Covering an area of 5,459.9 square miles (14,141 sq km), accounting for about 14% of the country and serving as the second-largest national park of Europe, Vatnajokull National Park, established on 7 June 2008 and located in the southeastern part of Iceland, is a unique place with varied landscapes. It is an Icelandic wonderland, famous for its amazing contrasts, which include geothermal features that interact with dancing geysers, wide untamed vistas, deep gullies, crystal clear streams, frigid glacial ice, active volcanoes and rock formations.
It is enriched with thick blue ice caves, black sand beaches, ice caves and lush green fields to create an otherworldly landscape, combined with Ásbyrgi, a canyon known for its distinct horseshoe shape, Hvannadalshnúkur, Iceland’s highest peak, the Detifoss waterfall, the country’s scenic terrain and the numerous breathtaking geological formations. It is an outdoor lover’s dream, offering almost everything needed for an unforgettable adventure in the land of fire and ice, which includes hiking and trekking, ice-caving, glacial kayaking, boating on lagoons, even horse-riding.
The Vatnajokull National Park is the home to Vatnajokull, Europe’s largest glacier outside the arctic, with a surface area of 8,100 square km (3,127 square miles) with the glacial ice, generally measuring 400–600 m (approx 1312-19685 feet) in thickness, concealing a number of mountains, valleys and plateaus, even some active central volcanoes.
While the icecap rises more than 6560 feet (2,000 m) above sea level at its highest point, the base of the glacier plunges around 985 feet (300 m) below sea level at its lowest point. The southernmost part of the glacier envelops the ice covered central volcano Öræfajökull, the largest active volcano in the country and Hvannadalshnukur, a pyramidal peak on the northwestern rim of the summit crater of the Öræfajökull volcano, the highest mountain summit in Iceland with a height of 6,921 feet (2,109.6 m).
Towards the north of the Vatnajokull glacier, the highland plateau is divided by glacial rivers and long ago, huge glacial floods carved out the canyon of Jökulsárgljúfur in the northern reaches of this plateau, where the mighty Dettifoss Waterfalls still thunders into the upper end of this canyon.
Powered by the Vatnajokull glacier, the Dettifoss Waterfalls in the Vatnajokull National Park, reputed to be the second most powerful waterfall in Europe after the Rhine Falls, are 330 feet (100 m) wide and have a drop of 144 feet (44 m) down to the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon. Also called Deti Falls, it is located on the river Jokulsa a Fjöllum and is situated 83 miles (133 km) east of Akureyri, the unofficial capital of Northern Iceland, from where a relatively new tarmac road serves the eastern side of the waterfall, featuring an information panel for visitors. However, the western side of Dettifoss is less accessible and less popular, as the spray of the waterfalls obscures the view it provides. Apart from Dettifoss, there are two more impressive waterfalls within the canyon, fed by the river of Jökulsá á Fjöllum, known as Hafraqilsfoss and Selfoss.
Ásbyrgi or Shelter of the Gods, the breathtaking horseshoe-shaped canyon, located in Jokulsargljufur within the Vatnajokull National Park, has 330 feet (100 m) high cliffs, creating a 1 km (5 mi) wide circle of protection around the rich vegetation and forest in the area. For more than half of its length, the canyon is divided through the middle by an 82 feet (25 m) high distinctive rock formation called Eyjan or the Island, which offers a spectacular view of a vast landscape. It has been estimated by Geologists that Ásbyrgi was most likely formed following the last ice age, roughly eight to ten million years ago, by catastrophic glacial flooding of Jökulsá á Fjöllum, the second longest river in Iceland, probably due to a volcanic eruption beneath the ice-cap, Vatnajökull glacier. After that, the process was repeated again, around 3000 years ago. However, Norse mythology explains the unusual shape of the canyon differently. The Viking settlers believe that the canyon was formed by Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse of Odin, a widely revered god in Germanic paganism, associated with wisdom, battle, sorcery and poetry, when it left a deep imprint on the earth, before sprinting away across the sky.
Another amazing attraction of the Vatnajokull National Park is its spectacular ice cave, mesmerizing for its sheer size, charming colours, enchanting texture and absolute tranquil feeling. Standing at the gigantic entrance to Crystal Ice Cave, the texture of the ice glistens in the sun, the tunnel appears endless as shades of blue descend all the way to create a hole of darkness. It is also known as Anaconda Ice Cave, as its long and winding tunnel resembles the fearsome snake. Apart from that, the Vatnajokull National Park also contains Iceland's largest glacier lagoons, Jökulsárlón and Fjallsárlón, formed as a result of a glacial retreat, when the outlet glaciers began to retreat from the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. The beautiful lagoons, equipped with boating facility, are easily accessible off Route 1, between Skaftafell and Höfn in Hornafjörður. Located close to the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, the Diamond Beach is a strip of black sand, named after the glittering icebergs scattered across its shore like a field of diamonds, once part of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, creating a stark contrast with the volcanic black sand.
The Vatnajokull National Park, the Icelandic wonderland, decorated with incredible landscapes, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site on 5 July 2019.