Iceland is dotted with natural wonders, and to preserve some of this beauty, three national parks have been established in recent decades: Thingvellir National Park, Snaefellsjokull National Park, and Vatnajokull National Park.

The Vatnajokull National Park:

  • covers approximately 13% of Iceland's land mass, making it not only the largest of the three Icelandic national parks but also one of the largest national parks in Europe.
  • covers approximately 5,375 mi²
  • serves to protect a variety of agricultural, geological and botanical highlights. 

The park was established in 2008 and includes the areas of the Vatnajokull glacier and the two pre-existing national parks Skaftafell and Jokulsargljufur as well as the surrounding areas. In 2019, the national park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The majority of the national park is hidden under the thick ice cover of the glacier of the same name. Nevertheless, the landscape is unique and diverse due to the interplay of volcanoes and glaciers. Here you can see the effects that the forces of rivers, glacial ice and volcanic and geothermal activity can have.

To the south of the glacier, there are high mountain ridges, which are only interrupted by imposing outlet glaciers that extend into the lowlands. Iceland's highest peak, Hvannadalshnukur, can also be found here at a height of 6923 feet. The volcano towers over the entire region, surrounded by snow and ice. In the area, there is a green oasis called Skaftafell and nearby black sand, which consists of ash from the Grimsvotn volcano that is carried to the coast by the glaciers. The country's largest glacial lakes, Jokulsarlon and Fjallsarlon, are also located in the southern national park area and can be reached via the ring road.

In the north of the national park is not only the legendary Asbyrgi Gorge but also Dettifoss, one of the most powerful waterfalls in Europe. A hiking trail through the gorge takes you from the waterfall to Asbyrgi. Another natural phenomenon is the Jokulsargljufur region with its stark contrasts. The large Holmatungur area is characterised by lush vegetation and crystal-clear rivers run through the landscape. The cliffs and scree slopes provide shelter for both fauna and flora.

The east of the national park includes parts of the central highlands. The Snaefell wilderness area is home to many reindeer and the breathtaking Lonsoeraefi landscape captivates with colourful geological formations on the inner sides of the extinct central volcano Snaefell.

The lowlands of the western area of the national park are covered in moss-covered lava fields. Much of the lava comes from the Eldgja fissure, which was formed in 930 by an eruption of the Katla volcano system. Deep in the highlands are numerous linear mountains, or more precisely, hyaloclastite ridges (a type of rock that only occurs in Iceland), which influence the direction of the glacial rivers.

If you want to learn more about the attractions, tours, and general information, you can visit one of the visitor centres. The largest centre is situated in Skaftafell. The Skaftafellsstofa Visitor Centre is open year-round, and the rangers and staff there can provide information about the national park, including hiking trails, nature, and accommodation. Additionally, there is a small souvenir shop with handmade items from the region. There are also other centres located in Skaftafell and Snaefellsstofa.

A map shows which hikes you can undertake in the national park. There is also a wide range of excursions to the national park, such as an ice cave tour or a hike across the Vatnajokull glacier.

Location & Approach

Vatnajokull National Park begins in the east of the country near Hofn and runs along the southeast coast, past Skaftafell to the height of Krikjunaejarklaustur. To the west, the border runs along the Sprendisandur border and ends in the northern part of the Odadahraun desert. In addition, the spatially separated area of the former Jokulsargljufur National Park in the north of Iceland belongs to the Vatnajokull National Park.

Coming from Reykjavik, Road 1 passes the south side of the national park. If you want to visit the glacier, you will need a local guide and it is best to book a tour.

Historical importance

There are numerous cultural remains from times gone by in various areas of the national park. The sites tell of the settlement and cultivation of the regions and of the natural and supernatural forces that people had to contend with.

The area south of the glacier is dotted with the ruins of old farming and fishing operations. Old footpaths through difficult terrain, over raging rivers and icy glaciers connect the settlements. Over time, the local people have learnt to live with the difficult living conditions caused by the harsh nature and the constantly changing glaciers.

In the highlands to the west, north and east of the glacier, there have been travel routes over the centuries, the remains of which can still be found today in the form of cairns, cableways, fords and shepherds' huts. There are also abandoned farms, old horse tracks and ancient cultural monuments in the region that bear witness to human habitation. A large part of the area was once pastureland used for sheep farming.

Geological importance

The national park can be described as a geological wonder due to its unique geological history. It offers a rare opportunity to witness the interaction of plate boundaries, mantle plumes, and plateau glaciers, resulting in a constantly changing environment that showcases the shaping of the earth in real time.

The national park is home to many of the country's most active and powerful central volcanoes, as well as some extinct volcanoes. Seven of the ten central volcanoes are hidden under the ice cap of the Vatnajokull glacier. However, this can change over time, as volcanic activity and the extensive geothermal areas are permanently melting the glacier ice. This melting can lead to glacial floods and eruptions, rupturing the ice cap and even spreading volcanic ash. These forces of nature ensure that the landscape around the glacier is constantly changing.

Flora & Fauna

The national park region has diverse geology and climate, leading to a wide variety of flora and fauna. The vegetation includes glacial plains, highland vegetation, wetlands, green oases on the edge of lava fields, moss and heathland, and birch forests. The Icelandic highlands are the driest area in the country, while the areas around the edge of the highlands to the southwest, south, and east are the wettest regions. The northern areas of the national park are sparsely vegetated lava fields, with lichens growing only in specific areas. Mosses dominate the southern national park, accounting for up to 90% of the vegetation in some places. There are green, densely vegetated oases at Herdubreidarlindir, Jokulsargljufur, and some places under the southern slopes of Vatnajokull, providing a stark contrast to the surrounding wasteland. Taller plants with scrub and flowers grow alongside the moss in these areas. South of the glacier, especially on Skaftfell, there are also tall birch forests.

