NatureNational Parks Guide to Iceland’s National Parks
Woman rear view and standing in front of stunning scenery of wild glacier, surrounded by huge icebergs, Skaftafellsjökull Glacier, Vatnajökull National Park
Go Car Rental Iceland travel writer Aron Freyr
By Aron FreyrJul 17, 2024 • 10 min read

Guide to Iceland’s National Parks

Iceland's national parks offer a unique blend of geological wonders, diverse ecosystems, and rich cultural history. They represent the natural beauty and environmental significance of the country. And it’s not only the land, the plants, and the geological features. The three national parks are home to several animal species, some of them endemic to the country. In some other parts, you can also find historical sites that are a crucial part of Iceland’s cultural heritage.

Key Takeaways

  • Iceland has three national parks: Þingvellir National Park, Vatnajökull National Park, and Snæfellsjökull National Park.
  • Þingvellir National Park is a short drive away from Reykjavik. The other two are further away, but they're worth visiting too.
  • All three parks are free.

Iceland used to have five national parks. Jökulsárgljúfur and Skaftafell were the other two sites that existed before but were merged and incorporated into Vatnajökull National Park in 2008, so now there are three. The three national parks are:

  • Þingvellir (or Thingvellir)
  • Vatnajökull
  • Snæfellsjökull

Although Iceland is a relatively small country, each park showcases distinct features, from tectonic plate boundaries to vast glaciers and volcanic landscapes, making them essential destinations for nature enthusiasts and history fans alike.

In this guide, we are going to explain what can be expected of each one of these parks, how to get there, what natural features you will find, as well as some other travel tips for your trip.

Þingvellir National Park

Probably the best-known of all the national parks in Iceland, Þingvellir is a gem of Iceland that seamlessly blends natural beauty, rich history, and unique geological features. Whether you're a nature enthusiast, a history lover, or an adventure seeker, Þingvellir has something for everyone. Let's dive into what makes this park a must-visit destination.

Let's start by saying that Þingvellir national park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s not only a stunning landscape but also a place of immense cultural and historical significance. Located about 40 kilometers northeast of Reykjavik, it is easily accessible and forms part of the famous Golden Circle route.

The park is renowned for its unique position on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, creating a dramatic rift valley. This geological feature is not just a visual marvel but also a tangible representation of the tectonic forces shaping our planet.

Historically, Þingvellir holds a special place in Icelandic culture. It was the site of the Alþingi or Althing, the first (and current) national parliament of Iceland, established around the year 930. This makes it one of the oldest existing parliamentary institutions in the world. The annual national parliament was held here until 1798. Today, visitors can walk the same grounds and reflect on the centuries of history that unfolded here.

What to See in Þingvellir?

Þingvellir is a treasure full of natural and historical attractions. It's almost impossible to reduce it to a simple list, as this amazing national park has hundreds of marvelous attractions, some of them not that well-known.

Silfra Fissure

Known for its crystal-clear waters, Silfra offers one of the best diving and snorkeling experiences in the world. The visibility here is unparalleled, allowing divers to see up to 100 meters underwater. The fissure is filled with glacial water filtered through porous lava rock, which makes it incredibly pure.

Diving here means literally swimming between continents, as the fissure is part of the divergent boundary between the North American and Eurasian plates. And you can touch them at the same time!

Þingvallavatn Lake

This is Iceland's largest natural lake, providing stunning views and opportunities for fishing and bird watching. The surrounding area is full of beautiful landscapes that are perfect for hiking or, if the weather is good, a great spot to take a break and have a picnic.

The lake's clear waters are home to various fish species, including the Arctic char and the brown trout. Bird watchers can enjoy sightings of species such as the great northern diver and the harlequin duck.

Almannagjá Gorge

This geological feature is one of the main attractions in Þingvellir. Almannagjá is a gorge separating the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates, and the division can’t be seen better than here. The feeling of being surrounded by such powerful natural forces is unparalleled.

The gorge also has historical significance, as it was the original site of the Lögberg, where the Althing would gather.

Þingvellir Church and Farmhouses

These are remnants of the old farms that once stood here, offering a glimpse into Iceland's pastoral past. The church, originally built in 1859, stands on the site of an older church dating back to the 11th Century.

