I think its safe to assume that Iceland’s naturally occurring attractions are well known. Travelers don’t exactly come here for the weather. Curious adventurers put up with our infamously unstable weather for a chance to see the unbridled and stunning landscapes that we are famous for. One area of Iceland where you can see a great mix of different terrain, along with some of the top must-see locations, is the Vatnajökull National Park. There are tons of tours and activities here such as camping, hiking, snowmobile excursions, ice caves, glacier hikes and glacier walks, and more. Vatnajökull National Park holds the distinctions of being western Europe’s largest national park, having Europe’s most powerful waterfall (Dettifoss), and Iceland’s largest glacier (Vatnajökull). Let’s examine three major attractions and must-sees that are not to be missed at the Vatnajökull National Park.
Note: This is part one in a multipart series. The attractions listed here are arguably the most famous, so we will start with these and work our way through the whole list bit by bit.
Dettifoss, also known as Europe’s most powerful waterfall. You can hear the roar of the rapids pounding water into the basin that rests below it before you actually lay eyes on it. Dettifoss is one of a series of waterfalls that are situated on the Jokulsá á Fjollum river. The sediment-rich white waters take on a unique color and quality because the river is fed from glacier runoff. Standing on the edge of this beast of a waterfall, you may become overwhelmed with a sense of fear and insignificance. This is probably why director Ridley Scott chose Dettifoss for the powerful and unforgettable opening sequence of his film Prometheus. This natural wonder is an excellent example of how nature can humble us and show us how tiny and powerless we actually are. Visiting these ancient falls will elicit visceral emotions every time you go.
This is one of the only sites that may not be very accessible in a day trip. The majority of the national park is in southern Iceland. Dettifoss is in the Jökulsárgljúfur region of the park (located in the northeast of Iceland). The drive is six hours each way from Reykjavik, along Route 1 (assuming good weather and no delays). Otherwise, it will take significantly longer. However, if you are looking for a multi-day trip, an excursion to Dettifoss is recommended. The route to Dettifoss will take you along the northern edges of Iceland. This brings you right past Akyueri (Iceland’s unofficial northern capital) and Lake Mývatn (one of Iceland’s largest and most beautiful lakes). If you have the time, you should definitely make your way out there.
Skaftafell’s Svartifoss Waterfall
While Dettifoss may be the Vatnajökull park’s most powerful waterfall, Svartifoss is by far the most unique in its appearance. It’s definitely one of the coolest things to see and do in Vatnajökull National Park. Towering hexagonal towers of polished rock rise upwards along the emerald overlook surrounding the falls. Svaritfoss often draws comparisons to Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway because they share the same striking and otherworldly appearance. These basalt and onyx colored rock formations are the reason the locals refer to the falls as the “black falls.” The area is brimming with active wildlife and vibrant fauna.
From Reykjavik, it will take you around four hours each way to get to Svarifoss (again, assuming good weather and no delays). If you are short on time, and can only pick one location to visit I would recommend the Svartifoss falls. The route to Svaritfoss takes you along the scenic southern coast of Iceland. You can easily visit Iceland’s famous black sand beaches and small coastal villages like Vík.
In 2008, Vatnajökull National Park brought the Skaftafell National Park and the Jökulsárgljúfur National Park under one umbrella, along with the Vatnajökull glacier (for which it takes its namesake). The glacier that gives the park system its name is indeed a spectacle to behold. Vatnajökull is the second largest glacial mass in Europe and is the largest in Iceland. The frozen hunk of foggy white ice covers around 8,200km² (3166 mi²), suffice it to say that you have to be decisive when deciding where to explore. This serene and peaceful icy glacier range instills a sense of otherworldliness to all who lay eyes on it. Fields of never-ending white peppered with deep fissures and glistening ice will leave you stunned.
Always go with a certified tour guide though. Tour operators have special training to know what parts of the glacier are stable and safe to walk on. You don’t want to end up falling through a glacier crevasse. That would most definitely put a damper on your Icelandic holiday. Glacier hikes, glacier walks, ice caves and glacier caves are all popular adventure activities at Vatnajökul National Park, so you’ll find plenty of tour operators and tour options. Pick the best one the suits your needs, interests, and schedule. Lastly, make sure to bring warm layers and clothes. If you intend on heading to the glacier range in the winter, it will be incredibly cold.
Vatnajökull National Park Must Sees and Not to Be Missed Attractions
That concludes the first installment of our Vatnajökull National Park must-see list. The national park covers roughly 12% of Iceland’s land mass and there are tons of fun and exciting areas to explore in the park. These first three are definitely my favorites, which is why I decided to talk about them first. Stay tuned for the next installment. We will be covering the Jokulsargljufur Canyon, the “Singing Cliffs, and the peak at Hvannadalshnúkur. Leave a comment below for your favorite place to visit in the Vatnajökull National Park.