Updated: Dec 29, 2022
Experiencing the wonder of Iceland’s National Parks is one of the most magical things you can do on your Icelandic adventure. You’ll be stunned by their incredible natural beauty, diverse landscapes, and otherworldly geology. Lovers of the great outdoors will be in their element here, with so much to see and do.
A large percentage of Iceland’s landmass is designated as national parkland. Much of the center of the island, known as the Highlands, is largely wild and unspoiled. There are only three National Parks in Iceland, but they are definitely not small! Vatnajökull National Park alone takes up an impressive 13% of Iceland’s landmass, including the whole of the Vatnajökull ice cap.
In this blog, we’ll explore all about Thingvellir, Snæfellsjökull, and Vatnajökull National Parks. We’ll include all the most important information you need to know, opening times, prices, things to do, attractions, and must-sees!
Iceland National Parks map
Here’s a handy map of the best National Parks in Iceland, so you can easily visualize where each of these Iceland parks is located.
1. Thingvellir National Park
Lying in an astounding rift valley, Thingvellir National Park is located in South Iceland, around a 45-minute drive from Reykjavík. A stunning sight to behold, Thingvellir truly earned its place on the extensive list of natural wonders in Iceland by winning the title of UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.
Thingvellir lies right on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the place where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. This is then one of the best places to visit and experience this awe-inspiring geological process for yourself. In fact, Iceland is the only country on Earth where it’s possible to see this tectonic plate rift above sea level.
With lava fields, meltwater ravines, vast canyons, and a variety of animal life, it's no wonder it made it to our list of must-see places in Iceland. As well to its impressive geology, Thingvellir is also an important historical site. It is the place where Iceland’s very first parliament began to gather!
Thingvellir is open year-round, but the best time to visit is between May and October for optimal weather and viewing conditions.
Activities in Thingvellir National Park
Almannagjá Gorge hike
If you are an avid hiker, know that Thingvellir is blessed with beautiful landscapes and some truly lovely hiking trails. It is one of the best National Parks in Iceland for hikers. Almannagjá Gorge hike is a brilliant one to experience this beautiful valley and see the Mid-Atlantic Ridge for yourself.
The dramatic Öxarárfoss Waterfall is another must-see within the park. This cascade is located around 7 km from the visitor center along a picturesque and mostly flat trail. If you don’t want to miss anything, you can embark on the moderately challenging 10.5-kilometer Thingvellir Loop around the park.
For water lovers, you can take a trip to Iceland’s largest natural lake, Thingvallavatn, and go snorkeling or scuba diving in the Silfra Fissure. The incredibly clear water and unique underwater environment in this natural ravine make it a fantastic place for diving. Although you’ll need to prove you’re qualified to do so. Note that the water here is around 2 degrees year-round, so dry suits are required.
Thingvellir Visitor Centre
Located near the park’s main viewpoint at Hakid, Thingvellir Visitor Centre, is open from 10 am to 4 pm between September and April. Here, you can experience an interactive exhibition about the park’s nature and history, which lasts between 40 and 60 minutes. It’s free for children under 17 and costs 1000 ISK for adults or 500 ISK for senior citizens.
Driving and camping in Thingvellir National Park
The park is a 47-kilometer drive northeast of Reykjavík along Iceland’s Golden Circle route. Visitors arriving at camp can choose between two campgrounds. The first is situated a very short distance from the visitor center and the second, Vatnskot, is next to Thingvellir Lake. Both campgrounds are open from June to September.
If you’re traveling in your campervan rental, we recommend the campground next to the visitor center. There, you will find basic services for campervans and motorhomes available here all through the year. You shouldn’t need to book in advance, but you may prefer to do so at busier times of the year.
Interesting facts about Thingvellir
Established in 1930, Thingvellir National Park is the oldest official park in Iceland.
Thingvellir translates as ‘Fields of Parliament’. It was here that Iceland’s very first parliament (Alpingi) used to gather back in 930 AD, when the Vikings would discuss the political decisions of the day. They did so mostly in the great outdoors, but there are a few remnants of ancient structures dotted around the landscape.
Parliament continued to meet at Thingvellir until around 1800 when it was moved to an indoor location in Reykjavík.
The North American and Eurasian plates meet partly underwater in the Thingvellir Lake. The plates are on the move, slowly drifting apart at about 1 cm a year.
2. Snæfellsjökull National Park
Lying in southwestern Iceland, Snæfellsjökull National Park covers the whole southern section of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. The only park that reaches Iceland’s coastline, Snæfellsjökull is around a 2-hour and 50-minute drive from Reykjavík.
On a clear day, it’s possible to gaze across the bay from Reykjavík and see the distinctive peak of the mighty Snæfellsjökull volcano. This ‘Snow Mountain’ is both the namesake and focal point of the park.
Open all year, there’s plenty to see and do in this relatively small but incredibly varied National Park. The Snæfellsjökull visitor center, located at Malarrif, is open from noon to 4 pm every day in winter (between October to April). During the summer (May to September) it opens from 10:30 am to 4:30 pm every day.
Activities in Snæfellsjökull National Park
Visitors can enjoy volcanoes, rushing waterfalls, hot springs, lava fields, and a wild and rugged coastline at Snæfellsjökull National Park. As Iceland’s only park that stretches from the mountains to the shoreline, Snæfellsjökull offers a variety of activities to do and magical things to see. Here are some of our favorites:
Lava field hike – Take a hike across Budahraun lava field for otherworldly views.
