The Ultimate Guide to Vatnajokull National Park
You simply cannot come to Iceland without a visit to our spectacular Vatnajökull National Park. You will find enough breath-taking scenery and exhilarating activities to keep you busy for a lifetime, but we have condensed everything you need to know into this ultimate guide to the park, helping you to get the most out of this once in a lifetime Icelandic destination!
Why Visit Vatnajökull National Park?
Vatnajökull National Park is an outdoor lover’s dream, with hiking, ice-caving, glacial kayaking, and horse-riding all waiting to be enjoyed! No matter what your outdoor experience or fitness level, the park has everything you could possibly need for an unforgettable adventure in the land of fire and ice.
Read on for detailed information about getting to the National Park, where to stay, what to eat, and all the wonderful activities available to enjoy.
How to Get to the Vatnajökull National Park
You can get to the National Park by car or you can take a public bus. Here is everything you need to know about getting there from Reykjavik:
Getting There by Car
It is an easy drive from Reykjavik capital city to Vatnajökull National Park. Taking Road 1 out of the city, you will head east past plenty of jaw-dropping scenery until you eventually reach the park.
No complicated directions are necessary, you just keep heading east until you arrive!
You can hire a car straight from Reykjavik airport from a range of car rental companies. Bear in mind that most rental companies will not allow you to drive the car on the countryside F roads unless you are driving a 4×4. This would limit your ability to drive around the National Park, and you would only be able to access the Southern side of the region.
Luckily the most famous part of the park, the preservation area of Skaftafell, is accessible via the main road!
The distance from Reykjavik to the outskirts of Vatnajökull National Park is about 320km (200 miles) and the drive can take anything between 4 to 7 hours depending on the weather conditions and time of year. We recommend that you split the drive over a few days, so you have plenty of time to pull over and enjoy all the spectacular waterfalls, rock formations, and black volcanic beaches that will come across on the way.
Iceland really does have some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, and you will want to savor every second of the journey.
Driving Rules in Iceland
If you are going to hire a car in Iceland, don’t forget these important driving tips:
- You drive on the RIGHT in Iceland, overtaking on the Left.
- National speed limits are 30kmph on residential streets, 50kmph in other built-up areas, 80kmph on gravel roads in the countryside, and 90kmph on well-surfaced roads.
- You need to be at least 21 years old to hire a car in Iceland and 25 years old to hire an off-road Jeep.
- You are legally required to use your headlights day and night, all year round.
- Look out for sheep which will often wander into the road without warning!
- Remember that off-roading is strictly prohibited, and you must always keep to marked roads.
- Drink and Drive rules are extremely strict in Iceland, with only 0.05% alcohol presence allowed in the blood. These are very seriously enforced – so make sure you don’t drive after drinking, even the next morning!
Getting There by Public Bus
It is perfectly possible to get to Vatnajökull National Park by public bus.
We recommend that you do this over a few days in order to make the most out of the journey, because you will have to change buses a couple of times, and there is so much to be enjoyed along the way.
Here is are some instructions to catch the bus from the capital city of Reykjavik to Skaftafell in Vatnajökull National Park:
- From Reykjavik, catch the 72 bus in the direction of Flúðir. After 45 minutes you would get off at Selfoss
- Take the 51 bus from Selfoss to Vík í Mýrdal. This will take 1hr 45 mins.
- Finally, from Vík í Mýrdal you take the 51 bus in the direction of Höfn í Hornafirði, arriving at Skaftafell after around 2 hours.
Each single bus fare costs 480kr, around $3.50. If you are between the ages of 6 and 18, or over the age of 67, you only pay half of this price!
Bear in mind that drivers are unable to give change when paying in cash, but you can also pay by most debit or credit cards when traveling outside of the city.
Be warned: It is not possible to book a seat in advance when traveling outside the capital area!
More information about buses can be found here.
What to do in Vatnajökull National Park
There are so many activities to be enjoyed in Vatnajökull National Park. Whether you are looking for an adrenaline-packed snowmobiling adventure on the glacier or a peaceful walk along the hiking trails, there really is something for everyone!
Keep reading for more information about all the activities you can enjoy in the National Park, including estimated prices, insider tips, and some of the best guide companies that Iceland has to offer!
