Vatnajökull National Park
Vatnajökull National Park - Dynamic Nature of Fire and Ice is a natural landscape with a wide variety of tectonic, volcanic and glaciovolcanic features.
The Vatnajökull ice cap is the second-largest in Europe and a major glacial research location on climate change. It is situated on large and active tectonic rift systems, and in an area rich in volcanic features. These aspects all uniquely interplay.
Community Perspective: this is a huge park and most of it is pure wilderness. The most accessible areas from the Ring Road include Jokulsarlon ice lake and Skaftafell (here ice tongues from the glacier can be seen from very close). More adventurous options include expensive snowmobile tours from Jöklasel, a 2-3 hour detour to Jökulsargljufur National Park, and a 4x4 drive to the Laki area.
Map of Vatnajökull National ParkLoad map
I visited this WHS in 2022. I spent 3 nights in the area between Skaftafell and Jokulsarlon, 1 of which in my rental car parked near the Jokulsarlon bridge as all hotels in the area were fully booked.
The Vatnajokull National Park is characterised by diversity on all fronts, be it landscape, biosphere, geology or service levels. To simplify matters, however, it may be placed into two categories: uninhabited highland area with limited services (requiring 4WD vehicles and/or expensive guided tours or adventure tours such as dogsledding, motoski tours, glacier walks or ice cave exploration), and lowland areas with higher service levels. I focused on the latter which are easily accessible from the ring road, namely Skaftafell with 2 easy/medium signposted hikes to Svartifoss waterfall and a turf house which is not part of the tentative WHS list and another one which leads close to the Skaftafell glacier; Jokulsarlon; and Fjallsarlon. On the way to Skaftafell (outside the NP area), I really enjoyed exploring some scenic lowland parts of the Katla UNESCO Global Geopark (great for birdwatching especially without a 4WD car) and the lava field of Eldhraun totally covered with deep moss and a short path to see a little bit of it without damaging the rest.
The park's five visitor centres are all located in lowland areas. Each of them has an exhibition about the park's nature and cultural heritage, with park rangers and volunteers offering information and interpretative walks or programs. Parking areas with a fee are available just next to them as well as organised camping grounds. I visited the Skaftafell Visitor Centre and really enjoyed their interpretative information video projected in English by one of the rangers on duty or volunteers. The sheer size and variety offered throughout the year during each different season are mindboggling. It is also humbling to watch and learn how nature can be devastating and how the ring road has to be adapted yearly due to the constantly melting glaciers or whenever one of the subglacial volcanoes erupts causing sudden glacial outburst floods (called jökulhlaups in Icelandic) with damaging consequences (a good example is the Skeiðará Bridge monument just off the ring road with bent steel girders from the first bridge across the alluvial plain of the Vatnajökull glacier, destroyed by a glacial run in 1996). Just opposite the various information boards near the Skaftafell Visitor Centre next to the glacier hike starting point, one can find a UNESCO WHS inscription plaque.
Vatnajökull conceals a part of the neovolcanic zone and seven (!) subglacial volcanoes, including four of the most active ones in Iceland: Grímsvötn, Bárðarbunga, Kverkfjöll and Öræfajökull. Ice and volcano interactions produce various geological formations and unique habitats especially for flora and avifauna. Not having been to Antartica, Alaska, Greeland or similar places, I really enjoyed exploring both glacier lagoons in Iceland and they were a true highlight. I really had a field day, with a short touristy zodiac tour to get closer to the impressive glacier but mostly on land hiking the short loop at the lesser known Fjallsarlon and watching the bluish-white ice floating, melting and breaking before washing off along the black sands of Diamond Beach.
