10 Amazing National Parks and Nature Reserves to Explore in Iceland


The ultimate Iceland bucket list

Iceland is a nature lover’s paradise. This island nation is filled with incredible landscapes and dramatic geological features around every bend. From mighty waterfalls and black sand beaches to erupting geysers and smoldering volcanoes, Iceland has an abundance of natural wonders just waiting to be explored.

One of the best ways to experience Iceland’s awe-inspiring scenery is by visiting its national parks and nature reserves. Iceland has created protected areas throughout the country to preserve its pristine wilderness and allow visitors to connect with the raw, untouched beauty of the land.

In this article, I’ll highlight 10 amazing national parks and nature reserves in Iceland that should be on every nature enthusiast’s bucket list. We’ll explore the unique landscapes and attractions that make each of these Icelandic preserves a must-see destination. I’ll also provide tips on the best times to visit, how to get there, and top things to do in each park or reserve.

Whether you love hiking through remote glacial valleys, seeing thundering waterfalls, or walking fields of lava, Iceland’s national parks and protected areas offer thrilling ways to experience the power and wonder of the natural world. Let’s dive in and explore the top natural areas to add to your Iceland travel itinerary!

1. Vatnajökull National Park

The largest national park in Western Europe, Vatnajökull National Park spans roughly 14,100 square kilometers (5,500 square miles) in southeast Iceland. Established in 2008, the park protects the Vatnajökull glacier and surrounding areas of incredible natural beauty.

Dramatic glaciers, ice caves, volcanoes, lava fields, and thundering waterfalls are just some of the stunning features found within Vatnajökull National Park. It’s a paradise for nature lovers and outdoor adventurers. The park is divided into four areas to cover its vast terrain:

  • Jökulsárgljúfur features canyons, cliffs, and waterfalls carved out by glacial rivers. Attractions here include Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall, andÁsbyrgi canyon.
  • Skaftafell is home to Iceland’s highest mountain (Hvannadalshnjúkur) as well as glaciers and the massive Skaftafellsjökull ice cap outlet glacier. Popular hiking routes and Svartifoss waterfall are found here.
  • Laki is an eerie lava field formed by a massive volcanic eruption in the 1700s. Highlights are lava tube caves and the colorful Landmannalaugar geothermal area.
  • Öræfajökull is a remote region covered by Vatnajökull glacier. Hvannadalshnjúkur mountain and glacier hiking opportunities abound here.

The best times to visit Vatnajökull are June through August in peak summer. November to March offer chances to see the Aurora Borealis. Guided glacier, ice cave, and hiking tours are available. The park is accessible by car from the Ring Road or Highland F-Roads. Key hub towns are Höfn, Kirkjubæjarklaustur, and Skaftafell.

With so much to explore, Vatnajökull National Park truly encapsulates Iceland’s magnificent and diverse landscapes. Days can be spent driving scenic routes, wandering lava fields, hiking to thundering waterfalls, and walking on ancient glaciers. This park is an absolute must-see!

2. Þingvellir National Park

Situated within the famous Golden Circle route, Þingvellir National Park holds incredible historical and geological significance for Iceland. The park is located in the rift valley between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Visitors can literally walk between the two plates and see the continental drift in action!

In addition to its fascinating geology, Þingvellir is the site of the nation’s first parliament in 930 AD. The Alþingi parliament continued to meet annually at Þingvellir until 1798. Remnants of Iceland’s commonwealth government can still be seen today.

Top attractions within the park include:

  • Þingvallavatn – Iceland’s largest natural lake filled from underwater springs.You can swim, snorkel, scuba dive or boat in its refreshingly cool blue waters.
  • The rift valley and Almannagjá gorge marking the tectonic plate boundaries. Walk between two continents here!
  • Historic ruins like the Lögberg lava rock law rock where speeches were made.
  • Stunning waterfalls such as Öxarárfoss cascade through rocky cliffs.
  • Hiking trails including the scenic path between Flosagjá gorge and Peningagjá fissure.
  • Abundant birdlife, especially at Eystri-Laxá river.

Þingvellir National Park is open year-round and easily reached on a Golden Circle tour from Reykjavik. Summer is peak season, but winter offers a quiet atmosphere. A visitor center provides info and tours can be booked through companies like Reykjavik Excursions. With its rich history and striking natural beauty, exploring Þingvellir is a highlight for any visit to Iceland.

