Vatnajökull National Park is Iceland's largest nature reserve
Vatnajökull National Park encompasses all of Vatnajökull glacier (8,300 km2), as well as the vast surrounding areas, such as Jökulsárgljúfur (Jokulsargljufur) in the north and Skaftafell Nature Reserve in the south, both previously classified as national parks themselves.
To the east, it stretches to the areas of Kringilsárrani (Kringilsarrani) and Kverkfjöll (Kverkfjoll) mountain range, while to the west it encompasses Lakagígar, the Laki craters, and Grímsvötn (Grimsvotn) volcano area. Vatnajökull National Park covers roughly 13,200 km2, around 13% of Iceland, and it’s one of Europe’s largest.
The dynamic interaction of ice and fire over time has been the single most important factor in shaping the nature of the Park, creating an extraordinary variety of landscape features whose origin is in the combined forces of volcanic and geothermal activity, rivers and glacial ice.
The northern area: Ásbyrgi, Jökulsárgljúfur, Dettifoss, Askja
Ásbyrgi (Asbyrgi) is one of Iceland´s natural wonders – a horseshoe shaped canyon, 3.5 km long, over 1 km wide, with up to 100 m high walls. It was created by at least two catastrophic glacial outburst floods – jökulhlaup, originating from the northern part of the Vatnajökull ice cap.
One of the floods occurred about 8-10 thousand years ago, and another approximately 3 thousand years ago; both causing extensive removal of bedrock and leaving traces along the river all the way south to their source. However, according to Norse mythology, Ásbyrgi was created when Oðin’s (Odin’s) eight legged horse, Sleipnir, put one of his hooves down, as Oðin rode by.
In the middle of the canyon, there is a freestanding, precipitous rock called Eyan ("The Island"). The lovely woodland in Ásbyrgi between the canyon walls is a very popular recreational area and local festivals are celebrated there. The woodland consists mainly of birch, willow, mountain ash, larch and fir trees. The Iceland Forestry Service acquired Ásbyrgi in 1928 and it still manages the forest.
Jökulsárgljúfur canyon is located on the west bank of the glacial river Jökulsá á Fjöllum (Jokulsa a Fjollum). The source of the river is beneath the Vatnajökull icecap and it reaches the sea at Öxarfjörður (Oxarfjordur) bay. From its source, the river flows across a high plateau dotted with isolated palagonite peaks and scarred with lava flows. At the edge of the highlands the land drops and the river becomes more turbulent and forms several huge waterfalls, tumbling into the canyon which bears its name. The Jökulsárgljúfur canyon is one of the largest and most impressive river canyons in Iceland. It is 25 km long, ½ km wide and in many places more than 100 metres deep. Jökulsárgljúfur canyon is located in the palagonite belt of northern Iceland, in one of the most volcanically active areas in the country.
The upper part of the canyon, around the waterfall Dettifoss, is the deepest and most spectacular section, up to 120 metres in depth. Dettifoss is in summer the most powerful waterfall in Europe, measured in cubic meters per second. Dettifoss is 44 metres high and 100 metres wide and downstream there is the 27 m high Hafragilsfoss and upstream from Dettifoss is Selfoss, only 10 m high but much wider than the other waterfalls. This series of waterfalls forms a spectacle without comparison in Europe.
The remarkable Hljóðaklettar (Hljodaklettar – “Echo rocks”) lava formations, cores of ancient volcanoes, are also in this area, exposed after the river had swept away the loose volcanic material. A wide range of plants grow in the shelter afforded by the rocks and cliffs in Jökulsárgljúfur canyon and approximately 230 species of vascular plants have been recorded. Jökulsárgljúfur also provides a range of habitats for birds.
Askja is a caldera (sunken crater) located in the volcanic zone of the highlands north of Vatnajökull glacier. Askja was formed at the end of the Ice Age, during a major ash eruption which caused the roof of the magma chamber to subside, and subsequently fill with lava from later eruptions. The landscape surrounding Askja is unique, thought to resemble the landscape on the moon. During the eruption in 1875, Lake Askja was formed when the depression filled with ground water. It is the deepest lake in Iceland with a depth of more than 200 m. The caldera also contains the warm lake called Víti (Viti), a popular bathing site, with an average temperature of 30º C.
The southern area: Hoffellsjökull, Lónsöræfi, Öræfajökull, Virkisjökull, Skaftafell
The southern side of Vatnajökull glacier is characterized by magnificent mountain ridges, with outlet glacier tongues descending between them onto the lowlands. The glacier Öræfajökull (Oraefajokull) and Iceland’s highest peak, Hvannadalshnjúkur (Hvannadalshnjukur), 2,110 m high, are in the southernmost part.
