The three national parks in Iceland offer plenty of experiences, despite their shy numbers. They carry historical, cultural, and natural weight, and you will likely have to plan several visits to properly experience all of them.
Iceland is all about nature, history, and culture. It comes as no surprise that they want to make sure these things stay protected with the massive numbers of visitors coming in each year. This is why a large area is dedicated to the national parks of Iceland, and we have all the info you need to make the best of your visit.
The National Parks in Iceland
Nature is the name of the game for this mystical island nation, so is the country completely overridden by national parks? Despite the nationwide love for nature and the shy size of the country, Iceland only has three national parks. But if you look at an Iceland national parks map, you’ll see that they cover roughly 14% of the country. Not too shabby for three parks.
Two out of these three national parks in Iceland are listed as UNESCO world heritage sites for different reasons. The third would have to “settle” with being the main location in a piece of world-renowned literature by a remarkable author.
The three national parks are Thingvellir, Snæfellsjökull, and Vatnajökull. Despite being one of the best things to do in Iceland, admission to all of them is free, even if the tours and services will come at a cost. You can’t close nature, so all Iceland parks will be open all year round. However, parts of them (like special attractions and places that are dangerous to navigate in the dark) might be closed off at night or when the weather is not on our side.
Thingvellir National Park
Among the national parks in Iceland, Thingvellir is the one that has had visitors for the longest time. The Althing assembly started gathering here way back in the 930s, That’s when the original Vikings lived on the land and needed a place to settle disputes. The regional leaders would gather and talk on behalf of the people who lived on their land or close to it. It’s an early form of representative democracy that is now the oldest still-functioning parliamentary assembly in the world.
This place is held in high regard by the Icelanders, for obvious reasons, and is a crucial part of the Golden Circle that you can take from Reykjavík as a trip for two or three days. It’s one of the spots we recommend visiting in the southern part of Iceland.
Things To Do
As with all the national parks in Iceland, there are plenty of things to do here. The most common way to experience Thingvellir National Park is to go through it as a part of the Golden Circle, but you can easily spend a couple of days just exploring the park. The most popular things to do in Thingvellir include:
- Diving in the Silfra and/or Davíðsgjá rifts. To do this, you need to either be certified or have had 10 registered dry suit dives in the last two years. Diving in a wetsuit is now prohibited, which is met without protests since the water is just 4 °C “warm”.
- Horseback riding on the many horse trails. Why not experience Thingvellir just like the Vikings did centuries ago?
- Hiking is an all-time favorite in Iceland, and Thingvellir National Park is no exception. There are many hiking trails to take around the park to enjoy the beautiful nature and rich, historical heritage.
- Iceland is known for fishing. So, it comes as no surprise that there will be some angling going on around the large Thingevllir Lake in the southern part of the park.
- There are numerous camping grounds scattered around the park, so bring a tent if you wish to hike or ride around on the old trails.
- Last but not least: Thingvellir sits on an incredible historical heritage that is an absolute must when you travel here. An award-winning exhibition about history and nature can be found right in the Visitor’s Center and is a good place to start before you head out.
Snæfellsjökull National Park
Despite having little to hold against the other two national parks in Iceland, Snæfellsjökull national park is one of the most visited ones in the country. This is the runt of the litter and measures as the smallest of the Iceland parks, but that isn’t holding it back!
This is one of the national parks in Iceland that is the closest to the capital, just 2 hours and 40 minutes away. Just like Thingvellir holds a lot of historical value among the national parks in Iceland, Snaefellsjökull holds a lot of cultural value. The most known Icelandic story is that of the giant/man hybrid, Bardur, that was said to live in the mountains and protect the inhabitants from evil.
This national park is relatively young, as it was founded in 2001, but it has made an impact on the cultural world for over 150 years. The most notable contribution is when Snaefellsjökull was used in Jules Verne’s story “Journey to the Center of the Earth” which came out in 1864. More recently, one of the mountain tops was used in Game of Thrones as a part of the Hound’s vision in Season 7.
One peculiar thing about this national park is that there are no designated camping grounds within the park itself. There are three camping grounds just on the outside of it, so better pitch your tent in any of those to avoid legal troubles.
Things to Do
“Nature and culture” is the name of the game in Snæfellsjökull. See below for a collection of places and activities to do:
- Djúpalondssandur is a beautiful black sand beach that holds the horrible remains of a British shipwreck from 1948.
- Vatnshellir is a 200-meter-long lava tube from over 8,000 years ago. You will have to go down a long spiral staircase to get to the cave floor, but it will be worth the long descent.
- Cave of Song is a must-visit with the characteristic echoes you can make in the tunnel.
- Raudfedsgja is a hidden gem, as you will need to navigate through a 40-metre-deep rift in a mountainside. In the end, you will be rewarded with a stunning waterfall that is tucked away from the world.
- Kirkjufell is the most photographed mountain in Iceland and is the arrowhead mountain from Game of Thrones.
Vatnajökull National Park
This is considered number one when rating the best national parks in Iceland. This achievement is not without cause, since this national park is humongous and covers everything about Icelandic nature. Vatnajökull National Park covers 13% of the surface in Iceland. That’s significant when you realize that the other two parks are splitting the last 1% of national parkland cover.
Vatnajökull National Park used to be several other parks, but got consolidated into one giant park in 2008. Now, the old parks are simply the seven parts that make up this massive, protected area:
- Skaftafell in the south.
- Jökulsarlon, Fjallsarlon, and Hornafjördur in the southeast.
- Snaefell and Lonsöraefi in the east.
- Odadahraun and Krepputunga in the center north.
- Jökulsargljufur in the far north.
- Nyidalur, Vonarskard, and Tugnaáröraefi in the northwest
- Laki, Eldgja, and Langisjor in the southwest.
Skaftafell is the only one of these areas that requires a service fee to enter, and you will have to pay between ISK 300 and ISK 9,000 depending on your vehicle. The pay scale goes according to passenger seats, so a motorcycle would only have to pay ISK 300, while a bus with more than 65 seats would have to pay ISK 9,000.
Things to Do
For the highland adventures, we suggest adding it to your “things to do in Iceland in the summer” list. In the wintertime, the roads are closed off for vehicles. These areas will together offer a myriad of activities and places, so we compiled a list of our favorites:
- Climb Iceland’s highest mountain, Hvannadalshnjukur in Skaftafell.
- Go on a boat ride and see the amazing Jökulsarlon floating icebergs and the stunning Diamond beach.
- Spot the Icelandic Reindeer in the eastern highlands in Snaefell.
- Experience the unwelcome and otherworldly landscape of Odadahraun. It’s like stepping into a fantasy saga.
- View the hoof print of Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse, in Asbyrgi in Jökulsargljufur.
- Hike in the true Iceland highlands in the north-western Nyidalur.
- See the remnants of Laki – the volcano that covered a quarter of the earth in toxic mist and ash in 1783.
There is no doubt that there are plenty of places to see and attractions to visit in the national parks in Iceland. The best way to do this is by making a road trip out of it. If you grab a campervan, you can not only cut down on accommodation costs, but also see these attractions with unlimited freedom. Iceland's landscapes will certainly never disappoint. Start planning your route today!