The softer side of Vatnajökull
If you're a bit of an Iceland nerd you'll know all about Vatnajökull glacier and the national park of the same name. It is huge, it is harsh, and it is brutally beautiful. But, as with most glaciers, it is not exactly warm and pleasant. In this article we take a look at the huge Vatnajökull national park; but keeping only what is gentle and pleasant in mind…
The Vatnajökull National Park is the second biggest in Europe, just behind one in European Russia, and despite being dominated by the huge glacier (the park covers 13% of the whole country, with the Vatnajökull glacier occupying over 8%), it has some of Iceland’s most diverse landscapes and climatic conditions.
Some highland areas directly to the north of the Vatnajökull glacier experience an average of just 400 mm of precipitation per year. That is a similar amount to Sydney or western Texas and four-times less than the south coast of Iceland average. So if you are unlucky enough to be unlucky with the weather when you visit Iceland for your next holiday, you know where to go. Understandably though, you’ll find this area pretty arid and not very green.
If it's green you want, you should head to Herðubreiðarlindir – the fabulous highland oasis in the shadow of the Herðubreið mountain. The microclimate created by the lonely mountain allows the oasis to exist in the desert, sticking out like even more of a sore thumb than a lonely shoulder-shaped mountain already would! Here you will find a campsite and lots of good walking opportunities.
Make a beeline for the Ásbyrgi canyon if you want to find a heat trap with the added bonus of excellent shelter from the wind (provided by the huge cliffs all around). Ásbyrgi is a forested area with yet another campsite and lots of trails. A lot of people pick it as their absolute favorite place in all of Iceland. Not because it is stunningly, jaw-droppingly breath-taking perhaps, but because it’s just an extremely pleasant place with attributes similar to the Little Girl With the Little Curl (of poetry fame). In other words, “When it is nice, it is very, very nice”…
Skaftafell is to the south and west of the glacier and was a national park in its own right long before Vatnajökull’s importance was realized and protected. Skaftafell is important and worth visiting because it is a famously mild part of South Iceland with lots of trees and wild flowers, as well as a wide variety of insects (yay) and lots of woodland and meadow birds. But what really sets it apart is that it manages all this while being in the embrace of high mountains and the glacier itself – meaning gorgeous views and a minimum of 500 photos per visit! Skaftafell is also home to the famous Svartifoss waterfall and its distinctive basalt columns.