Hiking across the glacier is an unforgettable experience. However, it should not be attempted without an expert guide, unless you are a qualified ice climber.
If you would like to get up onto the glacier, you can book a wonderful guided adventure with the Icelandic Mountain Guides.
If you prefer to keep your feet on more familiar ground, there are plenty of other hiking trails that you can enjoy without a guide, suitable from beginners to experts alike. These start from around 30 minutes long and go up to routes that last for several days!
You can find some suggested hiking routes on the national park website, which are helpfully color-coded for difficulty. You don’t have to stick to the suggested colored trails, these are just to help get you started on your Icelandic hiking adventures.
Don’t forget that daylight hours are extremely short in winter, so you should take extra care to complete your hike early in the day before nightfall makes conditions more dangerous.
The Ice Caves of Vatnajökull National Park are truly spectacular, so prepare to be blown away! They melt away each Springtime, reforming into unique chambers of ice every winter.
The Ice Caves can only be visited in wintertime, with the expert support of a guide. The tours are extremely popular and sell out really quickly, so you should book in advance in order to avoid any disappointment!
Whether you have a few hours or several days to spare, you can take a tour of these caves with Local Guide. We particularly recommend their 2-day discovery tours of the ice caves. They cost around USD 500, including all the adventure equipment and accommodation.
Glacier Boat Rides and Kayaking
Visitors to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon can get up close and personal with the incredible ice formations via boat or kayak. The Kayaking tours with Glacier Guides start from around USD 145 and offer you the chance to paddle up to the magnificent glacier for a unique perspective of the glowing ice.
Alternatively, you could book an amphibian boat tour with Glacier Lagoon. Soaking up views of the 1000-year-old ice from the safety of the amphibian boat, you can listen to your guide describe the natural processes that are unfolding all around you. With a 40-minute boat ride starting at around USD 40, you can just sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.
If you would like to try your hand at snowmobiling, you can head out onto the ice with a company like Glacier Jeeps.
You will be given a snowsuit, boot, balaclava, and a helmet and then set loose on the glacier! The tour lasts around 3 hours, with at least an hour guaranteed up on the ice. Equipment is provided, and they welcome complete beginners.
There is no age limit, so the whole family can get involved! Tours start at around USD 150 per person.
Outdoor Rock Climbing
Climbers will be blown away by all the amazing routes available in Vatnajökull National Park. Hnappavellir cliffs have over 150 bolted routes, including the most difficult outdoor climbing route in the whole of Iceland! There are plenty of opportunities for bouldering too.
The landowners have very kindly given permission for people to climb here, so make sure you thank them by leaving no litter or mess behind you. The best time to climb here is between June and September, as winter conditions can make climbing quite dangerous.
At the cliffs, there is also a well-maintained camping area and outhouse, which was restored by locals. This really is a special place for climbers from all over the world and offers a welcoming social scene.
However, the camping area is only available for climbers and is not for use by regular tourists. If you would like to camp, but are not a climber, you can find out more about camping in the national park later on in this guide!
For any horse lovers out there, you simply cannot come to Iceland without riding some of our world-famous horses. Icelandic horses are intelligent, brave, strong, and just full of character.
Icelandic horses have a special gait called a tolt, which is unique to their breed and makes for a seriously comfortable ride even in the most challenging terrain.
It is forbidden to import live horses into Iceland, in order to protect the native breed from any unknown diseases and also to help maintain the purity of the unique Icelandic Horse Breed. These special horses are descended from an ancient race that was completely lost to the rest of Europe.
Luckily, they continued to breed in isolation on the Island of Iceland for over a thousand years, so the world didn’t have to lose these remarkable animals.
You can go riding in the National Park with Glacier Horses, located just a few kilometers from Skaftafell. Whether you are a beginner or expert rider, there is no joy like enjoying the volcanoes, rivers and glacial tongues from horseback!
Insider tip: although Icelandic Horses are technically pony-sized, breeders much prefer you to call them horses, and may well be offended if you refer to them as a pony!
You are sure to have built up an appetite by now!
Whether you are in a rush, on a budget, or looking to celebrate a special occasion, there is something for everyone at Vatnajökull National Park.
