Exploring each of Iceland’s three National Parks provides a wide variety in extraordinary nature and historical interest. Thingvellir National Park showcases a wealth of geological formations in the rift valley between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates and is also a World Heritage Site recognized as the original meeting point of Iceland’s, and the worlds, first parliament.
Western Iceland is the location of Snaefellsjokull National Park which begins at the foot of a glacier-capped volcano and reaches to the seashores and mountaintops in an area steeped in ancient Saga folklore.
Vatnajokull National Park in southeast Iceland is Europe’s largest National Park and features some of Iceland’s most extreme and beautiful nature highlights including Iceland’s tallest peak, Europe’s largest glacier, gorgeous hiking trails and an awe-inspiring glacial river canyon.
Thingvellir is a favorite stop among travelers along the Golden Circle route. It has been a National Park in Iceland since 1928 and was named a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 2004. When Viking settlers arrived in the 10th century it was the site they chose as the meeting place of Althing, the world’s first parliament. The location may seem a bit out of the way, but the unique geology created a natural amphitheater perfect for public speaking including the high rock wall of Logberg (Law Rock), where the laws of the land would be recited from memory.
Besides its historic interest, Thingvellir holds a special appeal for nature lovers. It is the visible site of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, and are being pulled apart at a rate of 2 cm (nearly an inch) per year. The geology here is not only interesting to learn about but also spectacular to behold. At Almannagja, on the west side of the plain, you can see the easternmost edge of the North American tectonic plate, which is normally submerged in the Atlantic Ocean. On the east side, at the Heidargja Gorge, you are at the westernmost edge of the Eurasian plate.
There is much to explore in the park including the 20 meter (66 ft) Oxara waterfall, and the Nikulasargja Gorge, better known as Peningagja (Money Gorge) because it is a custom to toss coins (and sometimes credit cards!) into the icy-cold water and make a wish. Thingvellir is also home to Lake Thingvallavatn known best for Silfra Gorge, an extraordinary dive site where you are literally swimming between continents in clear, glacial water.
Snaefellsjokull National Park located on the Snaefellsnes peninsula covers an area of 440 square kilometers (170 sq mi) and extends west down from the glacier capped volcano all the way to the rugged coastline.
Declared a National Park in 2001, the area has an astonishing variety in natural landscapes including moss covered lava fields, pebbled beaches and imposing rugged cliffs. Undoubtedly the crowning jewel is Snaefellsjokull glacier itself which covers a dormant volcano that last erupted in 250 AD. The icy cone-shaped peak can be seen from Reykjavik on a clear day and is considered to be one of the earth’s most powerful centers of spiritual energy.
The area is steeped in ancient, literary and New Age folklore and is the hometown of Gudridur Thorbjarnadottir, an Icelandic woman who traveled extensively around the world in the Middle Ages.
Although there are no campgrounds in the park, during the summer guided walks are scheduled several times a week. When hiking in this area you can expect to discover little beaches, rugged seascapes, rare plants, birdlife and seals.
The seaside shore of Snaefellsnes peninsula is also a good location for spotting orca and minke whales that inhabit the surrounding ocean. The park’s Visitor Center is in the small town of Hellnar and is open daily during the summer.
Vatnajokull National Park encompasses an enormous area in southeast Iceland and was officially formed in 2008 by joining together Jokulsargljufur and Skaftafell National Parks. It is the largest National Park in Europe covering an area of 12,000 square kilometers (4,600 sq mi) and could be explored for weeks at a time.
The whole area is dominated by Vatnajokull glacier, which is larger than all of Europe’s glaciers put together. There are lovely views from Route 1 of Vatnajokull and the many outlying glacial tongues that stretch down from the ice cap towards the ocean, indulging you with awe-inspiring scenery.
Here you have an up-close opportunity to experience the interaction between glacial forces and volcanic activities. There are a great variety of hiking trails within the park as well as the possibility for ice climbing, ATV riding and snowmobiling.
The Skaftafell region of Vatnajokull National Park is a lush oasis where you can hike for days on gorgeous trails through forests, waterfalls, black sands, mountains, glaciers with Iceland’s highest peak, Hvannadalshnjukur, reaching 2,118 meters (6,950 feet), providing a stunning backdrop.
A short walk into the park offers a breath taking view of Svartifoss, (Black Falls) which is bordered on both sides by tall black basalt columns, resembling the pipes of a giant organ.
Literally translated, Jokulsargljufur means glacial-river-canyon and it is aptly named for the country’s longest river canyon at 25 kilometers (16 mi). Jokulsargljufur makes up the northeastern region of Vatnajokull National Park and there are several must-see natural sites in this area including Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall and Asbyrgi, the remarkable horseshoe shaped canyon which Viking settlers believed to be a hoof-print formed by Sleipnir, Odin’s flying horse from Norse mythology and folklore tales.
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