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. It covers an area of 12,000 square kilometers (4,600 sq mi) and could be explored for weeks at a time.
In general, national parks are protected areas. These areas are unique because of their nature or cultural heritage. The unique qualities of Vatnajökull National Park are primarily its great variety of landscape features. Combined forces of rivers, glacial ice, and volcanic and geothermal activity create a landscape that seems almost surreal.
Vatnajokull glacier dominates the area, which is larger than all of Europe’s glaciers combined. There are lovely views from the Ring Road of Vatnajokull and the many outlying glacial tongues. The glacial tongues stretch down from the ice cap towards the ocean, affording travelers some awe-inspiring views.
What to see in Vatnajokull National Park
The scenery encircling the glacier is extremely varied. Towards the north, glacial rivers divide the highlands, with powerful flows in summer. The volcanoes Askja, Kverkfjoll and Snaefell tower over this region, together with the volcanic table mountain Herdubreid, which Icelanders call the Queen of the Mountains. Long ago, huge glacial floods carved out the canyon of Jokulsargljufur in the northern reaches of this plateau. The mighty Dettifoss waterfall still thunders into the upper end of this canyon, while the scenic formations at Hljodaklettar and the horseshoe-curved cliffs of Asbyrgi are found farther north. Broad wetlands and expansive ranges distinguish the areas near the glacier and farther east, around Snaefell. These areas are an important habitat for reindeer and pink-footed geese.
Many high, majestic mountain ridges, with outlet glaciers descending between them onto the lowlands, characterize the south side of Vatnajokull. The southernmost part of the glacier envelops the central volcano Oraefajokull and Iceland’s highest peak, Hvannadalshnjukur. Sheltered by the high ice, the vegetated oasis of Skaftafell overlooks the black sands deposited to its west by the river Skeidara.
The park offers visitors 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 rides and snowmobiling.
Check out our complete guide to the South Coast.