Iceland, first and foremost, is all about witnessing the glory of nature in its true, most magnificent form. A cluster of all kinds of geographical formations and wonders, Iceland will never cease to amaze you at any step and will have something or other new and wonderful waiting for you to explore and have your jaw dropped. If you are already familiar with the thrill of standing atop a glacier and watching the world lying ahead of you from an unapproachable height, then it’s time to get to know the awe-inspiring experience that standing inside one will bring. Ice caves are scattered all over Iceland. Some are normal caves with some amount of ice frozen inside and others are glacial caves with beautiful crystals of blue ice mesmerizing enough to give a thorough competition to the underwater wonders that we all admire so much.
Ice Caving as an Activity
Another popular activity among tourists, Ice caving has an equally big fan base as hiking and horse riding. It one of the biggest attractions in the country, ice caving is secondary to none and most hikers end up doing ice caving along with snowmobiling when they set out for the tour. As you may have already guessed, all ice caves are not available to visit all-year-round as many of them melt around the summers. But there are still some that can be visited in the glaciers all year. Another exciting thing about these ice caves is that they are never the same. You visit one this year then you will come again next time to find completely different structures and ice sculptures inside these crafty caves. Every summer the ice melts and the coming winters bring something new every time.
Ice Caves or Glacial Caves?
Most ice caving tours are the tours of popular glacial caves of the country. There is a difference between the two so make sure that you have seen the details of the caves you will be touring beforehand. In brief, ice caves are just natural caves that have some ice frozen inside all-year-round. They are not made of ice. However, glacial caves are a part of the glaciers, and are formed with a block of ice – usually the glacier they belong to. Glacial caves also tend to change and reform every season. You can even hear the ice moving when you are inside a cave – it is rather endearing. So, to say simply, Ice caving tours are essentially glacial cave tours. So, if you are expecting to see some blue ice marvels, then you are on the right track.
Different Types of Ice (Glacial) Caves in Iceland
Crystal Ice Caves
As evident by the name, these caves have ceilings which are made with thick translucent blue colored glacial ice which lets a little bit of natural light to pass through creating a wonderful view for the visitors. Crystal Ice caves are formed naturally and have been the tone of the biggest attraction for photographers from around the world. The most popular crystal ice cave of Iceland is the one located in Vatnajökull glacier, the largest glacier in Europe. It is roomy enough to accommodate up to 100 people at once and is formed at the place almost every year as it is shaped by the glacial river of this glacier.
Blue Ice Caves
The enlarged crystals of glacial ice which have been compressed beneath their weight for hundreds and thousands of years form blue ice caves by forcing the air molecules out. There are two kinds of blue ice you will find in these caves. The first one is the shimmering, translucent ice which lets some light pass through and sometimes looks like vibrant blue quartz. The other kind is a more solid variant which is opaque and does not let any amount of light pass through. The blue of these caves knows no bounds and sometimes algae freezes inside of the blocks adding to the vibrance of the colors. Some of these caves have such a dark shade of blue that it almost appears to be violet-colored at times.
Black Ice Cave
Naturally forming ice caves in Iceland can be of any color ranging from white, opaque, translucent, transparent, blue, crystal violet, and even black. Although black ice caves are pretty rare even for Iceland but not a myth. So little amount of light enters the cave that it appears to be made of black marbles entirely.
Unusual Kind of Ice Caves
These are the caves with weird and dramatic patterns on the ice. while crystal and blue caves are special and unusual enough, patterned ice caves are something else entirely. One of these is the ice cave of Langjokull glacier which features black and white patterns on the ice left by the ash of volcanic eruption. A deep turquoise blue rivulet is formed in the middle of these patterned ice structures creating a colorful view for the cameras.
While most ice caves and glacial caves are made naturally when the glacial ice develops cracks, some man-made caves have also been carved in glaciers like Langjökull which contains formations like chapels. These caves or tunnels are very stable and safe to experience the blue that these caves are famous for. They are also used as a spot for the Secret Solstice Festival.
