loop and could spend more of your time focused on the attractions within the national park :)

      Have a great trip! Let us know if you have any other Q’s

  5. We were in Iceland in 2014 but didn’t get to this national park. How do you get there from either Reykjavik, Isofjodur or Akureyri? I am so sad we missed it, especially Dettifoss!

    • We chose to self drive, we picked up a cheap car rental from a company called SADCars and did our own tour. Much more enjoyable and flexible than heading out on a tour, and it gives you time to stop along the way whenever you like because there are so many pull offs with spectacular scenery too :)

  6. You had me at ice-caving! I’m hoping to get to Iceland in 2016 and this National Park is on the list. I would also love to do the Hvannadalshnúkur hike, just not sure I’m experienced enough. Definitely something to work for, though! Thanks for the tips and completely exciting my wanderlust!

    • The Hvannadalshnúkur hike is definitely a challenging one, though as you said, something to work for! I hope you have an amazing trip in 2016 and manage to organize some ice climbing into your itinerary too :)

  7. You reminded me some of my best memories from Iceland! I visited it a few years ago, but it’s still one of my favourite destinations (together with Patagonia, Falklands and New Zealand). Actually, I think about going there next year, this time with my husband. :)

    • One of my favorite destinations too! I hope you do have the chance to get back next year – maybe we’ll bump into you on a return trip also :D!

  8. Iceland is amazing!

    I’ve been to a few of these places already. Hard to pick a favourite. For my trip next year’s trip to Iceland, I’m not revisiting this area, but already thinking to go back there to go to Laki and other highland places.

    • Isn’t it! Everyone I meet who’s been there (us included) always seems to have left with vow to someday return! It’s one of those magical places that never leaves you :)

  9. A million times yes, I’m dying to visit Iceland and I’m hoping 2016 will finally be the year when I go there. The Skaftafell National Park is on my wish list, but really, everything in this country looks so beautiful!

    • Everything in the country really is just so beautiful! You literally can’t go wrong no matter where you go. Though Skaftafell National Park really is a remarkable location, and make sure you don’t miss a trip to see the falls :)

  10. Iceland is calling me now! Such a beautiful nature.. oh the ice caving activity looks a great adventure added to my list.

    • I hope you have the chance to visit soon :)

  11. Iceland just keeps coming back. It is like THE destination to go to. A friend of mine was just telling me it is on his top list for 2016 and I was wondering if it is better to go in the summer or winter but this area would justify a summer visit if only to make sure it is accessible. What stunning and unreal landscapes. I bet that no matter how many times I see the photos of it, real life will surpass that

    • It’s gaining quite a lot of notoriety at the moment! I’m telling people to plan their trip before mass tourism hits and it becomes more expensive to go.

      Winter is no doubt a magical time to visit, though you do have much more access to the rest of the country in summer. And there’s the midnight sun which means you can truly make the most out of each day. I like summer better personally, though in winter you do have the northern lights!

      And you’re 100% right – the pictures are stunning but they by no means do the actual landscapes justice … it’s something different completely to be standing there witnessing it first hand!

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