Vatnajokull National Park is Iceland’s largest national park and boasts the largest glacier in Europe; Vatnajokull (three guesses where the park’s name comes from). So, it’s no surprise that so many visitors have Vatnajokull on their Iceland trip itineraries.
But what do you really know about this amazing place and natural wonder? In this article, we dive into Vatnajokull National Park and everything there is to do and see there and give you the lowdown on Europe’s largest ice cap; Vatnajokull Glacier.
Quick Facts about Vatnajokull
Vatnajokull National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Vatnajokull National Park is not just the largest national park in Iceland, but all of Europe.
The park is over 12,000 square kilometers and essentially makes up 14% of Iceland.
This also gets put into a new perspective when taking into account that Vatnajokull Glacier is roughly 8100 square kilometers, which makes up 8% of Iceland’s landmass.
The Vatnajokull Glacier has an average thickness of 400 meters, but is a staggering 1000 meters thick in certain places!
There are only two glaciers in Iceland that have so much water constantly draining into the sea, and Vatnajokull is one of them.
There are multiple volcanoes lying underneath Vatnajokull.
Whilst Vatnajokull was actively growing till 1930, it has been shrinking ever since due to volcanic activity and global climate change.
Both Vatnajokull National Park and Vatnajokull Glacier have made appearances on the big and small screen. They’ve been filming locations for famous movies such as Batman Begins, The Fantastic Four, James Bond, and Tomb Raider, as well as popular TV series such as Game of Thrones.
Vatnajokull National Park
Vatnajokull National Park can be found in the southwestern part of Iceland. As one (and the biggest) of the three national parks here in Iceland, it has steadily grown over the years with the incorporation of other nature reserves along its borders, such as Skaftafell.
Vatnajokull National Park has much more going for it than just Vatnajokull Glacier. You can see volcanoes such as Askja, hike the scenic Jokulsarglufur Canyon, visit the second most powerful waterfall in Europe, Dettifoss, and much, much more.
Visiting the park is completely free of charge, and since it’s so conveniently located close to the Ring Road, many visitors opt to include the park as a stop on their road trip around the island. And since there is so much to do there, they tend to stay at least a couple of nights.
For those wondering exactly where Vatnajokull is located inside the national park, the answer is that you can’t miss it.
It covers a lot of the park, including Oraefajokull Volcano and Hvannadalshnjukur (Iceland’s highest and therefore most visible peaks), and the glacier is known as being the largest glacier in Iceland, and, in fact, all of Europe, it is practically impossible to drive into Vatnajokull National Park and not get a glimpse of the glacier.
Not only is the glacier pretty impressive to look at, but you’ll find plenty of things to do such as:
Vatnajokull Glacier Hiking is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and doesn’t just consist of traversing the gigantic mass of ice. A Vatnajokull glacier walk offers breathtaking views, majestic mountains, the purest of glacial streams, and crossing bridges of ice. Due to safety reasons, this is an activity that can only be done via a guided tour, and all equipment and gear are provided.
Exploring the Glacier via Snowmobile
This is an activity for those who like to get the blood pumping. Cruising across Vatnajokull in a snowmobile means zipping past glacier tongues, and through slopes, whilst getting to learn all there is to know about this magnificent glacier. As with hiking, snowmobiling can only be done via a guided tour.
Vatnajokull Ice Caves
Visiting the Vatnajokull ice caves is probably the most popular activity amongst visitors to the island. Here’s what you need to know if you’ve got them on your Icelandic bucket list:
How were the Vatnajokull Glacier Caves Formed?
The majority of Vatnajokull glacier caves were formed by rivers of melted glacier water tunneling their way through the glacier. Keep in mind that this melting/freezing process continues every year with the changing of the seasons, and that is why we say you can never visit the same ice cave twice; the ice cave you visited a year ago might look completely different today.
Visiting Vatnajokull Ice Caves
It’s important to note that visiting the ice caves in Iceland is a seasonal activity, and most of the caves on the island are kept closed throughout the warmer months of the year (ice melts in the heat, remember?). Due to safety concerns, you can also only visit the Vatnajokull ice caves via guided tour, so be sure to book your spot.
Getting to Vatnajokull National Park
There are a few ways of getting to Vatnajokull National Park:
There are many guided tour operators offering a wide variety of tour options to visit Vatnajokull National Park. Whether as a guided day tour or as part of a multi-day holiday tour package – you’ll find at least one that will suit your needs. Just keep in mind that these tours can become very expensive, and you will have no say or control over your time or trip itinerary.
It is incredibly easy to drive from Reykjavik to Vatnajokull National Park; just get on the Ring Road and keep driving ‘till you hit the park. This is also why many incorporate the park into their Ring Road road trip.
Getting from Reykjavik to Vatnajokull doesn’t take too long (between 4-7 hours depending on the season and the Iceland weather), but that’s also why we recommend that you stay over. Exploring Vatnajokull National Park for just a couple of hours before you have to head back will simply not be enough time to get to see and do all this amazing reserve has to offer.
Where to Stay at Vatnajokull National Park
You will find a wide variety of Vatnajokull accommodation in the area that will suit every preference and every pocket. If you want to truly immerse yourself in the Icelandic landscape whilst cutting down on accommodation costs, we recommend that you camp at the Vatnajokull Campground.
If you’re looking for a guesthouse, why not try Reynivellir Guesthouse or Brunnholl Country Guesthouse? And if you want to upgrade to a bit of luxury, you can opt for the Fosshotel Vatnajokull or Hotel Skaftafell.
Vatnajokull National Park: Your Gateway to the Largest Glacier in Europe and More!
As you can see, visiting Vatnajokull in Iceland offers much more than just marveling at Vatnajokull Glacier. Based on the convenient location, the best way to experience the area is to rent a car in Iceland and to road trip the Ring Road, adding Vatnajokull to your trip itinerary – it promises to be the adventure of a lifetime!