Top Contenders for Your Tour
There are very few ice caves that have been given a name or have been distinguished as an entity since they have been forming at the same place for many years. Some of these caves form for a series of years and then disappear for a while but show up again at the same place after a few years. Hence, a few popular ice caves in Iceland have earned their names for their consistency and the formations they display year-after-year.
Vatnajökull Glacier Crystal Cave
Located in the largest glacier of Europe, the crystal cave of Vatnajökull glacier is one of the most visited caves in Iceland by the tourists. Vatnajökull covers about 8% of Iceland and is spread over an area of 7,900 km sq2. As expected of the Vatnajökull glacier, the crystal ice cave that it houses is one of the biggest ice caves in Iceland and is known for the fabulous formations that it holds in so many variating shades of blue. It is carved at the same place almost every year by the glacial river of Vatnajökull – the largest glacial river in Iceland. Vatnajökull has about 30 glacial outlets many of which have their own glacial ice cave formations popular among the tourists.
The glacial cave is also known by the name of Anaconda Ice Cave due to its long, cylindrical structure and for being incredibly spacious. The crystal blue color of the ice is thanks to the hundreds and thousands of years of compression by the glacier’s weight. It pushed out the air molecules and made a closely packed block of ice which is later carved by the river into a cave forming a crystal blue ceiling of ice. Completely out-of-the-world, this wonderful ice cave should be on top of your list. It is about a 5-hour long drive from Reykjavik before you reach Vatnajökull glacier located in South-east Iceland. You will be taking a small hike to reach the cave.
Langjokull Ice Caves: The Unusually Patterned Caves
Langjokull glacier is the second-largest glacier of Iceland and contains man-made and natural ice caves. The most popular natural ice cave of this glacier is not a blue ice cave but rather a black and white one. It has a white ice ceiling that features beautiful black-colored patterns made by the ashes from volcanic eruptions. With quirky formations like a turquoise blue rivulet in the ceiling, a cylindrical pole in the middle of the cave Langjokull ice cave. The column or the pole changes its appearance every year.
The reason this tour is so popular even though the cave is rather small in size is that the ride to Langjokull glacier is very thrilling and adventurous. It is located very close to the capital city and one needs to take huge super trucks to get there. It can also be made a part of your day trip to the Golden Circle.
Apart from the natural caves, Langjokull glacier also has some man-made caves dug into it. They are very stable and very-well lit. Sometimes used for festivals, you will find benches on the sides to rest, perfectly carved tunnels, and even chapels.
The Waterfall Cave in Iceland
One of the most difficult caves to access, the waterfall ice cave is one of the very few untouched wonders of Iceland which retain their original glory every passing year. This cave is named due to the fact it forms around a waterfall from the surrounding mountains of Vatnajökull glacier. This is the only ice cave located in the east of the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. It contains a beautiful bubble warp patterned ceiling with blue, green, and black colored ice.
A 30 to 40-minute-long hike needs to be conquered before you get to the cave. The hike is a thrilling and rewarding experience in itself and it gets better when the destination is as beautiful as the cave. Make sure to get a shot of both the ceiling and the floor in one frame – it is as if both are mirroring each other. It takes about 4 hours to drive from Reykjavik to this location.
Glacier Cave by Katla Glacier-Volcano
A combination of thrill and beauty – the ice cave of Katla volcano is one of the newest discoveries in the field. Katla volcano has several caves to its name but most of them do not get as much light and do not contain a lot of blue ice formations. But they have a beauty unique to themselves – black ice. Visiting these caves is a packaged deal for all the adventure lovers out there. The height to the ceiling is rather low at some points in the cave so you may have to crawl on all fours a lot. But the views you will get in these are second to none. Katla is seen as one of the most unstable and dangerous volcanoes of Iceland. The bubble wrap pattern ceilings, the black walls of the caves with a hint of blue – everything will have you mesmerized in a matter of seconds.
