Every place, city, country, and even continent has that one special thing or place which can be seen as the representative of the tourism industry of the place. While there are many other equally beautiful attractions and things to see in these countries, one tends to take the spotlight. For example, Hawaii and Bali have their warm, sunny beaches, Amsterdam has exclusive nightlife, and Europe has bridges and palaces. Similarly, Iceland is known for its volcanoes and the ever-mighty glaciers. Although it is no secret that there are many other things that you will find here in Iceland, so much so that you may very well get confused about what to add to your travel itinerary but glaciers of Iceland still top the list. No matter from where you start it, after all, Iceland is known as the land of ice and fire.
To know the country that you are planning to visit better, you must know a little something about its geology. 11% of Iceland is completely covered in glaciers which means that you are bound to tackle one every once in a while, as you make your way across the country. Many of the top activities in Iceland are associated with these glaciers, be it hiking, kayaking in glacial lagoons, visiting ice caves, snowmobiling, skiing, or simply glacier walking. But visiting a glacier requires a great deal of preparation. There are several interesting things that should be taken into account when planning to take a trip or do an activity on a glacier. One must know what glaciers are, what are their unique abilities, what kind of ice formations one can expect to find atop a glacier, and finally, what does Iceland offer when it comes to the glaciers.
What are Glaciers?
Glaciers are formed when snow falls and stays on the land for so long that it turns into solid ice. This means glaciers are essentially huge blocks of ice that once used to be simple snow. The snow stayed on the land for years and years, maybe even centuries, and hence got compressed into solid ice over time. Unlike snow-covered mountains, glaciers are nothing but ice. And since the structure of ice has space for air bubbles in them, they get transformed into a very slow but indeed a moving river as the ice keeps getting deposited and the glacier gets heavier and heavier. This is why it is said that glaciers move and shift along time and they get deformed and reformed during this process. The moving and deforming of the ice make way for several different glacial structures like crevasses, cracks, moulins, and, the best one, ice caves.
Glacial Structures – Digs, Gaps, and Caves
Fjords, valleys, lagoons, crevasses, moulins, and ice caves are some of the best-known landforms around the world and the glaciers of Iceland have almost all of them. There are several lagoons, ice caves, fjords, and crevasses that can be found in Iceland. The most famous glacial lagoons include Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, Breidarlon glacial lagoon, Fjallsarlon glacial lagoon, Graenalon glacial lagoon, and Hvitarvatn glacial lagoon. You can read more about all glacier lagoons in Iceland here. As far as ice caves are concerned, you have a treat coming for yourself in that department. Iceland has crystal blue ice caves, black ice caves, unique once with azure-colored ice sculptures, and even some opaque white ice caves. The ice caves in glaciers build up and melt every year so the place and the appearance are always at least a bit different. Read a detailed article about ice caves in Iceland here.
Another thing that Iceland’s glaciers come with is the hidden volcanoes. There are several hidden volcanoes under the thick sheet of ice on the glaciers of Iceland and that is probably what makes them different from all other glaciers out there. Although most of these volcanoes are dormant now, there were times when they were quite active. The eruption in these ice-covered volcanoes results in a lot of ash and melted ice due to the excessive heat which in turn give birth to powerful glacial rivers. The largest and the most powerful glacial river of Iceland is Þjórsá. It feeds countless waterfalls of Iceland including some of the top players like Granni waterfall.
But apart from the rivers that are a huge part of the lifeline of the country’s fishing industry, there are huge, dangerous rivers that have proved to be quite destructive in the recent past. For example, Jökulhlaup, which was formed after the explosion of 1996 and destroyed the Skeiðarárbrú bridge the remains of which can still be seen at the site. The site of the bridge has now been turned into a picnic site and can be accessed by tourists during visiting hours. You will also find some informational signs on the site that explains the glacier run that destroyed the said bridge.
Glaciers of Iceland
As evident by the name itself, Iceland has several glaciers, all of which have an incredibly important standing as well as unique qualities. From housing the largest glacier in the whole of Europe to the longest one in the continent, Iceland has bagged quite a few top ones when it comes to glaciers and glacier specialty. Let us find more about the top glaciers of Iceland.
The largest glacier in Iceland and the continent of Europe, the Vatnajökull glacier is the most popular glacier to be visited by tourists in Iceland. The glacier covers about 8% of the total land in the country which leaves only about 3% of the total glacier-covered land in Iceland for other glaciers. Vatnajökull is located in the southern part of the country and most of its body is situated in the highlands of Iceland. Vatnajökull has about 30 different glacial tongues and many of them create the most popular tourist spots of Iceland such as the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon which is created by the Breiðamerkurjökull, a glacial tongue of Vatnajökull. Another prominent tongue to look out for is Öræfajökull which is a very popular spot for hiking and also happens to house the highest peak of Iceland – Hvannadalshnjúkur.