During your visit to Vatnajökull National Park, you may want to try the fermented shark meat, sour ram’s testicles, blood pudding, or sheep’s head that helped the old Icelanders get through long hard winters. Or you might not!
Don’t worry, there are plenty of restaurants to cater to the tastes of our visitors.
Photo by Navaro
In a Rush
For a quick bite to eat right at Skaftafell, check out the highly rated Glacier Goodies food truck. This is fast food with a difference, offering delicious lobster soup to heat you up after exploring the glacier. For an up to date menu and opening times, you can check out their Facebook Page.
A Special Treat
If you have a special occasion to celebrate, then you should head to the Fosshouse Glacier Lagoon Restaurant, just minutes from the glacier lagoon. The hotel restaurant is quite expensive, but visitors love the luxury environment, delicious food, and plenty of options for vegetarians. They serve a mixture of European and Scandinavian food and are well known for fantastic local seafood.
On a Budget
The climate in Iceland does not make it easy to produce food. Presently, much of Iceland’s food has to be imported, which is why it is more expensive to buy than in the rest of Europe. In the old days, Icelanders survived on a lot of lamb and seafood, which is why these are the base of most traditional dishes.
If you are traveling on a budget, you can check out the cafeteria at Skaftafell’s visitor center. The food is simple, but perfectly nice and much more affordable than the other places mentioned above.
Insider tip: Vegetarianism is not as common in Iceland as it is in the rest of Europe. For those preferring vegetarian food, make sure you clearly communicate your dietary requirements and explicitly ask your server to avoid any sauces that include meat in them too!
If you are planning on cooking your meals, bear in mind that supplies can be difficult to get hold of once you enter the national park, so it’s a good idea to stock up on the essential food items before leaving the bigger towns and cities.
Where to Stay in Vatnajökull National Park
After a long day exploring the mountains and a hearty local meal, you will be ready to collapse into your pillow!
Whether you are looking for a romantic luxury night for 2, or an unforgettable camping trip in the wilds of Iceland, you will find plenty of accommodations within the boundaries of the National Park.
For those with the budget and desire to stay in a hotel, there are a couple of wonderful places for you to book in the National Park.
Fosshouse Glacier Lagoon Hotel is a 4**** hotel, surrounded by stunning nature and with plenty of excursions that you can book right from the front desk. Vegans, vegetarians, and gluten-free diets can be catered for and there is a lovely hotel bar with a happy hour between 4 and 6 pm every day! The hotel comes very highly recommended and offers excellent value for money.
Alternatively, why not stay at the lovely Hotel Skaftafell, which is conveniently located right next to Route 1, nearby to lots of wonderful Glacier Hikes. The restaurant is highly rated, and many visitors have reported seeing the Northern Lights right from their accommodation!
If you prefer spectacular scenery to soft sheets, you could consider staying in one of Iceland’s mountain huts. These basic hiking accommodations offer a basic but safe place to sleep, right in the heart of the National Park.
You should bring your own sleeping bag and be prepared to share the hut with many other travelers, but the shelter can be a great place to strike up new friendships and have a good night’s sleep sheltered from the elements.
Within Vatnajökull National Park, you can find mountain huts at Sveinstindur and in Skælingar. You can expect to pay around USD 40 a night, although a large discount is available for children.
Most mountain huts are open in summer but closed in winter, and you must bring your own food and camping stove to prepare your meal. Sometimes they have running water and toilets and sometimes you have to collect water from a river in order to flush a basic outhouse toilet.
You can find out more information about the mountain huts here.
Insider tip: if you aren’t with a guided tour, it’s important that you book in advance or you may well be disappointed!
RVing in Iceland
The RV lifestyle has exploded in recent years, and many people dream of taking a campervan trip to Iceland.
In the past, it was possible to park your RV in most car parks overnight in Iceland. However, the rules have now changed, and you must stay in an official camping van park if you are staying in a camping car.
You could consider renting a campervan in Iceland to explore the National Park in style. Camper Van Reykjavik is a camper van rental company with a range of different vehicles to help you explore the national parks in a campervan.
