Vatnajökull National Park: Your guide

Find out about Iceland’s big scenery, from mountains to ice caves and volcanoes to glacier lakes with our guide to Vatnajökull National Park.

January 27, 2023

Vatnajökull National Park: Your guide

Find out about Iceland’s big scenery, from mountains to ice caves and volcanoes to glacier lakes with our guide to Vatnajökull National Park.

January 27, 2023

Covering around 14% of Iceland’s total landmass, Vatnajökull National Park is a vast area of craggy mountains and subterranean volcanoes and is home to Europe’s largest glacier. Vatnajökull ice cap sits atop some of the most active volcanoes in the country – the crater summit of one is Iceland’s tallest peak and hiking there and back can be achieved in a day. Apart from Iceland’s tallest peak, you’ll also find tumbling waterfalls and glacier lakes within the confines of Vatnajökull National Park. Glacier tours in Iceland can be the perfect introduction to Vatnajökull glacier and in the right season, you might be able to experience the country’s largest ice cave. Ready to learn everything there is to know about Vatnajökull National Park? Because we’ve got you covered with our complete guide.

About Vatnajökull National Park

Between 1000 and 1500 years ago, shifting glacial ice morphed and merged to form what we now call the Vatnajökull ice cap. It’s considered the oldest glacier in Iceland and Vatnajökull and the surrounding area was granted national park status in 2008, merging with the already-existent Skaftafell and Jökulsárgljúfur national parks to create the biggest national park in Iceland.

The name Vatnajökull can be roughly translated as “water glacier” and this vast icy sheet covers around 7700 square kilometres (nearly 3000 square miles) and accounts for almost 8% of Iceland’s landmass, while the entire national park accounts for around 14% of Iceland’s territory.

Seismic activity bubbles beneath Vatnajökull’s frozen surface as three volcanoes lurk below – Grímsvötn, Öraefajökull and Bardarbunga. A little closer to the surface, you can explore a shimmering blue world of frozen tunnels on an ice cave tour. Glacier walks run year-round with professional guides and equipment, and you can also embark on a snowmobile session here during winter or summer. Ice caves in Iceland tend to only be accessible in winter as the melting ice in summer conceals their entryways and makes conditions too dangerous.

Attractions in Vatnajökull national park

This huge national park has all kinds of experiences and activities for adventure-seekers and outdoor enthusiasts alike. A glacier hike can be a thrilling introduction to Iceland’s frozen landscape, and can even involve delving into Iceland’s largest ice cave in the right season. The Anaconda Ice Cave (perhaps better known as the Crystal Ice Cave) is a sight to behold. Walls as clear as glass surround you, moulded into ethereal shapes by an ancient river. A little waterfall cascades near the entrance and in the centre of the cave, it is pitch black so you can be alone with nothing but the deep quiet of the glacier.

Those looking for a bit more of an adrenaline rush can opt for a snowmobile tour of the ice cap. For a more leisurely experience, a boat ride on a glacial lake means you can spot glowing blue ice floating in the water and perhaps even hear the crack of millennia-old glacier ice falling into the water.

In the highlands of the national park, you’ve got hiking trails that are only accessible in summer as small, unpaved roads are the only way to reach this uninhabited part of the island. Within Vatnajökull national park lies Hvannadalshnjúkur – Iceland’s highest peak and a popular spot for challenging day hikes in summer. A few easier trails begin from Skaftafell, taking in rugged mountains and waterfalls. If you’re looking for Iceland’s famous cascades, you’ll find Svartifoss in the Skaftafell area – a tall waterfall tumbling from twisting rocks, formed centuries ago by volcanic activity.

Within the parkland, you’ll also find Jökulsárlón glacier lake where glowing blue blocks of ice float on the water. You can experience this spot from the shore or head out on a boat tour. Just across the road, the diamond beach boasts jet-black sand littered with crystal-clear orbs of ice as the sea foams on the shore. It’s a photographer’s paradise.


Get up close and personal with Iceland’s glaciers and embrace this frozen landscape.


