Where are the national parks in Iceland, and what attractions do they contain? Are there specific rules as to behaviour in the parks, and what’s the best way of experiencing them all in just one trip? What sets the national parks aside from the rest of the country’s beautiful nature? Read on to discover all there is to know about National Parks in Iceland.
One could rather agreeably state that the whole of Iceland is a makeshift national park. After all, the landscapes are ostensibly untouched and undeveloped, often leaving wild open space from horizon line to horizon line. To pick out only a handful of attractions to officially recognise seems somewhat arbitrary, but there are good reasons behind it, of which we will explore in this article.
Still, given the Icelanders’ respect and connection to their countryside, great swathes of the landscape may as well be looked upon as nature reserves. This is irregardless of the red tape, regulation and esteem that grants Iceland’s three official national parks; Þingvellir, Vatnajökull and Snæfellsjökull. To think this way is to adopt the attitude of a respectful visitor; national park or not, all of Iceland's nature is precious.
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The reasoning behind the three national parks and their official recognition lies in the respective areas’ geology, history and cultural significance, providing an incredible backdrop from where visitors can acquire a deeper insight and understanding into what makes Iceland so unique.
- See also: Iceland's Troubled Environment
All three parks are managed and maintained by the Environment Agency of Iceland, Umhverfisstofnun, whose main tasks include promoting environmental protection, the sustainable use of natural resources and offering travellers advice relating to the parks themselves.
During the summer months, Umhverfisstofnun will often take on volunteers to work on conservation projects within the park (further information can be found on the agency's website.)
Þingvellir National Park
The below poem, ‘Mt. Skjaldbreiður’, was written by Jónas Hallgrímsson (1807-1845), a writer whom Iceland’s only Nobel Laureate, Halldór Laxness (1902-1998), once claimed to be the “poet of Icelandic consciousness.”
Eastward, stony steeps are leaping
stalwartly from Raven Gorge;
westward, walls of rock are keeping
watch above our nation’s forge.
Grímur Goatshoe, sage and clever,
grasped the promise of this place:
Almanna Gorge, on guard for ever,
girds the councils of my race.
The poem is about the volcano, Mount Skjaldbreiður (Broadshield), and the expansive, dried lava fields that—following an eruption at Skjaldbreiður over 9000 years ago—drained and formed at the base of Þingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest natural lake.
- See also: Lakes in Iceland
Warrant to Skjaldbreiður’s impressive height (1060m), the dried lava covered an area of over 200 square kilometres, changing the very face of the landscape and creating a deep and cragged network of caverns, fissures and subterranean tunnels.
Þingvallavatn (“Lake of the Parliament”) is an 84-square kilometre body of water, protected under the Environment Agency of Iceland. It rests just to the side of Þingvellir, Iceland’s oldest National Park and is the only park in the country to hold UNESCO World Heritage site status, having been awarded the recognition in 2004.
Those travelling from the capital will set their eyes upon Lake Þingvallavatn before seeing the park itself. It makes for a fantastic stop for budding photographers especially. Despite its cold temperature, over 150 different species of plant life and 50 types of invertebrate have been discovered from the lake’s centre to its shorelines.
As the old Icelandic proverb goes, “Fertile is the water that runs under the lava.”
Þingvellir National Park (“Fields of Parliament”) is located in Bláskógabyggð municipality, 49 km away from Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland, roughly forty minutes drive by car. Þingvellir makes up one of the three stops along the highly popular Golden Circle sightseeing route, along with the dramatic Gullfoss waterfall and the geothermal valley, Haukadalur, home of the geysers.
- See also: How to Drive the Golden Circle
History & Geology
Þingvellir was designated a national park in 1928 as a means of protecting the remains of the parliament site.
At that moment, it was judged to be “...a protected national shrine for all Icelanders, the perpetual property of the Icelandic nation under the preservation of parliament, never to be sold or mortgaged”.
- See also: History & Culture of Iceland
The park is the original site of the first Alþingi (“National Assembly”), formed in 930 AD. It was, arguably, the first democratically elected parliament on earth. Regardless of whether or not this can be proven, it is beyond doubt the moment that the Icelandic nation was born.
