There are over 85 protected monuments, nature preserves and national parks throughout Iceland. Some of these, like the Thingvellir National Park (locally spelled Þingvellir), are well known for their role in the country’s history, while other protected gems of nature are relatively unknown, even to locals. In addition, 31 varieties of flora are protected, and strict rules apply for both hunting and fishing.
Though Iceland was one of the last countries in Europe to enact specific nature conservancy laws (in 1956) there has been a heritage of protecting various aspects of the natural environment since 1787 when a law guarding the newly-imported reindeer herd was enacted. In the 19th century restrictions were placed on egg gathering, seal hunting and net fishing, and at the turn of the century forests and other types of flora were deemed protected as well. The 20th century saw a huge movement by the newly independent republic to designate and preserve spots of uniqueness and beauty for generations to come.
All protected parks, regions and monuments in Iceland are accessible free of charge, though it’s assumed that visitors will respect requests to stay on trails and to not take rocks, plants or other items away with them. Iceland is facing challenges regarding the future preservation of nature as industries like aluminum smeltering create a demand for cheap and powerful energy which the country can provide, but at a cost, including dammed rivers, flooded valleys and gorges and unsightly pipelines and power stations to name a few. Visitors to Iceland can help to encourage the further development of nature conservancy by appreciating the fantastic wonders on offer with the respect they are due.
Thingvellir (Þingvellir) was the original site of the annual parliament gathering in 930 AD, considered to be the first democratic assembly of its kind. Thingvellir is not only historically relevant but sits astride the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which means that the gorgeous Thingvallavatn lake has shores on both the European Continental Plate and the American. This stunning rift valley is like a lesson in geology in its own right, and as such is a treasured landscape in the Icelandic pysche.
Today, the largest of the three national parks in Iceland is the one covering the Vatnajökull glacier and surrounding areas, including Skaftafell park with its lush green forests and meadows and gorgeous Svartafoss falls, tucked just under the looming glacier itself. About a five hour drive from Reykjavík, it’s a popular camping destination for locals and visitors. A short walk from the campsite brings you to a tongue of Vatnajökull (“Glacier of Lakes”) named Svínajökull, or “Swine Glacier”, which you can literally climb onto (though at your own risk!)
Snæfell (‘Snow Mountain’) with its gleaming glacier is a global mystical energy spot, according to many. At the end of its own peninsula north across the waters from Reykjavik, in certain lighting it looms huge on the horizon and in others almost disappears. Camping under Snæfell or just day tripping at the beaches and cliffs at its feet does give you a certain special sense of wonder. It’s as if this volcano really is, as Jules Verne wrote it to be, the entranceway to the magical center of the earth.