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Discovering Vatnajokull: Europe's Arctic Wonderland

10-06-2024

Vatnajökull glacier

    Vatnajokull is one of the world’s most magnificent icy wonders. Except for the jaw-dropping magnitude of this glacier and its official ranking, it also offers visitors a myriad of interesting things to see and exciting activities to do and plays a big (pun intended) part in Iceland’s landscape.

    In this article, we take a deep dive into this infamous Iceland icecap, give you the lowdown on this natural wonder, and tell you exactly what you can expect from a visit as well as what to add to your glacier trip itinerary.

    The Majestic Vatnajokull Glacier

    Vatnajokull is not just the largest glacier in Iceland but also the largest glacier in Europe! It stretches over 8100 square kilometers, which means that it literally covers over 8% of the entire country.

    The ice is generally about 400 meters thick, even though it can go up to 1000 meters in thickness in places! Vatnajokull is also the only real glacier in Iceland. Even though we tend to refer to glacier tongues as glaciers, that is technically not what they are. They are merely icy tentacles that extend from Vatnajokull. There are roughly 30 of these glacier tongues originating from Vatnajokull Glacier.

    Vatnajokull Glacier national park in Iceland

    How the Vatnajokull Glacier was formed

    Glaciers are incredibly interesting formations. They take thousands of years and many climate changes to turn into the giants we see today. Glaciers consist of layers upon layers of snow that gets compressed under the weight of the next layer, melts to form a solid piece of ice, and so it continues – layer upon layer upon layer.

    So, can you imagine how long it took to create a glacier like Vatnajokull that can reach a thickness of 1000 meters?! But Vatnajokull actually didn’t start off as one glacier. Vatnajokull was formed roughly 1000 to 1500 years ago (about 874AD) when smaller glaciers from mountains, ranging between 1200 and 2000 meters, started merging.

    If one takes a look at the progression (and regression) of the glacier, it’s clear that Vatnajokull reached its proverbial climax at the end of the 19th century. Ever since then, the glacier has been steadily melting and receding.

    Living with Vatnajokull in the Land of Fire and Ice

    Icelanders know more than anyone that living in the Land of Fire and Ice means living incredibly interconnected with nature and its elements. Living with Vatnajokull Glacier is no different. There were a few issues to deal with:

    Glacial Rivers

    These could be due to anything from glacial floods to seasonal melting, but while these rivers are now less of a problem with bridges, ferries, and all sorts of nifty vehicles, such as 4x4s and Super Jeeps, these posed a massive problem in the earlier centuries where horses (and one’s own two feet) were the primary modes of transportation.

    Glacial Floods

    Once again, there are a few triggers that can cause glacial floods, but here in Iceland, these tend to surround our volcanic activity here on the island. The severity of the flood would depend on the size of the activity or full-blown volcanic eruption where, as you can imagine, the glacier ice suddenly melts very rapidly. Some of these floods can be catastrophic, such as the eruptions that occurred in 1362 and 1727, during which the surrounding landscape, which included settlements and farms, was completely destroyed.

    The Soil Quality

    Just because there is soil somewhere doesn’t mean that one can plant something, and it will simply start growing and thriving. While soil quality is something that many don’t have to consider in their day-to-day lives, it plays a role in anything from basic gardening to serious agriculture for those around Vatnajokull. Between the contrasting elements here on the island, soil quality can become a big problem.

    First, after an eruption, the soil can be in a devastating state where one will struggle to get anything to grow again in the barren and unforgiving landscape. But in the case of the glaciers, the damage is almost two-fold and from two opposite sides of the spectrum. Firstly, glacial rivers can erode the soil to such an extent that it’s hard to get any vegetation up and running, nevermind flourishing.

    But, secondly, it’s also the lack thereof that’s having an impact. As the glaciers recede further and further, and glacial rivers and streams dry up, it is getting harder and harder for vegetation to get the nourishment it needs to stay alive and thrive.

