Blog WHS Visits

WHS #736: Vatnajökull

Vatnajökull National Park only exists since 2008 and therefore the areas included may not be commonly known under this name. However, it is one of the most deserving WHS that have been added in the past 10 years. Its IUCN evaluation upon inscription was full of superlatives and the site comes across as highly unique. The park covers a complex interplay of a large ice sheet with the largest glacier in continental Europe, moving tectonic plates and ten volcanoes. So far on this website it has achieved a very high 4.36 out of 5 rating by 28 voters.

I started my visit at Skaftafell, the park's westernmost visitor center. I got there at about 3pm and was surprised by the crowds. There is a very large parking lot for what really only is a starting point of a few hikes. The shortest and most popular hike is the one to Svartifoss - the "black waterfall" surrounded by columns of black basalt. It is only a half an hour walk, steeply uphill. I didn't like it much, neither the walk nor was I impressed by the waterfall itself.

I found a more pleasant short hike behind my hotel, Hotel Skaftafell. Here you walk on a path through the bushes to yet another glacier tongue. Apparently so few visitors come here that the birds jumped in panic when I walked past ‘their’ bushes. The walk ends at a small lake, from where you can continue to one of the trails in Skaftafell.

The next day I drove about 60 kilometers east for Jökulsarlon, the glacial lake. Along the way you’ll encounter several typical Icelandic picnic areas from where you can take good pictures of the lake. I started at the last parking spot before the bridge where the water and ice from the glacial lake flow into the ocean. The weather generally was sunny, but the icy water left a mist cloud hanging over the lake. I sat on the moraine for a while and saw the clouds gradually fade away. It would be a matter of patience before I could see the entire glacial lake.

I decided to await that moment at the other side of the bridge, where you have the best overview of the whole lake and the icebergs floating in it. I noticed a couple of seals also having a great time in the lake. I enjoyed the spectacle from a quiet spot. As with Skaftafell the day before, Jökulsarlon is very busy with tourists; but most of them don't walk far past the parking lot.

After an hour all clouds had cleared and I got a full view of the lake and the enormous glacier wall looming in the distance. This wall used to be right at the ocean, but due to the melting of the glaciers the lake is getting bigger. The glacier now lies 1.5 kilometers from the coast.

Unfortunately one can only get to the edges of Vatnajökull National Park, but you keep looking at that large ice mass. From the Ring Road you can see the enormous ice cap and several glaciers for dozens of kilometers. For me the glacial lake Jökulsarlon was the highlight. And don’t forget: it’s all Free Entrance!

Els - 26 August 2020

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Tsunami 27 August 2020

Well, I can distinguish between Gulfoss and the like of Svartifoss. :) In fact I believe I saw the little waterfall on the way or back from Gulfoss. Claiming Vatnajökull WHS just by seeing Svartifoss from afar is ludicrous anyway, so one day I'll pay a proper visit to Vatnajökull.

Els Slots 27 August 2020

@tsunami - the big Gulfoss also has a basaltic background. Its setting is very different, but when you have a close-up they might look alike. Svartifoss on a day tour from Reykjavik is not impossible, but it would have taken one of those very long tours (14h or so).

tsunami 27 August 2020

I have seen a waterfall in Iceland in 2000 that is identical to the one in the photo with basalt rocks. If it was this waterfall, that means I have been to this WHS. But I don't believe that the one-day or half a day tour I took out of Reykjavík went as far as this national park. I have a print photo of the waterfall, but it is stored in Los Angeles. Does anybody know if there is a similar waterfall nearer to Reykjavík? I googled "waterfall with basalt rocks in Iceland," but the only waterfall that comes up is this Svartifoss.

Els Slots 26 August 2020

Yes it is, though Ilulissat may be just a notch more "otherworldy". Vatnajökull is probably more diverse.

Clyde 26 August 2020

Seems lovely! Judging simply from your reviews and photos it seems pretty comparable to Greenland's Illulissat, or am I mistaken?

Zoë Sheng 26 August 2020

One of my favs too!