If you are a fan of Christopher Nolan’s movies, you would be pleased to travel to another glacial tongue of this glacier – Svínafellsjökull, located in the Skaftafell Natural Reserve. This is also a popular site for hiking for the people traveling to Skaftafell Natural Reserve. Svínafellsjökull has served as a shooting location for movies like Batman and Interstellar. Skaftafell Nature Reserve used to be a national park but later the whole area of the Vatnajökull Glacier was named Vatnajökull National Park. Although the Skaftafell Natural Reserve still stands and is open for tourists with campsites, a cafeteria, and numerous hiking sites.
The biggest attraction of the Vatnajökull glacier has to be the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon – the crown jewel of Iceland. You will find many icebergs floating in this lagoon. The sight of this place with the lagoon in the front, the glacier in the back, and the floating iceberg. These icebergs floating in the lagoon reach the Atlantic Ocean and then wash up to the south coast creating the Diamond beach in the process. Another thing Vatnajökull glacier is popular for is the Anaconda ice cave which is the largest ice cave in the country. The cave is filled with crystal blue ice and is long enough that it would take you about 1.5-2 hours to complete the tour.
Vatnajökull Glacier and National Park are spread across an area of 12000 km2 (4600 sq miles). The ice sheet on the glacier is about 500 meters thick which is probably the thickest one out of all the glaciers in Iceland. The vast size of the glacier renders it almost impossible to explore it in one trip even if you dedicate the whole trip to reaching every inch of the Vatnajökull glacier. You can explore Vatnajokull from many places around the Ring Road, but if you would like to drive on the glacier, a 4×4 vehicle or monster trucks are required.
Tours on Vatnajokull Glacier
The name of Langjokull glacier literally translates to the “long glacier” and it quite legitimate for it is the longest glacier in the country and the second largest one after Vatnajökull. The name of the glacier is driven by its shape. It is located in the west part of the highlands and is also visible from the Geysir geothermal area. The flat shape of the glacier, the long, seemingly never-ending shape of the glacier, and the fact that it is mostly covered in the snow make it the perfect place for activities like snowmobiling. Langjokull glacier is 953 km2 in area and has an ice sheet which is about 580 m.
Langjokull glacier, just like Vatnajökull, houses many volcanoes underneath the thick ice sheet out of which two are quite active. The calderas of these volcanoes can be often seen from the sky when flying in a helicopter so, it is best to avoid flying directly above them. Langjokull glacier is located very close to the destinations on the Golden Circle, especially Gullfoss waterfall so it is quite easy to add a small snowmobiling tour to the glacier with your Golden Circle tour if you want to save time and yet still visit the glacier.
The biggest attraction of Langjokull glacier apart from the continuous and ever-busy snowmobiling tours is the one and only man-made ice cave of Iceland. This beautiful ice cave has been carved to perfection by Icelandic artists and contains many beautiful spots for you to checkout. Langjokull ice cave also contains a chapel inside with benches for the guests to sit and attend a wedding ceremony. Needless to say, this is a one-of-a-kind experience that only Langjokull ice cave can provide. Thanks to the chapel, it is also known as the chapel ice cave of Iceland. This ice cave has well-lit corridors with benches on the side to rest and enjoy the view along with state-of-the-art lighting. Apart from the ice cave, you can also expect to find some moulins, which are vertical cracks in the glacier, made by the water leaking from melted snow.
The ideal way to get the best of Langjokull glacier is via a combined tour that includes glacier hiking or walking (in the case of Langjokull), snowmobiling, a tour of the ice cave, and then finally snowmobiling your way back to the foot of the glacier. There are several tours that provide a customizable and pre-set tour of the Langjokull glacier so, you can easily choose the one that suits you the best.
Tours on Langjokull Glacier
If you are a thrill seeker more than anything else then, Hofsjokull glacier is the place for you to be. Located amidst the highlands, it is the third biggest glacier of Iceland and probably the hardest one to get to. Highlands can only be traveled to in summertime when the weather is not as rumbunctious as it is in winters. Although, traveling all the way to the middle of the highlands still poses quite a few challenges including crossing rivers, walking on very thin paths, etc. A 4×4 vehicle is required to travel in the highlands. Needless to say, a trip to the Hofsjokull glacier will be nothing short of a thrill-induced experience and will prove to be one of the best one for adventure lovers.