    Vatnajokull

    Where to Find Vatnajokull Glacier in Iceland

    Vatnajokull Glacier can be found in the national park that’s been named after it (Vatnajokull National Park), which lies in the southeast of Iceland. It’s pretty easy to get to if one gets on the Ring Road route from the capital city of Reykjavik, and it will take about 4 hours to drive there.

    Vatnajokull: The Four Territories Explained & the Attractions They Hold

    Vatnajokull National Park is divided into four regions that cover the glacier from north to south. Each region of the glacier park in Iceland has its own distinct features and attractions. These are:

    The Northern Territory

    Where you can expect to find:

    • The northwestern part of the Vatnajökull Glacier.
    • The glacial rivers, Jökulsa a Fjöllum and Skjalfandafljot, run through this region, with Jökulsa boasting quite a few waterfalls.
    • Askja.
    • Jökulsargljufur Canyon (created by the glacial floods we mentioned earlier).
    • Asbyrgi Canyon (same glacial flood origin story).
    • Dettifoss Waterfall (the second most powerful waterfall in Europe).

    The Eastern Territory

    Where you can expect to find:

    • The northeastern part of the Vatnajökull Glacier.
    • The Kverkfjöl Mountains.
    • The Snæfellsöræfi Plateau.
    • The Kverkfjöl and Snæfell Volcanoes.

    The Southern Territory

    Where you can expect to find:

    • The southeastern part of the Vatnajökull Glacier.
    • Hvannadalshnukur (Iceland’s highest peak).
    • Oræfajökull Volcano.
    • Skaftafell National Park (which later became part of the larger Vatnajökull National Park).

    The Western Territory

    Where you can expect to find:

    • The southwestern part of the Vatnajökull Glacier.
    • Lake Langisjor.
    • The Lakagigar Craters.
    • The town of Kirkjubærklaustur.

    What to Do at Vatnajokull Glacier

    These are some of the exciting activities one can partake in at the glacier:

    Glacier Hiking

    Glacier hiking is exactly what it sounds like; hiking across the icy landscape of Vatnajokull. This can only be done via a guided tour and all gear will be provided. Just remember that this is not an activity where smaller children are allowed to join.

    Ice Climbing

    When going ice climbing, you will be able to clamber up many of the icy surfaces on the glacier – from strange-looking formations to frozen waterfalls during the winter season. Once again, this can only be done on a guided tour, all gear will be provided, and age restrictions apply.

    Ice Cave Exploring

    Entering these icy caverns is like entering another world. You will be surrounded by bright-blue yet translucent walls that still contain black streaks of ash from past eruptions frozen in time.

    Because these caves tend to melt during the warmer months and then freeze again during the colder months, these caves are ever-changing, and the local joke is that you technically cannot visit the same ice cave twice (if you visit it at least a year apart, of course). Because of this exact melting reason, most ice caves are closed throughout the warmer months of the year. 

    Ice cave exploring in Vatnajokull glacier

    One of the most popular ice caves to visit in Vatnajokull is the Blue Ice Cave. Like the rest of the icy adventures, it can only be done via guided tour, any/all gear will be provided, and there are age restrictions.

    Snowmobile Across the Glacier

    This is a way to explore the glacier while also getting the blood pumping. Sliding across the glacier on a snowmobile is the thrill of a lifetime. Once again, this is done by guided tour. All gear is included in the tour price, and there are age restrictions. You need to remember that these arrangements are there for your safety since there are all sorts of ice formations as well as deep crevasses in the glacier.

    Explore the Glacier in Super Jeeps

    If you don’t feel like actively doing something on your part and would just like to relax as you admire the icy view, the Super Jeeps are for you. Sit back, relax, and watch the Vatnajokull landscape pass by your window as an experienced guide tells you all there is to know about this natural marvel.

