Vatnajökull: Iceland’s largest glacier and national park

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Snow and ice as far as the eye can see: glacier tongues and lakes, icebergs, gorges, ice caves and volcanoes. Sounds exciting? You don’t even have to travel to the Arctic to experience it, as the gigantic Vatnajökull glacier combines all of this and is located in the centre of Iceland in the national park of the same name. Find out everything you need to know about travelling to Vatnajökull here.

What is Vatnajökull and where is Vatnajökull located?

Have you ever heard of “Vatnajökull”? Vatnajökull refers to both a glacier and the national park surrounding it in south-east Iceland. The Vatnajökull glacier is not only the largest glacier in Iceland, but also Europe’s largest glacier outside the polar region. With an area of over 8 thousand square kilometres, it covers around 8% of Iceland’s surface area. Due to global warming, however, it has been shrinking for several years.

The massive ice surface of the glacier was formed around 2500 years ago and is in some places up to 1000 metres thick. Hidden beneath it is Iceland’s highest peak and several active volcanic systems. Extreme cold and heat come together here: the last volcano erupted in 2004 and triggered a flood.

The Vatnajökull National Park was established around the glacier in 2008, incorporating the Skaftafell National Park and the Jökulsárgljúfur National Park. With over 14 thousand square kilometres,Vatnajökull is Europe’s largest national park. Vatnajökull translates as “water glacier”.

Attractions of Vatnajökull

Waterfalls and gorges

Vatnajökull National Park includes Morsárfoss, which is considered Iceland’s largest waterfall, as well as numerous rivers that flow out of the glacier. The Jökulsárgljúfur gorge is also part of the protected area. Here you can discover various inhabitants, such as seals and birds, as well as numerous waterfalls. These include the most powerful waterfall in Europe, Dettifoss.

Vatnajökull: waterfall Dettifoss
The Dettifoss waterfall in Vatnajökull National Park

Glacial lakes

The meltwater from the ice not only feeds waterfalls, but also glacial lakes. The largest glacial lake, Jökulsárlón (“Glacier River Lagoon”), is located directly on the famous Ring Road in the south of the glacier. It is known for the countless large icebergs that float on it, which detached themselves from a glacier tongue. Here you can discover the so-called “Diamond Beach” or watch seals.

Vatnajökull glacial lake
Vatnajökull glacial lake

Ice caves

It is particularly worth exploring in winter, when numerous ice caves form under the glacier. These are a deep, almost surreal blue colour due to the high pressure of the ice. They melt again in summer, which is why each ice cave is unique.

Vatnajökull: ice cave
Expedition in a Vatnajökull ice cave

By the way: Vatnajökull is so spectacular that it is often used as a film set. It can be found in many different films and series, including “James Bond: In the Face of Death” (1985), “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” (2001), “James Bond: Die Another Day” (2002), “Batman Begins” (2005), “The Amazing Life of Walter Mitty” (2013), “Interstellar” (2014) and, last but not least, “Game of Thrones”.

Vatnajökull tours: discover the national park and glaciers

Fancy visiting Vatnajökull? There are no limits to your thirst for adventure here. There are day tours with a guide or package tours and hire car tours on offer, which you can book in advance with selected travel providers. This is particularly recommended for the northern part of the glacier, which can only be reached via the highlands and therefore requires some experience.

Vatnajökull glacier hikes
Glacier hikes can be booked as guided tours in Vatnajökull.

The glacier is best reached from the south. This is where most of the outlet glaciers are located. When planning your trip, decide whether you would like to do a round trip of Iceland with a stop at Vatnajökull. There are package holidays that include such a day trip. If you are travelling on the Ring Road, for example, this is a good option.

Special highlights such as kayak tours, snowmobile tours, glacier hikes and ice cave tours in Vatnajökull are also on offer. These usually take place in a small group with an experienced guide. You will reach your destination in an off-road vehicle or on a snowmobile and will be provided with the necessary equipment on site.

Travelling to Vatnajökull

If you would like to do a hire car or bus tour in Iceland, it is a good idea to fly to Reykjavik or Keflavik. From the capital of Iceland, it is around 4 hours by car to Skaftafell, which is located on the edge of the national park.

Accommodation inVatnajökull National Park

In summer: camping site

You are allowed to camp in the national park. The most popular is the Skaftafell campsite, which offers space for motorhomes and tents. Here you can enjoy a great view.

Although the campsite is open all year round, it is particularly suitable for overnight stays in summer. Various hiking routes start from the campsite and take you to the spectacular Svartifoss waterfall, which is located outside the glacier, but is still part of the national park.

In winter: hotels and guesthouses

There are guesthouses, smaller hotels and hostels on the edge of the national park. A particular highlight is the Fosshotel Vatnajökull, which offers an impressive view of the glacier.

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