Amongst the best source of information regarding this time is the Book of Icelanders (“Íslendingabók”) written by the priest, Ari Þorgilsson, between 1122-33.
Here, the early settlers used to gather in temporary camps called ‘Búðir’, at the base of the exposed North American tectonic plate. The Lawspeaker (“lögsögumaður”), the highest official of the proceedings, would use the rock face as a makeshift sounding board, allowing all those gathered to hear, loud and clear, the dispelling of justice and the new laws of the land.
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It was the Law Council (“Lögrétta”) who stood at the centre of these proceedings; comprised of the country’s many chieftains (or “Goðar”), decisions were made by simple majority on all tribal and legal disputes, as well as queries relating to the law and everyday livelihood.
Attendees to the assembly would often travel for weeks by horseback or foot, battling the treacherous Icelandic landscape to ensure their voice was heard. Upon arrival, assembly goers would set up the camps amongst the crevasses and lava lobes, sharing stories of their lives from the farthest corners of the country.
The site is particularly important for another, and wildly influential historical point; Þingvellir is where Icelanders made the final decision to abandon their pagan ways and, instead, adopt Christianity, in the year 1000 AD. This decision continues to have consequence today, forever having changed Icelandic culture.
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Today, visitors can walk and explore the exact same areas as those utilised by the early settlers, breathing life and history into the hard and cracked fissures of Þingvellir National Park.
By the time the Alþingi ended at Þingvellir in the 1800s, the institution had become little more than a minor law court, its jurisdiction fully dependent on the legislation passed from the ruling Danish monarchy. It was a long way from the glory days of the Alþingi, days where the concerns of Icelanders were heard in full, where their destiny could be sculpted by themselves and their fellow countrymen.
Photo by Johnathan Stewart
During the 19th century, however, a drive toward Icelandic independence began to grow, fuelled all by thoughts of capitalist commercialism and a free parliamentary discourse. Though there would be many obstacles along the way, Iceland finally managed to convene at Þingvellir on 17 June 1944 where the assembly's president, Gísli Sveinsson, declared the Icelandic constitution to be in full effect. Eventually, the Alþingi was moved to Reykjavik, where it is located today, but Icelanders have never forgotten the important progressive steps made at Þingvellir.
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Another reason why Þingvellir National Park is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site lies in its astounding geological makeup. Þingvellir is one of the only places on the planet where visitors can see both the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates exposed from the earth. The only other place that such an observation can be made is in the Great Rift Valley of Eastern Africa.
In between the plates is a graben valley—continentally speaking, a ‘no man’s land’—a plateau of dried lava fields, crevasses and startling rock formations, all covered with a thick blanket of fragile Icelandic moss. This is just part of what is described by geologists and naturalists as the North Atlantic Rift system; Þingvellir sits in the Reykjaneshryggur-Langjökull rift system, (don't worry, no-one will expect you to pronounce that perfectly!)
Photo by Tucker Monticelli
The most dramatic feature is, without a doubt, Almannagjá, running 7.7km and marking the eastern boundary of the North American tectonic plate. The western boundary of the Eurasian tectonic plate is called Hrafnagjá, running 11km. Both plates are seen as the visual personification of the earth’s makeup below the surface.
- See also: Volcanoes in Iceland
To the south of Þingvellir, the plates move adjacent to one another; at the park itself, the plates are actively breaking apart, creating an ever-increasing amount of land between them. This is an incredibly slow process, the land increasing at little under 1 millimetre a year (the plates themselves see a pull away of 7 millimetres).
That’s not to suggest that the geology is inactive; in fact, inner-tension builds under the earth’s surface throughout this period, often breaking out in sudden and potentially violent bursts of energy. The last major outburst was in 1789, causing an earthquake at Þingvellir that increased the graben valley by 1-2 metres.
As previously stated, Þingvellir is an attraction in itself, its astounding beauty so utterly delightful that it makes up an integral part of the Golden Circle sightseeing tour. But what actually is there, aside from the natural splendour, that can preoccupy your precious holiday time at Þingvellir? Thankfully, more than you might think.
