Vatnajökull National Park
Earth : Europe : Scandinavia : Iceland : Vatnajökull National Park
Vatnajökull National Park in Iceland is the largest national park in Europe. The park was founded on June 7th, 2008 and includes the former Skaftafell and Jökulsárgljúfur National Parks. Containing 12,000 km2 the park covers about 12% of the surface of Iceland. The park is home to Iceland's highest mountain (Hvannadalshnúkur), largest glacier (Vatnajökull), and Europe's most powerful waterfall (Dettifoss).
The park lies on the west side of Vatnajökull - Europe's largest glacier. Skaftafell is the name of the hill that runs along one of the glacier fingers and between the mountains. There is a visitor center (open til 4pm) and campsite (open mid May) with full amenities and disability access.
Skaftafell is mentioned early in the Saga of Burnt Njal (a popular Icelandic Saga). It is home to some of the best fertile land in the country and so has a long history of farming. Unfortunately, it also has a history of severe flooding, when volcanoes under the Vatnjökul glacier cause mass melting and flooding of the low lands. As a consequence, farmers abandoned their lush lowland farms and moved to higher ground.
Lowland, rivers, black sand, a very big glacier, some picturesque mountains, hills, waterfalls, quicksand, quiet brooks - what more could you ask for?
The Skaftafell is the hill where farmers settled to avoid the floods from the giant glacier. There are well established hiking paths up the hill where you can access viewpoints that look across the glaciers, several stunning waterfalls, and a mixture of fauna and bird life. The high point of the hill is around 600m and takes around two hours to reach the highest point. One of the highlights of the trek is Svartifoss (Black Falls), with stunningly beautiful black basalt columns around the falls. There is a road that goes to quite near the top allowing disabled access to the stunning views.
Flora and fauna
The Eastern side of Iceland is the leeward side getting less precipitation than the Western side. Consequentially, this sea-level area is part of the low desert in Iceland, the high desert being represented by the area East of Mývatn.
Skaftafell information center is open everyday all year round, from at least 10am to 4pm (longer in summer). Free toilets, expensive shop, very expensive Internet (including Wi-Fi), about 1000Kr/hour. Be aware that the staff may not always be aware of the current state of the tracks and paths, despite what they say. Free parking.
Free entrance to the park.
Warning about the 'M2' hiking path in Skaftafell National Park: the Icelanders' idea of a hiking 'path' dramatically differs from any sensible definition of 'path.' In the summer, the path doesn't just guide you along or over streams - rather, the path *is* the stream for large chunks of the trail. Unless you don't mind walking in clothes-destroying muddy water ranging from ankle-deep to knee-deep, it is strongly recommended that you wear hiking galoshes (if such things exist). Also, note that due to a rock avalanche in 2006-2007, the ice cap on Morsárjökull (essentially what would otherwise be the thrilling conclusion of the trail) is mostly covered in rocks until the year ~2040 when the glacier will have melted sufficiently to let the rocks tumble down.
There is a small road side service station around 5km East of the park, opposite the Skaftafell Hotel. The food is good and reasonably priced, but the choice is limited. There is also a mini supermarket within the service station, where you can buy many things from tea to soap at high prices.
There is a large campsite which opens late May to 1 September and gets very busy during the summer months. No tents for hire.
Stick to the paths and don't venture onto the glacier without a guide - danger of death.
Note that there are few gas stations in the area. One is located a few kilometers East from the Skaftafell National Park entrance, on the Ring Road #1.