Vatnajökull is the largest glacier in Europe and it covers an area of approximately 8.100 square kilometers. The ice in some parts of the glacier is over 1km thick, although the average thickness is around 400 metres. In total it contains about 3300 cubic kilometers of ice and covers around 8% of the country. The name means “Lake glacier” and is derived from the numerous sub glacial lakes sitting beneath it.
Under the icecap there are volcanoes that are still active. The last major eruption took place in 2011, when Grimsvotn, Iceland´s most active volcano began spewing ash into the air. Thankfuly the eruption was relatively short lived and disruption was minimal.
Underneath the glacier lies an undulating landscape of valleys and chasms. There is also a several km long ice cavern system. The icecap itself rises to between 1400 metres and 1800 metres above sea level. Numerous outlet glaciers of various size flow down onto the lower lying areas. It is hard to put the beauty of the glacial landscape into words, its vast size mean photographs alone don´t often do it justice. There are numerous tour companies that offer guided tours to the glacier of various degrees of difficulty. Most of these operate out of Skaftafell, the camping ground and visiting centre on the south side of the glacier. However there are day trips available from Reykjavik.
Skaftafell is a preservation area located just south of the Vatnajökull glacier. It´s spectacular beauty is a result of the favorable weather conditions as well as the constant interplay of fire and ice. It used to be a National park in its own right but since 2008 it has been incorporated into the Vatnajökull National Park. The area itself is an oasis wedged between sand and glacier and it contains some of the most unique natural phenomenons of the country. The undoubted highlight is the stunning Svartifoss waterfall, a huge waterfall surrounded by massive black basalt columns.
There is a network of trails in the park but no roads. It is home to Hvannadalshnúkur, the highest peak in Iceland. However at a height of 2119 metres it is a challenge for serious hikers. However the reward is an unforgettable walk in an incredible panorama. Organized drives and hikes are available from Skaftafell camping ground.
The history of the region is told at the very interesting Skaftafellsstofa Visitor Centre, where a comprehensive pamphlet with maps and hiking tracks is available. There is also a large camping ground, but note that hammering tent pegs into the gravel surface can be tricky. Other services offered are washing machines, toilets, a restaurant and a small shop. There are regular guided walking tours as well as daily bus tours from the park to the volcanic Laki area.
The glacial lagoon was formed around 80 years ago when Breiðamerkurjökull, an outlet glacier of Vatnajökull retreated rapidly, leaving a trail of icebergs in its wake. To this day the lagoon continues to expand as the glacier retreats further. The lagoon itself is up to 190 m deep and filled with cold meltwater. Vast icebergs float on the surface before breaking down into smaller icebergs and floating out into sea. Today the lagoon’s surface is almost at sea level and when sea water comes in with the tides the temperature of the lagoon rises. The lagoon is a haven for wildlife with Seals following the capelin, salmon and herring that enter it. Eider ducks are also very common.
The variety in colour and shape of the icebergs is truly amazing. It is possible to take a boat trip on the lagoon (wrap up warm) where you can get to within almost touching distance of the icebergs. The proximity to route number 1 makes Jökulsarlon a very convenient place to visit and is a definite highlight of Iceland.
Travel Guide Iceland Team – Reykjavík (Iceland)