At 13,600km² (just over 5200 square miles), Vatnajökull National Park in Iceland is the biggest national park in all of Europe - there's a lot to do, so read on to discover the best activities in its southern half.
Established in 2008, the park brought together many different areas that surround Vatnajökull, the glacier that covers 12% of Iceland. There’s no other national park on earth that offers such a mixture of volcanic activity, glaciers, mountains and geothermal energy. Here are the 5 best things to do when visiting the area.
The area known as Skaftafell used to be its own national park, until it was combined with the glacier Vatnajökull, Jökulsárgljúfur National Park in the north, and a few other areas and made to fall under the one umbrella - Vatnajökull National Park. This area is the favourite of many Icelanders, and for good reason – it has some of the most favourable weather conditions in the whole country, and amazing scenery to match.
A quick stop-off at the informative visitor’s centre and you’ll quickly realise the area has a wealth of hiking trails. The most popular route to take is to visit the waterfall Svartifoss, a beautiful waterfall cascading over cliffs of black basalt columns. The route is about 1.5 hours return, and suitable for every level of fitness, but the end of the trail near the waterfall can get a bit muddy. From here, you can either turn back or continue to the viewpoint Sjónarnípa with amazing views out over the glacier tongue. Even more trails wind their way through the area, so for details about what to do ask as the visitor’s centre.
Read all about hiking in Skaftafell here.
Svartifoss in Skaftafell National Park. Wonderguide/James Taylor.
Perhaps the most popular attraction along the south coast, Jökulsárlón is a massive lagoon at the base of the Vatnajökull Glacier. Fed by one of the glacier tongues, large chunks of glacier ice are forever breaking off into the water, chaotically floating around until being washed out to sea. The vast lagoon is also home to seals, playing around in the water and often popping their heads up to check out the humans. One of the most popular things to do is to go out sailing amongst the ice, throwing you in the middle of this surreal world.
Across the road is the coast, a beautiful stretch of black sand called ‘Diamond Beach’. Washing up here on the sand are the chunks of glacier that float out to sea before being sent back to shore by the tide. Large chunks of ice rest on the black sand, slowly shaping themselves into beautiful natural sculptures. A walk along the Diamond Beach is a must on a visit to the area.
Fjallsárlón is another glacier lagoon, much smaller but also less crowded. Offering boat tours as well, this is also a nice area to check out. If you’re an avid hiker, there is a trail that leads between the two lagoons; it will take about 5 hours return, but along the way you’ll leave the crowds behind and have some astounding views all to yourself.
Jökulsárlón in the winter. Wonderguide/James Taylor.
During the winter time, underneath the behemoth Vatnajökull it freezes over enough to form the most majestic caves made completely from ice. Expeditions into these caves is an unreal experience that explores the natural formations of the glacier. Awaiting inside is a wide spectrum of electric blues, from bright to dark, and an unforgettable experience.
Another great activity to get up close and personal with Europe’s largest ice-cap is to go for a guided glacier hike across the ice. Guides who grew up in the area impart their wisdom and knowledge about the glacier as you tramp across the ice-cap, peering into crevasses whilst on the way to a lookout point, affording you astounding views.
Inside an ice cave. Wonderguide/James Taylor.
Snæfell is the name of the tallest mountain in Iceland that is currently not underneath a glacier cap. The mountain and the plains surrounding it are famously known as the grazing grounds for the Icelandic population of reindeer, introduced from Norway in the late 18th Century with the intentions of farming them. This never caught on, and now the wild population of the reindeer roam across the East of Iceland, in the summer months heading up closer to the highlands to this region.
A large amount of undiscovered hiking trails make their way through the area, taking you far off the well-beaten Icelandic path to discover your own small part of the country. Aside from sighting the herds of reindeer, you’ll find all of the usual natural sights on offer as well; waterfalls, hot springs, and great views of glaciers glinting in the distance.
For an injection of adrenaline, book yourself a snowmobiling tour for on top of the glacier. Driving up onto Vatnajökull glacier in a super jeep before transferring to a snow cat is a great experience, but it won’t be until you’re flying at 30 miles per hour/ across the compacted snow and ice with nothing but the glacier horizon in front of you that you’ll know what a rush feels like.
Tours leave from various points around the glacier, taking you up to various parts of Vatnajökull to go riding. Stops are made along the way for photos of the far away coast line and for Q and A sessions with the guides about the glacier itself.
Snowmobiling on Vatnajökull Glacier. Wonderguide/James Taylor.