Vatnajokull National Park: An Unforgettable Experience in Iceland


blog authorBy Johanna Sigurðardóttir shield verificationVerified Expert

    In a country with so many natural wonders and breathtaking landscapes, it’s no surprise that we boast plenty of national parks. The biggest one of all is Vatnajokull National Park. This park infamously is not just home to the largest glacier in Iceland, but the largest glacier in Europe, called Vatnajokull - hence the park’s name.

    Visiting Vatnajokull is definitely an experience one won’t soon forget. Visitors are spoiled for choice when it comes to attractions and all sorts of once-in-a-lifetime activities. This article tells you everything you need to know about this magical place and why you should have it on your Iceland trip itinerary.

    What to Know About Vatnajokull National Park

    Vatnajokull National Park covers 12,000 square kilometers, or 14% of Iceland. This makes it the biggest national park in Iceland and Europe. Vatnajokull Glacier (which, as mentioned, is Europe’s largest ice cap) takes up about 8100 of that 12,000 square kilometers, or about 8% of Iceland’s landmass.

    If you’ve ever wondered how humans can traverse the icy landscape of this glacier, its average width is 400 meters and can reach up to 1000 meters at places. The glacier is a true representation of the Land of Fire and Ice, as it covers multiple volcanoes. Knowing all this, it’s no wonder the park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

    Is There Any Wildlife in Vatnajökull National Park?

    Yes. As a national park, you will find certain animal and bird species. But Vatnajökull National Park is named after the largest glacier in Europe, which means that this park’s claim to fame is not really wildlife but ice and all the icy adventures that come along with such natural wonders.

    Still, you will find around 75 bird species, especially in the warmer southern part of the park. Some of the most famous are the Barnacle Goose, Great Skua, Pink-footed Goose, Wheatears, Rock Ptarmigan, and Gyrfalcon.

    There are also roughly 2000 reindeer roaming the plains, and when you’re near the icy lagoons or rivers inside the park, you’re likely to spot some of our Harbour Seals, and if you’re really lucky, you’ll get to spot our shy Icelandic Fox, the biggest of our predators on the island, that looks more like a cute and fluffy white Pomeranian than a fierce carnivore.

    Vatnajokull fauna

    The Cultural and Historical Significance of Vatnajökull National Park

    Iceland is a country rich in history and culture, which is apparent when visiting Vatnajökull National Park. The area contains many remains of old, abandoned farms and the remnants of the fishing industry.

    There are also signs (and treasures left behind) by the many who used the travel routes through the region, traversing the rough terrain and crossing glaciers and rivers. There are even a few of the old shepherd huts that have been converted into hiking lodges. 

    But it’s not just travelers and settlers that called the region home. For example, if you visit Herdubreidarlindir and Hvannalindir, you will find the remnants of some outlaws who used the area as a hideaway.

    The Geological Wonders of Vatnajökull National Park Explained

    Vatnajökull National Park is a great representation of what it means to be the Land of Fire and Ice. From volcanoes to glaciers, here’s how the geology of Vatnajökull National Park shapes its landscape:

    The Rift

    For those who don’t know, Iceland sits on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates push apart. The reason why Iceland is so high in volcanic activity because of the constant movement of the plates and the fact that it’s where a mantle plume originates from (hot, mantle rock rising to the surface in a column). The very center of this mantle plume can be found in the northwest of Vatnajökull National Park.

    The Volcanoes

    A volcanic zone inevitably has its fair share of volcanoes. In Vatnajökull National Park, you will find 10, with 7 of them lying underneath the ice cap. Here, almost every eruption is also captured in the historical journal of the ice as black ash streaks can be found everywhere, all the way from the glacier surface to the deep crevasses and ice cave walls.

    Europe largest ice cap

    The Glaciers

    The Glaciers are half of the equation for the ever-changing landscape of Iceland, due to the constant clash of the elements. Whenever there is a volcanic eruption, there is also glacial flooding, which changes the area. Today, it is not just the volcanoes that results in the glaciers melting. Global warming has heavily impacted these icy wonders, and even Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe, is predicted (based on actual scientific data, of course) to be at least half its current size in the year 2100.

    The Contrasting Terrain of Vatnajökull National Park

    When we say that the landscape in Vatnajökull is ever-changing and a true reflection of Iceland as the Land of Fire and Ice, we aren’t kidding. Here, you can expect to find anything from flat, glacial plains to steep mountains. Certain areas may be mossy, with beautiful lakes; others can be fire-scorched wilderness.