For starters, visitors to Þingvellir can visit the rumbling waterfall, Öxarárfoss. The waterfall flows from the river Öxará, finally reaching its lip and tumbling down over the side of the Almannagjá into a rocky pool below.
The name of the waterfall translates to “Axe Falls”. Some consider this an allusion to the many executions that took place at Þingvellir over the presiding centuries, while others claim the name derives from an axe—a symbol of land ownership at that time—that was thrust into the icy river Öxará by early settlers.
A walkway now constructed along the Almannagjá provides information boards describing the area’s incredible history, even pointing out particular spots of interest, such as the “Law Rock” (“Lögberg”) and the Deep Drowning Pool, Drekkingarhylur, a part of the 17th-century Icelandic judicial system; women accused of adultery were drowned there, adding a spookiness to Almannagjá that can hardly be described.
Þingvellir is also home to one of Iceland’s most famous attractions, the sublime glacial spring Silfra Fissure. Routinely voted as one of the Top 10 scuba diving and snorkelling sites worldwide, Silfra Fissure is famed for its crystal clear visibility, often extending to more than 100m.
The reasons for this are twofold; first, the water in Silfra originates from the glacier, Langjökull, taking between 50-100 years to travel through a series of underground networks and filter. This means that Silfra Fissure is filled with glacial water, ensuring its drinkability and freshness.
Second, Silfra is a spring, meaning its water is in constant flow on its way to Þingvallavatn. This ensures that, should any sediment be kicked up by divers or snorkellers in front, the visibility will quickly be restored. This constant flow is also the primary reason as to why Silfra fissure does not freeze in the wintertime, keeping it readily available as an attraction throughout the year.
- See also: Scuba Diving and Snorkelling in Iceland
Silfra Fissure’s scenery is, in a single word, epic; split into four distinct areas. Scuba divers and snorkellers will first enter ‘the toilet,’ rudely named, but just, especially considering this section sees the glacial water open up into the fissure.
Swimming through this narrow, cragged gorge, the group will come into Silfra Hall, the fissure’s widest point; Silfra Hall provides an excellent perspective on just how dramatic this feature is. Moving further along with the light current, the fissure will become deeper, its depths turning to a dark and mysterious blue. This area is called, aptly, Silfra Cathedral.
Photo from Diving SIlfra Tour | Dry Suit Dive with Pickup
Turning away from the lake, snorkellers and divers will move into what guides describe as the “real Blue Lagoon.” This relatively shallow area allows guests to explore the many cracks and fissures at their own pace before exiting the water. Overall, a single run through Silfra will last from half an hour to 45 minutes. Don’t expect fish; the water tends to be too cold in the Fissure, though baby fish will use the rock’s hidden crannies as a nighttime nursery.
Camping & Conduct
There are two permitted areas for one to camp at Þingvellir, both of which are open from the 1st of June to the 30th of September. However, from the 1st of October to the final day of May, the campground beside the Visitor’s Centre remains open.
The first campground at Þingvellir is called Leirar and is split into four separate grounds; Nyrðri-Leirar, Syðri-Leirar, Fagrabrekka and Hvannabrekka. Leirar is within easy walking distance (no more than 5 minutes) from the Visitors Centre. The second campground, Vatnskot, is found at an abandoned farmstead beside Lake Þingvallavatn.
Whichever campsite you choose, permits for both camping and angling should be purchased at the Visitor’s Centre upon first arrival at Þingvellir. Thankfully, no reservation is needed to camp at Þingvellir, meaning you can simply roll up and start setting up! With that being said, reserving your place at the campground is possible and is recommended for those anxious about securing their place.
The prices for camping at Þingvellir are as follows: Adults (13-67 years) must pay 1300 ISK a night per person, plus additional 300 ISK for each tent/campervan.
For senior and disabled visitors, the fee is 650 ISK a night per person, plus additional 300 ISK for each tent/campervan. Children under 13 can stay at the campgrounds overnight for free. For groups of over 10 (and paying together), a 15% discount is offered on the overall price.
