Iceland is a place of magical beauty with a wonderfully wild natural environment. For its size, the country has a very tiny population. This means that the island’s natural landscapes very much take centre stage. There are vast swathes of uninhabited lands that have been left entirely untouched. In this sense, the whole of Iceland sometimes feels like one big, country-sized national park.
However, despite this there are in fact only three official Iceland national parks. These three areas have been given designated national park status because of their unique importance. They each have historical and natural characteristics that are particularly special.
National parks in Iceland
The Icelandic people have a great deal of respect for the natural world that surrounds them. But the areas considered National Parks are offered particular protection from the Environment Agency of Iceland. It is this government body’s responsibility to manage all three of the national parks in Iceland. Amongst other activities, they conduct conservation projects engaging local people and communities.
They also manage the visitor centers and camping areas, ensuring that the public enjoy safe, sustainable and educational experiences outdoors. One of their main remits is to ensure that the parks remain pristine for the wildlife that resides there, acting as guardians of the park for future generations to enjoy.
In this article, we will be exploring the three national parks in Iceland. We will take a look at what makes them unique and explore the main activities you can enjoy in each one. The three Iceland national parks are:
Þingvellir National Park
Vatnajökull National Park
Snæfellsjökull National Park
1. Þingvellir National Park:
Þingvellir National Park is probably the best-known national park in Iceland. This will likely be the one that nearly every visitor to Iceland will experience. One reason for its popularity is that it is located not far from Reykjavík on Iceland’s famous Golden Circle route. This is a trio of stunning natural wonders that are conveniently close together and make an incredible day trip tour.
The very first national park established in Iceland back in 1928, Þingvellir National Park covers a total area of thirty-six square miles of beautiful scenery. It was also designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004 which means it certainly has some national park pedigree within its bounds.
Things to do at Þingvellir National Park
Scuba diving in the Silfra Fissure is one of the most popular attractions in Thingvellir National Park. This fissure marks the point of contact between the Eurasian and North American plates and offers outstanding underwater visibility that any passionate scuba diver would be overjoyed to experience once in their lifetime.
Luckily, you don’t need to dive in Iceland’s cold water to see the plaques. Those who would prefer to stay on dry land will find a wealth of walking routes to enjoy around the park, including those situated around the striking geology of the rift. We totally recommend you to head to the visitor center for some orientation and explore this pristine landscape to the full.
If you are hiring a car and camping in Iceland, the park also has an excellent campsite. There are two separate areas for camping, one of which is open year-round. We love staying here as it means that you can really explore the park to the fullest. When the midnight sun is shining in the sky, it’s quite magical to venture out for late night strolls.
2. Vatnajökull National Park
Vatnajökull National Park is one giant of a national park and one of the biggest in Europe, let alone Iceland. If you take a look at the Iceland national parks map, you’ll see that it covers a vast swathe of eastern Iceland. To put it into perspective, the park encompasses an impressive 14% of Iceland’s entire landmass.
The park holds so many dazzling landscapes, many of which most people will never get to see– that’s how wild and untouched this place is! The entire Vatnajökull ice cap lies within its borders. This vast glacier in the Vatnajökull National Park is Europe’s largest glacier, covering an area of some 8000 km square.
As well as glaciers, the park is home to glacial lakes, tumbling waterfalls and vast ice fields. Although much of the park is nigh on impossible to access, many of the sights can be visited and there are in fact five visitor centres in total. Therefore, those looping around the Iceland Ring Road will have ample opportunity to see its icy edges.
Things to do at Vatnajökull National Park
The top attractions of Vatnajökull National Park have been created amidst the twin powers of fire and ice. Volcanoes and glaciers have shaped this landscape into a veritable natural wonderland. In winter, visitors can take a snowmobile across its ice fields, hike or climb across glaciers and delve into incredible glacier ice caves.
Come summertime, the most frequented area is the dazzling Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. With its floating icebergs sailing across the waters, it transforms into a floating sculpture park. Here, visitors can enjoy boat trips across the lake and often sea seals playing in their natural habitat.
The nearby Diamond Beach is another stunner. Watch ice pieces washing up with the waves and see first-hand the dramatic contrast they present against the volcanic black sand. Unsurprisingly, this whole area has been featured in many a music video and feature film scene. It must be seen to be believed– it really is a place of such draw-dropping natural beauty.
3. Snæfellsjökull National Park
Snæfellsjökull National Park is the youngest national park in Iceland. Established in 2001, it covers an area of 170 square kilometers. Snæfellsjökull is named after the peninsular that it sits on and its namesake volcano. The meaning of the name is Snow Peak and this glacier topped volcano peak is as dramatic as it sounds.
This mighty 700,000-year-old volcano rises up 1500m and sits right at the tip of the peninsular which dominates the scene. In fact, depending on visibility, it can often be seen across the water from Reykjavik some 120km away. In summer it is possible to hike to its summit. But it’s a challenging trail and only suitable for experienced hikers.
Things to do at the Snæfellsjökull National Park
Snæfellsjökull National Park is relatively small and compact but fortunately there are still a wealth of things to do. The landscapes here are so varied that it is often referred to as ‘Iceland in miniature’. With fascinating coastal rock formations, lava tubes, beaches, glaciers, hot springs, volcanoes and waterfalls, there are many natural wonders to explore.
The coastal hiking here is some of the best in the country. With interesting cave systems and volcanic sea stacks dotted along rugged cliffs, there are some wonderful walks to be enjoyed between pretty little fishing villages. After your coast path hike, reward yourself with a hearty local lunch.
One of the most famous sights within the Snæfellsjökull National Park has to be Kirkjufell. This distinctive arrow-shaped mountain was featured in the HBO series Game of Thrones. Its striking pointed formation will be recognisable to any fan. But for those who are none the wiser it is a beautiful sight in itself.
In fact, along with the lovely Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall, Kirkjufell is likely one of the most photographed views in all of Iceland. The diminutive Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall usually appears in the foreground. It really is a beautiful place to sit and contemplate the wonders of nature, whether you choose to Instagram it or not.
Come and visit Iceland Nationals Parks!
Iceland is known as the Land of Fire and Ice, and we are blessed with an abundance of natural beauty here. No visit would be complete without a stop at an Iceland national park. Each park has its own charm and activities to enjoy, it’s just up to you which one to choose!
Rent your car today and enjoy these parks as much as we do!