Svínafellsjökull Ice Cave
An outlet glacier of Vatnajökull, Svínafellsjökull glacier has its ice cave which can be simply entered through the beach. This gorgeous cave has beautiful slabs of white ice as well as blue ice ceiling which are only 4 meters in height. The entrance starts big and as you walk further into the cave, it beings to get smaller. With beach water beneath your feet and a beautiful blue ice ceiling above your head, it is almost as if you are standing right in between a water tunnel that has been frozen in time. The views inside the cave as well as from the cave are marvelous. Head to the east along the south coast to get to this cave. The ride will last about 5 hours.
Kverkfjöll Ice Caves
Kverkfjöll ice caves lie to the north-east of the of Vatnajokull glaciers in the highlands. The mountain range that is home to these caves is about 1,764 meters high and contains many active volcanoes in the vicinity. Here you will be able to experience the extremely rare sight of a hot water river flowing beneath a glacial cave. The way to these caves is as difficult as they are rare. The nearest landmark that you will be able to find is Sigurðarskáli hut. It will be a 3-kilometer, long hike after that before you can reach the cave.
Honorable Mentions – The Caves That Often Vanish
Blue Diamond Cave: Vatnajökull Glacier
Another marvel from the depths of Vatnajökull glacier, the Blue Diamond cave is much smaller than the Crystal Ice Cave of Vatnajökull and can only fit 17 people at a time. Blue Diamond is an exceptional kind of cave since it is a horizontal moulin cave. Such as glacial caves are carved by the glacial river, moulin caves are carved by meltwater from the glacier. But moulin caves are vertical and cylindrical. However, Blue Diamond is a horizontal cave. The colors featured in this cave are even more diverse than the Crystal Cave of Vatnajökull. The blue is a lot more vibrant and reflects light trapped inside the block of ice giving a similar glittering effect that a diamond has.
The Dark Rubin
Another one of the rarest and the most special ice caves of Iceland, the Dark Rubin, as evident by the name, is completely made up of black ice. A very little amount of light can reach the insides of the cave and hence the black ice can be seen glimmering slowly in the dim light. No amount of words will be able to do justice to the beauty and aura that this cave has. The light that enters the cave creates a beautiful effect on the ice making crystal blue striped patterns on the jet-black ice. Not many people visit this cave due to the rare availability but it is not something to be missed out on at any time it is open for visitors.
Northern Lights Ice Cave
Discovered a few years ago, this stunning cave was named after the Northern Lights or the Aurora Borealis because of the pattern that the ceiling of this cave featured. The crystal blue ceiling had beautiful fine lines that resembled the view of the northern lights in Iceland. The cave has been inaccessible for a few years now but despite its unavailability and instability of formation, it was given a name – solely for the exceptional beauty that it was.
Dressing Up for the Ice Cave Tours
Ice caves are not going to be any warmer than the glacier itself so be very sure to layer-up properly before you set out to explore the unknown. The most basic things you will need on your trip to the caves are:
- A shell jacket – must be waterproof and windproof
- Waterproof pants
- Warm, Insulated Jacket as the second layer
- A layer of a comfortable, light but a warm sweater, jacket or hoodie
- Breathable base layer t-shirt
- Stretchable and comfy pants, joggers, yoga pants or jeggings
- Warm base layer pants
- Sturdy hiking boots
- Proper headgear – warm woolen caps will be best
- Heavy gloves – 3-layer gloves will be a great choice
Safety Measures for Your Trip
- Never head to a glacial or ice cave without a certified guide. Book with a tour agency fist and get into the cave only when a guide is accompanying you. If you do not want to travel with a group, private tours can be booked. This will mean that you will have a personal guide dedicated to your party but it would grant you exclusive access to the cave. There may be other people inside of the cave.
- Weather conditions are going to be harsh so be prepared in advance for them. Follow the instruction of your tour guide and you should be able to enjoy a fun time in the caves.
- The state of glacial or ice caves is directly related to the form and movement of the glacier. So, there is no telling when a cave will deform and will be inaccessible. This also means that caves are fragile and you must not do anything to harm the structures inside.
- If hiking is involved it the ice cave tour, the touring guide will provide you with the necessary equipment. Make sure that you wear everything properly and stay with the group during the tour.