In the surrounding farmhouses, you’ll see the traditional Icelandic civil architecture.

Öxarárfoss

A beautiful waterfall that flows into the Öxará River, providing a perfect spot for photography and relaxation.

The waterfall was artificially created in the Middle Ages to provide water for the assembly at Þingvellir, adding another layer of historical interest to its natural beauty.

How's the Weather in Þingvellir?

Like in every corner of Iceland, the climate in Þingvellir can be quite variable. Summers (June to August) are mild, with temperatures ranging from 10°C to 15°C (50°F to 59°F), making it an ideal time for outdoor activities. The long daylight hours during the summer allow for extended exploration. In late June, it’s possible to experience the Midnight Sun.

Winters (December to February) are cold, with temperatures often going below zero. However, the snowy landscape can be captivating, offering opportunities for winter sports like cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

The Northern Lights are also visible during the winter months, which can create a magical experience for visitors who want to enjoy this phenomenon despite the cold. Always check the weather forecast before your visit and dress in layers to stay comfortable.

How to Get to Þingvellir From Reykjavik?

The way to Þingvellir from Reykjavik is quite short and easy. The best way to get there is by car. It barely takes around 40 minutes, taking Route 36. The scenic drive offers beautiful views of Iceland's countryside, including lava fields and mountain ranges.

You can plan your visit to Þingvellir as part of a route to the Golden Circle. However, take into consideration that visiting this national park takes a few hours at least. There are guided tours for hire to know the park as its best.

Best Activities to Do in Þingvellir

Just walking around the park would be enough to make your visit worth it. Every corner is filled with beautiful spots and amazing surroundings. But you can make even more out of the park.

Hiking

There are numerous trails in Þingvellir, all of them great. They range from easy walks to more challenging hikes, all offering breathtaking views of the park's unique landscapes. Popular trails include:

  1. The path through the Almannagjá Gorge
  2. The route along the shores of the Þingvallavatn Lake

While taking your hike, you’ll see the variety of flora and fauna the park has.

Stunning view of famous Almannagjá gorge in Þingvellir national park

Snorkeling and Diving

As we mentioned before, exploring the underwater world of the Silfra Fissure is one of the most unbelievable experiences. There, you can swim between two continents in crystal-clear glacial water. Tours are available for both beginners and experienced divers, and all necessary equipment is provided.

Person diving in the Silfra Fissure

Fishing

The park's lakes and rivers are perfect for fishing enthusiasts, with Þingvallavatn Lake being particularly popular. Fishing permits are required and can be obtained locally. The serene environment and the thrill of catching fish in such a pristine setting make this a rewarding activity.

Horseback Riding

Of all the wildlife in Iceland, one of the most iconic and famous are the Icelandic horses. Small but powerful, these beautiful creatures are one of the most photographed attractions in the country.

The horses are smooth and comfortable to ride, and there are tours available for riders of all levels.

Riding through the park offers a different perspective and allows you to cover more ground than on foot.

Icelandic horses running through a river

Photography

With its dramatic scenery and historical sites, Þingvellir is a paradise for photographers. Whether you're capturing the Northern Lights in winter or the lush greenery in summer, there's always something beautiful to shoot. Early mornings and late afternoons often provide the best light for photography, and the park's varied landscapes offer endless creative opportunities.

Vatnajökull National Park

Covering more than 14% of Iceland’s entire area is Vatnajökull National Park. Also, it’s the largest national park in Europe. It gets its name from the Vatnajökull Glacier, the largest ice cap in Iceland, and it's located in the country’s east, southeast, and northeast.

Even if the ice may seem like the protagonist of this park, the variety of landscapes and features offers a unique blend of stunning glaciers, majestic volcanoes, and vibrant geothermal activity.

What to Expect in Vatnajökull?

Vatnajökull is a wonderland of natural beauty, featuring many kinds of terrains that are nothing short of spectacular. From the vast ice cap of Vatnajökull glacier itself to the vibrant valleys and volcanic terrains, there's something here for all types of visitors.

