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Vatnajökull is Iceland’s largest ice cap and covers around 10% of the entire island. Plugging a vast volcanic system below the ground, it epitomises Iceland’s nickname as the Land of Ice and Fire. There are plenty of ways to explore this huge expanse of frozen wilderness, from glacier hikes to boat tours and waterfall trails.
View of Hvannadalshnúkur peak in Vatnajökull with an adjacent outlet glacier.
Best time to visit
All year round
Distance from Reykjavík
330 km (205 mi)
64.078539, -16.981396

Exploring Vatnajökull National Park

History of Vatnajökull

The formation of Vatnajökull glacier as we know it today pre-dates settlers in Iceland. Around 1,500 years ago, this vast ice cap was formed by the coalescence of several smaller glaciers from high in the mountains. So when settlers arrived around 870 AD, Vatnajökull had already been formed.

Combined, the ancient glaciers covered a huge swathe of land and today Vatnajökull glacier is between 8,100 and 8,300 square kilometres in size. It’s almost impossible to declare the exact size of Vatnajökull at any one time as its outlet glaciers move slowly every year – creeping forward by around one metre a day over the summer months.

In June 2008, Vatnajökull National Park was officially established, covering the glacier and surrounding area, including Jökulsárgljúfur and Skaftafell.

A person silhouetted against the luminous blue walls of an ice cave, emphasizing the vastness and ethereal beauty of the frozen cavern.

What to See and Do in Vatnajökull National Park

As Vatnajökull National Park is so big, there are loads of things to see and do. It’s all about outdoor adventures here. At Skaftafell, long hiking trails snake across the landscape and, you can hike to glacier viewpoints and the beautiful cascade of Svartifoss waterfall.

Get up close and personal with Vatnajökull glacier by joining a guided glacier walk on one of the many outlets. In winter, there’s a chance to explore natural ice caves. Vatnajökull ice caves allow you to see the sleek blue world inside an ice cap.

The only way to experience a glacier hike is on an organised excursion with a professional guide who will help you with the essential equipment and point out a path that avoids hidden ravines and sinkholes in the ice. You can even try skiing and ice climbing on Vatnajökull glacier under the guidance of a professional.

For a real challenge, there’s the opportunity to climb Iceland’s tallest peak in Vatnajökull National Park. Hvannadalshnjúkur stands at 2,110 metres above sea level and from the top, you’ve got a panorama of the ice caps and mountains that make up the national park. Guided expeditions leave from Skaftafell and take around fifteen hours from start to finish. Due to the length of the hike, it is only possible in the middle of summer when the long hours of daylight mean you don’t have to descend in the dark.

Within the national park, you’ll also find Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon where glowing blue icebergs float in the calm water. Boat tours leave from the shore, allowing you to get close enough to touch an iceberg and perhaps even hear the crack of ice breaking off from the glacier to float away in the lagoon. Just across the road, the black-sand Diamond Beach is a photographer’s dream. Crystal-clear ice litters the shore, sparkling in the sunlight.

Two adventurers in vibrant red jackets and safety helmets stand atop a brilliant blue glacier, with jagged ice formations providing a dramatic backdrop

The Area Around Vatnajökull National Park

Outside the national park, you’ve got a few accommodation options in the small settlements along the Route One road that runs along the south coast. You’ll find family-run guesthouses within isolated farmsteads and a handful of hostels, hotels and a campsite or two in the villages of Hof and Kirkjubæjarklaustur.

Most organised tours from Reykjavík to Vatnajökull are multi-day affairs as it takes nearly the whole day to drive from the capital, and there’s no way you want to miss the sights of the south coast along the way.

Most tours to Vatnajökull stop at some famous natural attractions on the South Coast, such as the black-sand beach of Reynisfjara, allowing travellers to stretch their legs while taking in some of Iceland’s unique scenery.

Seljalandsfoss waterfall is not to be missed either – where you can walk behind the cascade of water and admire the landscape beyond. And Skógafoss attracts the crowds with its rainbows dancing in the mist and easy hike up to the viewing point.

Organised tours to Vatnajökull already have these stops built in, so you don’t have to worry about missing out on anything along the way.

All About Vatnajökull National Park

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