    You’ll also find that Vatnajökull National Park is incredibly colourful. From the monotone grey rocks, black sand, and white ice to the bright green moss and forests, colourful rhyolite deposits, and red volcanic clay, Vatnajökull National Park is nature’s ultimate color palette, which becomes especially clear on hiking trails and at viewpoints where you get an eagle' s-eye perspective over the entire park.

    Vatnajokull, the Movie Star

    You’ve probably seen Vatnajokull without even knowing it. It has appeared in many popular movies, such as James Bond, Batman Begins, Tomb Raider, and The Fantastic Four. It’s also graced the small screen on the famous series, Game of Thrones.

    vatnajokull national park

    Vatnajokull & Global Warming

    Till 1930, Vatnajokull Glacier was actually still growing. Ever since then, it has slowly been shrinking. Although the volcanic activity on the island has something to do with it, the biggest culprit of glacial melting at the moment is global warming. The Vatnajokull Glacier is also one of only two glaciers in Iceland where meltwater feeds directly into the sea.

    Where is Vatnajokull Located?

    Vatnajokull National Park can be found in the south of Iceland. It is 320 kilometers from the capital city, and although that equates to roughly 4 hours when driving from Reykjavík to Vatnajokull, the journey can often take up to 7 hours when the weather turns on you.

    That’s why we wouldn’t recommend Vatnajokull as a day outing, but rather as part of your road trip itinerary around the island. Vatnajokull National Park is conveniently close to one of our main roads, the Ring Road, a favorite amongst travelers exploring Iceland.

    How to Get to Vatnajokull in Iceland

    You essentially have two options when it comes to visiting Vatnajokull:

    Visit as Part of a Guided Tour

    With so much significance, Vatnajokull is the star of many a tour here on the island. Some are dedicated day tours, while others have it as part of a multi-day tour across the island. Just keep in mind that our summertime is considered peak season here on the island, so if you are planning your trip for that time, we suggest you book well in advance as tours tend to book up fast.

    Visit by Driving Yourself

    This will always be our method of exploring the island and Vatnajokull National Park. Getting to Vatnajokull is incredibly easy. Just get onto the Ring Road and start driving east till you see the signs to the park.

    Banner CVI

    When is the Best Time to Visit Vatnajokull?

    The best time to visit Vatnajokull will depend entirely on what you want to do there. For outdoor adventures, many, especially those planning on hiking, prefer planning a trip during the summertime in Iceland (June to September), when temperatures are higher, the weather is milder, and there are plenty of daylight hours to explore.

    If you want to avoid the peak season crowds and the peak season pricing, you can always opt for one of the shoulder months, like May or October, which still have many of the summer perks. But others who want to explore the icy landscape and the ice caves opt for the colder months of the year.

    How Much Does it Cost to Visit Vatnajokull National Park?

    Visiting Vatnajokull National Park is free. There are no entrance fees, so the only cost you need to consider is gas if you’re planning on driving yourself.

    Things to Do at & Around Vatnajokull

    You will find plenty of things to do and see in and around Vatnajokull National Park. These are just a few things to look forward to:

    Going Vatnajokull Glacier Hiking

    There are quite a few ways to go on a Vatnajokull Glacier walk. Whether actually traversing Vatnajokull itself or another glacier, such as Svinafellsjokull Glacier, located inside the park, this promises to be an experience you’ll never forget. Due to safety concerns, this activity can only be done via guided tour, and all necessary gear is provided.

     vatnajokull glacier walk

    Going on a Normal Hike

    This is where you may walk a trail that gives you spectacular views of the glaciers, but you’re not actually walking on top of one. You will find many hiking trails in Vatnajokull National Park, all catering to different experiences and skill levels, so you don’t need to be a fitness guru to partake in this activity.

    Exploring Vatnajokull on a Snowmobile

    This is yet another unique way of exploring the glacier. If you don’t feel like walking and want to get the blood pumping a bit, booking a spot on a snowmobile tour might just be the thing for you. Once again, this is a guided tour activity for safety reasons.

    Check out Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon

    The Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon is one attraction we don’t recommend just admiring from the side. Take one of the lagoon boat tours, which will get you up close and personal with the glacier, floating icebergs, and seals sunbathing on sheets of drifting ice.

