The Alþing is the Icelandic Parliament. It is wonderful that Þingvellir, the place where Iceland´s historic first parliament was founded 1000 years before, should be first place to receive the protection of the Icelandic Parliament in this way. Interestingly, Þingvellir is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
National Parks in Iceland – How many are there?
Five national parks have been established in Iceland. However, Skaftafell and Jökulsárgljúfur became part of Vatnajökull National Park in 2008 – so there are now just three.
- 1930 Þingvellir National Park (Þjóðgarðurinn Þingvöllum) in South Iceland.
- 1967 Skaftafell National Park, a 4,807 km2 area in South Iceland.
- 1973 Jökulsárgljúfur National Park in North Iceland.
- 2001 Snæfellsjökull National Park, a 170 km2 area in West Iceland.
- 2008 Vatnajökull National Park (Vatnajökulsþjóðgarðurinn), a 13,952 km2 area in North-East Iceland.
New areas containing some of Iceland´s greatest natural treasures have been added since 2008. The area around Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and other places have been taken into Vatnajökull National Park, extending its territory to 14,141 km2.
The national parks were formed to protect Iceland’s precious natural heritage, diverse wilderness areas, preserving the incredibly precious places and experiences which can be found within them for future generations to enjoy.
National Parks Near Reykjavík
Þingvellir National Park 40 km (24.85 MI) to the south of Reykjavík is the closest national park to the capital. Þingvellir is one of the three major attractions on the Golden Circle route, making it really easy to visit Gullfoss waterfall and the geothermal area at Geysir on one great day trip. Whether you travel by car or take a Golden Circle tour you will see unique geological and historical sights and have a fabulous day.
Snæfellsnes National Park is the second closest national park to Reykjavík, a journey of 189 km (117.5 mi) from Reykjavík will bring you into the park, just a few kilometers from Vatnshellir, an ancient and spectacular lava tube cave, just beyond the picturesque village of Arnarstapi, on the south coast of this lovely peninsula which is bejeweled with so many diverse sights. Self-drive, take a day tour or enjoy a longer trip which includes Snæfellsness peninsula.
Thingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site recognized for its unique geology, history and cultural importance.
Situated on the Golden Circle route Þingvellir offers the visitor unique history and sensational natural wonders. The cliff of the Almanngjá gorge, where the Eurasian and North-American tectoni1c plates ‘meet’, is simply stunning. Since around the end of the ice age these continental plates have been edging apart, producing the rift valley and some incredible geological features and scenery. You will see fabulous views over Þingvellir, the picturesque lake and church. There has been a church at Þingvellir since the 11th century, but the beautiful wooden church you see today was built in 1859. More information about Þingvellir, its facilities and attractions can be found here.
Silfra fissure, beneath the tranquil and crystal-clear waters of the lake at Þingvellir, delves down in the space between the tectonic faults, offering a unique experience, this is one of the most famous snorkeling and diving sites in the world. Diving or snorkeling at Silfra in Þingvellir National Park will show you a colorful and mesmerizing world which is greatly enhanced by the unrivaled underwater visibility. Read more about Silfra fissure here.
Snaefellsjokull National Park
Snæfellsjökull National Park in West Iceland is small in size but very big on wonders as it fully encircles the magnificent 1,446 m high Snæfellsjökull glacier. A Snæfellsjökull glacier hike would take you on a guided tour to the summit of this mesmeric peak. This is the only national park in Iceland which reached the coast when it was originally formed. The marine life, seabirds, magical beaches and fisherman’s coves with old shipwrecks, unspoiled headlands, the ancient Vatnshellir lava tube cave, and beautiful fishing villages with colorful stories make this an enchanting place. You can read more about Snæfellsnes here.