Glaciers and Ice Caves

The park's centerpiece is, as we mentioned before, the Vatnajökull glacier. It spans an impressive 8,100 square kilometers and covers about 8% of Iceland's landmass. The glacier's intricate network of ice caves is a stop you must make in your journey. These caves are accessible in the winter months and offer a surreal experience.

The jewel of the crown is the Crystal Ice Cave. Known for its vivid blue ice, it’s a natural marvel that forms again each winter as water from the glacier melts and carves out tunnels and caverns.

Volcanic Landscapes

Vatnajökull is surrounded by several active volcanoes, including Grímsvötn and Bárðarbunga. The contrasting elements of fire and ice create a dramatic landscape. Volcanic activity has also shaped unique formations like the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon and the Askja caldera.

Askja is particularly fascinating, featuring a deep, turquoise crater lake surrounded by barren but astonishing landscapes. The only downside is that the caldera is in a remote part of the park, so it’s mainly accessible during the summer months. Getting there requires a 4x4 vehicle, as the roads are a bit difficult and might be closed during the winter.

Waterfalls and Rivers

The park is home to numerous waterfalls, with Svartifoss, known for its black basalt columns, being one of the most iconic. The river systems here, fed by glacial meltwater, carve out beautiful valleys and canyons, adding to the park's diverse scenery.

In Svartifoss, or Black Falls, you will behold a unique structure that seems from another world. The basalt formations, which resemble organ pipes, are unique. It’s also great to know that it’s just a short walk from the Skaftafell Visitor Center.

What Are the Main Attractions?

Vatnajökull is home to many incredible attractions:

Skaftafell

Skaftafell is a preservation area within the park and offers a variety of hiking trails leading to stunning viewpoints; from easy trails like the one leading to the Svartifoss waterfall to more challenging routes up to Kristínartindar peaks, which offer panoramic views of the surrounding glaciers and mountains.

Skaftafell also boasts a rich history, with remnants of ancient farming communities that once lived in the region.

During your visit, make sure to stop by the Skaftafell Visitor Centre, where you can get detailed information about the trails and local weather conditions.

Hiking trail in Skaftafell

Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon

One of Iceland's most famous landmarks, Jökulsárlón, is a glacial lagoon filled with icebergs. Visitors can take boat tours to get up close to these floating ice sculptures and possibly spot some seals.

The lagoon connects to the Atlantic Ocean, and during high tide, smaller icebergs drift out to sea. Some of them end up in the nearby Diamond Beach, creating a beautiful contrast with the black sand.

A girl wearing an Icelandic wool cap admires the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon

Dettifoss

If we get to the north area of the park, we can find Dettifoss, one of the main waterfalls in Iceland. It’s considered the second most powerful cascade in Europe. The sheer force and volume of water cascading down create a sight that should not be missed.

Dettifoss is part of the Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon, which features a rugged landscape formed by volcanic activity and glacial floods. Both sides of the waterfall are easily accessible. The west side provides a closer view of the falls, while the east side offers a panoramic perspective.

Sunste at Dettifoss waterfall

How's the Weather in Vatnajökull?

As we have mentioned before, Iceland's weather is famously unpredictable, and Vatnajökull is no exception. Summers are relatively mild, with temperatures ranging from 10°C to 15°C (50°F to 59°F), making them ideal for hiking and exploring. The long daylight hours during the summer solstice provide ample opportunity to take in the sights.

Winters are harsh, with temperatures often dropping below freezing and the landscape blanketed in snow. But the park transforms into a winter wonderland, with opportunities for activities such as ice climbing, snowmobiling, and guided tours of the ice caves. However, visitors should be prepared for extreme weather conditions and ensure they have the appropriate gear and guidance to navigate the icy terrain safely. We strongly recommend going on guided tours during these months to avoid nasty surprises and to always check the weather forecast.

How to Get to Vatnajökull From Reykjavik?

The journey from Reykjavik to Vatnajökull is an adventure in itself. The most straightforward route is to drive along the Ring Road (Route 1) going East. This scenic drive takes about 4-5 hours.

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The Ring Road offers numerous opportunities for sightseeing along the way. You, for example, can stop by the Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss waterfalls, explore the black sand beaches of Vík, and visit the stunning Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon.

Best Activities to Do in Vatnajökull

Most activities are related to walking, but walking on ice and hiking while seeing jaw-dropping waterfalls or impressive canyons is way cooler than “just walking”, trust me.