Reindeer ©Icelandic Explorer - Austurbru
The region's wildlife reflects a great deal of diversity. The Snaefellsoeraefi area on the north-eastern edge of the park is home to a large number of Ruddy Shelducks, which lay their eggs and plumage there. There are also around 2000 reindeer that roam freely in the summer and spend the winter in the valley regions on the south-eastern edge. The area south of the glacier is home to a wide variety of bird species. The rivers and lakes of the national park are populated by native char and trout speciesSeals can also be spotted in the region around the Joekulsarlon glacier lagoon and, with a bit of luck, you may come across an Icelandic fox.

Sights around the National Park

Vatnajokull glacierVatnajökull glacier
At 3128 square miles, the Vatnajokull glacier covers around 8% of Iceland's land mass with a sheet of ice. This makes it the largest glacier not only in Iceland but also in the whole of Europe. Vatnajokull has over 30 outlet glaciers that flow out of the ice caps. The best-known outlet glaciers include Dyngjujokull in the north, Breidamerkurjokull in the south and Sidujokull, Skaftarjokull and Tungnaarjokull in the west.

Jokulsarlon Glacier LagoonJökulsárlón
The Joekulsarlon and Fjallsarlon glacier lagoons are two of the most popular sights in Iceland for good reason. The combination of glacier proximity, unique nature, and tourism attracts many visitors to the coastline from Kviarmyrarkambur to Hofn every year. The lagoon is located on the Vatnajokull foothills of Breidamerkurjokull and is now Iceland's largest lake. The huge icebergs floating in the glacier lagoon, which repeatedly break off from the glacier, make the lagoon so special. A boat trip across the lagoon allows you to admire the glacial lake from many different angles and offers many great photo opportunities with crystal-clear or blue pieces of ice floating by. If you're lucky, you might spot seals relaxing or sunbathing on the floating ice floes.

Skaftafell was a manor house and local meeting place in the Middle Ages. Parts of the area around Skaftafell were declared a national park in 1967 and integrated into the newly established national park in 2008. The many hiking trails through the area's extremely varied landscape make Skaftafell an excellent excursion destination. There are short and easy trails that lead to the Svartifoss waterfall and the Skaftafellsjokull glacier, as well as more challenging trails for experienced hikers heading further afield to places such as the Morsardalut valley or the country's highest peak, Hvannadalshnjukur. There are many unique outlet glaciers and rivers that characterise the area and the diverse vegetation with birch forests makes the area truly unique.

Askja Crater © Roegnvaldur Mar Helgason - Visit North IcelandAskja
Askja is a volcano in the Icelandic highlands north of the Vatnajokull glacier. The caldera is best known for its dramatic eruptions. The last eruption took place in 1961, which did not have a major impact but showed that the volcano is still active. Askja is also home to Iceland's second-deepest lake, Oskjuvatn, with a maximum depth of 722 feet. The caldera is a well-known hiking destination with mountain huts for overnight stays, although these can only be used in summer. The moon-like landscape was also used by the Apollo astronauts as a training ground.

Snaefell © AusturbruSnaefell
The "Snow Mountain" is an ancient central volcano in the eastern highlands and, at 6,014 feet, the fourth-highest mountain in Iceland. The lush vegetation is the ideal home for numerous animal and plant species. Reindeer in particular can often be found here in summer. The approx. 5-mile long hiking trail to the top of the mountain is rewarded with a fantastic view over East Iceland and you can collect a stamp at the summit as a souvenir.

Heinabergsjokull ©þorvardur ArnasonHeinaberg
The glacier tongues Skalafellsjokull, Heinabergsjokull, Flaajokull and Hoffellsjokull are the undisputed trademarks of the region. Large herds of reindeer can often be seen here between autumn and spring. Many hiking trails in this area invite you to discover and explore.

Lakagigar is a series of over 130 craters with a length of over 18 miles, which were formed during the Skaftareldar eruptions in 1783-1784. The eruptions were one of the country's worst natural disasters. It significantly affected the climate, the harvest and thus the livelihood of the people. Today, the craters are covered in moss and are a unique excursion destination.

Eldgjá & Langisjór
The volcanic fissure known as Eldgja stretches from Myrdalsjokull almost as far as Vatnajokull. It is approx. 5 miles long, 1970 ft. wide and 490 ft. deep and was formed in 939 during one of the largest volcanic eruptions in Icelandic history.

Dettifoss Waterfall ©Auðunn Nielsson - Visit North IcelandDettifoss
The Dettifoss waterfall translates as "the collapsing waterfall" and is one of the most powerful waterfalls in Europe. Every second, around 110.000 gal. of water flows over the 330 ft. wide and 150 ft. high edge into the depths below. The waterfall is fed by the glacial river Jokulsa a Fjollum, which originates from the Vatnajokull glacier.

Asbyrgi Gorge is a fascinating horseshoe-shaped rock formation in Oxarfjordur, which according to legend was created by Odin's eight-legged horse Sleipnir, who touched the ground with one of his huge hooves while riding. Icelanders agree that this gorge is the capital of hidden creatures and that elves and trolls still live there today. There is also a small visitor centre in the gorge where guests can find out more about the area.

Many excursions to Vatnajokull National Park can be booked directly with us - feel free to contact us! You can find more inspiration for great excursions and your next round trip to Iceland in our travel overview.