Introducing Jökulsárgljúfur (Vatnajökull National Park – North)
In 2008 the Vatnajökull National Park – Europe’s largest protected reserve – was formed when Jökulsárgljúfur National Park merged with Skaftafell National Park to the south. The idea was to protect the Vatnajökull ice cap and all of its glacial run-off under one super-sized preserve.
The Jökulsárgljúfur portion of the park protects a unique subglacial eruptive ridge and a 30km gorge carved out by the formidable Jökulsá á Fjöllum (Iceland’s second-longest river), which starts in the Vatnajökull ice cap and flows almost 200km to the Arctic Ocean at Öxarfjörður. Jökulhlaups (flooding from volcanic eruptions beneath the ice cap) formed the canyon and have carved out a chasm that averages 100m deep and 500m wide.
Vatnajökull National Park’s northern section can be roughly divided into three parts. The visitor centre is near the northern entry at Ásbyrgi, a verdant, forested plain enclosed by vertical canyon walls. Vesturdalur’s caves and fascinating geological anomalies make up Jökulsárgljúfur’s middle section. The mighty falls of Dettifoss anchor the park’s southern entrance. Road access is improving but is somewhat convoluted.
A wonderful two-day hike weaves along the canyon, taking in all of the major sights en route. If you’re not so keen on hiking, the big attractions, such as the waterfalls at the southern end of the park and horseshoe-shaped Ásbyrgi canyon at the northern end, are accessible by road.
There are considerable changes going on in and around the park, especially regarding road access. Better roads and increased visitor numbers will inevitably result in more facilities and changing transport schedules, so it’s worth checking the park website (or with the visitor centre) to see what’s new.
Note that from mid-June to mid-August, rangers guide free daily interpretive walks that depart from the visitor centre – a great way to learn about the area. Check the website, or ask staff.