Visiting the Vatnajökull National Park in Iceland (UNESCO)

striped iceberg in the Joekulsarlon Lagoon

During our three-week road trip around Iceland we went clockwise, visiting the Vatnajökull National Park near the end of our trip. The Vatnajökull National Park was our second UNESCO site in Iceland and one of the highlights of our Iceland journey. It was also already the second time this summer for us to visit a UNESCO-listed glacier! Just a few weeks earlier we had been to the Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland.

Vatnajökull was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2019, mainly for its subglacial volcanic activity. What does that mean? Most parts of the Vatnajökull National Park are under a glacial ice cap, but at the same time there are ten volcanoes in the park. Eight of them are subglacial, i.e. below the ice cap. Clearly, that’s an explosive mix. The interaction between the volcanoes and the rifts under the ice cap cause rare natural spectacles.

The Jökulsarlon Lagoon – the southern edge of the Vatnajökull National Park

Tourist boats visiting the Vatnajökull National Park

During our Iceland trip we visited only the southernmost edge of the Vatnajökull National Park, where it borders the sea. We went to the Jökulsarlon Lagoon, a relatively new glacial lake that is conveniently situated at Iceland’s ring road, between Höfn and Kirkjubaer. Until the 1930s, the Breidamerkurjökull Glacier, a tongue of the big Vatnajökull Glacier, reached to the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Since then, the glacier has retreated considerably. Huge pieces breaking off the glacier edge formed the Jökulsarlon Lagoon.

With a depth of more than 250 meters it is one of the deepest lakes in Iceland. And it gets bigger and deeper every day with large ice chunks breaking off the glacier in summer. They float in the lagoon and melt quickly because of the salty sea water coming in at high tide. Eventually the chunks of ice are small enough to drift out into the open sea.

Icebergs in the Joekulsarlon Lagoon

It has been raining on and off on the day we visit the Vatnajökull Lagoon. We stretch our necks in vain to see the Breidamerkurjökull Glacier through the fog, let alone the mighty Vatnajökull Glacier in the backdrop. But when we finally pull into the large parking area near the lagoon, the weather clears up. The parking lot is busy with cars coming and going, a small café and several tour operator booths. Groups of tourists put on thick thermal suits for expeditions towards the glacier and onto the lagoon.

Viewpoints around the Jökulsarlon Lagoon

Next to the main car park there is the channel that finally leads into the open sea. From quite close, we can watch the smaller and bigger icebergs floating past. Following the water under the bridge we quickly reach Diamond Beach.

Diamond Beach is a black sand beach dotted with washed-up bigger and smaller icebergs that are slowly melting in the sun. They form quite bizarre ice sculptures. Some of them look polished and eerily blue, others brittle with a lot of small holes. Wandering between the ice sculptures and taking pictures we feel like visiting a carefully curated art installation.

Washed-up icebergs at Diamond Beach in Vatnajokull National Park

From Diamond Beach we make our way up to the bridge and cross to the other side of the lagoon. The bridge isn’t very long but has only been installed quite recently. Before the 1970s there was no road connection between both shores. With thousands of square kilometres of mountains and ice behind it, this would have meant enormous detours to get from many places in eastern to western Iceland. As the lagoon can be very dangerous, many people preferred crossing on foot via the glacier with a guide. So, once the bridge and the ring road were completed, life became much easier. Tourism started to kick in.

But today at least, the tourists concentrate on that one parking lot. On the western side of the lagoon there are far less visitors. We follow a small foot path along the shore and watch some seals splashing around in the water. Meanwhile even the sun came out. Can it get any better?

A zodiac tour to the icebergs

Natascha is ready to go on a zodiac in Jökulsarlon Lagoon, Iceland

Yes, it can! We had booked a zodiac boat tour to get close to the icebergs. But first we must zip up into oversized one-piece thermal suits provided by the tour company. Not surprisingly, it can get quite cold out there on the lagoon. These suits would even prevent hypothermia and make us float in the unlikely case that we fall off the boat into the water, the guides assure us. They add that it has happened, though, four years ago. Finally we have to clip into a life jacket and then our group of 30 or so starts to move. It must be hilarious to see us waddle the 500 m to the zodiac boats.