Whether you want to self-drive or to enjoy a tour, to visit for a day or for longer, there is so much to do and see in Snæfellsnes National Park. This peninsula is often called ‘Iceland in a Nutshell’ and traveling through such varied scenery you will surely see why. From the glossy black pebble beaches of Dritvík and Djúpalónssandur, where the remains of a shipwreck serve as a reminder of the treacherous nature of the spellbindingly beautiful cliffs, to the magnificent coastal paths and glorious headlands. If you would like even more inspiration, Things to do in and around Stykkishólmur will surely leave you flooded with ideas! At Grundafjörður, a lovely fishing town with charming scenery, you will find Kirkjufell, the iconic mountain whose image has been captured by thousands of photographers, Kirkjufellsfoss, an incredibly picturesque waterfall tumbles down the nearby hillside. Stykkishólmur, Hellnar, Arnarstapi, Búðir, Ólafsvík and Hellissandur are all charming fishing villages that no traveler should miss. You will find accommodation, charming cafés, restaurants, camping sites, swimming pools and horse farms, tours and other amenities all around Snæfellsnes. So much exploring and so many adventures will probably leave you with a ravenous appetite – a quick glance at our where to eat on the Snæfellsness peninsula guide will direct you to the best dining options!
Vatnajokull National Park
Vatnajökull National Park is home to Europe’s mightiest icecap, Vatnajökull, from which it takes its name. The park extends over the whole of the icecap, encompassing Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and the Diamond Beach to the south, and covering Hoffellsjökull and Snæfell towards its easterly perimeter. Northern Vatnajökull extends over ‘Odáðahraun, Trölladyngja, the vast and lunar-like Askja volcano crater, and Holuhraun, the newest lava field in Iceland created by the eruption of the Bárðarbunga volcano in 2014/15. Herðubreið, the majestic ´table top’ mountain which is Iceland´s National Mountain is also in this part of Vatnajökull.
Read more about Vatnajökull National Park here. There are easy glacier hikes, challenging glacier hikes and ice climbs, glacier lagoon boat rides, winter ice cave tours .and even glacier combination tours for more serious ice adventurers. You can see all glacier tours in Vatnajökull National Park here.
Vatnajökull National Park contains the most remote, wildest, starkly beautiful, and sometimes barren areas of Iceland. Ódáðahraun is a harsh volcanic wasteland littered with pumice and lava boulders, giving it a very stark and raw kind of beauty. In the past this place was the greatly feared home of outlaws and, so it is said, powerful supernatural beings. At Jökulsárlón one can find some of the most enchantingly lovely ice-landscapes on the planet, this is one of the most popular tours in Iceland – Vatnajökull is a place of great contrasts. Together with the two parks mentioned below, which since 2008 have been a part of it, Vatnajökull National Park covers 13% of country. Early in 2018 Vatnajökull National Park was nominated for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List on the basis of its outstanding universal value.
Skaftafell National Park
Skaftafell in Vatnajökull National Park can boast of Hvannadalshnjúkur, the highest peak in Iceland at 2,110 meters (6,920 feet). This area contains dramatic and contrasting vistas shaped by great volcanoes and glaciers. Huge flood outwash areas, these volcanic desert wastelands were formed by enormous glacial floods generated by historic volcanic eruptions. Glacier tongues from Vatnajökull reach into Skaftafell National Park, their peaks rising above the green and more protected areas of lower Skaftafell, you can read all about Skaftafell National Park here and find more information about the Skaftafell area here. A network of hiking trails, from easy to quite challenging, radiate out from the Skaftafell Visitor Centre. A short and easy hike will take you to one of the loveliest waterfalls in Iceland, Svartifoss, whose name means ‘Black Waterfall’. Sheer white water falling over geometric black basalt columns – seriously picturesque.
When you want to get your adrenaline flowing Skaftafell has plenty to excite you, how about ice climbing and glacier hiking? A Glacier Extreme tour offers a nice challenge or an easier, but no less sensational glacier experience suitable for everyone, such as a Glacier Wonders easy glacier hiking tour?
Since the President of Iceland, Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson, famously reached the summit this peak has been even more popular. This challenge requires a good level of physical fitness, a 4 day adventure tour would show you the South Coast and take you on a challenging trek to the summit of Hvannadalshnjúkur.
Jokulsargljufur National Park
Jökulsárgljúfur in Vatnajökull National Park, North Iceland. Although this national park is small and geographically separated from the ‘main body’ of Vatnajökull, Jökulsárgljúfur, can boast of some incredible natural wonders. The region offers some fabulous hiking trails and the kind of sights which will make you run out of superlatives.