It was really peaceful (albeit cold!) especially after the boat tours ended. I watched the countless playful seals diving and resting on some of the floating ice with evolving shapes and sizes and was really impressed with the crashing sound every time the bigger drifting ice forms melted further in the glacier lagoon or the distant thundering sound of ice breaking off the glacier. Only around 10% is visible above the water level. The ice melts rapidly because warmer seawater enters the lagoon. Glacial ice is a mixture of ice, sand, gravel, tephra and air bubbles. The composition is clearly seen in the "icebergs" that break off the glacier snout. The blue colour of the dense ice is due to the fact that it absorbs all colours of the spectrum except blue, which is reflected and clear ice seems blue. The blue hue diminishes as the ice melts in the sun. Beneath the water level, ice melts without contact with the air. This is why the blue colour is so striking after an "iceberg" has tipped over. It was quite easy to forget the lack of comfort when sleeping for 1 night in the rental car, but it was really worth the extra effort of heading straight there after the Surtsey boat trip to make the most of the 1-2 days of sunny weather.
We visited the very edge of Vatnajökull National Park in the summer of 2013 during our lap of the Iceland ring road. We arrived at the Jökulsarlon Ice Lagoon early in the morning driving from Hofn, after accidentally flirting with danger on the infamous Road 939 in our rickety Toyota Yaris the evening before.
We had booked a 1 hour rib boat tour, but unfortunately when we arrived, a deep fog had descended. This meant we couldn’t see the glacial lake and that the tour couldn’t go up to the glacier edge, but it did add an ethereal mystical quality to floating among the multicoloured or even clear icebergs (our first such experience).
The boats went every 30-60 minutes, although I note the price has almost doubled in the near-decade since our trip. The experience may be more worthwhile for the glacier-novice than the glacier-enthusiast.
Afterwards, we drove past the Fjallsarlon Lagoon on our way to Vik, where we snapped a photo that, subsequently, we had blown up and now is pride of place in our living room. I’m not sure a glacier can be good-looking, but the beauty of the glacier overspilling here has an pleasingly almost-symmetrical quality to it that, in my view, tops the various other glaciers we have seen on our travels.
We visited but a fraction of the site, so it is debatable whether one could even comment on its universal value, but the whole park’s uniqueness seems unquestionable. On a non-WHS side note, we thoroughly enjoyed the visceral video representations of the interaction between fire and ice represented by this World Heritage Site at the Eyjafjallajokull Visitor Centre and also at the Volcano House in Reykjavik.
This is a marvelous park! The national park is the largest in Europe and it’s mostly covered by the second largest glacier in Europe. What is the best way to visit such a huge park, with such a harsh nature of fire and ice? As a normal visitor its only possible to scratch at the edges.
The best way to visit is with your own car along the ring road nr 1 as we did. The plan was to first visit Skaftafell area which is supposed to be the best place to go hiking and it is easy accessible. Then on an impulse, after a morning visit to the canyon Fjadrarglufjur, we decided to drive to the Laki area. Laki is a volcanic fissure in the western part of the national park not covered with ice. The drive was an adventure itself. You will need a 4x4 vehicle. The road is a rough one, 45 km and includes several river crossings. Our rental was a Nissan Qashqai and it (barely) did the job. We stopped to see Fagrifoss, a beautiful waterfall. The scenery and nature along the route is really different from what we are familiar with. It’s a variation of lava and rocks, but still colorful. At the parking lot next to the mountain Laki a park ranger met us, a nice surprise. He gave us information about the national park, Laki area and “rules” for driving on islandic gravel roads. Inside the national park there is circle route with three designated stops. First we hiked up the mountain Laki , 818 moh, easy hike 1/2 h. From the top there was an excellent view of the Lakigigar, crater row from the 1783-84 eruptions, the lava fields, the Vatnajökul glacier and the Katla glacier. The summer of 1783 several fissures opened up and formed 135 craters in a row which in turn erupted a vast amount of molten rocks and gasses for eight months. The Laki eruptions caused a severe impact on Iceland, but also to the northern hemisphere with drop in temperature and crop failure. We also hiked through one the craters and checked out another crater with a lake. The drive through lavafields overgrown by green moss is almost surreal. It turned out to be a day-trip, but well worth the effort getting there.
