Vatnajökull National Park was established in 2008 and covers almost 13% of the total surface of Iceland with a total surface of almost 14.000 square kilometers and an ice cap with more than 500 meters.
The largest national park home of the largest active volcano encompasses not only the Vatnajokull glacier but also the areas that once were once encompassed under Skaftafell National Park and Jökulsárgljúfur National Park.
Vatnajokull is considered a protected area because of its wide variety of landforms that were created by the rivers, ice, and the intense geothermal and volcanic activity from the area.
Interesting facts about Vatnajokull National Park
- this park is home to the largest glacier in Iceland and even from Europe
- the glacier was initially named Klofajökull
- the lagoon located close to the lake, Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is the deepest lake in the country
- it is believed that the glacier was born 2,500 years ago with the largest volcanic eruption recorded a few hundred years ago
- Bárðabunga is the highest mountain from the park while Hvannadalshnúkur is the highest Glacier Peak
- the glacier covers about 8% of the total surface of the country and is home to many long glaciers
Location of the national park and getting there
Vatnajökull glacier is located in southeastern and central highlands and you can access it from the Ring Road.
You can get to this protected area by rented car, public transport, or with a guided tour that usually starts from Reykjavik.
Getting to the park with a rented car
The largest glacier in Iceland is extremely easy to reach, all you have to do is to follow Route 1 and go east.
Most of the tours from Reykjavik last just for one day so you should consider renting a car if you plan to explore more of the glacier.
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Bear in mind that most car rental companies do not allow you to drive the car on the so-called F roads (unpaved roads across mountains) unless you have a 4×4.
The good news is that Skaftafell National Park is accessible from the main road so if you plan to visit the most famous part of the park you don’t need a 4×4.
From Reykjavik to the edge of the national park are about 320 kilometers (200 miles) and it will take you any time between 4 to 7 hours, depending on weather conditions.
Public transport to Vatnajökull National Park
Believe it or not, you can get to the park by public transport but you have to change the buses a couple of times.
These buses run only during summertime and their schedule might be subject to change because of COVID 19 pandemic.
Here is a combination of buses that you can take in order to get from Reykjavik to the national park:
- bus 72 from Reykjavik to Selfoss (direction Flúðir) and the ride will last for about 45 minutes
- bus 51 from Selfoss to Vik í Mýrdal and the ride will last for about 1 hour and 45 minutes
- take again bus 51 in direction Höfn í Hornafirði from Vik í Mýrdal and you will reach Skaftafell in about 2 hours.
The total cost of the transportation is around 4 USD, but it will take you more than 7 hours to reach your destination.
If you pay with cash, the drivers are not able to give you change, but fortunately, credit and debit cards are widely accepted all across the country so we strongly advise you to use them.
There is a wide range of options when speaking about guided tours from Reykjavik but the ones below have the best price-quality ratio and a plethora of attractions included:
From Reykjavik: Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon Full-Day Trip, a full day trip with multiple stops along the road and even a stunning boat cruise on Glacier Lagoon, a unique opportunity to navigate between icebergs and get to the beautiful Diamond Beach, a black sand beach famous all across the country.
From Reykjavik 2-Day South Coast Tour with Blue Ice Cave, this is an incredible 2-day tour along the southern part of the country with many beautiful attractions and incredible stops along the way. You will stop at amazing waterfalls, ice caves, and the incredible Glacier Lagoon, the centerpiece of the area, besides the biggest glaciers in Iceland.
Skaftafell National Park
Until 2008, Skaftafell National Park was a stand-alone park established many years ago with the purpose of protecting the unique landforms and the beautiful scenery from the area.
The park is located in the southeastern part of the island and everywhere you look you will see only glaciers and ice.
Inside this park you will see:
- the highest peak in Iceland with a total length of 2120 meters above sea level, Hvannadalshnjúkur, which is also the largest volcano in the country.
- the largest and oldest forest from Iceland located in the valleys of Bæjarstaðarskógur and Morsárdalur
- the tallest waterfall in the country with more than 228 meters, Morsárfoss
- the largest outwash plain on Earth that covers more than 1,300 kilometers, Skeiðarársandur
Jökulsárgljúfur National Park
Jökulsárgljúfur National Park is actually the northern part of Vatnajokull Park as is known as the Glacier-River-Canyon area, the perfect place for observing outlet glaciers.
The canyon has a total length of 25 kilometers and more than 500 meters wide and in many places, it has more than 100 meters deep, and this makes this canyon the deepest and the most spectacular one from the whole of Iceland.
What you can do in Vatnajökull National Park
There are many interesting things you can do inside the national parks, all kinds of adventures, and outdoor activities that will pump adrenaline in your body and will fill your mind with many beautiful memories.
I drop below a list of the most interesting things you can do while in the area:
Hiking on such a massive glacier is definitely a unique experience but you should not try it unless you are accompanied by an expert.
The experience is unique and you should go for it if you have the chance; we decided that we could not skip this adventure of glacier walk so we booked a guided tour, Skaftafell National Park: 3-Hour Glacier Hike and we had the unique opportunity to take the best glacier tours Vatnajokull national park have to offer.
In the tour price, you have included a professional guide, hiking equipment but not hiking boots and which are available at extra cost.
The tour lasts for about 3 hours out of which almost 1 hour and a half you will spend on the ice to spot crevasses and deep cracks.
There are also some hikes that don’t go to the glacier, hikes that are suitable for beginners, and those of you who don’t have a lot of time to explore the area.
Obviously that these hikes are less spectacular than the ones from the ice, but if you don’t feel comfortable going on the ice, then at least go to its edge and touch it with your hands.
When planning the hikes bear in mind that during winter, the daylight hours are very few so plan your itinerary and your hikes so that you can be back at your hotel at 6 p.m.
