An Adventurer’s Guide to Vatnajökull National Park

As varied as it is vast, this extraordinary park offers glaciers, ice caves, canyons, and waterfalls enough to suit any outdoor enthusiast.

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Getting to and Around Vatnajökull National Park

The best way to explore Iceland, including a visit to Vatnajökull National Park, is with your own rental car or campervan.

To get to the park by public transport, most people take one of the twice-daily summer bus services that connect Reykjavík and Skaftafell via the Ring Road, stopping at the park.

From mid-September through May, three weekly Þingvallaleið buses connect Reykjavík and Höfn, stopping opposite Hótel Skaftafell, which is about 3mi (5km) east of the park entrance. 

Keep in mind that while the lowlands of the national park are accessible for most of the year, most roads in the highlands are only accessible by 4x4 during the summer months and early autumn.

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Skaftafell National Park

Since 2008, this magnificent park has been part of Vatnajökull National Park. Skaftafell is one of Iceland’s true hot spots, with breathtaking geological features like the bird-rich shelter of Bæjarstaðarskógur, the Öræfajökull Vvolcano, the glass-black basalt columns beneath Svartifoss, and more.

There are plenty of trails in Skaftafell, but one of the most popular is the relatively easy 90-minute day hike up to Svartifoss waterfall. Another popular walk leaves directly from the visitor’s center and heads up to the Skaftafellsjökull glacier. Be sure to dress warmly, and remember to never attempt hiking on a glacier without an experienced guide. 

Walking on Skaftafell glacier. Photo credit: iStock

Svartifoss

Also known as Black Falls, this natural wonder is one of the most popular sites in Vatnajökull. The waterfall is surrounded by a concave wall of glassy black volcanic columns.

The falls are about a 1.25mi (2km) hike up from the car park and the trail is well sign-posted. It’s a pretty steep slog up the hill, but the falls are definitely worth the effort.

Instead of heading straight down, consider passing over the wooden bridge near the cascading water and hiking up an additional 1,300ft (400m) for a viewpoint that offers stunning vistas over the surrounding area.

Svartifoss. Photo credit: iStock

Dettifoss

This is one of a series of falls (including Selfoss, Hafragilsfoss, and Rettarfoss) that crash along the Jokulsa a Fjollum river. All are awe-inspiring, but Dettifoss takes the cake. With over 130,000 gallons of water cascading over the sharp cliff every second, this is the most powerful waterfall in all of Europe.

The falls are located around 60mi (90km) from the town of Húsavík and are a popular stop on the 126mi (260km) Diamond Circle Loop. If you prefer to make your way there by foot, you can also reach them by hiking the scenic 22mi (35km) trail from Asbyrgi canyon.

Entrance to the park is free, and while it’s pretty easy to get there on your own, you can also go with an organized tour. Day tours start at around kr. 29,140 (US $282) and will take in the falls and usually some other sites like Lake Mývatn.

Dettifoss. Photo credit: iStock

Jökulsárgljúfur

Just 19mi (30km) north of Dettifoss, you’ll find Jökulsárgljúfur (meaning Glacial River Canyon). Formerly its own national park until the formation of Vatnajökull National Park in 2008, this region is blessed with some of Iceland’s most stunning natural wonders.

The Jokulsargljufur Canyon is the largest and most impressive river canyon in Iceland. It stretches for over 15mi (24km) with its widest point being over 1,640 feet (500m).

Another one of Jökulsárgljúfur’s top sites is Hljóðaklettar or “Singing Cliffs.” There's a 1.75mi (3km) walking trail starting from the parking area that will take you all the way around this series of strange, swirling honeycombs and basalt columns.

To get to Jökulsárgljúfur, you can take a bus from Akureyri to Ásbyrgi (changing buses in Húsavík) for around kr. 5,580 (US $54). With your own rental car there are plenty of places to access the park, including Route 862 from Route 85 in the west, or from Dettifoss.

Getting around the park is simple and trails are very well marked. Many people choose to hike across the length of the park, camping mid-way at Vesturdalur. This takes around two days and covers 21mi (34km).

Jökulsárgljúfur. Photo credit: iStock

Vatnajökull Glacier

Vatnajökull, the glacier for which the national park is named, is the largest glacial mass in Iceland, and second largest in Europe by area, measuring around 3,166mi² (8,200km²). If you actually want to walk on the glacier, you should go with a reputable tour operator or licensed guide.

There are plenty of tours around the region that will take in a glacier walk as well as other sites like the Crystal Ice Cave.

Vatnajökull Glacier. Photo credit: iStock
Want to know more about Iceland? Check out our podcast. We chat about where to capture the best photos in Iceland, how to speak like a Viking (almost), and how a social policy got the country to the World Cup.

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