Vatnajökull National Park takes its name from Europe’s most voluminous ice cap, Vatnajökull. In 2008, it became a protected national park.
In Icelandic, the park’s full name is Vatnajökulsþjógarður.
Today, the protected area is around 14,000 km², approximately the size of Northern Ireland.
Before 2008, the area was mostly covered by two separate parks, Skaftafell (est. 1967) in the south and Jökulsárgljúfur (est. 1973) in the north.
Currently, there is a parliamentary bill proposed to incorporate the area into a huge Central Highland National Park that would cover 40% of Iceland’s area, around the size of Switzerland.
We live and run trips towards the south of the ice cap in southeast Iceland, so we’ll focus more below on our incredible backyard.
On the map below, you can see the many glacier outlets and valleys around which we organize our Vatnajökull National Park tours, be they group trips or custom adventures.
Due to its enormous size, covering nearly 14% of Iceland, Vatnajökull National Park inevitably contains some of our country’s volcanoes.
At present, there are ten central volcanos, with eight under the ice itself.
When the subglacial volcanoes erupt, they heat up and melt the ice above producing temporary lakes which burst out in an almighty flood called a jökulhlaup (translated as ‘glacier run’).
These surges carry huge amounts of sediment, primarily ash, out onto the large glacial braided river plains. These outwash plains were named sandur. Today, along with jökulhlaup, this term is used the world over.
The term sandur was derived from the highly active Skeiðarársandur, which extends 56 km along the coast from the puffin hotspot of Ingólfshofði, Öræfi to the picturesque mountain in the west of Lómagnúpur. See the bottom right of the map above.
In 1996, there was a monstrous jökulhlaup originating in the Grímsvötn volcano. A large lake formed and suddenly released, creating at one point a peak discharge of 40,000 m³/s, or about 16 Olympic-sized swimming pools per second.
This jökulhlaup has been actively depositing material since the Holocene (around 12,000 years ago), and in that time it has deposited about 100 to 200km³ of glaciovolcanic sediment at an average rate of 1km³ per century (equivalent to approximately 29,000 50kg cement bags).
Our passion is exploring the glacier outlets and the surrounding terrain. And it’s this passion that inspired us to start providing Vatnajökull National Park tours.
The glaciers which we have experience accessing include (from west to east):
Many of these glacier outlets descend from the top of Iceland (peaking at 2110 m.a.s.l), which happens to be the caldera (20km wide at ~1900 m.a.s.l) of the mighty active volcano, Öræfajökull (translated as ‘wasteland glacier’ volcano).
The translation aptly describes the character of the volcano when it erupted in 1362 for the first time since settlement in 874. Since 1362, it has had a smaller eruption in 1727 and 1728, and numerous other episodes of activity.
The volcano lies outside the main volcanic belt in Iceland, in the Skaftafell and Fjallsárlón area. The geological nature of the volcano means the eruptions are explosive.
And if that wasn’t troublesome enough for the locals, it is filled with up to 4 km of snow and ice in the caldera.
This huge volume of snow and ice means that activity and/or eruptive episodes can produce jökulhlaups.
As we head further west, past all the canyons and glaciers descending from Öræfajökull, we come to Breiðamerkurjökull.
You’ve probably seen the ‘wide-mouthed glacier’ before at the movies. It’s famous for the stunning lagoon, Jökulsárlón, into which the ice calves frequently to produce icebergs.
Jökulsárlón is easy to access, so a visit here is one of the most popular things to do in Vatnajökull National Park for visitors to Iceland.
Jökulsárlón is connected by a channel to the North Atlantic Ocean, and so the country’s deepest lake is also a mix of fresh- and seawater.
The salinity reduces the lake’s ability to freeze. In addition to this, the strong tidal flow means the icebergs here are frequently active, more so than many other iceberg lakes.
The glaciers between Breiðamerkurjökull and the port town of Höfn are less frequently visited and have a very different character to those steeply flowing from Öræfajökull. These are some of our personal favourites.
Here, the glaciers have come down off the Vatnajökull plateau and carved out valleys through long-extinct central volcanoes down to the large grazing farms of the district.
There have been numerous quarries into the older rock east of Breiðamerkurjökull, one of which became the cladding of the Central Bank of Iceland.
In the early 1900s, a crystalline mineral known as ‘Iceland Spar’ was discovered locally. It was subsequently used in nearby public buildings as well as in the manufacture of optical instruments abroad.
During this time Vatnajökull was being researched extensively through multiple expeditions and collaborations between Icelandic and Swedish meteorologists, geologists and geographers.
This led to many new findings about the unique aspects of Vatnajökull in comparison to other ice caps around the world.