3. Snæfellsjökull National Park

Dominated by a massive glacier-topped volcano, Snæfellsjökull National Park presents an otherworldly landscape on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in west Iceland. Jules Verne used Snæfellsjökull as the entry point to the center of the Earth in his famous novel, adding to the mythic draw of the area.

Diverse scenery from lava fields and black sand beaches to gushing waterfalls can be found within Snæfellsjökull National Park. Key sights include:

  • The 700,000-year-old Snæfellsjökull volcano covered in glittering ice. You can summit on hiking tours or sightsee from base.
  • Djúpalónssandur black pebble beach with unique rock formations and remains of a shipwreck.
  • The wild Berserkjahraun lava fields spreading over 15 square km.
  • Vatnshellir volcanic cave full of incredible lava rock formations only accessible on guided tours.
  • Stunning cliffs and rock arches at Lóndrangar.
  • Puttery hot springs at Saxhóll crater.
  • The iconic Kirkjufell cone-shaped mountain and Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall, one of Iceland’s most photographed sights.
  • Birdwatching areas like Öndverðarnes peninsula.

Visitors can drive the Snæfellsnes National Park route and hike day trails year-round. Free guided ranger tours are offered in summer. The park is just 2.5 hours from Reykjavik, making it an easy day trip. With volcanoes, lava fields, and the mighty Snæfellsjökull glacier, this park shows off Iceland’s raw natural power.

4. Vatnajökull National Park – Skaftafell

We’ve covered the sprawling Vatnajökull National Park before, but the Skaftafell area deserves special mention for its incredible beauty. Located in southeast Iceland, Skaftafell preserves a landscape of soaring mountains, tumbling waterfalls, and outlet glaciers flowing from the Vatnajökull ice cap.

Some of Skaftafell’s highlights include:

  • Jaw-dropping Svartifoss waterfall which cascades over dramatic basalt columns. An easy 1.5 km hike reaches this iconic sight.
  • The massive icy tongue of Skaftafellsjökull glacier, one of the largest outlet glaciers in the country. Guided glacier hikes are available during summer.
  • Scenic vista points like Sjónarsker overlook with panoramic views of the glaciers and mountains.
  • The Kristínartindar mountain peaks featuring seven sharp summits lined up in a row.
  • Stunning photographic opportunities at Svellnos lagoon reflecting the mountains and blue ice.
  • Challenging day hikes like the 15 km roundtrip trek to Lakagígar craters.
  • Vast hiking trail network including trails to Skaftafellsheiði heath and Morsárdalur valley.

Skaftafell is accessible from the Ring Road and open year-round. Summer high season brings the best weather for hiking and sightseeing. Visitor center and campground onsite. Guided tours and ice climbing excursions available. With breathtaking scenery and outdoor adventures, Skaftafell is Iceland nature at its best!

5. Landmannalaugar

Get ready for a landscape of rainbow-hued rhyolite mountains, steaming hot springs, and rocky lava fields! Landmannalaugar is a stunning highland area tucked away in Iceland’s remote interior within Fjallabak Nature Reserve.

This ruggedly beautiful region attracts hikers, nature lovers, and outdoor enthusiasts with its incredible scenery and geothermal activity. Major landmarks include:

  • The colorful Laugahraun lava field peppered with lavender, green, pink and brown hues.
  • Natural geothermal hot pools to soak tired muscles after a long hike. The warm waters with stunning views are surreal.
  • Rugged slopes and peaks of the Brennisteinsalda (“Sulphur Wave”) mountains glowing red and yellow.
  • The stunning Ljótipollur explosion crater filled with bright turquoise water.
  • Hiking trails including the popular multi-day Laugavegurinn trail and day hikes to attractions like Stórihver hot spring.
  • Hrafntinnusker mountain pass with epic panoramic vistas.

Landmannalaugar is accessible only in summer months by bus or rugged 4×4 from the highland F-roads. Prepare for a rough but rewarding ride! The remote setting amidst the rhyolite mountains makes Landmannalaugar a uniquely beautiful destination.

6. Jökulsárgljúfur National Park

Within the larger Vatnajökull National Park, Jökulsárgljúfur National Park protects a 35 km stretch of canyons, cliffs, and waterfalls carved out by the glacial Jökulsá á Fjöllum river system.