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A Note on Pronunciation
A moment should be dedicated to the correct pronunciation of both Þingvellir and Þingvallavatn. The Icelandic character ‘Þ’—‘thorn’, from Old Norse and Old English—is defined, rather spookily, as a ‘voiceless dental fricative’, a type of consonantal sound used in spoken languages, but for the sake of simplicity, is pronounced with a 'th', as in thick, thoughtful, think, thunder and Thursday.
The double ‘L’, seen in the middle of both words, is somewhat trickier for the English native, pronounced with a ‘tl’, starting on the T and finishing on the L. The correct pronunciation should fit somewhere in the middle of these two sounds, though Icelanders are not likely to chastise you if it's given the old college try.
Vatnajökull National Park
This is by far the largest National Park in Iceland, containing the whole of Vatnajökull glacier, the largest glacier in Europe.
The park’s namesake, the mighty glacier Vatnajökull (“Water Glacier”), covers an astounding 13% of Iceland’s total landmass. When the park was first founded in 2008, the total area covered was 12,000 square kilometre, integrating two former National Parks, Skaftafell (est. 1967), to the south, and Jökulsárgljúfur (est. 1973), in the north.
Vatnajökull National Park was founded to conserve the area’s history, ecology, cultural heritage and dazzling landscape.
- See also: Glaciers in Iceland
With the recent additions of such regions as Krepputunga, Lakagígar and Jökulsárlón, the park now covers 14,000 square kilometres (approx; 14% of Iceland), making it the second largest national park in Europe, after Yugyd Va in Russia.
Still, nowhere displays the eternal struggle between fire and ice so beautifully as Vatnajökull; beneath that frozen exterior bubbles the powerful, molten heat of our planet.
History & Geology
Credit: Andrés Nieto Porras
It is estimated that the ice cap, Vatnajökull, began forming 2500 years ago. Due to its high elevation and mild, pleasant climate, the region was highly fertile, Skaftafell in particular, used for sheep grazing and as a congregation point for þings (“assemblies.”) The farmers’ livelihood was supplemented by trips to the coastline, where they would hunt for seals, collect bird eggs and scavenge supplies from stranded ships.
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The inhabitants of the Skaftafell region enjoyed a fruitful operation—that is, until the devastating eruption of Öræfajökull in 1362. The effects were immediate, with enormous jökulhlaups (literally, “glacial run”) sweeping through the area, overwhelming everything in its path and destroying the community. Ever since, the area has been known as Öræfi, the "wasteland".
Still, even that couldn’t put the entrepreneurial Icelanders off for long, and soon new farms and settlements began to crop up across the region. No thanks to a cooling climate, these farmsteads were less successful than their predecessors, and Skaftafell would never again reach the political heights it had enjoyed in the 14th century.
Subsequent jökulhlaups—originating, this time, from the 1783 Grímsvötn eruptions—would mean a further nail in the coffin for successful, long-term agriculture in the region. Even so, it was not until 1988 when farming at Skaftafell was permanently discontinued; it now serves as the name of the preservation area.
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Outside of the Arctic, Vatnajökull is Europe’s largest glacier, covering 8,100 km2, with ice averaging out at 600-900 metres thick. The ice cap is, in fact, so large that beneath it plateaus, valleys, mountains and volcanoes are hiding, including Grímsvötn and Bárðarbunga. On the southern periphery is Iceland’s highest peak, Hvannadalshnúkur, summiting at 2109 metres.
Vatnajökull has approximately 30 outlet glaciers stemming from it, a testament to the ice cap’s incredible overall size and influence. The most famous of these is, arguably, Breiðamerkurjökull, which ends at the small glacial lagoon, Jökulsárlón. Given Jökulsárlón’s immense popularity amongst tourists and locals alike, Breiðamerkurjökull is often the best visual stimulus for understanding just how expansive, varied and dramatic Vatnajökull is in its entirety.
Every year, as the ice melts, new ice caves are formed which visitors can explore as a part of an ice caving tour. At the beginning of each winter season, caving and ice-climbing tour operators embark to discover incredible new, frozen caverns, hidden away in Vatnajökull’s farthest corners. The natural ice caves are usually only accessible between November through to the end of March yearly, although some operators start tours in mid-October.