Hiking

The park offers numerous hiking trails that adapt to all skill levels. From the easy walk to Svartifoss to the challenging trek up Hvannadalshnúkur, Iceland's highest peak. Skaftafell's trail network provides access to some of the most stunning landscapes in the park, including the Morsárdalur Valley and the Kristínartindar peaks.

The Hvannadalshnúkur hike is a hard full-day adventure that takes you to the summit of Iceland's highest peak.

For those looking for a less demanding hike, the trail to Morsárdalur Valley provides a serene experience with lush greenery and beautiful views.

Visiting the Ice Caves

Exploring the ice caves, particularly the Crystal Ice Cave, is a must-do in Vatnajökull. These tours are typically available from November to March and should always be done with a guide for safety.

Ice-caving tours vary in length and difficulty, with options available for both beginners and experienced adventurers. Guides provide all necessary equipment, including crampons and helmets, and ensure that safety protocols are followed throughout the tour.

Glacier Walks

Guided glacier walks on Vatnajökull provide a close look at the ice's complicated structures. These tours are available year-round but require proper equipment. Make sure you have everything you need that is not provided by the guided tour (basically the proper clothes).

Snæfellsjökull National Park

Last but not least, we get to the impressive Snæfellsjökull National Park. The third national park is located on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in West Iceland.

The park is named after the Snæfellsjökull volcano, an impressive mountain 1,200 meters (3,940 feet) high. On a clear day, it can be seen from Reykjavik, even though the capital is 120 kilometers (75 miles) away.

This park is the only one of the three that includes both terrestrial and marine areas, which makes it unique.

What to See in Snæfellsjökull?

Snæfellsjökull National Park is home to diverse landscapes, from beautiful green valleys to rugged coastlines. As we were saying before, the king here is Snæfellsjökull, the glacier-capped volcano that can be seen from almost every point in the park.

This majestic mountain is not the only thing that will draw your eye, though. The park's unique geology features lava fields, caves, and dramatic rock formations that create a visually stunning environment.

And natural life can be found in every corner. There's a huge variety of flora and fauna here. During the summer months, the meadows are carpeted with colorful wildflowers, and birdwatchers can spot species such as the Arctic tern and the charming puffin along the coast.

Snæfellsjökull Glacier

Located atop of the volcano, the glacier is not only a natural wonder but also a site of literary fame, as it was the entrance to the unknown in Jules Verne's "Journey to the Center of the Earth." From the top, the glacier offers stunning views that will leave the visitors speechless. During clear days, you can see as far as Reykjavik from the summit.

Snæfellsjökull Glacier

Kirkjufell Mountain

It has been described as the most photographed mountain in Iceland. Kirkjufell and the adjacent Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall offer iconic views that are perfect for photography enthusiasts. The name literally means “Church Mountain” due to its distinctive shape.

Kirkjufell Mountain in Winter

Vatnshellir Cave

This 8,000-year-old lava tube offers an underground adventure where you can witness the mesmerizing formations created by volcanic activity. Guided tours take you 35 meters (115 feet) below the surface, revealing the cave’s intricate lava formations and unique colors.

Ytri-Tunga Beach

This golden-sand beach is one of the best spots to discover the wildlife in Snæfellsjökull National Park, and where many visitors go to see seals. You can see the animals swimming or resting on the rocks.

Ytri-Tunga Beach

Arnarstapi Cliffs

A great way to admire the rugged coastline is to take a hike through the stunning basalt cliffs that can be found here. Also, the rock formations are home to many bird species. Don’t miss Gatklettur, a natural rock formation shaped like an arch.

The nearby village of Arnarstapi has a charming harbor and traditional Icelandic houses, adding to the area’s appeal.

Arnarstapi Cliffs

How's the Weather in Snæfellsjökull?

As it happens all over Iceland, it’s difficult to predict the weather in Snæfellsjökull. The west and south coasts, more exposed to the Atlantic Ocean, are windier and wetter than the inner parts of the country.

It's important to be prepared for sudden changes in weather, especially when venturing into the glacier's higher altitudes. Visitors should dress in layers and bring waterproof clothing, even during the summer months.