Sights not to miss in this “glacial river canyon” include:

  • The mighty Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall with water flow up to 200 m3/second! Massive, thunderous, and unforgettable.
  • Amazing basalt rock formations at Hljóðaklettar echo cliffs. The columned palagonite creates echoes and acoustic effects.
  • Hafragilsfoss waterfall pouring into a narrow gorge over 80 meters high.
  • Rauðfoss waterfall reached by a natural stone bridge. Stunning red rhyolite cliffs surround the falls.
  • Scenic marked trails like the one through Ásbyrgi canyon said to be hoofprint of Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir.
  • The dark hexagonal basalt columns of Hljóðaklettar echo cliffs.
  • Walk behind the curtain of falling water at Gljúfrabúi waterfall.

Jökulsárgljúfur has a visitor center, campgrounds, and hiking trails that are accessible from mid-June to mid-September. Allow enough time to see top sights like Dettifoss and Ásbyrgi, which require separate drives off the main park road. The landscapes here are simply spellbinding!

7. Snæfellsnes National Park

We mentioned the Snæfellsjökull National Park section earlier, but the Snæfellsnes Peninsula has another spectacular national park on its eastern side aptly named Snæfellsnes National Park. This preserve contains a variety of natural beauty from glaciers to volcanoes to lava fields and black sand beaches.

Don’t miss these Snæfellsnes National Park highlights:

  • Seaside lava formations like Lóndrangar with its dramatic arched rocks that look like a medieval fortress.
  • Puffin and seabird colonies along the cliffs of Þúfubjarg and Búðir.
  • Coastal volcanic craters like Saxhóll and Djúpalónssandur with its black pebble beach.
  • The jagged peaks of the Kirkjufell mountain and nearby waterfall Kirkjufellsfoss. Some of Iceland’s most iconic scenery.
  • Cute fishing villages like Arnarstapi with fascinating rock formations and cliffside paths.
  • Beaches of colorful stones at Djúpalónssandur and Vatnshellir cave.
  • Hiking trails such as the coastal route from Hellnar to Arnarstapi village.
  • Deep blue Eldborg volcanic crater with an almost perfect circular shape.

Year-round access makes Snæfellsnes easy to visit. Summer allows full exploration while winter offers atmosphere. Whether you admire sea cliffs or volcanoes, Snæfellsnes National Park delivers stunning Icelandic nature at every turn!

8. Hornstrandir Nature Reserve

For remote wilderness and breathtaking coastal scenery, look no further than Hornstrandir Nature Reserve in Iceland’s far northwest Westfjords region. This 580 square km of unspoiled nature is reachable only by boat, adding to its captivating allure.

Hornstrandir’s main highlights include:

  • Sheer sea cliffs, fjords, and winding hiking trails along the dramatic coastline. You’ll feel like you’re at the edge of the world!
  • Abundant birdlife, especially puffins, razorbills, kittiwakes, fulmars, and more during nesting season. It’s a birdwatcher’s paradise!
  • Arctic foxes roaming the landscapes. Keep your eyes peeled!
  • Peaceful isolation and gorgeous vistas as you hike between secluded bays and inlets.
  • The massive headland of Hornbjarg, one of Iceland’s most impressive sea cliffs soaring 534 meters high.
  • Abandoned farmsteads and ruins to explore like Hesteyri village and old whaling stations.
  • Rivers and waterfalls cascading down from the tabletop mountains into the sea like at Hornvík Bay.

Boat tours to Hornstrandir run from Ísafjörður from late June to August/September when the nature reserve is most accessible. Hardy hikers willing to brave changeable weather can experience epic solitude and scenery. With Iceland’s wildest landscapes, Hornstrandir is a special off-the-beaten-path gem!

9. Lake Mývatn Nature Reserve

Filled with unique natural wonders, the Mývatn region in north Iceland has been protected as a nature reserve since 1974. Lake Mývatn itself is a biodiversity hotspot and the surrounding area contains a wealth of volcanic landscapes and geothermal features.

Top sights at Mývatn Nature Reserve include:

  • Otherworldly lava formations, caves, and rocky structures at Dimmuborgir (“Dark Fortress”). Walk among the contorted lava!
  • Geothermal chimneys and boiling mud pools at Hverarönd, also known as “Mývatn Nature Baths”.
  • The pseudocraters and caves of Skútustaðagígar.
  • Explore lava labyrinths and tunnels at the massive Dimmuborgir lava fields.
  • Relax in the milky blue Mývatn Nature Baths, the north’s version of the Blue Lagoon for soaking in style.
  • Walk near eruption sites at Námafjall volcanic ridge. Feel the heat from the boiling mud pools!
  • See volcanic bombs frozen mid-blast at Hverfjall tephra crater. You can hike the crater rim.