Vatnajokull

Covering a little over 11% of the island, glaciers in Iceland are emblematic of the scenery and provide lots of outdoor activities and experiences. You can discover ice caves, power across the ever-shifting surface on a snowmobile or strap on some crampons and enjoy a hike to experience these natural wonders for yourself.


Jöklsárlón glacier lagoon

Constantly fed by cracking ice from the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier (an outlet from Vatnajökull), icebergs float on the surface of Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, making it one of Iceland’s most beautiful scenes to witness. The ice seems to glow blue in the sunlight and you can embark on a Jökulsárlón tour by boat to get up close to the vast icebergs. It’s actually Iceland’s deepest lake at 200 metres deep in places.

While the glacier that feeds the lake has been a feature of the landscape for centuries, Jöklsárlón glacier lagoon wasn’t actually formed until the 1930s. It has quadrupled in size over the last fifty or so years, which is unfortunately a testament to an ever-warming world. Currently, the lake is about 8 kilometres (around 5 miles) from the shore and creeps ever closer to the black-sanded Diamond Beach across the road – named for the diamond-like shards of ice that are scattered along the sand. Once you’ve experienced the beauty of Jöklsárlón glacier lagoon, you can pop across the road to the Diamond Beach for a stroll amidst the ice blocks, or to snap photographs of this natural phenomenon as the ice glows golden at sunset.


Discover waterfalls, beaches and glaciers at Skaftafell National Park.


Jökulsárlón Glacier lagoon

Skaftafell National Park was made Iceland’s second national park back in the 1960s and was incorporated into Vatnajökull national park in 2008. But Skaftafell retains its own unique character across the landscape with waterfalls tumbling from ethereal rock formations and the wild Atlantic Ocean crashing against black-sand beaches.


Volcanoes in Vatnajökull

Even though it is a vast plain of ice, molten lava and brimstone simmer beneath the surface of Vatnajökull glacier. Three of Iceland’s major volcanoes are covered by the ice cap – Grímsvötn, Öraefajökull and Bardarbunga. Grímsvötn, beneath the northwest section of the glacier, is one of the country’s most active volcanoes and volcanologists have predicted that we’re entering a lively period in which it will erupt every two to seven years. As recently as 2011 saw a four-day eruption period when Grímsvötn spurted ash into the air, disrupting air traffic across Iceland, Greenland, the UK and Norway.

Öraefajökull is the largest active volcano in Iceland. At the southern extremity of the Vatnajökull glacier, you can spot this huge peak looming above the landscape from the ring road between Vik and Hofn. On the summit crater's northwestern rim is Hvannadalshnúkur, the highest peak in Iceland at 2,110 metres (6,920 feet). Although it is an active volcano, Iceland hasn’t seen a disastrous eruption from Öraefajökull since the 18th century when meltwater swept a local farm away. Seismic activity was recorded in the area in 2017 and 2018 though.

On the northwest side of Vatnajökull, you’ll find Bardarbunga volcano, whose most recent eruption in 2014-2015 was a sight to behold. With lava glowing orange and smokestacks belching into the sky, it was the kind of dramatic eruption you see in Hollywood disaster movies. Although there were large volumes of sulphur dioxide that impacted air quality in Iceland, there were no fatalities.

How to dress for Vatnajökull national park

Ask anyone in any season what to wear in Iceland and the answer will always be “layers”. In summer, it’s all about wicking t-shirts to keep you cool with a long-sleeve jumper at the ready should a chill wind pick up. There’s always a chance of rain in Iceland so waterproof jackets are essential. It can get very cold in Iceland in winter, especially up on the ice caps and in the hills of Vatnajökull national park. So, thick woolly jumpers and woolly socks paired with waterproof jackets, trousers and shoes are a good idea to keep warm. Hat, gloves and scarves are essential in winter, no matter where you are in Iceland. Even if the sun is shining as you leave your hotel, the weather can change in a split second without warning so it is best to be prepared for anything. Hence, layers.

Waterproof, insulated gloves are a lifesaver if you’re taking a snowmobile trip onto Vatnajökull glacier as your hands will be exposed to the elements as you grip the handles. And, for those embarking on a glacier hike, you’ll want to wear sturdy waterproof walking boots in order to fit on crampons. For activities like glacier hikes and snowmobiling, helmets, crampons and ice axes are usually included.

