Vatnajökull National Park was created in 2008, when Iceland’s largest glacier was merged with two existing national parks, Skaftafell and Jökulsárgljúfur. Covering some 5,675mi2 (14,700km2), the park takes up nearly 15% of Iceland’s land mass. In other words, it’s huge.
In general, you can split the park up into two areas. There are the lowland regions, where access is easy, and the remote highland areas around the glacier itself, which are only accessible during summer.
The best way to visit the park is to rent a car or a campervan and explore at will. The easiest areas to access are Skaftafell, Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, and Jökulsárgljúfur in the north, which you can visit year-round.
Visiting some areas of the park via public transport is possible. A bus goes from Reykjavik to Höfn five times a week, with stops at Skaftafell and Jökulsárlón. You could also catch a public bus to Akureyri and jump on a guided tour into Jökulsárgljúfur.
Visiting the remote highland areas of Vatnajökull National Park is more complicated. Keep in mind that all roads in the highlands are only accessible by 4WD during the height of summer – and even then, it’s never guaranteed. For most, joining a tour is easiest.
Overlooking the Skaftafellsjökull glacier tongue, the first thing that strikes me is how different this ice is from the glacier above. Dirty and ash-laden, the retreating ice has melted its way up the valley, revealing a pock-marked landscape of black sand and murky lagoons. Curving up into the mountains, it slowly turns from black into white, joining the larger ice cap above.
Such is the impressive vista from the Sjónarnípa viewpoint in Skaftafell, one of the many hiking trails inside this reserve nestled south of the glacier. The most famous sight here is the waterfall Svartifoss, a 90-minute return hike that takes you to a brilliant plume of water shooting off a cliff of black, hexagonal basalt columns.
Skaftafell is also a convenient spot to embark on guided hikes on top of the glacier, with several tour operators with offices in the parking area.
The second most popular area to visit inside Vatnajökull National Park is the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. Here, you can admire giant icebergs that have been carved off the retreating tongue of Breiðamerkurjökull. Sculpted into fascinating shapes by the fierce winds and strong tides as they float through the lagoon, the ice is eventually pulled out into the ocean, where the waves wash them back onto the coast of black sand, now known as Diamond Beach.
Like Skaftafell, access to Jökulsárlón is easy year-round (weather permitting – this is Iceland, after all). Once here, you’re free to wander around the shores of the lagoon, while boat, zodiac, and kayak tours allow you to venture out onto the lagoon itself.
Jökulsárlón also acts as a meeting point for tours that venture up onto the glacier. You could go hiking, ice climbing, or snowmobiling, and in winter there are also tours that visit the ice caves underneath Vatnajökull.
Separate from the rest of the park, the Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon is in northeast Iceland, connected to Vatnajökull via the long glacial river Jökulsá á Fjöllum. The river’s source sits near Bárðabunga, a brooding volcano underneath the ice of Vatnajökull. Ancient eruptions released powerful glacial floods down the river, carving out the canyon as we know it today.
You can access Jökulsárgljúfur from either the north or southern end, but it’s best done along road 862, which runs along the western side of the canyon. Aside from Dettifoss and Ásbyrgi, there are well-marked stops at Rauðhólar, a series of red scoria cones, and Hjlóðaklettur (singing cliffs), a set of ancient volcanic cores exposed after powerful floods.
Many people also choose to hike the length of Jökulsárgljúfur, camping half-way at Vesturdalur. The distance is 21mi (34km).
I hear the roar of the water long before I see Dettifoss itself – if this is what it sounds like today, it’s nearly impossible to imagine the sound of a behemoth glacial flood. The dull roar turns into a barrage when Dettifoss comes into sight. A deluge of dirty brown water surges violently over the cliff’s edge, disappearing into the canyon below with an angry scream.
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