Jökulsárgljúfur means ‘Glacial River Canyon´ in English, the area includes Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe, stand anywhere near this 100 m wide torrent and you will actually feel the earth quivering under your feet! A few other waterfalls are situated along the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river including the stunningly beautiful Selfoss, Hafragilsfoss and Réttarfoss. A marked hiking trail threads its way to the car park at Hljóðaklettar. This 14 km hike is challenging in places, requiring some ‘scrambling’ up and down tricky slopes but it offers wonderful views of the rugged canyon. Walking between Selfoss and Dettifoss is a short, easy and spectacular walk which anyone who can traverse uneven terrain can do. A six day tour around Iceland would take you to Dettifoss and show you the most impressive sights and experiences in Iceland.
The Ásbyrgi canyon is in the most northerly part of Jökulsárgljúfur National Park. This incredible horseshoe-shaped gorge is one of the most extraordinary places I have ever seen. For me, the most remarkable feature was the contrast between soft, green, almost oasis like scenery and the forces which created the canyon. Peace and great destructive forces co-existing side by side. There were at least two floods, known as Jökulhlaups, one at the end of the ice age and another several thousand years ago. These vast torrents, unleashed from Vatnajökull when ice dams burst, ripped out unimaginably large masses of rock. The base of the canyon is very serene, protected by the up to 100 meters high cliffs of the canyon, the trees which have been cultivated flourish and wild summer flowers add much to the beauty of Ásbyrgi.
National Parks in Iceland – Slow Travel at its best
To get the best out of visiting Iceland´s national parks slow travel is the best way to go. You cannot travel quickly to most attractions anyway! We urge you to really absorb all the views, and every aspect of your experiences, feeling an almost sacred sense of awe and respect for the land. This is about allowing the rich experiences you encounter to weave their way into the fabric of your being – something extremely enriching and often consciousness-altering. You leave Iceland as pristine as you found it but you take away something very special and ineffable. Of course, if you are pushed for time you will still get a very special experience.
We cannot say it often enough, stay on the paths, leave no trace and take away only the most spectacular of photographs and the very best of memories.
Parking Fees at National Parks in Iceland
Many car parks are free. A few car parks charge a fee. The charge levied is never very large, 500 ISK (5 USD / 4 Euro) would be average, and the maximum fee would be 1000 ISK to park a regular car. Major credit and debit cards are accepted, and, normally your ticket will entitle you to park for the remainder of the day.
At Þingvellir your ticket will be valid in any of the three pay and display car parks for the whole day. Even if you move between the Þingvellir car parks you will still only pay one small fee.
National Parks Qualifying Criteria
The International Union for Conservation of Nature, via the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA), defines the qualifying criteria for national parks and their management in category II. National parks are state owned nature reserves, comprised of land or marine areas, protected by the laws of the country in which they exist. There is a huge diversity in the kind of areas protected even just within Iceland. However, in simple terms, to protect conservation and retain their status as national parks, nations must comply with the following requirements:
- The area must be wilderness, semi-wild or minimally developed.
- Ecosystems must not be changed significantly by exploitation or human occupation.
- The highest authority in the land must enact laws to protect the ecosystems, aesthetic
features, landscapes of great beauty and areas of educational, geomorphological, or scientific value within the designated area.
- Future development plans must be very strictly controlled according to specific guidelines. The protection of plant and marine life, wildlife, areas of natural beauty and overall ecosystems must always be paramount.
- Finally, and fabulous for visitors to Iceland! Visitors must be allowed to enter, under
certain conditions, for educational, inspirational and recreational experiences in areas of great natural beauty.
The understanding of sustainability issues, ecosystems and the interconnectedness between ecosystems has moved forward a great deal in recent decades, indeed, Iceland has often been at the forefront of such research and developments. The Icelandic people have been quick to utilize new knowledge of this kind in the management of their national parks.
National Parks in Iceland – a Global Perspective
Iceland’s national parks were formed to protect the country’s unique natural heritage and diverse wilderness areas. The Icelanders were strongly motivated to preserve these incredibly precious places and the experiences that can be enjoyed within them for future generations. Within Europe, Iceland was quite a forward thinker when it created Þingvellir National Park in 1930. The first national park in the United Kingdom, the Peak District National Park, was not designated until 1951. Yellowstone National Park was created in 1872, and the oldest park of all, at Bogd Khan, a sacred mountain in Mongolia, was formed as long ago as 1778.