Frequently Asked Questions

If you’ve still got questions, we’ve got a little more information about Vatnajökull national park. Here are some of the frequently asked questions about Vatnajökull.

Can you visit Vatnajökull?

It’s possible to visit Vatnajökull National Park at any time of year, although some specific sights in the area are seasonal. For example, the natural ice caves of Vatnajökull glacier are only accessible in the colder months as glacial melt in summer can obstruct the entrances. On the other end of the spectrum, some of the hiking trails in the very heart of Vatnajökull national park can only be accessed in summer as snowfall and bad weather can make the narrow, unpaved roads into the highlands impassable. Iceland’s highest peak, Hvannadalshnúkur, within the national park, is best tackled on a day hike during the summer when the daylight hours are longer, giving you enough time to make the long trek to the top and back.

What is Vatnajökull famous for?

There are loads of natural wonders and striking elements to Vatnajökull’s landscape. In the south of the national park – technically in the Skaftafell nature reserve – you’ll find cascading waterfalls and black-sanded beaches. There’s also Jöklsárlón glacier lagoon within the national park, which is one of Iceland’s most famous attractions. But what Vatnajökull is most famous for has to be the Vatnajökull glacier itself – the country’s largest glacier where you can embark on a glacier hike, ice cave experience or snowmobile adventure.

What is the best glacier tour in Iceland?

If you’re looking for the closest glacier to Reykjavik, it’s got to be a trip to Langjökull glacier for hiking, snowmobiling and exploring the man-made ice cave (which is open year-round). However, if you’ve got the time to travel further, Vatnajökull offers a mesmerising landscape. Ice caves like the Anaconda Ice Cave (also known as the Crystal Ice Cave) feel like stepping into a world of glass. It’s the largest natural ice cave in Iceland. Glacier tours to Vatnajökull often include a guided walk through the ice cave and the interior has to be seen to be believed.

Can you go to Vatnajökull glacier by yourself?

It is possible to drive to Vatnajökull national park by yourself by following the ring road from Reykjavik. It’s a long drive and the area around Vatnajökull is a great place to stop for a night if you’re driving the entire route around the island. However, for experiences like glacier hiking, snowmobiling and ice cave exploration, going by yourself is not advised. On glacier hikes, large cracks in the ice can be covered by snow and without a professional guide showing you the best and safest route, you may end up in trouble on the ice. Likewise, with the ice caves in Vatnajökull, you should never try to access these by yourself. Ice caves are constantly changing and are dangerous environments. You need a trained guide to lead you through the ice cave with all the proper safety equipment.

How do you get to Vatnajökull glacier?

From Reykjavik to the outskirts of Vatnajökull national park, it’s around 320 kilometres (about 200 miles). The drive is along the main Route One ring road that circumnavigates the entire island of Iceland and can take anywhere between four and seven hours, depending on weather conditions. Of course, you may also want to stop and stretch your legs along the way and places like Selfoss waterfall and the black-sanded beach at Vik can provide excellent opportunities for a break paired with a bit of sightseeing.

As it is so far from Reykjavik and road conditions can change so quickly, the best way to reach Vatnajökull is on a guided tour where an experienced Icelandic driver and guide take the hassle out of getting there.

So, that’s everything you need to know about Vatnajökull National Park. It’s home to big scenery in the most literal way – Europe’s largest glacier and Iceland’s tallest peak and biggest ice cave. You can get up close and personal with the famous Crystal Cave in Vatnajökull glacier on one of Iceland’s ice cave tours, or perhaps explore the glacier scenery from atop a snowmobile. Hiking enthusiasts can embark on day walks into the uninhabited highlands of the island, snaking across the mountains of the national park. Those that prefer a more sedate way to see some spectacular scenery can take a boat trip onto Jökulsárlón glacier lake before stopping at the Diamond Beach for a photography session. By far the largest national park in Iceland, there are plenty of things to see and do in Vatnajökull National Park.