    The Best Time to Visit Vatnajokull Glacier

    It might seem strange, but one can visit the glaciers on the island all year round, and the biggest glacier in Iceland is no different. The only things to keep in mind that may impact when you visit are the following:

    • Exploring the ice caves is best done during the wintertime since most of the ice caves on the island are closed during the warmer months.
    • Summertime in Iceland is peak season, and you may need to put up with peak-season crowds at attractions such as Vatnajokull Glacier and its various icy adventures. Things also tend to get a bit pricey here on the island during this time.
    • There is a lot to see and do at Vatnajokull, and you may not get to do and see much when you visit during the winter season with just 4 hours of daylight. It will take some exquisite trip itinerary gymnastics to squeeze everything into one day, while the summer is on the opposite end of the spectrum. You will have plenty of daylight hours and mid-summer, the sun literally doesn’t even set!
    • The colder months of the year also bring some extreme Iceland weather. This can not only impact trip itineraries but also the road conditions. So, if you consider yourself a nervous driver or you’re simply not used to driving with ice and snow on the road, it might be wise to visit during the warmer months.

    Vatnajokull park

    The Greater Vatnajokull Park: Exploring the Surrounds of Vatnajokull Glacier

    As you can imagine (especially after reading all about the four regions of the park), Vatnajokull National Park is an incredibly special place with loads to see and do. Here are just a few more things to know about this magical place:

    The Park is a Fauna & Flora Paradise

    Whether you’re an animal lover, a bird watcher, or someone with a soft spot for plants, Vatnajokull National Park holds incredible wonders for you with its biodiversity. You can expect all sorts of vegetation in such a contrasting terrain, such as Dwarf Char, Birch Tree Forests, and, due to the precipitation in certain regions of the park, various species of Lichen (including very rare types).

    You will find more than 75 species of birds in the park, so avid bird watchers can tick off at least a couple of “must-see” on their lists. These include the pink-footed goose, the Great Skua, the Barnacle Goose, the Gyrfalcon, the Rock Ptarmigan, and the Wheatears.

    When it comes to animals, you may spot a few of the 2000 reindeer roaming the park, one of the Harbor Seals just chilling on a sheet of ice, or get to see the cutest predator that’s ever lived; the Arctic Fox.

    The Park is a Go-To Spot for Any Avid Hiker

    The Land of Fire and Ice, with its incredible contrasting terrains and fascinating natural wonders, is famous for going hiking. Hikes here on the island are also not reserved for the most skilled, and anyone can join in the fun. We have hiking trails of various distances and difficulty levels. Vatnajokull National Park is one of the most popular hiking spots here on the island. A few of these famous trails include:

    Svartifoss – Sjonarsker

    • Distance: +/- 5.5 kilometers
    • Duration: +/- 1 hour, 40 minutes
    • Difficulty Level: Moderate
    • Type of Trail: Loop 

    Skaftafellsjökull Glacier (not to be confused with glacier hiking – you won’t be going onto the ice)

    • Distance: +/- 4.6 kilometers
    • Duration: +/- 1 hour, 15 minutes
    • Difficulty Level: Moderate
    • Type of Trail: Out-and-back

    Kristinartindar via Svartifoss – Skaftafellsheidi

    • Distance: +/- 18 kilometers
    • Duration: +/- 6 hours, 50 minutes
    • Difficulty Level: Hard
    • Type of Trail: Loop

    Skaftafell – Svartifoss – Sjonarsker – Sel

    • Distance: +/- 6 kilometers
    • Duration: +/- 1 hour, 50 minutes
    • Difficulty Level: Loop
    • Type of Trail: Moderate

    Vatnajokulll Glacier (once again, not to be confused with an actual glacier hike)

    • Distance: +/- 3.5 kilometers
    • Duration: +/- 50 minutes
    • Difficulty Level: Easy
    • Type of Trail: Out-and-back

    Vatnajokull Glacier: Your Icy Adventures are Just a Road Trip Away

    With Vatnajokull being pretty easy to get to from the Ring Road, why not make it one of the stops along a Ring Road road trip? By renting a motorhome in Iceland, you’ll also be taking care of two birds with one stone, so you don’t need to worry about transport or accommodation, and you can take advantage of the affordable prices (not to mention incredible views) our campsites have to offer. 

    By using this article as a guide, planning your exploration of Vatnajokull’s icy landscape will be easy, and these icy memories will leave you with all sorts of warm feelings for the rest of your life.