In the Vatnajökull region, Iceland earns its ubiquitous “fire and ice” nickname. You’ll see Vatnajökull Glacier descend into black sands and hot streams erupt from frozen banks of ice.

The region is easy to access, as there are frequent flights and buses between Reykjavík and Höfn. For flights, check out Eagle Air, and for buses, try Strætó and Reykjavik Excursions. Höfn is the best gateway to the region and the perfect town to base yourself in.

Vatnajökull features miles of white, pure ice, intertwined with blue and smoky hues in interesting shapes formed by compressed ice.

Vatnajökull features miles of white, pure ice, intertwined with blue and smoky hues in interesting shapes formed by compressed ice. Photo © Oliver Taylor/123rf.

Vatnajökull Glacier

Vatnajökull’s vast, rugged terrain is a large draw for hikers and climbers around the world, but be sure you come prepared.Vatnajökull (Water Glacier) is a cool spot to visit—quite literally, as it’s Iceland’s remaining piece of the last ice age. Vatnajökull features miles of white, pure ice, intertwined with blue and smoky hues in interesting shapes formed by compressed ice. It’s a wide-open space, sitting on top of active volcanoes. You will experience whipping winds, sky-high elevations, and cold temperatures.

Vatnajökull has the distinction of being the largest glacier in Europe and the third largest in the world (after glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica). The glacier spans 8,805 square kilometers, which covers about 8 percent of the country, and the average thickness is 400 meters.

Of the volcanoes, the most active is the system near Mount Grímsfjall (1,719 meters) at Grímsvötn (1,725 meters). Mount Barðarbunga (2,009 meters), which awakened in 2014, is another volcano fissure. There were thousands of earthquakes over the summer of 2014, stirring the sleeping giant awake. Mount Kverkfjöll (1,929 meters) and Mount Hvannadalshnjúkur (2,110 meters) also lie beneath the glacier.

Vatnajökull’s vast, rugged terrain is a large draw for hikers and climbers around the world, but be sure you come prepared. Bring the necessary gear, monitor weather conditions, and alert people of your whereabouts.

Glacial Floods

When Grímsvötn volcano erupted underneath Vatnajökull in 1996, the world watched in fascination as lava flowed from fissures and ash launched thousands of feet into the air. But another phenomenon captured the attention of millions—jökulhlaup, which is Icelandic for glacial floods. A glacial flood occurs when water dammed by a sub-glacial lake is released, triggered by volcanic eruptions. Glacial lakes can hold millions to hundreds of millions of cubic meters of water and can wreak havoc on surrounding areas when released.

Locals still talk about the 1996 eruption, and you have a chance to relive it through a film shown at the Skaftafell visitors center.

Vatnajökull has the distinction of being the largest glacier in Europe and the third largest in the world.

Vatnajökull has the distinction of being the largest glacier in Europe and the third largest in the world. Photo © Oliver Taylor/123rf.

Tours of Vatnajökull Glacier

You can explore the glacier on a tour or with a private guide.

If you’d like to explore the glacier by snowmobile and jeep, Vatnajökull Travel (Bugðuleira 2, Höfn, tel. 354/894-1616) offers tours all year. An 11-hour tour includes pickup at your hotel, jeep and snowmobile rides, and a boat ride on Jökulsárlón, which features large pieces of glacial ice that languish off-shore. It’s a spectacular sight. It’s a fantastic way to spend the day and explore the region. The tour costs 42,000ISK.

Atlantsflug (tel. 354/854-4105) offers flights from Skaftafell Airport, its private airport near Vatnajökull National Park, to various locations around Vatnajökull glacier, including locations like Grímsvötn (volcano), Katla (volcano), Eyjafjallajökull (volcano), Langisjór (lake), Laki (crater), and Lakagigar (crater). You’ll get a spectacular aerial view of volcanoes, mountains, glaciers, lakes, and rivers. Flight tours start at 33,000ISK for 75 minutes.

Travel map of the Vatnajökull Region

The Vatnajökull Region


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Iceland.