It is ironic that one of Europe’s smallest countries is home to its largest national parks. Vatnajökull park, for me, is an excellent representation of Iceland itself. It is diverse and full of beautiful and contrasting landscapes. Initially, the surrounding areas were two separate parks, (with the Vatnajökull glacier being its own entity), but in 2008, it brought the surrounding territories into the fold to form one large national park. The park is massive and there is plenty to do in each region. It would be impossible to summarize the entire park in a few, brief, paragraphs. However, we will briefly examine each area of the Vatnajökull National Park.
Skaftafell – Iceland’s Most Beautiful Nature Reserve
I think it is fair to say that Skaftafell Nature Reserve holds a special place in the heart of all Icelanders. We often regard it as the most beautiful region of Iceland. Not only is Skatafell stunning for its geographic features, but it also receives, statistically, the most amount of light in the entire country. The abundance of light is reflected in the areas of unique flora and fauna. In my opinion, though, the most alluring features of the area are provided in its stunning contrast between landscapes.
Our country, often called “The Land of Fire and Ice,” has Skaftafell, which truly embodies that nickname. Here in Skaftafell, the continuous battle between looming volcanic activity and the constant reliance of glaciers are on display. The tallest peak in Iceland, Hvannadalshnúkur, is located here. Hvannadalshnúkur is a volcanic glacier peak, and in the past wrought destruction on the surrounding areas. And yet within a stone’s throw from Hvannadalshnúkur is Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull.
The contrast between both couldn’t be starker: one is a brooding volcanic powder keg and the other a tranquil aqua blue iceberg-filled lagoon. These are the types of contrasts that perfectly encapsulate Iceland. Vatnajökull is on every tourist’s must-see list when they visit our country. The glacier lagoon rests within close proximity to a peaceful black sand beach, which is usually filled with icebergs that couldn’t make it out of the bay and out to sea. Vatnajökull makes up a significant portion of the park, and as such the national park incorporates into its name.
Jokulsargljufur – Iceland’s Waterfall Mecca
Jokulsargljufur is less volcanoes and glaciers and is more waterfalls and canyons. Iceland’s most famous waterfalls all generally reside in this former national park (now turned preservation). Dettifoss, Selfoss, and Hafargilsfoss all call Jokulsargljufur home. A good rule of thumb in Iceland: if you see -foss at the end of a word it means waterfall. Thousands of tourists visit this region every year to see these naturally formed marvels.
Waterfalls are not the only thing that dominates the landscape of this region. Canyons also play a massive role in the visual appearance of Jokulsargljufur. The Jokulsargljufur canyon, aptly and creatively named, runs twenty-four kilometers through this region and is a sight to behold. The river runs as deep as one hundred meters in some areas. Geologists theorize that the canyon was created after a series of devastating glacial floods that tore through the surrounding bedrock. Not only that, but volcanic activity opened fissures in this region, which created several other rivers.
Canyons and waterfalls aside, the area also has an impressively diverse collection of plant and animal species. One moment you could be surrounded by beautiful birchwood forests, and in the next moment, you could be surrounded by lakes and rivers created by thousands of years of violent geological activity. Again, it’s very similar to Skatafell in that this region is full of contrasts. Concerning fauna, this region is a bird watcher’s paradise. Ravens, falcons, merlins, wrens, snipes, are just some of the birds that roam throughout this region.
Explore Iceland’s Vatnajökull National Park’s Lesser-Known Gems
The aspects mentioned above of the park are but a fraction of what it has to offer. Being that the national park makes up 14% of the country, and comprises two former national parks, I doubt this brief will do it any justice. I hope that I have inspired (or at least piqued your interest) in visiting this breathtaking natural reserve that dominates the southeastern region of Iceland. A significant portion of Iceland’s most frequented tourists’ attractions are here. Thousands upon thousands of tourists make the trek to the park every year. If you are planning a visit to Iceland, I would put a visit to Vatnajökull National Park at the top of your list.