By partaking in an ice cave tour, guests have the opportunity to experience the glittering inside depths of Vatnajökull, seeing for themselves the intricate and natural ice-sculptures and the dark shades of blue, locked into the ice itself.
- See also: The Ultimate Guide to Ice Caves in Iceland.
- Check out this 7 Day Northern Lights Self Drive Tour | Destination Ice Cave.
Aside from the stunning panoramas and potential for cave exploration, Vatnajökull National Park contains some of the country’s most exciting and memorable attractions, including the country's largest glacier, tallest mountaintop and highest waterfall! Canyons, lagoons, mountainscapes and fertile valleys all lie in wait for those ready to discover the park’s many memorable highlights.
Out of the many fantastical names and locations you’ve heard spoken of during your time in Iceland, chances are that Vatnajökull National Park contains at least some of them; Jökulsárgljúfur, Skaftafell Nature Reserve, Ódáðahraun, Snæfell Wilderness Area, Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, Lakagígar (Laki craters) and Nýidalur.
Surprisingly, Iceland's tallest waterfall, Morsárfoss, is one of the newest members of the attractions in the park, as it only appeared in 2007, when the surrounding glacier, Morsárjökull, had melted enough to reveal it. It is however extremely hard to reach it.
In this regard, Vatnajökull National Park is something of an all-natural theme park, offering entertainment, bewilderment, awe, thrills and spills for the entire travelling party.
Photo by Tomáš Malík
The park is split into four administrative sections—North, South, East and West—each managed locally. The Northern territories include Askja Caldera, the north-western section of Vatnajökull, Jökulsárgljúfur canyon, portions of Jökulsá á Fjöllum. Guests will also find a campsite and visitor’s centre in the horse-shaped canyon of Ásbyrgi. Another campsite can be found in Vesturdalur.
In the park’s western section, visitors can stumble upon the southwest corner of Vatnajökull, Langisjór, the Lakagígar craters and an information centre, ran by the park, at the town of Kirkjubæjarklaustur. The Southern section extends across Vatnajökull’s southeast, all the way from Lómagnúpur mountain to Lónsöræfi, whilst the Eastern section includes northeast Vatnajökull, parts of the Snæfellsöræfi hiking area and the dramatic Kverkfjöll mountains.
From all of the attractions aforementioned, Jökulsárlón is perhaps the best regarded natural attraction at Vatnajökull, a glittering lagoon decorated with aquamarine icebergs, breaking away from their parent glacier and idly floating out towards the Atlantic Ocean.
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Where the icebergs actually meet the ocean is known as Diamond Beach, for self-explanatory reasons. Amongst these icebergs, in the lagoon and by the coastline, lives a playful seal colony, only adding to the quintessential beauty of the lagoon.
Throughout the last half-century, Vatnajökull, with its sweeping slopes and frozen terrain, has been utilised as a shooting location for numerous cinematic and television productions. The glacier was used as a setting in the opening scenes of the 1984 James Bond film, A View to a Kill. Most recently, Vatnajökull, as well as Þingvellir National Park, has served as a shooting location for HBO’s wildly popular fantasy series, Game of Thrones.
- See also: Movie Locations in Iceland
Camping & Conduct
There are a number of rules and regulations that apply if you are planning to use one of the campsites at Vatnajökull National Park. First and foremost, it is extremely important to respect the other guests, keeping noise, loud music and alcohol consumption to a minimum (from 23:30 to 07:00, allow the nighttime silence to take over).
- See also: Travel Etiquette in Iceland
It should go without saying that dropping litter and, pretty much, leaving the place messier than you found it shall not be tolerated. Pets are allowed on the campsites, granted that pet owners have their scruffy friends in control and securely tied up whilst outside. Again, no mess of any kind—of human or dog origin—should be left at the campsite.
Snæfellsjökull National Park
Snæfellsjökull National Park was founded in June 2001; as with the other National Parks, it was founded due to the need to protect the region’s heritage, incredible natural diversity and fascinating cultural sites.
Covering just 170 square kilometres of land, Snæfellsjökull National Park is wonderfully varied; rocky coves, lava plateaus, towering bird cliffs and sloping glacier all contribute to the region’s reputation as “Iceland in miniature,” showcasing the best natural features that Iceland can offer.
