Vatnajökull National Park: The Complete Guide

Skaftafell National Park

 Dhwee / Getty Images

Map card placeholder graphic

Vatnajökull National Park

Address
Klapparstígur 25, 101 27, Iceland
Phone +354 575 8400

If you're looking to get a full tour of all of Iceland's major geographical wonders—glaciers, waterfalls, ice caves, fields of lava rock, volcanoes—Vatnajökull National Park will give you all of that and more. Stretching almost from the north to south coast of the whole country, the national park is about the size of Connecticut and takes up nearly 15 percent of Iceland's total land area. You could spend years exploring all there is to see at Vatnajökull, but the park is divided into regions to make your trip planning more manageable.

Two of those regions used to be their own national parks: Skaftafell and Jökulsárgljúfur. In 2008, the Icelandic government decided to merge the two and add much of the surrounding land to create one new national park, Vatnajökull.

Things to Do

You’ll want to set aside at least a couple of days for exploring this region. The most popular scenes can be seen in the span of a day from your car, but taking the time to hike is the best way to really get the most from your experience. You can even summit Iceland’s highest peak if you’re in the market for once-in-a-lifetime views.

Vatnajökull is a wonderful place to visit during any season in Iceland. During the summer, you’ll have the best weather of the year to take in the hiking trails. Waterfalls are one of the biggest attractions in Vatnajökull and during the warmer months, they are at their peak flow. The long days also mean you'll have more than enough time to explore before nightfall—in June, there's an average of 21 hours of daylight.

During the wintertime, Vatnajökull becomes one of the best places to explore ice caves. To do this, you’ll need an official tour guide. The ice caves are constantly changing and melting and you have to make sure you’re in the company of someone who is tracking all of this seasonal activity. Because of Vatnajökull's location, it also receives relatively little snowfall and the lowland trails are typically open throughout the winter for hiking.

Regardless of what season you're there, if it's your first time at Vatnajökull then the best place to start is at the Skaftatell Visitor Center for visiting the south end of the park or the Ásbyrgi Visitor Center for visiting the north end. Trail and road conditions can change hour to hour, so asking the rangers what they recommend is a good way to orient yourself.

Best Hikes & Trails

Vatnajökull's massive size means that there are miles and miles of hiking trails that cover all types of landscapes and difficulty levels. The most extreme hike in the park is climbing to the summit of Hvannadalshnjúkur, which is the highest peak in Iceland, but there are plenty of easier options to tackle as well.

While each region of the park has its own list of trails, the examples below are all from the Skaftatell area, which is the most developed and where most visitors begin. If you're planning to visit other areas of the park, start at the visitor center and ask one of the rangers for recommendations.

  • Svartifoss Waterfall: Perhaps the most accessible hike with the biggest payoff, this easy trail beings at the visitor center and is about 3.5 miles roundtrip. You'll climb to the top of the waterfall for an amazing view, before climbing down a ravine—with steps—and back to the visitor center.
  • Skaftafellsheiði: This challenging loop trail is about 10 miles total, so set aside at least five to six hours to complete it. There's a lengthy ascent in the beginning, but hikers are rewarded with sweeping views of the valley and the Vatnajökull glacier.
  • Skaftafellsjökull: This hike to the eponymous glacier is especially recommended during the winter months because the conditions are safer and the trail is an easy 2-mile loop. Not only that, but in the winter, glaciers change colors and become bright blue, making them even more spectacular than usual.

Where to Camp

Camping at Vatnajökull is most comfortable in the summer months, although it's possible to camp at any time of year. Most of the areas across the park have some type of campground or lodging, depending on what part of the park you plan to explore.

  • Skaftafell Campground: By far the largest and most popular campground is the one at Skaftafell. It's also one of the places open throughout the year, so you can camp out even in winter. Bathrooms with showers are available and there are spots for both tents and RVs. Campsites can be reserved up to 14 days in advance.
  • Ásbyrgi Campground: Located in the Jökulsárgljúfur area at the north side of the national park, Ásbyrgi is typically open from mid-May to the end of October, depending on the snowfall. It's located next to the Ásbyrgi Visitor Center and can fill up, so it's important to make reservations for this campground before arrival.
  • Vesturdalur Campground: Also located in the Jökulsárgljúfur area, this primitive campground is located in the Vatnajökull backcountry. It's primarily for tent campers and there's no electricity, hot water, or cell reception. No reservations can be made for Vesturdalur and the campground is typically open from mid-June to mid-September.

Where to Stay Nearby

As with camping, the first step is to choose what area of the park you want to stay in and then look for accommodations. It can take a full day to drive from one part of the park to another, so it's important to research what you want to see first.

  • Hótel Skaftafell: To stay near the park's main area without having to camp out, the Hótel Skaftafell is just down the road from the visitors' center and the popular trailheads to the Svartifoss waterfall or Skaftafellsjökull glacier.
  • Snæfell Hut: In the Snæfell area of the park, this lodge is run by the national park and is one of the most affordable options for budget travelers to sleep in the park. The accommodation is basic with a toilet outside of the building, but there are heated showers.
  • Fosshótel Glacier Lagoon: This boutique hotel is located at the southern tip of the park, between Skaftafell glacier and Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. The contemporary rooms all have big windows so you can look out at the otherworldly landscape right from bed.

How to Get There

Depending on what part of the park you're heading to, the journey to Vatnajökull takes anywhere from four to eight hours if you're coming from Reykjavik—and that's not including scenic stops along the way. Route 1 is the highway to reach pretty much any area of the park, which is also known as the Ring Road because it circles the entire island. If your destination is Skaftafell, you'll drive south on Route 1 for about four hours. If you're going towards Jökulsárgljúfur, you'll take Route 1 but in the other direction along the north coast of the country.

There's also a public bus that leaves from the Mjódd bus station in Reykjavik and goes directly to the Skaftafell visitor center and campground. By bus, the journey takes about five and a half hours.

Accessibility

Many of the visitor centers in the park are built to be wheelchair accessible, but the rugged terrain of the trails means that most parts of the park are not. The easy Skaftafellsjökull trail that goes to the glacier from Skaftafell is mostly paved or made of packed gravel, making it the best option for visitors with limited mobility.

Tips for Your Visit

  • If you're driving through the park, make sure that you're aware of the rules about what roads you're allowed to drive on or not. A four-wheel-drive vehicle isn't necessary if you're just driving from Reykjavik to the visitor center, but you will need one if you're entering deeper into the park.
  • If you're entering the Skaftafell area of the national park, you'll need to pay a daily admission fee. You can complete your payment online to not worry about it when you arrive.
  • There is a cafeteria open year-round at the Skaftafell visitor center for visitors who are camping. There's also a small food market a couple of miles away near the Hotel Skaftafell for picking up some emergency items, but you should buy supplies before arriving since the nearest fully-stocked grocery store is 80 miles away.
Was this page helpful?
Back to Article

Vatnajökull National Park: The Complete Guide