Hoffellsjökull (Hoffelsjokull) glacier, Lónsöræfi (Lonsoraefi) and Virkisjökull (Virkisjokull) glacier are areas featuring diverse and colourful geological formations, waterfalls and sheltered lush valleys. A BGS observatory is located on Virkisjökull (Virkisjokull) glacier, gaining vital insights into the processes of landscape formation and response of glacial systems to climate forcing.
Skaftafell is the area covering almost 5.000 km2, an oasis wedged between the black sands deposited by the river Skeiðará (Skeidara) to the west, and Skaftafellsjökull (Skaftafellsjokull) glacier. Its unique natural beauty prompted the founding of Skaftafell National Park in 1968, which was then integrated with the Vatnajökull National Park in 2008.
Skaftafell was a manor farm and local assembly site in the Middle Ages, later acquired by the church, and, subsequently, the Danish monarchy. The farmhouse formerly stood at the place called Gömlutún (Old Hayfield), where its ruins can still be seen. With the advance of the Skeiðará River, the fields slowly disappeared under layers of sand, and during the years 1830-1850, the farm was relocated about 100 metres up the mountainside. Skeiðarársandur (Skeidararsandur) outwash plain lies to the south.
The dramatic contrast of green forested hills compressed between the black sands and the white glaciers is unique and very scenic. There are no roads inside Skaftafell but it’s easy to get there from Reykjavik. There are a number of hiking trails and large camping grounds. It’s ideal to combine a visit to Skaftafell with a visit to the glacial lagoon Jökulsárlón (Jokulsarlon) and Lakagígar, the Laki craters area.
The waterfall Svartifoss is within walking distance from the main campsite in Skaftafell. Svartifoss, or ‘the black waterfall’, is one of the Park’s major attractions. There are mightier waterfalls in Iceland, such as Gullfoss or Goðafoss (Godafoss), but few are as instantly recognisable. Svartifoss gets its name not from the colour of its waters, which foam white over the cliff edge, but from the black basalt columns that flank the waterfall. Arranged in a regular hexagonal pattern, the rocks hang off the cliff face like the pipes of an organ and were the inspiration for the architectural design of the National Theatre in Reykjavík.
Skaftafell area is also home to the hauntingly beautiful Svínafellsjökull (Svinafellsjokull) calving glacier which was one of the main filming locations in Iceland for the Game of Thrones series. Glacier hiking tours are available.
The eastern area: Kverkjöll, Snæfell
Kverkfjöll (Kverkfjoll) mountain range and Snæfell (Snaefell) mountain are located the eastern part of the Vatnajökull National Park. There are also broad wetlands in this region, forming an important habitat for pink-footed geese and reindeer. These areas offer some of the most spectacular hiking trails in Iceland, ideal for those wishing to combine the experience of visiting Iceland’s highlands, glaciers and geothermal zones.
The western area: Lakagígar, Grímsvötn
The Laki craters are located in the western part of the Vatnajökull National Park. This area is also characterized by long hyaloclastite ridges, formed by subglacial volcanic eruptions. Volcanoes and their fissure swarms have played a crucial part in shaping this landscape: the Katla volcano to the SW, with the Eldgjá fissure and Grímsvötn volcano with a fissure system to the SW, where the Laki craters are located. Glacial melt water has also had an influence, forming glacial rivers, such as Tungnaá (Tungnaa) and Skaftá (Skafta), as well as many crater lakes.
The ecosystem of this area is very interesting and includes some specialized and rare habitats influenced by geological features, high precipitation and relatively warm climate. Flora consists of mosses and lichens, while wildlife is sparse, except for a few species of birds, such as snow bunting, golden plover and purple sandpiper.
Vatnajökull National Park Visitor Centres
Ásbyrgi (Asbyrgi) Visitor Centre – Gljúfrastofa (Gljufrastofa) focusses on the northern territory of the Vatnajökull National Park. It provides information about the Park and its surroundings, its history, services, natural attractions and hiking trails. It is open from May to September, and, outside of this period, by arrangement.
Skaftafell Visitor Centre – Skaftafellsstofa provides information on hiking trails, accommodation and recreational options in the Skaftafell area. It also houses an exhibition on the geological and cultural history of the region. Park wardens and park rangers provide assistance and information to visitors during the summer, as well as lead hiking trips. The Centre is open throughout the year, at different times.
Snæfellsstofa (Snaefellstofa) Visitor Centre at Skriduklaustur is the information centre for the east territory of Vatnajökull National Park, of which the most famous destinations are Kverkfjöll and Snæfell. Kverkfjöll and Snæfell are both located in the highlands north of Vatnajökull glacier, and only accessible by 4x4 vehicles. The Centre is usually open from June to September and, during winter, by appointment only.
Gamlabúð (“Old store”) Visitor Centre at the harbour in Höfn (Hofn). The information office opening hours are:
May 9 – June 6: 11:00-18:00; June 7- August 31: 8:00-20:00; September 1- September 30: 11:00-18:00.