Beaches – Visit the black sand beach of Djúpalónssandur or watch the seals from the yellow sand beach Ytri Tunga.
Caves – Snæfellsjökull National Park also has some fantastic cave networks and canyons to discover. Some of these can be visited independently, but there are certain caves that you’ll need to join a guided tour to explore. A fun place to visit is the Sönghellir cave, which translates as the ‘Song Cave’ because of the surprising echoes that it produces.
Villages – A few charming villages are dotted around the coastline at Snæfellsjökull, including Rif and Ólafsvík.
Mountains – Game of Thrones fans will be excited to hear that the arrowhead mountain, featured in Season 7 of the series, can be found just outside the park. The distinctive Kirkjufell Mountain might just be the most photographed in Iceland!
Waterfalls – The nearby Kirkjufellsfoss Waterfall completes the view.
Driving and camping in Snæfellsjökull National Park
Situated in South Iceland, Snæfellsjökull National Park is about 190 km from Reykjavík. There are no campgrounds within the national parkland, but there are three nearby, which all lie within easy reach of the park. One is on the outskirts of Ólafsvík and the other two lie on the northern and southern tips of the Snæfellsnes Peninsular respectively.
Interesting facts about Snæfellsjökull National Park
The landscape of Snæfellsjökull is so varied that it is often referred to as ‘Iceland in miniature’.
Snæfell Volcano is around 700,000 years old and is a huge stratovolcano reaching 1500 meters. Never fear, though – the volcano last erupted around 100 AD and today lies dormant.
Snæfellsjökull National Park was molded by this ancient eruption, as lava flows created bizarre rock formations cave networks, and coastal lava tubes.
Inspiring writers and artists for centuries, Snæfellsjökull National Park is famous for being the entrance to the center of the Earth in Jules Verne’s novel.
3. Vatnajökull National Park
The second-largest national park in all of Europe, the spectacular Vatnajökull National Park is home to a wealth of dazzling landscapes. Boasting the entirety of the vast Vatnajökull ice cap, as well as Iceland’s highest peak Hvannadalshnúkur (2110 m), this park is sure to leave you awestruck.
Lying in the east of the country and stretching from north to south Iceland, Vatnajökull can take around 4 to 6 hours to reach from Reykjavík by car. That depends on where exactly you’re driving to and the weather conditions, of course. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is open all year, with the Skaftá visitor center opening each month at varying times.
Activities in Vatnajökull National Park
With wildlife wetlands to the north, glacial lagoons in the south, and a vast wilderness of mesmerizing beauty between, there’s almost too much to see and do at Vatnajökull! One of the best national parks in Iceland, Vatnajökull’s size and beauty is truly breathtaking.
Glacier hike at Vatnajökull
One of the most popular activities in Vatnajökull is discovering its glaciers and exploring the glacial ice caves. Fancy going on a glacier hike? You can take a day tour across the glacier surface, before discovering the glowing ice caves beneath. It’s a fascinating and humbling experience to learn about and experience the sheer scale and power of these mighty glaciers for yourself.
Skaftafell Nature Reserve
Take your pick from a whole range of waterfalls and incredible vistas during your visit to Vatnajökull. We highly recommend visiting Skaftafell Nature Reserve, which is one of the best places to visit in Iceland for hiking and to view the famous basalt stack waterfall.
Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon
The majestic Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon is another must-visit. Here you can watch icebergs bobbing across the lake, spot seals, and Arctic Tern, and take a super memorable boat trip!
Driving and camping in Vatnajökull National Park
The Vatnajökull National Park can be approached from either the north or south by taking Iceland’s Ring Road, which hugs the country’s eastern coast just outside the park. Although areas of the park can be accessed year-round, things get a little trickier in winter. There are areas in the Highlands and the more remote interior that can only be driven by 4x4 and may be completely closed at times.
Due to Vatnajökull’s size, there are five visitor sections in the park and the whole area is divided into four zones that are separately managed. Camping in the Vatnajökull National Park is a brilliant opportunity to spot the Northern Lights in Iceland, away from all light pollution. There are several campsites to choose between in the southern reaches of the park. There are also further campsites that lie just outside the borders of the park.
If you are driving the southern portion of the Ring Road, we recommend the campgrounds close to the towns of Vik and Hofn. They are very convenient places for exploring Iceland’s South Coast.
We recommend the campgrounds close to the towns of Vik and Hof as very convenient places to camp if you are driving the southern portion of the Ring Road and exploring Iceland’s South Coast.
Interesting facts about Vatnajökull National Park
Previously two separate reserves that were combined in 2008, Vatnajökull has since been expanding to incorporate further areas into its borders.
Vatnajökull National Park covers 14% of Iceland’s landmass.
This park is home to Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull, which itself covers 8% of the country’s landmass or 12,000 square kilometers.
Explore Iceland’s National Parks by campervan!
Ready to witness the natural wonders of Iceland’s National Parks for yourself? Discover the best National Parks in Iceland with the ultimate freedom and flexibility by traveling in your campervan rental. Why not rent your campervan in Iceland now to get started on your magical Icelandic adventure?