How to Get to Snæfellsjökull From Reykjavik?

Getting to Snæfellsjökull National Park from Reykjavik is quite easy, but it's not a short trip. It takes between two and three hours to reach your destination from the capital, but it’s worth it. Plus, the route will take you through really beautiful landscapes.

The most convenient way is by car, which allows you to explore the beautiful Snæfellsnes Peninsula at your own pace. The drive is made via Route 1 (Ring Road) and Route 54. Along the way, you’ll pass through charming towns like Borgarnes and enjoy different viewpoints and attractions.

Public transportation options are limited, so renting a car is highly recommended for exploring the area thoroughly.

What to Do in Snæfellsjökull

Snæfellsjökull offers a wide, and more varied than the other two parks, array of things to do.

Wander Around The Park

It doesn’t matter if you are an experienced adventurer or if it’s just your first time hiking. There are numerous hiking trails in Snæfellsjökull that will take you all around the park.

Popular hiking routes include the Saxhóll Crater, which offers a relatively easy climb with rewarding views, and the more demanding trails around the glacier itself.

Glacier tours provide an opportunity to learn about the glacier’s history and geology while enjoying the stunning surroundings.

Whale Watching

One of the perks of Snæfellsjökull being both a marine and land park is that you can get the best of both worlds. Many people come to Iceland with the idea of watching whales in their natural habitat. And this is one of the best places for it.

Tours depart from nearby towns such as Olafsvik and Grundarfjordur, offering the chance to see orcas, humpback whales, and even blue whales, among other species. The peak whale-watching season is from April to October, with the highest chances of sightings in the summer months.

Exploring the Lava Fields

Visit the Berserkjahraun lava field, a testament to Iceland’s volcanic identity, and immerse yourself in its surreal landscape. The lava field, formed over 4,000 years ago, is dotted with moss-covered rocks and twisted lava formations, creating an atmosphere that seems from outer space.

Caving

Enter the depths of Vatnshellir Cave and discover the stunning underground world shaped by ancient lava flows. The cave’s spiral staircases and narrow passages lead you into a subterranean wonderland, where you can see stalactites, stalagmites, and other fascinating geological features.

Photography

Well, this is pretty obvious, but we couldn't let it out. The entire country is a stunning paradise for photography enthusiasts, but it’s true that Snæfellsjökull will give you hundreds of chances to take a great snap with its dramatic scenery and unique geological features.

Whether you’re capturing the rugged cliffs, serene beaches, or the glacier’s icy expanse, there’s no shortage of stunning subjects.

Travel Tips for Visiting the National Parks

  • The best way to the three national parks is by car. Plan your routes ahead and check the road conditions before departing.
  • Every season has its own charm. The warmer weather and extended daylight hours will allow more time for your activities, but winter offers a unique view of the country.
  • The weather changes constantly and rapidly, even during the summer. Check the forecast in the Icelandic Met Office.
  • Pack your bags smartly. Bring layered clothing so you can adapt to the weather changes.
  • Waterproof and windproof clothes and sturdy boots can be your best allies.
  • Respect your surroundings, they’re Iceland’s most precious treasure.

Conclusion

Iceland is a stunning succession of amazing places that will leave anyone speechless. But there are no better places to discover the best of our country than its three national parks.

All three parks are absolutely worth a visit—and not a short one, but for a few days. We know that time is limited, but you can do so much with careful planning. From swimming between continents to hiking on a glacier to whale watching, Iceland has it all!

Frequently Asked Question About The National Parks of Iceland

Do national parks in Iceland cost money?

No, National Parks in Iceland are free. The only thing you need to pay for is the parking.

What's the biggest national park in Iceland?

The largest national park in Iceland is Vatnajökull National Park. It covers approximately 14,141 square kilometers (5,460 square miles), making it not only the largest national park in Iceland but also one of the largest in Europe. The park contains the Vatnajökull glacier, which is the largest glacier in Europe by volume.

What's the closest national park to Reykjavik?

The closest national park to Reykjavik is Þingvellir National Park, located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) to the east. For those interested in exploring further, Snæfellsjökull National Park is the next closest, situated approximately 189 kilometers (117.5 miles) northwest of Reykjavik.

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