Mývatn offers plenty of hiking trails and activities year-round like birdwatching, northern lights tours, and cave explorations. Summer is best for accessibility. With volcanoes, craters, and geothermal pools, Mývatn displays Iceland’s raw natural forces.

10. Þórsmörk Nature Reserve

Nestled between Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers, Þórsmörk Nature Reserve is a beautiful highland valley loaded with scenic hiking trails. Lush birch forests, countless cascading streams, and overlooking ice caps create an oasis-like haven.

Top things to do in Þórsmörk include:

  • Hiking to the spectacular multi-tiered Stakkholtsgjá canyon.
  • Relaxing in the geothermal pools at Landmannalaugar just south of the reserve.
  • Photographing the two-tiered Gígjökull glacier outlet.
  • Trekking up Valahnúkur mountain for views of the rugged surrounding peaks.
  • Walking through the Ljótipollur explosion crater and lava field.
  • Spotting arctic foxes who make their home in the area.
  • Exploring ice caves when conditions allow.

Reaching Þórsmörk requires crossing rugged riverbeds which are only passable in modified super jeeps or buses in summer.


Iceland’s awe-inspiring natural landscapes never cease to amaze. This remote volcanic island has sculpted some of the most incredible scenery on the planet across its national parks, reserves, valleys, glaciers, volcanoes, and rugged coasts. After exploring Iceland’s 10 most amazing protected natural areas highlighted here, you’ll understand why so many people fall in love with the beauty of this island.

From thundering waterfalls like Dettifoss and Goðafoss to the icy vastness of Vatnajökull glacier to the otherworldly lava fields of Dimmuborgir and Landmannalaugar, Iceland offers nature experiences you simply can’t find anywhere else. Hiking trails take you through valleys explosive volcanoes and vast lava fields, bringing you up close and personal with the elemental forces that formed this island. Just stand atop a viewpoint, glacier, or volcanic crater and you’ll feel like you’re at the very rooftop of the world.

Iceland’s national parks and nature reserves also protect stunning coastal landscapes. Whether you’re gazing up at immense sea cliffs or wandering windswept black sand beaches, you’ll always feel the power of the North Atlantic Ocean in Iceland. Coastal walks reveal bird colonies with puffins and gannets plus stunning rock formations carved out by the pummeling waves. From Stykkishólmur in the west to Egilsstaðir in the east, Iceland beckons you to embrace the bracing ocean air.

Yet despite Iceland’s epic landscapes, a visit here also connects you intimately to nature. Soaking in the geothermal waters of Landmannalaugar, listening to the musical cascade of Skogafoss waterfall, and camping under the glow of the midnight sun allows you to fully immerse yourself in Iceland’s mystical landscapes. Taking the time to hike, camp, photograph, and explore gives you a profound connection with the natural world.

As our planet faces impacts of climate change and mass tourism, the need to protect Iceland’s fragile environment remains critical. That’s why visiting its national parks and reserves responsibly while appreciating their beauty can make a lasting difference. By supporting conservation efforts, respecting trail etiquette, and practicing Leave No Trace principles when exploring Iceland’s outdoors, we all play a role in keeping these unique landscapes pristine.

The famous Icelandic concept of Jörð not only means “Earth” but encapsulates a deep bond with the living landscapes and elemental forces of the island. After witnessing Iceland’s epic scenery, it’s easy to understand this intimate connection with nature shared by Icelanders. From the moonscapes of Landmannalaugar to the crashing waves on cliffs of Hornstrandir, you’ll develop your own special Jörð with Iceland after exploring its most magnificent national parks and nature reserves.

So what are you waiting for? Get out there and start your Iceland nature adventure! Whether it’s road tripping the Ring Road, joining guided glacier treks, or hiking the Laugavegur trail, immersing yourself in Iceland’s wilderness will create lifelong memories. As this guide shows, there are more than enough stunning national parks and reserves to fill any Iceland trip itinerary. Just come prepared to embrace Iceland’s raw, powerful, and beautiful landscapes in a responsible way for an experience you’ll never forget. Let the volcanoes and waterfalls call you! Iceland’s awe-inspiring vistas and landscapes await.

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