Vatnajökull National Park

Vatnajökull National Park


Location: South- East Iceland     Map

Area: 8,100 km² (3,125 sq mi)

Thickness: 3,300 ft (1 km)


Vatnajökull National Park is located in the South- East part of Iceland. This national reserve is the largest national park in Europe covering an area of 12,000 km2. Vatnajökull National Park also includes the area of the former Skaftafell National Park. It is named after Vatnajökull glacier, largest glacier in Europe. It covers an area of 8,100 km² (3,125 sq mi). Additionally it also contains the highest point on the island nation known as peak Hvannadalshnúkur and most powerful waterfall in Europe, Dettifoss Waterfall.



Vatnajökull National Park was established on June 7, 2008. When it was founded, the park covered an area of ​​12,000 km². Since its expansion to include Lakagígar, Langisjór and Krepputunga, the park now covers 14,200 km², or 14% of the land area of ​​Iceland, which makes it Europe's second largest national park. Only the Jugyd Wa National Park in Russia surpasses it in terms of area.

On June 25, 2017, the national park was enlarged by another 189 km². The Jökulsárlón and parts of the Fjallsárlón and Breiðamerkursandur have been placed under protection by the Environment Minister Björt Ólafsdóttir.

In 2019 the park was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Geography and geology
Vatnajökull is Europe's largest glacier with a surface area of ​​8,100 km². The average thickness of the ice is between 400 and 800 m, at the thickest point the ice is 950 m thick. The glacier ice covers a multitude of mountains, valleys and plateaus. It even covers some active central volcanoes, of which Bárðarbunga is the largest and Grímsvötn the most active. The ice masses extend from over 2000 m above sea level to 300 m below sea level. Nowhere else in Iceland, except on the Mýrdalsjökull glacier, does so much precipitation fall or so much water flow into the sea as on the south side of Vatnajökull. In fact, so much water is currently stored in Vatnajökull that Ölfusá, Iceland's river with the largest volume of water, would take over 200 years to transport this amount of water into the sea.

The landscape that surrounds the glacier is very varied. In the north, the highland plateau is crossed by glacier rivers, which swell strongly in summer. The volcanoes Askja, Kverkfjöll and Snæfell dominate this area, as does the volcanic table mountain Herðubreið. Long ago, huge glacial floods cut the Jökulsárgljúfur Gorge into the northern part of this plateau. The mighty Dettifoss waterfall still thunders into the top of this gorge, while the picturesque landscapes at Hljóðaklettar and the horseshoe-shaped cliffs of Ásbyrgi can be found further north.

Extensive wetlands and extensive mountain ranges highlight the areas around the glacier and further east around Snæfell. These areas are an important habitat for reindeer and short-billed geese.

The south side of Vatnajökull is characterized by many high, majestic mountain ridges, between which glacier tongues flow down into the valleys. The southernmost part of the glacier covers the central volcano Öræfajökull and Iceland's highest mountain peak, Hvannadalshnjúkur. Protected by the high ice masses, the overgrown oasis of Skaftafell overlooks the black sands deposited to the west of the Skeiðará river. These sands consist mainly of ash, which comes from the frequent eruptions of the Grímsvötn and is transported towards the coast by so-called jökulhlaups, glacier runs.

In the south of Vatnajökull National Park is Morsárfoss, the highest waterfall in Iceland.

The west of Vatnajökull is also largely dominated by volcanic activity. Two of the world's largest fissures and lava eruptions in historical terms took place there: at Eldgjá (934) and Lakagígar (1783–1784). Vonarskarð, northwest of the glacier, is a colorful, well-tempered area and represents a watershed between north and south Iceland.

The weather can vary considerably in an area as large as that of the national park, especially since there is a large difference in altitude.

Precipitation in the lower areas south of the Vatnajokull Ice Cap varies between 1,000 mm and 3,000 mm per year. Temperatures fluctuate between 10 ° C and 20 ° C in summer, while winters are rather mild (the thermometer rarely falls below −10 ° C and the temperature is often well above freezing point).

On the mountains and on the ice cap itself, annual precipitation can reach 4,000 to 5,000 mm, with most of it falling as snow. The thickness of the snow cover on Öræfajökull can be between 10 and 15 meters after a rainy winter. Some of the snow melts while the rest of the snow forms the glacier ice. This process takes place everywhere above the snow line on the Vatnajökull ice cap.


Temperatures on the southern part of the ice cap are almost always below freezing and can drop as low as −20 ° C or −30 ° C in winter. Since strong winds and storms are normal, the wind factor must be taken into account. Wind can have an essential effect on outdoor activities, even if the prevailing air temperature is otherwise relatively high. The further north you get behind the ice cap, the lower the annual rainfall. To the northeast of the ice cap, it falls to 350-450 mm per year, which is the lowest rainfall in Iceland. The precipitation rises again closer to the north coast and in parts of the highlands around Askja. The temperature can drop relatively sharply on clear and windless days in winter.

South winds generally lead to little or no precipitation in the north, which is associated with higher temperatures. North winds bring clouds with them, resulting in colder and wetter weather in the north of the country, while the south remains sunnier and milder. The same goes for westerly or southwest winds, which bring warmer weather to the east. The opposite is the case when the wind comes from the east: it leads to cold and precipitation in the east and to better weather in the west of Iceland. This is the result of the foehn wind: moist, cold air rises near the highlands, condenses and falls as rain over the highlands, while warmer, drier air falls down into the valley on the other side. The temperature difference can be 10 ° C or more.

Vatnajökull National Park is divided into four areas, each of which is managed individually. The northern area consists of the northwestern part of the Vatnajökull, the Askja Caldera and its surroundings, the Jökulsárgljúfur Gorge and parts of the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river valley. A visitor center and a camp site can be found in Ásbyrgi, another camp site is at Vesturdalur.

In addition to the Kverkfjöll Mountains and the northeastern part of Vatnajökull, the eastern area also includes the foothills of Snæfellsöræfi. A visitor center is located in Skriðuklaustur.

The southern area extends through the southeastern part of Vatnajökull, or from the Lómagnúpur mountains in the west to Lón and Lónsöræfi in the east. A visitor center and a campsite are in Skaftafell. Information centers in Höfn, Hoffell, Hólmur and Skálafell also cooperate with the national park administration.

The western area extends through the southwestern part of Vatnajökull and large areas outside the glacier, including the Lakagígar craters and Langisjór. An information center is located in Kirkjubæjarklaustur and is run jointly by the national park and the local community.

The visitor center in Skaftafell is open all year round. The centers in Ásbyrgi and Skriðuklaustur are open from the beginning of May to September, but can also be opened in winter upon request. However, it should be noted that most parts of the national park in the highlands cannot be reached in winter.

National park employees carry out controls and offer courses in the highlands. The opening times of the centers vary from area to area, with the first employees driving into the highlands as soon as the main roads are clear. This is around the middle of June and they leave the area in late September.

During the summer, staff offer short hikes with an emphasis on natural history. From mid-June to mid-August, they conduct daily interactive walks in Àsbyrgi and Skaftafell. In the highlands, on the other hand, most locations offer daily hikes from early July to mid-August.