Travellers in a zodiac in Joekulsarlon Lagoon

We split up into three small, but fast zodiac boats. This way we can go quite close to the icebergs as well as to the glacier. We remember a boat tour in Chile to the Pius XI glacier, on the Navimag ferry. That ship was much bigger, and we stayed at a safe distance from the glacier. But even with the zodiacs we don’t go too close. After all, there is always the danger of icebergs flipping over or of huge chunks breaking off the glacier – we actually see a large iceberg turn over just as we pass! 90% of the ice floating in the water is submerged under the surface. Due to the salinity of the lagoon water the underwater part melts quicker, causing strange movements and flip overs.

Recently flipped, glacier-blue iceberg in Joekulsarlon Lagoon

A movie location

Parts of the glacier and some of the icebergs have dark dirt stripes in the gleaming white: Volcanic ashes that got into the ice during an eruption. Others are blue and translucent.

The Jökulsarlon Lagoon featured as a movie location several times. In the opening scene of the James Bond movie “A view to kill” the lagoon sets the scene in Northern Siberia. But it also featured in Lara Croft – Tomb Raider and in Batman movies. Such movies made the lagoon famous; Iceland became known to ever more people all over the world.

The highlight of the tour was seeing some seals sunbathing on a drifting ice shelf from quite close up.

Seals on an iceberg in front of the Breidamerkurjökull Glacier, Iceland

Are the Vatnajökull National Park and the Jökulsarlon Lagoon worth a visit?

Visiting the Vatnajökull National Park and the Jökulsarlon Lagoon was a highlight of our Iceland trip. As it was in summer 2021 there were still some Corona restrictions in place and the number of tourists was less than in other years. Nevertheless Jökulsarlon Lagoon was one of the busiest sites we encountered during our entire Iceland trip. For a proper visit you will need at least 3–4 hours. Take your time to walk around at the different viewpoints. We also enjoyed the zodiac trip very much. Bookings are essential. We booked via Guide to Iceland.

How to get to the Vatnajökull Nationalpark and the Jökulsarlon Lagoon

The Jökulsarlon Lagoon is situated just next to the ring road and is easily accessible by car and public bus. You can also visit the Jökulsarlon Lagoon together with some other sights along the main road on an organized day trip from Reykjavik.

Westwards team in the Joekulsarlon Lagoon

NB: We had no sponsoring for the trip to Iceland and paid all expenses ourselves. This post does NOT contain Affiliate Links.

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  1. Wow, I see that it might be a more doable alternative than Antartuca and yet see a lot of icebergs and glaciers.

  2. Interesting, I never read from someone who visited Iceland actually for three weeks. Sounds like quite a long time. However, I can also see from your post that your trip was a bit more adventurous than those I’ve heard of before. Jökulsarlon looks amazing – reminds me a bit of Patagonia, however, the formations here seem to be more impressive.

  3. I agree that Vatnajökull National Park and the Jökulsarlon Lagoon are must-see during Iceland trip. I love those places and highly recommend them as well. Your tips and photos are great!

  4. It’s so cool you got to visit the iceberg up close. I found it fascinated to learn about the subglacial volcanic in this national park. You made me googling about subglacial volcanic. Very interesting!

  5. It looks beautiful here. We had a family friend visit Iceland a few months back and they have not stopped talked about it since! I am not a big fan of the cold so I do not think I would ever be able to make it through the trip, but it looks like you had a blast!

  6. Unfortunately, when I visited Iceland I did not get a chance to visit Vatnajökull national park. But now I know what I missed. The national park definitely looks stunning with so many glaciers. I do hope to go back to Iceland someday and visit all the things that I missed.

  7. I was actually here about 2 years ago on my trip to Iceland. Jökulsarlon Lagoon was my favourite place in entire Iceland and we even managed to camp there in our campervan overnight, overlooking the glacier lake, with the floating icebergs. What an experience it was!

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