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National parks in Iceland

Iceland's landscape is often referred to as out of this world, and with good reason. Much of the landscape is entirely uninhabitable and likened to the surface of the moon, but that just makes the pockets of liveable space that much more precious.

This is where Iceland's national parks come in. Though there are only three, they're tour-de-forces packed with volcanoes, rivers, glaciers and valleys just waiting to be explored. Here's a quick breakdown of what these vast beauties have to offer.

Snaefellsjokull National Park

Snefellsjokull is one of Iceland's most popular national parks, the anchor of which is Snefellsjokull Glacier, covering an active volcano that towers over the country's western peninsula.

On a clear day, you can sometimes see its snow-capped peak from Reykjavik, as it stands proudly at 1,446 metres high. A stunning site in and of itself, it was also made famous in Jules Verne's 'The Journey to the Centre of the Earth', as it was where voyagers found the entrance to the centre of the earth.

Evidence of life beside the glacier dates back to 1,100 years ago, and are most likely the oldest-known remnants of the fishing industry in all of Scandinavia. There are a number of domed structures whose origins stretch back 500 to 700 years ago, plus a large church that was built in 1200.

The park's lack of tall trees contributes to its barren appearance, but the flora and fauna are alive and well despite the chilly conditions. Seabirds are in abundance in this part of Iceland, along with foxes, minks, plus seals, killer whales and porpoises that hang around the peninsula.

Though there aren't any formal campsites, backpackers are welcome to stay in the park for a night. Otherwise, visitors are confined to park paths, including those on bikes or horseback. Directly underneath the glacier is Vatnshellir Cave, which can be descended only by joining a guided tour led by park staff.

Vatnajokull National Park

Like Snaefellsjokull, Vatnajokull National Park is also anchored by a large glacier of the same name – so large, in fact, that it's Europe's largest outside of the Arctic. After expanding to include Iceland's Skaftafell and Jokulsarglijufur National Parks, Vatnajokull has become the second largest national park in all of Europe, covering a massive 13% of Iceland.

The biggest draw of Vatnajokull National Park is its vast and varied landscape. Not just snow or ice, the terrain here is composed of rivers with black sand banks, canyons, wetlands, mountains and volcanoes. It's widely cited as being a literal play between fire and ice as the volcanic activity meets the icy glaciers.

The land out here is incredibly traversable, marked by hiking paths and serviced by guided tours. There are also a number of campsites and visitor centres to keep you on track.

Thingvellir National Park

Thingvellir – as it's referred to in English – National Park is not only a site of natural significance, but of Iceland's legislative history as well. Iceland's national parliament, the Althing, was established in Thingvellir in 930, and the group continued to hold its sessions here until 1798. To commemorate its 1,000th birthday, the Althing established the Thingvellir National Park in 1930. It then became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. Thingvellir, pictured at the top of this page, is a stop on the well-travelled route within the Golden Circle, and has a visitor centre illuminating the park's long history.

Within the park, you'll find Thingvallavatn, Iceland's largest natural river. The park is unique for its location in a rift valley, some of whose cracks are filled with clear water that has become wildly popular with scuba divers for its superb visibility over 100 metres down. The Silfra fissure is the only place in the world where you can dive or snorkel between two continental plates – the North American and Eurasian continents – and is rated in the top two dive sites on the planet.

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