Hofsjokull glacier also houses the biggest active volcano of Iceland which is also known by the same name – Hofsjokull. The volcano Hofsjokull is a shield type volcano. A shield type volcano is one that mostly contains fluid lava. The eruption from a shield-type volcano travels much farther than the erupted material from a stratovolcano. The name “shield volcano” is derived from the shape of these volcanoes which resembles the shape of a shield used by warriors in battle.
The glacier is also the place where the longest glacial river of Iceland, Þjórsá, and many other powerful rivers such as Héradhsvötn (Heradsvotn), Ölfusá (Olfusa), and Blanda are born. Hofsjokull is spread across an area of about 925 km2 and has a height of 1765 meters. The volcano hidden underneath the ice of the glacier is about 7 by 11 kilometers large and has been dormant for over 12000 years now. There is another small Holocene volcano located on the south-west end of the glacier. Most tours that travel to this volcano can be found under the name of tours to the highlands of Iceland. you can easily pick one that takes you to this destination. It is very smart to travel with an experienced guide who has knowledge of the area and the geological conditions.
Myrdalsjokull Glacier and Eyjafjallajokull Glacier
The fourth-largest glacier in Iceland is the Myrdalsjokull glacier which is located right beside the sixth-largest entity in the category, the Eyjafjallajokull glacier. These two glaciers are located in the southern part of the country. Myrdalsjokull is significantly larger in size than its companion and also happens to be the home to one of Iceland’s largest and most active volcanoes – volcano Katla. If you have planned a little bit of your travel itinerary to the land of ice and fire then a visit to volcano Katla and its beautiful black ice cave must already be on your list. If not then it is absolutely worthwhile to add it right now. Tracing the tracks of Myrdalsjokull glacier, Eyjafjallajokull has become well-known in the eruption department for its recent 2010 eruption which left the whole southern part in an array of dirt, dust, and volcanic ashes.
The most prominent and popular way to travel to these volcanoes-cum-glaciers is the Fimmvörðuháls hike. This is a small extension hike which comes after the Laugavegur hiking trail which is not only the top hiking trail in Iceland but also one of the best one in the world. Laugavegur trail ends at Þórsmörk from where the Fimmvörðuháls hiking trail starts. Most people prefer to take on the challenging extension hike which takes them to the Myrdalsjokull and Eyjafjallajokull Glaciers. It is considered one of the most challenging ones in Iceland. The trail ends at Skógafoss waterfall.
Tours on Mýrdalsjokull & Eyjafjallajokull Glaciers
This small glacier is actually a part of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier and is a popular spot for glacier walking and hiking in the southern part of the country. What makes this glacial tongue so special is the unique and beautiful crevasses and cracks that it features. These cracks are so big that one can actually jump down inside and explore them. There are several small ice caves and tunnels that can be found in this glacier as well, making it an ideal spot for a single-day excretion in the south of Iceland. Solheimajokull glacial tongue is generally one of the top preferred spots for ice walking and hiking in the country.
Tours on Sólheimajökull Glacier
Drangajokull Glacier and Snaefellsjokull Glacier
The fifth-largest glacier in the country, Drangajokull glacier is located in the Westfjords and is the only glacier in the country which has not decreased in size at all in the past few years. While it is a little off the grid in the far north and hence very difficult to reach, you can still travel here in a guided tour of the midnight sun watching. Drangajokull glacier is entirely below the 1000-meter height mark and is a popular place to watch the midnight sun and click some worthy shots too.
Snaefellsjokull Glacier is the 13th largest glacier in the country but still quite a popular one. You can easily spot it from the capital city, standing tall behind the Faxaflói bay. Snaefellsjokull was made famous after its appearance in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth where it served as the entry point to get to the center of the Earth. You will find that this small glacier is surrounded by beautiful beaches, lava fields, rock formations, and gorgeous cascading waterfalls in its entirety. It is recommended that you take a 4×4 vehicle if you wish to go up to Snæfellsjokull glacier, but we always recommend that you go on a guided tour when driving on the glaciers.
It can be quite overwhelming to have so many options in front of you and so little time to cover them all. A seemingly impossible task, it is true that visiting all the glaciers in one go can be a bit tiring and unsettling for the other agenda of the trip. However, you can easily include at least two or three of the above-mentioned mighty glaciers in your books of travel. Regardless of the glacier that you choose to visit, one thing is almost always guaranteed – fun and thrill. If there is anything you will take home from these places, it is some adrenalin-infused feelings and some very interesting memories along with a few over-the-top snaps.