    Explore the Vatnajokull Ice Caves

    Enter what feels like an other-worldly domain with these caves with their bright blue icy walls with black streaks, as volcanic ash from past eruptions are trapped in time forever. This is also a guided tour activity due to safety concerns, and it’s important to remember that most ice caves in Iceland are kept closed during the warmer months of the year. 

    Take a Stroll on Diamond Beach

    Just a hop, skip, and jump from Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, you’ll find Diamond Beach. Here, the black sand beach lies scattered with pieces of ice glistening in the sun, resembling sparkling diamonds (hence the name).

     vatnajokull diamond beach

    Check Out Svartifoss Waterfall

    This is actually the destination of one of the most popular hiking trails in Vatnajokull. Svartifoss is a beautiful waterfall in Iceland with a black basalt column backdrop that has acted as a muse for other attractions here on the island, such as Hallgrimskirkja.

    Visit the Askja Caldera

    Askja is probably more famous for its bright blue-green waters than for being an active volcano. But don’t worry, it’s safe to visit. And, if you get your timing just right, you might visit during one of the few times swimming is allowed in the inviting-looking water.

    When to Do What: A Seasonal Activity Guide

    Even though it may seem counterintuitive, things like the glacier hikes can be done all year round, but other activities are heavily impacted by seasons:


    Exploring the ice caves (such as the Blue Ice Cave). The ice caves are normally closed throughout the warmer months of the year, so winter is your best bet for these icy adventures.

    Spot the Northern Lights. Winter is the ideal time to spot this natural phenomenon, and in Vatnajökull National Park, where there is almost no light pollution, your odds of getting a front-row seat to a pretty spectacular Northern Lights show increase exponentially.


    Take on some of the many hiking trails. Hiking is one of those activities best done in the warmer months with plenty of daylight hours.

    Take advantage of the Midnight Sun. Not only can you experience the Midnight Sun, but you can also take full advantage of it for outdoor activities. Time limits and pressures all fly out the window, and you can have a jam-packed trip itinerary.

     vatnajokull summer

    Fall & Spring

    A bit of everything. Fall and spring can offer a bit of both worlds. During the fall, some of the ice caves can start opening, and in spring, hiking trails can start becoming more accessible once the ice and snow melt.

    A bit of everything – at a fraction of the price. As these seasons are considered the “down” seasons on the island, you won’t be subjected to any peak season prices, making your budget stretch further.

    A bit of everything – with fewer people. As “down” seasons, there won’t be any peak season crowds crowding (couldn’t resist) your space at attractions, accommodation, hiking trails, you name it.

    Accommodation Near Vatnajokull

    If you wish to stay for a night or two, there is plenty of accommodation to choose from. For a luxurious stay, book a spot at Fosshotel near Vatnajokull. For a more affordable, yet comfortable option, you can go the Reynivellir Guesthouse route. And, for the ultimate budget-friendly accommodation, you can book a spot at the Vatnajokull Campground.

    Ice caves


    Below are the answers to some of our most frequently asked questions:

    How were the Vatnajokull Glacier Caves Formed?

    The Vatnajokull ice caves are formed by glacial meltwater tunneling its way through the glacier. This is an ongoing process that takes thousands of years for a big cavern to take shape, with constant melting and refreezing.

    Will You Need a 4x4 Vehicle in Vatnajokull National Park?

    Although you can get away with a normal 2-wheel drive when visiting Vatnajokull during the summer, we suggest getting a 4x4 just in case. You never know when you get the impulse for further exploration into the more remote regions or want to drive on some of the F-roads where you are legally obliged to drive with a 4x4.

    Are the Activities at Vatnajokull Family-friendly?

    You will find many family-friendly activities in Vatnajokull National Park. When it comes to hiking, you just need to consider the distance and difficulty level if you have much smaller children in your party.

    If you’re planning on visiting the ice caves or going on a glacier hike, you’ll also need to remember that most of these tours have age restrictions for kids under the age of 12. So, just make inquiries beforehand.

    Vatnajokull National Park is the Ultimate Outdoor Adventure in Iceland

    When visiting Vatnajokull National Park, you will have your pick of natural wonders and interesting things to see as well as doing all sorts of exciting outdoor activities.

    By renting a campervan in Iceland and making it part of your Ring Road road trip itinerary, you’ll also be able to book a camping spot at Vatnajokull, where you will be smack-bang in the midst of everything while camping in comfort. So, what are you waiting for? Go and have the biggest outdoor adventure at the largest national park in all of Europe!

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