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Vatnajökull National Park: Your guide

Find out about Iceland’s big scenery, from mountains to ice caves and volcanoes to glacier lakes with our guide to Vatnajökull National Park.

January 27, 2023

Vatnajökull National Park: Your guide

Find out about Iceland’s big scenery, from mountains to ice caves and volcanoes to glacier lakes with our guide to Vatnajökull National Park.

January 27, 2023

Covering around 14% of Iceland’s total landmass, Vatnajökull National Park is a vast area of craggy mountains and subterranean volcanoes and is home to Europe’s largest glacier. Vatnajökull ice cap sits atop some of the most active volcanoes in the country – the crater summit of one is Iceland’s tallest peak and hiking there and back can be achieved in a day. Apart from Iceland’s tallest peak, you’ll also find tumbling waterfalls and glacier lakes within the confines of Vatnajökull National Park. Glacier tours in Iceland can be the perfect introduction to Vatnajökull glacier and in the right season, you might be able to experience the country’s largest ice cave. Ready to learn everything there is to know about Vatnajökull National Park? Because we’ve got you covered with our complete guide.

About Vatnajökull National Park

Between 1000 and 1500 years ago, shifting glacial ice morphed and merged to form what we now call the Vatnajökull ice cap. It’s considered the oldest glacier in Iceland and Vatnajökull and the surrounding area was granted national park status in 2008, merging with the already-existent Skaftafell and Jökulsárgljúfur national parks to create the biggest national park in Iceland.

The name Vatnajökull can be roughly translated as “water glacier” and this vast icy sheet covers around 7700 square kilometres (nearly 3000 square miles) and accounts for almost 8% of Iceland’s landmass, while the entire national park accounts for around 14% of Iceland’s territory.

Seismic activity bubbles beneath Vatnajökull’s frozen surface as three volcanoes lurk below – Grímsvötn, Öraefajökull and Bardarbunga. A little closer to the surface, you can explore a shimmering blue world of frozen tunnels on an ice cave tour. Glacier walks run year-round with professional guides and equipment, and you can also embark on a snowmobile session here during winter or summer. Ice caves in Iceland tend to only be accessible in winter as the melting ice in summer conceals their entryways and makes conditions too dangerous.

Attractions in Vatnajökull national park

This huge national park has all kinds of experiences and activities for adventure-seekers and outdoor enthusiasts alike. A glacier hike can be a thrilling introduction to Iceland’s frozen landscape, and can even involve delving into Iceland’s largest ice cave in the right season. The Anaconda Ice Cave (perhaps better known as the Crystal Ice Cave) is a sight to behold. Walls as clear as glass surround you, moulded into ethereal shapes by an ancient river. A little waterfall cascades near the entrance and in the centre of the cave, it is pitch black so you can be alone with nothing but the deep quiet of the glacier.

Those looking for a bit more of an adrenaline rush can opt for a snowmobile tour of the ice cap. For a more leisurely experience, a boat ride on a glacial lake means you can spot glowing blue ice floating in the water and perhaps even hear the crack of millennia-old glacier ice falling into the water.

In the highlands of the national park, you’ve got hiking trails that are only accessible in summer as small, unpaved roads are the only way to reach this uninhabited part of the island. Within Vatnajökull national park lies Hvannadalshnjúkur – Iceland’s highest peak and a popular spot for challenging day hikes in summer. A few easier trails begin from Skaftafell, taking in rugged mountains and waterfalls. If you’re looking for Iceland’s famous cascades, you’ll find Svartifoss in the Skaftafell area – a tall waterfall tumbling from twisting rocks, formed centuries ago by volcanic activity.

Within the parkland, you’ll also find Jökulsárlón glacier lake where glowing blue blocks of ice float on the water. You can experience this spot from the shore or head out on a boat tour. Just across the road, the diamond beach boasts jet-black sand littered with crystal-clear orbs of ice as the sea foams on the shore. It’s a photographer’s paradise.


Get up close and personal with Iceland’s glaciers and embrace this frozen landscape.


Vatnajokull

Covering a little over 11% of the island, glaciers in Iceland are emblematic of the scenery and provide lots of outdoor activities and experiences. You can discover ice caves, power across the ever-shifting surface on a snowmobile or strap on some crampons and enjoy a hike to experience these natural wonders for yourself.