Later, on the way to our guest house, we went to a couple of glacier lagoons (Svinafellsjökull, Fjallsarlon and Jökulsarlon) with plenty of small icebergs. The road to Svinafellsjökull was only 2 km, but really bad with potholes, Fjallsarlon was the best stop, Jökulsarlon very touristy. The next day we went on a guided half-day glacier tour on the Breidamerkurjökull . It was an interesting trip. The summer glacier is dirty and not very photogenic. The dirt is lava emerging from melting ice. The glacier looks smooth from a distance, but it’s not. There a plenty of big holes and cracks from melting water and tiny “caves” with some blue ice. The ice-cap is melting fast, disturbingly fast due to climate changes. And by the way, entering ice caves wih deep blue ice are for winter visits only.
Along the ring road there are several glacier tongues to be seen. From Höfn you have a great view to seven of them at once. In the north we also visited Jökulsárgljúfur and Dettifoss/Selfoss. Actually, this part of the national park did not end up inscribed, but it still worth a visit.
We really enjoyed Vatnajökull, it is full of elements from vulcanos, craters, lavafields, glaciers, lagoons, alpine flowers, to roaring waterfall, but you will need to give it some time.
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 from 28 voters.
I started my visit at Skaftafell, the park's westernmost visitor center. I got there at about 3 pm 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 half an hour's 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!
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The Vatnajökull National Park area is a bit unusual, as it includes the Jökulsargljufur National Park, which has no borders to the rest of the park, creating a second location for the site. Having just visited this exclave, I can highly recommend it. It features some of the most spectacular scenery in a country overflowing with great landscapes. The glacier-fed river Jökulsa a Fjöllum (which orginates a long way down south in the main park area) is cutting through a landscape formed by raw volcanic rock. It creates a large canyon and tumbles down a series of waterfalls, including the mighty Dettifoss waterfall. It's a gripping display of raw elementary powers, with hardly any plant life or greenery in sight. Getting there is not too tough if you have a car, although the east side road is a bit rough (though probably a bit more rewarding). No 4x4 is needed, at least in summer. However, getting there as a day trip from Reykyavik is definitely out of the question. Most people do it as part of an Iceland round trip on the ring road 1, where the 2-3 hour detour is certainly worth it. Visiting in early autumn, there was no lack of tourists, but the large scale landscape could cope with it pretty well. Further north lies the Asbyrgi canyon, which is more fertile but less spectacular, but still highly enjoyable.
For the Skaftafell section in the south, I had good luck with the Jökulsarlon glacier lagoon, as there were lots of colorful icebergs floating right next to the car park, with a boat ride not really needed. There were lots of clouds and fog in the higher glacier regions, though, so the whole travel experience here relies a good bit on luck.
All in all, the Vatnajökull National Park is so large and so full of marvelous landscapes that a WHS designation seems quite deserved. Iceland has so far no natural WHS that covers its amazing landscape, so it's about time.
Visited in September 2018.
Importance 3/5 Beauty 5/5 Uniqueness 5/5 Environment 4/5 Experience 5/5
When we booked a late-availability and heavily discounted expedition cruise from Scotland to Greenland in June 2010 it included a number of organised "tourist" side trips in the Faeroes and Iceland. Argo's review below, and with it the realisation that we may soon gain an extra "visit tick" from the potential inscription of Vatnajokull NP, have led me to re-evaluate our visit there. It turns out that 2 of the Icelandic trips did indeed go inside the current boundaries of Vatnajokull NP - first, a self-drive snowmobile ride up on the glacier and second, a boat trip on (Lake) Jökulsárlón (Here is a map of the 2017 NP extension which brought the southern part of Jökulsárlón and Highway 1 which goes past it, “inside” the NP and hence “inside” the nominated area).
I accept that we normally tend to be too “penny pinching” for our own good when travelling! This particularly applies for what might be termed “optional costs” such as commercially run tours. So, “HOW MUCH!!??” is our usual first response when discovering their cost - probably followed by us walking away, having decided that it just wouldn’t be worth it (we don’t normally “enjoy” the group aspect of organised tours anyway)! I have just checked the current price of a similar snowmobile trip to ours - this is c EUR 200/£178 per person for 3 hours including a drive up from Highway 1 and back, kitting/de-kitting time etc – so only 1 hour out on the ice. There is NO way we would "optionally" have paid that so, looking back, it was lucky that it was “hidden” from us in the overall cost because, both at the time and in retrospect, it proved a "memorable" experience!
