Vatnajokull National Park
Vatnajokull National Park is one of three national parks in Iceland. It encompasses all of Vatnajokull glacier and extensive surrounding areas. These include the national parks previously existing at Skaftafell in the southwest and Jökulsárgljúfur in the north. The unique qualities of Vatnajokull National Park are primarily its great variety of landscape features, created by the combined forces of rivers, glacial ice, and volcanic and geothermal activity.
Fire and Ice
Vatnajökull is Europe’s largest glacier outside the arctic, with a surface area of 8,100 km2. Generally measuring 400–600 m in thickness and at the most 950 m, the glacial ice conceals a number of mountains, valleys and plateaus. It even hides some active central volcanoes, of which Bárðarbunga is the largest and Grímsvötn the most active. While the icecap rises at its highest to over 2,000 m above sea level, the glacier base reaches its lowest point 300 m below sea level. Nowhere in Iceland, with the exception of Mýrdalsjökull glacier, does more precipitation fall or more water drain to the sea than on the south side of Vatnajökull. In fact, so much water is currently stored in Vatnajökull that the Icelandic river with the greatest flow, Ölfusá, would need over 200 years to carry this quantity of water to sea.
Varied points of interest
The scenery within Vatnajokull National Park is extremely varied. Towards the north, the highland plateau is divided by glacial rivers, with powerful flows in summer. The volcanoes of Askja, Kverkfjöll and Snæfell tower over this region, together with the volcanic table mountain Herðubreið. Long ago, huge glacial floods carved out the canyon of Jökulsárgljúfur in the northern reaches of this plateau. The mighty Dettifoss waterfall still thunders into the upper end of this canyon, while the scenic formations at Hljóðaklettar and the horseshoe-curved cliffs of Ásbyrgi are found farther north. Öræfajökull and Hvannadalshnjúkur as seen from Skaftafell Broad wetlands and expansive ranges distinguish the areas near the glacier and farther east, around Snæfell. These areas are an important habitat for reindeer and pink-footed geese. The south side of Vatnajökull is characterised by many high, majestic mountain ridges, with outlet glaciers descending between them onto the lowlands.
The southernmost part of the glacier envelops the central volcano Öræfajökull and Iceland’s highest peak, Hvannadalshnjúkur. Sheltered by the high ice, the vegetated oasis of Skaftafell overlooks the black sands deposited to its west by the river Skeiðará. These sands are mostly composed of ash which stems from the frequent eruptions at Grímsvötn and is brought to the coast by “jökulhlaups”, or glacial floods. Substantial volcanic activity also characterises the landscape west of Vatnajökull, where two of the world’s greatest fissure and lava eruptions of historical times occurred, at Eldgjá in 934 and Lakagígar 1783-1784. Vonarskarð, northwest of the glacier, is a colourful high-temperature area and a watershed between North and South Iceland.
Vatnajokull National Park is divided into four territories, each of them locally managed. The Northern Territory consists of north-western Vatnajökull, Askja caldera and its surroundings, Jökulsárgljúfur canyon and some of Jökulsá á Fjöllum riverbed. A visitor centre and a campsite are located in Ásbyrgi, along with a campsite in Vesturdalur. The Eastern Territory includes Kverkfjöll mountains and north-eastern Vatnajökull, as well as the expanses of Snæfellsöræfi. A visitor centre is located at Skriðuklaustur. The Southern Territory extends throughout the south-eastern part of Vatnajökull, or from Lómagnúpur mountain in the west to Lón and Lónsöræfi in the east.
A visitor centre and a campsite are located in Skaftafell. Information centres in co-operation with the national park are run in Höfn, Hoffell, Hólmur and Skálafell. Snæfellstofa is Vatnajökull National Park’s most recent visitor centre. The Western Territory extends over the south-western part of Vatnajökull and a large area outside the glacier, including Lakagígar craters and Langisjór. An information centre is located in Kirkjubæjarklaustur, jointly run by the national park and the local community. The visitor centre in Skaftafell is open all year round. The visitor centres in Ásbyrgi and Skriðuklaustur are open from the beginning of May throughout September, but can be opened during winter on appointment.
Most of the Vatnajokull National Park highland area is however inaccessible during the winter. National park rangers conduct patrols and provide educational services in the park’s highland areas. The opening times of the stations vary from area to area, with the first rangers arriving when the relevant highland roads are opened, soon after the middle of June, and the last rangers leaving at the end of September. During the summer, national park rangers offer short walks with an emphasis on nature interpretation. From mid-June to mid-August, rangers guide daily interpretive walks at Ásbyrgi and Skaftafell. In the highlands, most ranger stations offer daily interpretive walks from early July until mid-August.