Updated: Jan 30, 2020
Iceland’s natural beauty is diverse and unique with a wealth of landscapes and natural phenomena to discover. Lovers of the great outdoors will be in their element here with so much to see and do. The wide, open spaces of Iceland are largely wild and unspoilt. And in a way the whole of the island could be thought of as one big national park. The Icelandic people are also very much in touch with nature. They are environmentally orientated and have a great love of the natural world. This is reflected in the fact that a large percentage of the island’s landmass is designated as national parkland.
There are in fact only three National Parks of Iceland, but they cover some very large areas. Vatnajökull National Park alone takes up an incredible 13% of Iceland’s landmass including the whole of the Vatnajökull ice cap. The three national parks are Thingvellir, Snæfellsjökull and Vatnajökull. They are all overseen by the Environment Agency of Iceland that looks after the precious ecosystems of the parks. The agency monitors wildlife, flora and fauna and maintains pathways and access. They also offer advice to visitors on how to safely enjoy all that the parks have to offer. In this article we will explore each of Iceland’s three national parks. We will find out about their history, geology and specific attractions. We will also cover a guide to driving and camping within these beautiful parks.
Thingvellir National Park Overview
Thingvellir National Park is the oldest official park in Iceland and was established in 1930. It is now the only park in Iceland to have UNESCO World Heritage status, which was awarded in 2004. The park lies in South Iceland only around 40km northeast of the capital city of Reykjavik. It gained this status because of its historical and geological significance.
Thingvellir translates as ‘Fields of Parliament’ and it was here that Iceland’s very first parliament (Alpingi) used to gather. Way back in 930 AD the Vikings began gathering here to 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 here until around 1800 when it was moved indoors in Reykjavik.
As well as this historical significance Thingvellir also has a geological claim to fame. In its great rift valley you will find the meeting of two tectonic plates. The North American and Eurasian plates meet partly under water in the Thingvellir Lake. The plates are on the move, slowly drifting apart at a rate of about 1cm a year.
Things to do in Thingvellir National Park
Thingvellir National Park is blessed with beautiful landscapes and some truly lovely hiking trails. Along with the Gullfoss Waterfall and the Geyser Geothermal area it forms part of Iceland’s famous Golden Circle route. So it is very much an attraction in and of itself.
Hiking and walking here are the top activities. Exploring the meeting of the earth’s tectonic plates is a unique experience. The only other place where it is possible to observe this phenomenon is in East Africa’s Great Rift Valley.
The dramatic Öxarárfoss Waterfall is another must-see within the park, as is the Silfra Fissure. The waters in this fissure are fed by a glacial spring and they are crystal clear. Diving and snorkelling here is a popular activity because of the incredible visibility and the unique underwater environment.
Driving and camping in Thingvellir National Park
The park is an easy forty-minute drive from Reykjavik. Visitors arriving to camp either for tent camping or by camper van rental enter the park via the visitor centre. There are then two campgrounds to choose between. The first is situated a very short distance from the visitor centre and the second, Vatnskot, is next to Thingvellir Lake. Both campgrounds are open from June to September. However, there are basic services for camper vans and motorhomes year round in the campground next to the visitors centre. You shouldn’t need to book in advance but you may prefer to do so at busier times of the year.
Snæfellsjökull National Park Overview
The Snæfellsjökull National Park takes up the whole southern section of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. It lies in the southwest of Iceland so not too distant from Reykjavik. On a clear day it is possible to gaze across the bay from Reykjavik and see the distinctive peak of the mighty Snæfellsjökull volcano. This ‘Snow Mountain’ is both the namesake and the focal point of the park. But there is plenty more to see in this relatively small but varied national park. In fact Snæfellsjökull is so varied that it is often referred to as Iceland in miniature. Visitors can enjoy volcanoes, rushing waterfalls, hot springs, lava fields and a wild and rugged coastline.
The Snæfell Volcano is around 700,000 years old and is a huge strato-volcano 1500 metres in height. The volcano last last erupted around 100 AD and today lies dormant. The impact of this ancient eruption was colossal and moulded the surrounding landscape. Lava flows created bizarre rock formations, cave networks and coastal lava tubes. It is a fascinating landscape to explore.
Things to do in Snæfellsjökull National Park
Snæfellsjökull National Park has some fantastic cave networks and canyons to discover. Some can be visited independently but there are certain caves that visitors will need to join a guided tour to explore. A fun place to visit is the Sönghellir cave. This translates as the ‘Song Cave’ because of the surprising echoes that its formation produces.
With its dramatic coastline there are many beautiful beaches to visit. A favourite is Djúpalónssandur with its black sands and wild waters. A few charming villages are dotted around the coastline. 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. The nearby Kirkjufellsfoss Waterfall completes the view.
Driving and camping in Snæfellsjökull National Park
Situated in South Iceland the park is about 190km from Reykjavik. From the capital it is a beautiful scenic drive of just under three hours to the border of the park. There are no campgrounds within the national parkland, but there are three nearby. All of the campsites 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.
Vatnajökull National Park Overview
The spectacular Vatnajökull National Park is the second largest national park in all of Europe. Formally it was two separate reserves that were combined in 2008. Since then the park has been expanding with further areas incorporated into its borders. It now takes up 14% of Iceland’s landmass and lies in the east of the country stretching from north to south Iceland.
Within its pristine borders visitors will find a wealth of dazzling landscapes.
The park is home to the entirety of the vast Vatnajökull ice cap as well as Iceland’s highest peak Hvannadalshnúkur (2110m). There are wildlife wetlands to the north, glacial lagoons in the south and a vast wilderness of mesmerising beauty between.
Things to do in Vatnajökull National Park
One of the most popular activities in Vatnajökull is discovering its glaciers and exploring the glacial ice caves. In season day tours take visitors across the surface of the glaciers and down into the glowing ice caves beneath. It is a fascinating and humbling experience learning about the sheer scale and power of these mighty glaciers. Elsewhere in the park there are many rushing waterfalls and incredible vistas. The Skaftafell Nature Reserve is popular for hiking and at the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon visitors can see icebergs bobbing across the lake.
Driving and camping in Vatnajökull National Park
The Vatnajökull National Park can be approached from the ring road to the north and the south. The ring road hugs the eastern coast just outside of the park. Areas of the park can be accessed year round but 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 time. 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 must and 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. Notably the campgrounds close to the towns of Vik and Hof are both very convenient places to camp if you are driving the southern portion of the ring road and exploring the south coast. Camping within the park itself is a wonderful experience with the opportunity to see the Northern Lights away from all light pollution.