Jöklsárlón glacier lagoon

Constantly fed by cracking ice from the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier (an outlet from Vatnajökull), icebergs float on the surface of Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, making it one of Iceland’s most beautiful scenes to witness. The ice seems to glow blue in the sunlight and you can embark on a Jökulsárlón tour by boat to get up close to the vast icebergs. It’s actually Iceland’s deepest lake at 200 metres deep in places.

While the glacier that feeds the lake has been a feature of the landscape for centuries, Jöklsárlón glacier lagoon wasn’t actually formed until the 1930s. It has quadrupled in size over the last fifty or so years, which is unfortunately a testament to an ever-warming world. Currently, the lake is about 8 kilometres (around 5 miles) from the shore and creeps ever closer to the black-sanded Diamond Beach across the road – named for the diamond-like shards of ice that are scattered along the sand. Once you’ve experienced the beauty of Jöklsárlón glacier lagoon, you can pop across the road to the Diamond Beach for a stroll amidst the ice blocks, or to snap photographs of this natural phenomenon as the ice glows golden at sunset.


Discover waterfalls, beaches and glaciers at Skaftafell National Park.


Jökulsárlón Glacier lagoon

Skaftafell National Park was made Iceland’s second national park back in the 1960s and was incorporated into Vatnajökull national park in 2008. But Skaftafell retains its own unique character across the landscape with waterfalls tumbling from ethereal rock formations and the wild Atlantic Ocean crashing against black-sand beaches.


Volcanoes in Vatnajökull

Even though it is a vast plain of ice, molten lava and brimstone simmer beneath the surface of Vatnajökull glacier. Three of Iceland’s major volcanoes are covered by the ice cap – Grímsvötn, Öraefajökull and Bardarbunga. Grímsvötn, beneath the northwest section of the glacier, is one of the country’s most active volcanoes and volcanologists have predicted that we’re entering a lively period in which it will erupt every two to seven years. As recently as 2011 saw a four-day eruption period when Grímsvötn spurted ash into the air, disrupting air traffic across Iceland, Greenland, the UK and Norway.

Öraefajökull is the largest active volcano in Iceland. At the southern extremity of the Vatnajökull glacier, you can spot this huge peak looming above the landscape from the ring road between Vik and Hofn. On the summit crater's northwestern rim is Hvannadalshnúkur, the highest peak in Iceland at 2,110 metres (6,920 feet). Although it is an active volcano, Iceland hasn’t seen a disastrous eruption from Öraefajökull since the 18th century when meltwater swept a local farm away. Seismic activity was recorded in the area in 2017 and 2018 though.

On the northwest side of Vatnajökull, you’ll find Bardarbunga volcano, whose most recent eruption in 2014-2015 was a sight to behold. With lava glowing orange and smokestacks belching into the sky, it was the kind of dramatic eruption you see in Hollywood disaster movies. Although there were large volumes of sulphur dioxide that impacted air quality in Iceland, there were no fatalities.

How to dress for Vatnajökull national park

Ask anyone in any season what to wear in Iceland and the answer will always be “layers”. In summer, it’s all about wicking t-shirts to keep you cool with a long-sleeve jumper at the ready should a chill wind pick up. There’s always a chance of rain in Iceland so waterproof jackets are essential. It can get very cold in Iceland in winter, especially up on the ice caps and in the hills of Vatnajökull national park. So, thick woolly jumpers and woolly socks paired with waterproof jackets, trousers and shoes are a good idea to keep warm. Hat, gloves and scarves are essential in winter, no matter where you are in Iceland. Even if the sun is shining as you leave your hotel, the weather can change in a split second without warning so it is best to be prepared for anything. Hence, layers.

Waterproof, insulated gloves are a lifesaver if you’re taking a snowmobile trip onto Vatnajökull glacier as your hands will be exposed to the elements as you grip the handles. And, for those embarking on a glacier hike, you’ll want to wear sturdy waterproof walking boots in order to fit on crampons. For activities like glacier hikes and snowmobiling, helmets, crampons and ice axes are usually included.