Reaching Snæfellsjökull National Park from Reykjavík requires a 190 km journey (approximately 2 hours 40 minutes drive) across some truly mesmerising terrain. As one approaches the park, the region’s main focal point, Snæfellsjökull volcano, is an omnipresent sight, growing larger and larger on the horizon line until it suddenly dominates the landscape. This powerful and captivating feature is a must for all those looking to maximise their sightseeing opportunities in Iceland.
History & Geology
Photo by Jón Óskar Hauksson
Over 700,000 years old, Snæfellsjökull is a domineering, ice-capped stratovolcano, resting on the far western point of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Interestingly enough, the volcano is actually named Snæfell, but is called ‘Snæfellsjökull’ colloquially in order to distinguish it from two other mountains called Snæfell.
Snæfellsjökull is, in fact, so large that on a clear day onlookers can see it 120km away, jutting out from the horizon across Faxaflói Bay. Seeing the volcano from Reykjavík is a majestic experience in itself, but makes for a petty experience in comparison to seeing it up close—only then will visitors grasp the stratovolcano’s sheer scale, and its enormous impact on the surrounding landscape.
Archaeological sites such as Forni-Saxhóll farm, Berutóftir and Írskubúðir all imply that the peninsula was inhabited as far as 1100 years ago. This was sometime after the volcano's’ last eruption, which took place sometime between 50-350 AD. During this eruption, the landscape was steadily moulded by lava flows, creating numerous cave networks and craters, many of which can be explored today by guests.
Following this volcanically active period, the 12th and 13th century saw the region prosper through fishing, with steady population growth around the glacier itself. Fishing was undertaken wherever there was ample access to the sea. Dritvík is perhaps the best example of one such fishing settlement; historically the largest commercial harbour in the region, Dritvík boasted up to 60 fishing vessels and 400 inhabitants. Fishing would decline in the 19th century due almost entirely to a change in fishing practices across Iceland.
To the far north of Dritvík, a church was built at Ingjaldshóll hill that dates back to the 1200s. Today, a modern church sits in its place but is still a lasting reminder of this region’s fascinating history.
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Snæfellsjökull has long been a subject of fascination for artists the world over, inspiring countless paintings, poems and pieces of music. The region is the main setting for the first part of Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss, a late and legendary saga of the Icelanders.
Dating back to the early 14th Century, Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss is split into two distinct sections; the first deals with Bárður Snæfellsáss, a human/troll/giant hybrid who, after arriving on the peninsula, settled down on a farmstead with his wife and children.
After a series of unfortunate events, including a vengeful couple of murders, Bárður exiled himself to the ice-cap where he was soon looked upon by the surrounding population as a “guardian spirit.”
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Bárður was said to patrol the region "in a grey cowl with a walrus-hide rope around him, and a cleft staff in his hand with a long and thick gaff". His saga alone is not the only time that Snæfellsnes makes an appearance in these medieval manuscripts; the region is also used as the setting of a 13th Century scripture, Laxdæla saga, written by an unknown author.
Snæfellsjökull was made most famous, perhaps, by the French novelist Jules Verne, who used the volcano as the entry point to a strange and fascinating subterranean world, in his book “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” (1864).
In the novel, Professor Lidenbrock and his nephew, Axel, travel to Snæfellsjökull in the belief that they can access volcanic tubes to the planet’s core. Descending into the caldera, the pair witness all number of strange phenomenon, including prehistoric animals, giant mushrooms and underground oceans. After a series of misadventures, the team finally reach ‘the other side,’ reappearing from the Stromboli volcano in Italy to be hailed as scientific heroes.
There is no doing justice to the artistic influence that Snæfellsjökull has had over the centuries; the ice-cap features prominently in Under the Glacier (1968), a novel penned by Halldór Laxness, as well as the 1960s Blind Birds trilogy, written by Czech author, Ludvík Souček.
