ICELAND - NATIONAL PARKS

NATIONAL PARKS

Considering that most of Iceland is untouched and undeveloped, the whole of country could be looked upon as a giant nature reserve.  Officially, however, Iceland has 3 national parks; Þingvellir, Vatnajökull (originally 5 separate parks) and Snæfellsjökull.   These parks were established for various reasons,  and have either geological, historical or cultural significance.

 

They serve to preserve and protect icelands natural beauty and ecosystems, while also making them accessible to a public .  Take a moment to peruse each park in detail.

THINGVELLIR NATIONAL PARK

The park is located in south western Iceland in the Bláskógabyggð municipality, approximately 40 minutes drive northeast of Reykjavík. 

 

Established in 1928, Thingvellir (The parliamentary Plains) is the country’s oldest national park and also its most important historic site.  It was the site of the world’s oldest parliament that was founded here in 930 on the lake Thingvallavatn. 

It is the only National Park in Iceland designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.  This designation was due in part to it’s historical significance, but also it’s astounding geological make-up.  Þingvellir is one of only 2 places on the planet, where visitors can see both the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates exposed from the earth, the other location is the Great Rift Valley in East Africa.  Between the plates is Graben valley, a plateau of dried lava fields, crevasses and startling rock formations, all covered with a thick blanket of moss

The present natural landscape has been in creation for about 9000 years and is still being created by the plate tectonics.  The continental drift between the plates can be clearly seen in the cracks or faults traversing the area, the largest being Almannagjá, a bonafide canyon.  Other rifts are full of clear water.  

 

Visitors can visit Öxarárfoss, a thunderous waterfall that flows from the Oxara river to the edge of the Almannagia, where it cascades down to a rocky pool below.  

South of the park lies Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland.  It presents a beautiful underwater landscape that it home to over 50 vertebrate species and 150 types of plants.  On it’s northern shore lies the Silfra Fissure, one of Iceland’s most famous attractions. The sublime glacial spring Silfra fissure, famed for its crystal clear visibility, often extending to over 300ft.

Together with Gullfoss waterfall and the geothermal valley  of Haukadalur, Þingvellir is one of three stops along the most famous sightseeing route in Iceland, the Golden Circle.

 

The park truly has something for everyone. Whether your interests are in anthropology, geology, biology or just the joy of the great outdoors, this park is a place where your curiosity can be both stimulated and satisfied.

 

Best Season to visit: June  – September since camp grounds are open during this period.

SNAEFELLSJOKULL NATIONAL PARK

The Snæfellsjökull  National Park was officially established on the 28th of June 2001, in order to protect the regions heritage, incredible natural diversity and fascinating cultural sites. It is approximately 2 and a half hours drive from Reykjavik and the journey traverses some truly magnificent countryside.  The region’s major focal point is the awe-inspiring, 700,000 year old Snæfellsjökull volcano, which dominates the landscape – it is so large that on a clear day it can be seen from over 120km away in Reykjavik, jutting out across Faxaflói Bay .   Its enormity and impact from up close is mind-blowing.   This ice-capped stratovolcano, lies on the far western point of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. 

The park covers just 170 square kilometres of land, with Háahraun in the region of Dagverðará to the South and Gufuskálar to the North.  It offers a wonderfully diverse geology with formations from almost every era of Iceland’s past, dating back to the last ice age.  The landscape is made up of rocky coves, lava plateaus, towering cliffs and sloping glaciers, and is truly breathtaking.  Snæfellsjökull  has been fondly referred to as  “Iceland in miniature,” as it showcases all of Iceland’s prominent natural features.  

Snæfellsjökull National Park is Iceland’s only National Park to extend to the seashore.  The coast is varied and teams with birdlife during the breeding season. 

The most beautiful beach within Snæfellsjökull National Park is perhaps Djúpalónssandur, with its pitch black sands and pebbles, surrounded by lush green moss covered lava and containing the ruins of an old British trawler.

Archeological sites such as Forni-Saxhóll farm, Berutóftir and Írskubúðir all suggest that the peninsula was inhabited as far as 1100 years ago, sometime after the volcano's’ last eruption, which took place sometime between 50-350 AD. During this eruption, the landscape was slowly moulded by lava flows, creating a wealth of cave networks and craters, many of which can be explored today by guests. Visitors are advised not to enter caves unless accompanied by an experienced guide.

Caves, caverns, craters and canyons dot the full range of Snæfellsnes Peninsula. One of the most popular is Rauðfeldsgjá (Red-cloak rift), a 120ft deep rift into a mountainside. The first part of this rift is fairly easy to navigate, though the terrain becomes more difficult and more slippery, the deeper one goes. Those who venture to the end will get wet, but will be rewarded with a stunning hidden waterfall.

Sönghellir (“Cave of Song”), a cavern that takes its name for the distinctive echoes that can be made inside.

Another cave worth visiting is Vatnshellir; where guests descend a spiral staircase into a colourful chamber formed by ancient magma flows. This 200-metre long lava tube, now 8000 years old, originated from eruptions at the nearby Purkhólar crater. In order to preserve this geologically significant cave, Vatnshellir was closed off from the public a few years ago and is now only accessible with a licensed tour guide.

Outside the park, at the nearby to the town of Grundarfjörður, you’ll find the most photographed mountain in Iceland, Kirkjufell.  Kirkjufell is made all the striking by the adjacent waterfall, Kirkjufellsfoss, which creates an excellent foreground. The changing light and seasons create endless possibilities for photographers. Grundarfjörður is also one of the best places in the world to spot Killer Whales, and the town’s harbor offering numerous whale-watching tours.

