National parks preserve the best of Iceland

789There are three national parks in Iceland – each is totally unique and each holds a special place in people’s hearts. The national parks are far apart, in the west, the southwest and the southeast of the country.

By definition, a national park is a section of a country which is protected and favoured due to its unusual natural beauty. National parks are, by their very nature, pleasant places and always well worth a visit. In a country as naturally beautiful as Iceland, it stands to reason that the national parks are even more special.

Until last year there were four Icelandic national parks, two of which were then joined together and expanded to form the single biggest national park in Europe – the Vatnajokull National Park.

Vatnajokull National Park has an unmatched array of different natural ecosystems and landscapes, from Europe’s largest glacier (in its entirety) to active volcanic areas, immense waterfalls and lush reindeer grazing grounds. The national park covers 11 percent of Iceland.

Vatnajokull National Park is so huge and diverse that it holds several contradictory records: Iceland’s highest and lowest spots fall within its boundaries – as do Iceland’s warmest and coldest places and Iceland’s wettest and driest locations!

Far away on a west coast peninsula lies Snaefellsjokull National Park, tiny in comparison to Vatnajokull – but no less beautiful. Snaefellsjokull is a miniature, ice cream shaped mountaintop glacier visible from Reykjavik on the clearest of summer days. The glacier is said to be at the meeting point of ley lines and the most mystical place in Iceland.

Snaefellsjokull glacier was the gateway in Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne, and the surrounding national park is among the most relaxing, pleasant and beautiful countryside in Iceland. Snaefellsjokull is the country’s only national park to extend all the way to the seashore and the setting for some of the most memorable of the Viking sagas.

Last on the list is the culturally charged Thingvellir National Park, a place of unmatched human history and geographical intrigue.

Thingvellir is the longest standing national park in Iceland and is the cradle of the Althingi – the world’s oldest parliament which still governs Iceland today from its new home in Reykjavik. Thingvellir is the place the new Icelandic republic was declared in 1944. It would not be an exaggeration to say that nearly all the notable events of Icelandic history before 20th century took place at Thingvellir. They even used to drown “witches” there.

Thingvellir National Park is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and sits on the shores of Iceland’s largest lake and an impressive canyon where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are literally tearing the earth apart. The park has a huge variety of bird, plant and animal life as well.

National parks in Iceland are always open, but they are never more beautiful and accessible than right now in high summer. While the wild flowers bloom, the glacial melt water turns rivers to raging torrents and the night sky won’t go dark at all until the end of July, the parks’ shops, museums, guides and other facilities are working at full steam. More information at www.visiticeland.com

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