Most people that come to visit Iceland are looking for unusual landscapes and unique adventures. It’s really easy to understand why many choose our tiny island. There is plenty of rare and uncommon scenery. One of the most remarkable places you can visit in Iceland is Vatnajökull National Park. It houses some natural attractions that are not easy to find elsewhere around the globe. Want to know more about what to see and do at Europe’s largest national park? Then stick around!
Vatnajökull National Park is in the Southern Region of Iceland. This is good news for those who do not have a lot of time to spend on the island! It means you might be able to catch a glimpse of the park’s famous glacier; a huge mass of ice. And I’m not exaggerating at all. Vatnajokull National Park is an impressive region that is home to the biggest glacier in Europe. Here, there is always something to see and do that can fit everybody’s needs. Activities range from adventurous and extreme ones to more relaxed trekking. These activities are available all year long to both grownups and kids alike. Let’s learn more.
Vatnajökull National Park – General Information
We can easily consider this park Iceland’s most precious pearl. This large extension of land harbor thousands of different types of flora and fauna and the beauty of the surroundings will surely take your breath away.
Even though they are gathered under one main administration, the park is divided into three different areas. The areas are Jökulságljúfur National Park, Skaftafell National Park, and of course, Vatnajökull. The whole park takes up around 12% of the total area of Iceland. This should give you an idea of how huge it is. On the one hand, we have Vatnajökull Glacier itself, which is the star attraction of this region.
Vatnajökull Glacier is a colossal mass of ice whose thickest areas are one-kilometer tall (3,280 ft) and whose total length is 8.100 km2 (3,100 square miles). Underneath, there are seven different volcanos, six of which remain active. The most famous ones are Bardabunga, which erupted in 2017, Grímsvötn and Oræfajökull. The glacier is uninhabitable, but you can still visit it and enjoy all the activities it has to offer.
Vatnajökull National Park – How to Get There
In this article, we’ll refer to the southernmost point of the glacier as a reference. Given that the glacier is so huge, you can also visit it from the eastern and northern region of Iceland. But we will focus on its southern area so those visitors with limited time can make it to the glacier.
The southern tip of the glacier is Skaftafell. It’s close to the Ring Road so driving to the area is easy and enjoyable. This zone is approximately 321km (199 miles) away from Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. If you have your rental car, then it can take up to four hours to get there. Please bear in mind that the speed limit is 90km/h (55 mph) on the ring road for passenger cars. Depending on the road conditions, it can take a bit longer.
Vatnajökull National Park – What to See and Do
Thanks to its dimensions and beauty, the park offers many different activities regardless of your fitness level. These are some activities that anyone can enjoy:
Two of the tongues of Vatnajökull where you can practice trekking are Skaftafellsjökull and Fallsjökull. The Skaftafell National Park is where the infrastructure for hiking on glaciers is more developed. You will find this area by taking a detour from the Ring Road to the Skaftafell Visitors Center. Besides getting tourism information, you can hire the services of several companies that offer different options to enjoy the glacier.
It is important to know that you cannot trek the glacier on your own. This type of activity definitely needs the supervision of an expert. The glacier is “alive,” and the layers of ice are constantly shifting and changing. The experts will make sure the area you visit is in perfect condition. Risks of falling into an unexpected cave or stepping on soft ice are high. Guides are familiar with the glacier and how the ice behaves. It’s all about safety!
Treks can last up to three hours, and they come in different levels, for both beginners and experts. So if you have never trekked on a glacier before, don’t worry. There are easy trails, and the guide will issue instructions right before the route starts. Most companies provide helmets, harnesses, ice axes and crampons. Everything you need to enjoy an unforgettable experience is given to you.
Glacier Cave Excursions
They are one of the main attractions for foreign visitors, especially if you happen to visit Iceland during the winter time. Just like glacier trekking, this activity cannot be done on your own either. The ice needs to be very compact, thick and firm. Otherwise, it can crumble and cave in. It’s very dangerous, so please only do it with a local guide. Also, you cannot visit these caves during the summer season. The heat and warm temperatures can melt the ice, and the caves are quite unstable. It is not safe to walk into these caves under such conditions.
The glacier caves are fascinating. The intense blue hue of their walls and the whimsical shape of the caves alone are worth the trip. The scientific explanation behind the deep blue shade is that the bottom layers of the ice have been under the pressure of the upper ones for centuries. This pressure took the air of the ice away. The ice then absorbs all of the light spectrum except the blue frequency. When the light bounces off the caves, a magnificent blue is the color we see. You can also visit an ice cave in this area.
Do you feel like zooming through the hills of a snowy glacier? Then this is the option for you. This excursion is so much fun you will love it. These type of trips are usually done on a Super Jeep. It takes you to the top of the mountain and the base camp of the glacier. There, the guide will give you some safety instructions and how to drive your snowmobile. And then down the hill you go!
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
This the perfect stop after a day of adventure on the glacier. If you’re exhausted from all the activities done in the past days, this is a wonderful place to relax. You can come by the lagoon and admire the beauty of the surroundings. The icebergs floating in the lagoon are mesmerizing.
If you are still in an adventurous mood, then I recommend a boat or zodiac tour on the lake. My favorite excursion is the zodiac one. The groups are smaller, and you can get close to the icebergs. The wind is particularly biting, but most companies provide some equipment, warm jackets, and life jackets. It is a marvelous experience.
At the mouth of Jökulsárlón lagoon, you will find Diamond Beach. Here, the chunks of ice end their journey. Some of them get stranded on the shore, and some others get carried away by the waves of the sea. The pieces of ice shine under the sun, just like a thousand diamonds. Did someone say Breakfast at Tiffany’s?
24 Hours in Vatnajökull National Park – What to See and Do
If coming to Iceland, be sure to make room for a fascinating experience at the Vatnajökull National Park. Most of these activities will take from one to three hours, so you can perfectly fit them in during one day of your itinerary. Regardless of these adventurous activities, the landscape itself is more than worth the visit. You will definitely make some lasting memories here.