En route to the park nature lovers will also enjoy a visit to Ytri-Tunga, otherwise known as “seal beach”. As its name suggests, this area is inhabited by a gregarious seal colony during June, July and August.

Within the park, birdwatchers will find an abundance of birds, particularly along the coast and in the lowland regions.   You’re likely to see white wagtail, ringed plover, ptarmigan and purple sandpiper (on coast).   Common terrestrial mammal sightings include fox, mink, and mice.  If you walk along the coast you may be afforded sightings of either common or grey seals, and possibly even a killer whale, minke whale, or porpoise.  

The Snæfellsjökull glacier is the crown jewel and revered as a spiritual energy centre of the earth.

Best Season to visit: June – September

VATNAJÖKULL NATIONAL PARK

With an area of 12,000 square km, Vatnajokull makes up almost 12% of Icelands total area, and is the largest National Park in Europe.  It was established on June 7th 2008 and at the time comprised an area of 12,000 square km, making up 12% of icelands total area.  It incorporated the Skaftafell National Park, Jokulsargljufur National Park, almost the entire Vatnajokull Glacier (the parks namesake), Hagonguhraun lava fields, Veidivatnahraun, Vesturoraefi, Mt Snaefell, Eyjabakkar and a part of Hraun to the north of the glacier. It was founded to conserve the area’s history, ecology, cultural heritage and dazzling landscape.

With the recent additions of Krepputunga, Langisjór, Lakagígar (Laki Craters) and Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, the park now covers over 14,000 square kilometres (approx; 14% of Iceland), making it the second largest national park in Europe, after Yugyd Va in Russia.

It is estimated that the Vatnajökull ice cap began forming 2500 years ago. Nowhere displays the age old struggle between fire and ice so beautifully as Vatnajökull; beneath its frozen exterior bubbles the powerful, molten heat of our planet.  Outside of the Arctic, Vatnajökull is Europe’s largest glacier, covering 8,100 km2, with ice averaging a thickness of about 600-900 metres. The glacial ice is, in fact, so thick that it conceals a number of mountains, valleys, plateaus and even some active central volcanoes, of which Bárðarbunga is the largest and Grímsvötn the most active. On the southern periphery is Iceland’s highest peak, Hvannadalshnúkur, summiting at 2109 metres.

Attesting to its size, Vatnajökull has about 30 outlet glaciers stemming from it, the most famous being, arguably, Breiðamerkurjökull, which terminates in Jökulsárlón,  a small glacial lagoon – perhaps the parks most reknowned natural attraction.  This glittering lagoon is decorated with aquamarine icebergs, that break away from their parent glacier and float idly out to meet the Atlantic Ocean.  This meeting point is called  Diamond Beach, for obvious reasons, and is also home to a playful colony of seals – adding to inherint appeal of the lagoon.

Every year, as the ice melts, new ice caves are formed , and at the beginning of each winter season, caving and ice-climbing tour operators embark to discover incredible new, frozen caverns, hidden away in Vatnajökull’s farthest corners. The natural ice caves are accessible between November through to the end of March yearly.  Ice cave tours allow visitors to experience the magical depths of the glacier, and its intricate natural ice-sculptures in various shades of blue, which are intrinsically part of the ice itself.

Vatnajökull National Park contains some of the country’s most notable highlights, including the country's largest glacier, tallest mountaintop and tallest waterfall, Morsárfoss ! Surprisingly, this waterfall, is one of the parks most recent attractions and only appeared in 2007, when the surrounding glacier, Morsárjökull, melted enough to reveal it. It is, however, extremely hard to reach it.  

Vatnajökull National Park contains some of the country’s most notable highlights, including the country's largest glacier, tallest mountaintop and tallest waterfall, Morsárfoss ! Surprisingly, this waterfall, is one of the parks most recent attractions and only appeared in 2007, when the surrounding glacier, Morsárjökull, melted enough to reveal it. It is, however, extremely hard to reach it.  

In the north the mighty Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall, thunders into the upper reaches of Jökulsárgljúfur canyon.   Here Askia, Dverkfjoll, Snaefell, and Herðubreið volcanoes tower of the highland plateau.  Further north you’ll find scenic formations at Hljóðaklettar and the horseshoe-curved cliffs of Ásbyrgi.

Broad wetlands and expansive ranges near the glacier are an important habitat for reindeer and pink-footed geese.

The south you’ll find majestic mountain ridges, and the parks central volcano volcano Öræfajökull, and Iceland's highest peak, Hvannadalshnjúkur.   Glaciers descend from here into the lowlands. 

Sheltered by the high ice, 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 glacial floods.

The landscape west of Vatnajökull, is characterized by substantial volcanic activity, where two of the world's greatest fissure and lava eruptions occurred, in historical time.

The park has a vast network of hiking trails, but hike with caution.  Due to the remoteness and general ruggedness of the terrain and unpredictability of the weather, trails can be treacherous.  Be sure to take appropriate equipment with you, good hiking boots or trail shoes are advisable. Use common sense, and be particularly careful when trails are wet or icy.

Camping is permitted in the park, and in some areas, huts are available to rent.  Numerous services are available such as washing machines, showers, and other facilities. 

Best Season to visit: July – September

A percentage of each booking  cost goes to a charity of your (or our) choice.

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