They have anything from 4×4 Jeep equipped with a simple rooftop tent, to fully equipped campers suitable for a whole family. Prices start at around USD 500 for a basic van model, up to USD 2300 per week for a luxury 4-person camper with an onboard shower.
Happy Campers is another highly recommended, family-run campervan rental company that you can consider.
Beware that fuel is very expensive in Iceland, and many American credit cards are not accepted at the pump. Be prepared to pay USD 400 to fill up a standard camping van and be aware that rental costs will shoot up in the high season of summer.
It is possible to do this trip in the winter, but prepare for high winds and long hours of darkness which might make the camping and driving more challenging. On the bright side, you get the chance to see the most stunning winter landscapes and the Northern Lights!
Camping is a perfect option for those on a budget, or for people who like to enjoy peaceful nature without having to set out on a hiking expedition.
The best-rated campground in the Vatnajökull National Park is at Nonhomar Guesthouse. This is more of a glamping experience, with small, simple log cabins available to hire for your family. It is very conveniently located between Skaftafell and Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, offering the rustic sensation of a good old-fashioned camping trip, but with more luxury than your average tent camping experience.
Alternatively, you could take your tent and head to Skaftafell Camp Ground. Enjoy snuggling up in your sleeping bag, before incredible views of the snow-capped mountains. Facilities are basic, but it is a great place to camp for access to hiking trails, and not many people can say they slept at the base of an Icelandic waterfall!
The Icelandic winters are extreme, so the best time to camp in a tent is in the summertime.
However, daylight hours are as long as 17 hours at the summer solstice, and the sky never really gets dark. It is a good idea to bring an eye mask with you if you are camping, and even some earplugs to block out the sound of the lovely birds singing through the night.
For the real adventurous people amongst you, why not head into the depths of the National Park for an immersive wild camping experience. It is perfectly legal to wild camp in much of the National Park, so long as there are no suitable camping grounds close to where you pitch up.
For example, if you are visiting Skaftafell, you should stay at the local campsite. However, if you are exploring from a less touristy area accessible via F road, then you can consider wild camping!
It is important to respect all the rules and regulations surrounding wild camping, to help preserve the pristine Icelandic wilderness. No more than 10 tents can be pitched without a permit, and camping is permitted in each place for one night only.
Leave no trace, taking all of your litter away and only burning firewood that you have carried in with you. You should always be extremely careful with fires because they can spread underground, through the intricate root systems of grasses and trees and get out of control.
Wild camping is a wonderful way to enjoy the gorgeous National Park, but you should never head out into the wilderness without experience and knowledge of keeping safe in the great outdoors.
Wildlife and Geology
The wildlife and geology of Vatnajökull is world-famous for its beauty. Don’t forget to slow down and enjoy the view whilst you are chasing down your next adventure.
From the lofty peaks of Bárðabunga mountain, to the extraordinary waters of the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, Vatnajökull National Park is a truly magical Icelandic destination. It is home to extraordinary wildlife and geology alike, from the wild reindeer of Fljótsdalshreppur, to the active volcanoes of the wild highlands and, of course, the biggest glacier in the whole of Europe.
Covering over 8000km2, The Vatnajökull glacier was formed over 2500 years ago and is nearly 1km thick in places. The stunning ice cap is layered with volcanic ash and spectacular blue crystals, with 30 unique glacier outlets tumbling through the peaks and valleys.
Not surprisingly, the National Park has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site and mesmerizes travelers from all over the world with its unbelievable natural beauty.
However, you should know that the use of drones is not allowed inside the Icelandic National Parks, including Vatnajökull. The reason that drones are restricted is to protect the local biodiversity, and to ensure a pleasant visit for all.
In some cases, it is possible to get a special permit from a park ranger to film drone footage, for scientific or professional use. You need to apply for this permit at least 2 weeks in advance. More details can be found here.
See you soon!
Vatnajökull National Park is a dream come true for adrenaline junkies and nature lovers alike.
Whether you prefer to take an exhilarating snowmobile tour with local experts or take a quiet walk in nature away from the crowds, you are sure to find something special at this unique Icelandic destination.
We hope that you have found this ultimate guide to Vatnajökull National Park helpful and look forward to welcoming you to the land of fire and ice.