Guide to Iceland national parks

Nearly ALL of Iceland looks like a national park, so families can’t go wrong finding beautiful outdoor experiences on an Iceland vacation with kids. But Iceland national parks do pack in a lot of interesting natural features you won’t want to miss. Here’s what to see in each.

guide to Iceland national parks

Þingvellir National Park:

Þingvellir is easily accessed from Reykjavik, and is located on the Golden Circle, so expect to share space with plenty of tour buses. However, it’s absolutely worth the trip. Start with the main attractions: the rich Viking history in various sites and the location where you can see the shifting of the tectonic plates (over the course of millions of years). There are several walking paths here (we wouldn’t quite call them hikes), the largest of which will take you up to a viewpoint (which is where they put the visitor center and parking lot, disappointingly) where you can see the deep ravines cut into the landscape. Taking the other paths, you can see Drekkingarhylur pool, the site where women were once drowned for offenses such as adultery, and the waterfall Oxararfoss.

Iceland national park

Next, explore the valley and lake, where you’ll see the historic sites, including one of Iceland’s first churches. Along the Oxara River, you can find the ruins of Viking camps, called budir.

Top extra activity outside the park: Laugarvanshellir Cave People Tour

This lovely tour is still unknown to most tourists (as its new in 2017). Located outside the park on 365 toward Laugarvatn, you’ll see the little house (think hobbit house) cut into the hillside before you arrive at the small parking lot. Go into the tent that houses a small tea room to purchase a tour, which is led by an enthusiastic guide. In fact, days later, our kids commented he was their ‘favorite Icelander they’d met’. The tour takes about 40 minutes, and takes you up the hillside to see the cave an Icelander couple made into a rudimentary home at the turn of the 20th century. Later, another couple inhabited it for a short time. The single room house is historically restored, and includes a sheep barn and cow barn built into the rock. While it’s interesting the see the house, the story behind it is even more fascinating; this really is a story of Icelandic pioneering. Learn more at http://www.thecavepeople.is

iceland cave people

Vatnajokulsthjodgardur National Park:

This was our favorite Icelandic national park, thanks to its dramatic volcanic history and glacier. The visitor center at Skaftafell has a lot of good information: start here and pick a day hike to try. We opted for a loop of about 6 km that took us high up the mountain to spectacular views of Iceland’s largest glacier, Skaftafellsjokull, then cut along a high ridgeline to dip back down to stunning Skaftafoss (certainly a highlight of the park). You can opt for shorter hikes, or longer ones, but for any length, be sure to pack many layers for all types of weather, as you’ll be completely exposed to the elements (as you are in most of Iceland).

Glacier tour operations are located in the parking lot of the visitor center, which can take you onto the surface of the glacier for about $40-60 per person. You are not permitted to walk on the glacier without a guide, as fissures and cracks can be unpredictable. We opted to skip the glacier tour and were satisfied with our excellent views via the hike.

This national park is pretty massive, and offers plenty of F-road goodness for those venturing north, but families can certainly get a feel for the area from the southernmost Skaftafell entrance without venturing beyond Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon.

Top extra activity outside the park: LAVA Centre

Before you enter the national park, stop at the brand new LAVA Centre located at Hvolsvollur. This highly interactive, tech-heavy museum answered a lot of our questions about the geothermal and volcanic nature of the region, which really helped us understand the lava fields, glaciers, and volcanos we saw the following days. The fairly steep entry price (still on par with entry to other museums we visited) is well worth it: get the family pass if it applies to you, to save some money.

LAVA Centre

The museum is divided into several rooms you walk through in order, each with hands-on activities and digital displays. It’s truly hard to describe how great these exhibits are, but I’ll try: one room mimics the properties of ash, giving you a taste of how it feels to be blinded by it in an eruption, and another room allows you to spin a giant globe, showing the shifting of tectonic plates over millions of years. Start with the 15 minute film and follow the map through the rooms from there. All displays are in English.

Snæfellsjökull National Park:

Located on the west side of Iceland on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Snæfellsjökull features a big daddy volcano (unfortunately covered in cloud during our visit), as well as black sand beaches with interesting rock formations, caves and lava tubes, and cinder cones. The park is located past the fishing village of Olafsvik, with a visitor center located at the space ship-looking lighthouse about three-fourths of the way through the park. See great views of the ocean and sea stacks here, then book a cave tour a few meters down the road. If you don’t want to spend the money (it’s not cheap), do as we did and take the short self-guided tour of the main cave entrance. All around the cave are smaller lava tubes you can (but probably shouldn’t) climb into.

Iceland

There’s also a well-marked cinder cone in the park, which is an easy climb with metal steps, and affords great views. We loved that at the top, a circular plaque names all the nearby mountains and volcanoes so you can identify each one.

Top extra activity outside the park: Settlement Center 

At the bottom of the peninsula, you’ll first enter Borgarnes on 60. Go to the Settlement Center, one of the best museums in the region. It’s located by the harbor in a warehouse, but inside, you’ll see the history of the Icelandic settlement era and learn more about its famed Sagas.

About the author

Amy Whitley

AUTHOR: Amy Whitley is the founding editor of Pit Stops for Kids and content editor of Trekaroo. She writes on staff monthly as a family travel expert at Go Green Travel Green and Practical Travel Gear, and contributes to Outdoors NW as an outdoor adventure traveler. Find Amy at Google.

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