Glacier boat rides
The list of the most unique and interesting adventures you can try while in the Vatnajokull area continues with a spectacular boat tour on the Glacier Lagoon.
You can sail between icebergs and even follow these massive pieces of ice flowing into the cold sea.
This is definitely something extraordinary and I can tell you from my experience that this place is so spectacular that you don’t want to leave it.
We planned to spend in the lagoon area about an hour but we ended with 2.5 hours spent here as time passes by while we chase the icebergs flowing into the sea and watched a group of seals playing at the entrance of the lagoon.
You can choose to rent a kayak and explore the area on your own or you can book a seat on one of the amphibian boats that go along the lagoon.
Both experiences are unique; the amphibian boat is cheaper than the kayak tour but the kayak tour gives you a more intimate experience.
Until visiting Vatnajökull National Park, I have never been to an ice cave, even if I saw many videos on the internet with people doing this.
The experience is extremely hard to describe in words, as you have a strange and overwhelming feeling once you enter into such a cave.
There are a couple of ice caving tours, but we decided to book a seat at Skaftafell: Ice Cave Tour & Glacier Hike, a 4 hours tour with a professional guide that will show you incredible ice formations and glacier mills hidden from people eyes.
Dress up with warm clothes and waterproof jackets and boots as the temperatures inside the cave are below 0 degrees Celsius.
Rock climbing in the national park
Vatnajokull is not just about ice, glaciers, ice caves, and lagoons although here you can find the largest glacier in Europe.
Inside the park, you can find many climbing routes, some of them for beginners while others are quite challenging even for the most experienced ones.
But keep in mind that we are still in Iceland and here the weather dictates what you do on a daily basis.
So, don’t forget to check the weather sites before planning any climbing, expedition, or adventure as things can get quite nasty from one minute to another.
The best time for climbing in Iceland is definitely during summertime, from June to September, when the days are longer with mild temperatures.
Winter generally comes with snowstorms, low temperatures, ice, and slippery surfaces so it can be very dangerous to climb on any place in Iceland during these months.
At the base of the most important climbing spot from the park, you will find a small camp dedicated to those of you passionate about this sport.
You are not allowed to camp here if you don’t want to climb the rocks, and we strongly advise you to go a few kilometers away from where you can find plenty of camping places for tourists.
I personally don’t encourage such experiences as these are a source of pollution and a way to disturb wildlife and affect nature.
Still, it is a great way to explore the surroundings as snowmobiles give you the opportunity to travel deep into the wilderness without any effort.
Generally, companies that rent snowmobiles give you snowsuits, boots, and all the necessary equipment for this sport.
Horseback riding tours
Horseback riding tours are a great way to go deep into nature without affecting nature in any way.
Horses are intelligent and strong animals, and Icelandic horses are extremely friendly and easy to ride.
Icelandic horses’ breeds are pure and people are not allowed to import live horses from any part of the world.
Just a few meters away from Skaftafell Glacier you can ride a Glacier Horse inside the national park and fully enjoy the experience and the view.
Icelandic horses are smaller and generally, tourists associate them with a pony but don’t get yourself confused and under no circumstances don’t tell Icelanders they have ponies as this is an offense.
Where to stay near Vatnajökull National Park
luxury: the luxurious rooms from Fosshotel Lagoon awaits its guests with clean and cozy rooms with huge windows overlooking the mountains, a great restaurant, and a bar. The glacier lagoon and Diamond beach are half an hour away from the property.
mid-level: nestled in the middle of the wilderness Seljavellir Guesthouse Hofn is a great place to spend your night and observe the Northern Lights as the place is far from any light pollution.
budget: the simple but clean Laekjarhus Farm Holidays Iceland located just 15 miles from the Glacier Lagoon is run by an Icelandic family of farmers, a great place to set your camp and explore the area.
Unfortunately, because of global warming, the glaciers from Vatnajökull National Park are melting and lose more than 1 meter of thickness each year.
If the temperatures continue to rise the glaciers will be gone in the next century and our children will see here only a huge plane with volcanoes and lava fields.
Many efforts are being made to preserve and protect the area, but the future of these glaciers is under uncertainty.
These are real natural wonders and we strongly advise you to include this amazing national park in your travel plans to admire its beauty and incredible landforms.
Don’t hesitate and book your next holiday in this magnificent country as many natural wonders are waiting to be discovered.
Oh, there is one more thing that I want you to ask before you leave: share with us your memories and your photos so that anyone can see the beauty and wilderness of this country!
Logistical tips and tricks for your trip
Book your accommodation
We always use Booking.com as they have the best price-quality ratio and they offer a wide range of hotels, guesthouses, apartments, and villas to choose from.
You will find here all types of accommodations, from the cheapest ones to the most luxurious.
Don't forget travel insurance
Travel insurance will always protect you against unexpected events and cost like illness, COVID, injury, theft, or travel cancellation.
We never go on any trip without travel insurance and there were many cases when we had to use it.
Renting a car
We like to explore a country on our own and a car gives us the mobility and freedom to do that.
We always rent our car from Discovercars as they have free cancellation 48 hours prior to starting date and a wide range of car rental companies and options to choose from all over the world.
Tours and attractions
When we are looking for some adventure or we simply want to break up the monotony and discover new places, we always use GetYourGuide.
We love it because we always find the most amazing experiences, with free cancellation and a large variety of activities and tours to choose from.
Airplane tickets and holiday packages
Expedia is our ally when searching for the best price for airplane tickets as it works as an aggregator for a huge number of airlines and we always find the best price for our flights.
Travel tip: use Expedia when you are searching for holiday packages as they have many last-minute offers and great discounts for hotels, flights, and even the whole holiday packages.