From our ship in the port of Hofn we were driven to Jöklasel up Route F985. This is a dirt road for 4 x 4s etc which climbs through impressive scenery from near sea level on Iceland’s circle highway No 1 up to 815m on the edge of Vatnajokull at 64.255339, -15.864050 . The NP map shows the car park and the various tourist buildings to be situated on the very boundary of the park (Google puts them inside!). Mrs Solivagant and I were allocated our shared snowmobile (even these prices are only per person sharing a machine!), and, kitted up with helmets and special suits, we set out onto the ice and into the park (Photo). We followed the trails of previous snowmobiles and were accompanied by those of our shipmates who had opted for this rather than the more passive “Glacier bus trip”. I can’t claim that we ventured that far but occasionally found ourselves “alone on the glacier” as the mist rolled in and out, the base buildings “disappeared” and the group broke up as various of us swapped driver/passenger, ran into snowdrifts or fell off when turning too sharply! I note that anyone wanting to drive now has to show a car driving license. We were not asked for this and I am not sure it is very relevant anyway! Of course it was all rather “tame” really - and didn’t enable us properly to cover the natural/geolgoical values of Vatnajokull but it was still "good fun"! (though whether it was "Eur 200 per person's worth" of "good fun" is another matter!)
I cannot report the same enthusiasm for the boat trip on Jökulsárlón. This, in all honesty, was a bit “dull”. You climb onto an amphibious truck (current cost c£41 or Eur 46) which then trundles into the lake and slowly navigates between the “icebergs”. Perhaps we were too “blasé” about icebergs, having already been to the Antarctic and Spitzbergen where we travelled on, the far more "fun", zodiacs, but these "icebergs" really were hardly worth the name! The pictures in the tour company's web site above, show reasonably interesting shapes of a reasonable size - but ours were more like those shown in Argo's photo below! If this might be the only time you will ever be able to "navigate" among "lumps" of ice then your judgement might (justifiably) be different but I am not sure we gained much over just viewing the lake, its "icebergs" and the glacier behind it from the land. So, if we were ever to return to Iceland (2 visits already so “unlikely”), we would try to invest our time on some trekking within the NP rather than such a relatively expensive "joy ride".
Having read that Iceland would propose this site for 2019, I crossed check the detailed map of the nomination file (that can be downloaded from the National Park website) with my notes and pictures from our June 2008 trip to Iceland.
To be fair this tentative site is probably best visited if you go there for trekking, and this is not what we did at that time, however we went to some easily accessible parts of the nominated area. There is only one road which goes (on a short section) through this area, that is road number 1, which is also the only road going around the island. We stopped at the place called Jokulsarlon. This is a lake created by melting ice from the glacier, directly connected to the beach and sea by a short stream. There were few visitors on that day, and the dark clouds, low light, white and blue ices with the glacier in the background created a very special and impressive atmosphere we will never forget.
Following road number one to Reikjavik, we also stopped at two more places (Skaftafell and Svinafellsokull) where ice tongues from the Vatnajokul glacier can be seen from very close. For this, you must exit the main road and drive for a few minutes on dust roads (accessible with our basic rental car). Staying safe on the path we walked along the ice, and again these were memorable experiences. Glacier was huge and could be seen from very close. It is even more impressive when you look at the map and realize that these are only small parts of the whole glacier which lies on top of the mountain.
These places are a long drive away from the capital and we chose to do it in two days, however road number one, for being the only one, is a good road, with very low traffic. Landscape was amazing (that’s Iceland), and only stops to take pictures may cause (long) delay!
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Part of the nomination was referred: the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river corridor and the northern Dettifoss - Ásbyrgi part of Vatnajökull National Park
Includes former TWHS Skaftafell (2001) and Askja part of former TWHS Herðubreið and Askja
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