Aside from activities centred around Snæfellsjökull, visitors can choose to explore Sönghellir (“Cave of Song”), a cavern that takes its name for the distinctive echoes that can be made inside. Although guests will be able to read a number of names that have been carved throughout history on the interior walls, including those of Eggert Ólafsson and Bjarni Pálsson, who travelled the country during the 18th Century, carving your name (or words or pictures) anywhere into Iceland's nature is not encouraged.
Another cave worthy of a visit is Vatnshellir; here, guests will descend a spiral staircase into a colourful chamber formed by ancient magma flows. 8000 years old and counting, this 200-metre long lava tube originated from eruptions at the nearby Purkhólar crater family. In order to preserve this interesting and geologically important cave, Vatnshellir was closed off to public access by the National Park a few years ago. It is now only explorable with a licensed tour guide.
Caves, caverns, craters and canyons dot the full range of Snæfellsnes Peninsula. One of the most popular stop-offs is Rauðfeldsgjá (Red-cloak rift), a 40-metre deep rift into a mountainside. The first part of this rift is fairly easy to navigate, though the terrain becomes trickier and more slippery, the deeper one goes. Those who venture to the rift’s end will get soaked but be rewarded with a beautiful hidden waterfall.
Other attractions include the small hamlets of Arnarstapi and Hellnar that sit right by the edge of the park, with their nearby rock formations and cliffs along the coast. The views from these small settlements can be serene on calm days, or spectacular with the force of the surf breaking on the rocks.
The most beautiful beach within Snæfellsjökull National Park, however, is perhaps Djúpalónssandur, with its pitch-black sands and pebbles, surrounded by lush green moss-covered lava and containing the ruins of an old British trawler.
Nearby to the town of Grundarfjörður, outside of the park itself, one can find the most photographed mountain in Iceland, Kirkjufell. Fans of HBO’s Games of Thrones’ will recognise this feature instantly as “the mountain like an arrowhead”, from the Hound’s vision in Season 7.
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Given its reputation for making a visually stunning subject, Kirkjufell is made all the brighter by its adjacent waterfall, Kirkjufellsfoss, which makes for an excellent foreground. Photographers will find this subject full of opportunities, as the mountain changes colour with the passing seasons, thus creating a number of photographic possibilities.
On their way towards the park, nature lovers will also jump at the chance to visit Ytri-Tunga, otherwise known as “seal beach” (Ytri-Tunga is, in fact, the name of a nearby farmstead). As its name suggests, this area is reliably inhabited by a playful seal colony during June, July and August.
For those particularly interested in wildlife, it should be noted that Grundarfjörður town is one of the best locations in the world from where to spot Killer Whales, the town’s harbour offering numerous whale-watching tours.
Camping & Conduct
Although there are no permitted camping grounds within the park itself, there are three campgrounds in the region open to guests throughout the summer months. The first is situated by the town of Ólafsvík, the largest urban settlement in Snæfellsbær (approx population: 1000), the second can be found at the village of Hellissandur, on the northwestern tip of Snæfellsnes Peninsula and the third can be found at Arnarstapi, on the southern tip of Snæfellsnes Peninsula.
The campground at Ólafsvík is open from 15th May to the 15th September every year and boasts a service centre, hot and cold water facilities, toilets and showers. The campsite itself is within 15 minutes walking distance to the town where guests can enjoy a swimming pool, a shop dating back to 1844, a museum, as well as basic services ranging from a gas station to a post office. The surrounding area is also renowned for its beautiful waterfalls and hiking trails.
The campsite at Hellissandur is around 9km away from Ólafsvík and is located on a gorgeous dried lava plateau known as Sandahraun. The campsite boasts the usual facilities—eg. Showers, toilets, etc.— and is within walking distance to the nearby town of Rif. In the area, one can find a swimming pool, a lovely café, a museum, a theatre and a wealth of jaw-dropping coastlines and hiking trails.
The campsite at Arnarstapi is by a tourist service centre and there are a couple of cafés in the area, including one at the hamlet Hellnar that's a beautiful 30-minute walk along the coastline. Here you are in the middle of nature, next to the stunning Stapafell mountain, and Snæfellsjökull glacier as well, of course. The campsite provides toilets and running water, and there is a restaurant on-site, although not many other services.
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