Frequently Asked Questions

If you’ve still got questions, we’ve got a little more information about Vatnajökull national park. Here are some of the frequently asked questions about Vatnajökull.

Can you visit Vatnajökull?

It’s possible to visit Vatnajökull National Park at any time of year, although some specific sights in the area are seasonal. For example, the natural ice caves of Vatnajökull glacier are only accessible in the colder months as glacial melt in summer can obstruct the entrances. On the other end of the spectrum, some of the hiking trails in the very heart of Vatnajökull national park can only be accessed in summer as snowfall and bad weather can make the narrow, unpaved roads into the highlands impassable. Iceland’s highest peak, Hvannadalshnúkur, within the national park, is best tackled on a day hike during the summer when the daylight hours are longer, giving you enough time to make the long trek to the top and back.

What is Vatnajökull famous for?

There are loads of natural wonders and striking elements to Vatnajökull’s landscape. In the south of the national park – technically in the Skaftafell nature reserve – you’ll find cascading waterfalls and black-sanded beaches. There’s also Jöklsárlón glacier lagoon within the national park, which is one of Iceland’s most famous attractions. But what Vatnajökull is most famous for has to be the Vatnajökull glacier itself – the country’s largest glacier where you can embark on a glacier hike, ice cave experience or snowmobile adventure.

What is the best glacier tour in Iceland?

If you’re looking for the closest glacier to Reykjavik, it’s got to be a trip to Langjökull glacier for hiking, snowmobiling and exploring the man-made ice cave (which is open year-round). However, if you’ve got the time to travel further, Vatnajökull offers a mesmerising landscape. Ice caves like the Anaconda Ice Cave (also known as the Crystal Ice Cave) feel like stepping into a world of glass. It’s the largest natural ice cave in Iceland. Glacier tours to Vatnajökull often include a guided walk through the ice cave and the interior has to be seen to be believed.

Can you go to Vatnajökull glacier by yourself?

It is possible to drive to Vatnajökull national park by yourself by following the ring road from Reykjavik. It’s a long drive and the area around Vatnajökull is a great place to stop for a night if you’re driving the entire route around the island. However, for experiences like glacier hiking, snowmobiling and ice cave exploration, going by yourself is not advised. On glacier hikes, large cracks in the ice can be covered by snow and without a professional guide showing you the best and safest route, you may end up in trouble on the ice. Likewise, with the ice caves in Vatnajökull, you should never try to access these by yourself. Ice caves are constantly changing and are dangerous environments. You need a trained guide to lead you through the ice cave with all the proper safety equipment.

How do you get to Vatnajökull glacier?

From Reykjavik to the outskirts of Vatnajökull national park, it’s around 320 kilometres (about 200 miles). The drive is along the main Route One ring road that circumnavigates the entire island of Iceland and can take anywhere between four and seven hours, depending on weather conditions. Of course, you may also want to stop and stretch your legs along the way and places like Selfoss waterfall and the black-sanded beach at Vik can provide excellent opportunities for a break paired with a bit of sightseeing.

As it is so far from Reykjavik and road conditions can change so quickly, the best way to reach Vatnajökull is on a guided tour where an experienced Icelandic driver and guide take the hassle out of getting there.

So, that’s everything you need to know about Vatnajökull National Park. It’s home to big scenery in the most literal way – Europe’s largest glacier and Iceland’s tallest peak and biggest ice cave. You can get up close and personal with the famous Crystal Cave in Vatnajökull glacier on one of Iceland’s ice cave tours, or perhaps explore the glacier scenery from atop a snowmobile. Hiking enthusiasts can embark on day walks into the uninhabited highlands of the island, snaking across the mountains of the national park. Those that prefer a more sedate way to see some spectacular scenery can take a boat trip onto Jökulsárlón glacier lake before stopping at the Diamond Beach for a photography session. By far the largest national park in Iceland, there are plenty of things to see and do in Vatnajökull National Park.

REYKJAVIK EXCURSIONS BLOG

Get inspired! Information and tips and must see places in Iceland, fun facts, customs and more.