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Glacier Hiking in Iceland

A Guide to Glaciers and Glacier Hikes in Iceland

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Are Glaciers at the Top of Your Bucket List for Your Visit to Iceland?

Glacier hikes and exploring the blue ice caves are surely among the most amazing and fun adventures you can have while in Iceland. Imagine the unique, exciting, and adventurous experience of trekking safely over the rough surface of an ice cap that is thousands of years old while stunning blue and white ice sculptures and thrilling crevasses surround you.

Explore the crystal blue ice caves that hide deep inside the body of a glittering glacier. They are so transparent that you can see for meters inside the ice as if it were glass. Do you like to complete memorable challenges? Iceland is the best place to try ice climbing! It is sure to instantly raise your adrenaline level. You do not even have to have any previous experience. Are you still wondering why the glaciers are at the top the bucket list of the most travelers that visit Iceland?

Fascinating ice sculptures on Falljökull

Fascinating ice sculptures on Falljökull

Some Interesting Facts About Glaciers

How are glaciers formed?

Glaciers are persistent ice caps and ice rivers that are present all year long. They form in places where there is more fresh snow falling than melting. Over time, the snow builds up and compresses under its own weight into dense ice that can exceed thousands of meters in thickness. At its thickest, the Antarctic ice cap is believed to be more than 4,700 meters (15,420 feet) thick. Iceland’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull, is 400 meters (1,300 feet) thick on average, with a maximum thickness of 1,000 meters (3,300 feet).

Why are glaciers blue?

As they form extremely slowly over decades and centuries, the huge amount of compression presses the air out of the ice. Without air bubbles, light can travel deep into the ice completely undisturbed. Here, the absorption of red light is six times greater than blue and a lack of reflected red waves causes us to perceive the ice as blue.

A stunning outlet glacier in south Iceland

A stunning outlet glacier in south Iceland

What are glacier tongues?

Gravity causes the ice to move towards the edges of the glacier. The ice then slowly finds its way down the mountains and as it flows forms long tongues that move slowly like a river made of ice. This is what we call “outlet glaciers” or “glacier tongues.”

These outlet glaciers are the perfect place for glacier hiking, ice climbing, or ice cave exploration. Many of them are easy for tour operators to access and they can take you to the surface of the glacier safely.

NOTE: Never attempt to walk on a glacier without a certified local glacier guide!

What are glacial ice caves?

Seasonal melt-freeze cycles have a huge influence on glaciers. Warmer temperatures and increased sunlight cause the glaciers to melt. As the water travels through the channels in the ice, it carves tunnels and caves into the body of the glacier. When winter comes and the water freezes, these caves become stable and safe to visit. There are some ice caves, such as the spectacular Vatnajökull Crystal Ice Cave, that have formed each year in a very similar way and location.

Ice caves are incredibly special phenomena. They are unbelievably blue and pure. You can often see the age-old layers of ash from ancient volcanic eruptions trapped in the perfectly clean ice. Exploring one of these natural wonders is something that you will definitely remember for life!

Ice cave on Vatnajökull

Ice cave on Vatnajökull. Photo: Dave Martin, Mountain Leon

Iceland’s Five Most Sought-After Glaciers

  • Vatnajökull
  • Langjökull
  • Myrdalsjökull
  • Eyjafjallajökull
  • Snæfellsjökull

Vatnajökull: The Largest

With an area of 8,100 km2 (3,100 sq. miles), Vatnajökull is Iceland’s largest glacier. It covers 8% of Iceland’s total land area and is easily visible from space. Vatnajökull has about 30 outlet glaciers, making it a real haven for adventurers.

If you travel the Ring Road in Southeast Iceland, you will see the mind-blowing landscape that the glacier created over 160 kilometers (99 miles) along the way. Vatnajökull is also home of the most popular glacier tongues, Svínafellsjökull and Falljökull, both of which are located in the Skaftafell Nature Reserve.

Svínafellsjökull, the “pig mountain glacier,” is approximately 1,000 years old. It is also known as Iceland’s Hollywood glacier. It has been a shooting location for many famous films and TV shows, such as Batman Begins, Interstellar, and Game of Thrones.

Glacier hike on Svínafellsjökull, the outlet glacier of  Vatnajökull

Glacier hike on Svínafellsjökull, the outlet glacier of Vatnajökull

Falljökull, the “falling glacier,” drops from an amazing height and looks like a massive icefall. It is one of the most scenic glaciers in Iceland and an exceptionally great location for ice climbing and glacier hiking tours.

Iceland's highest peak, the 2,110-meter (6,920 foot) tall Hvannadalshnúkur, can be found at the edge of the Vatnajökull icecap. It is easily visible from both Falljökull and Svínafellsjökull. Some of Iceland's most sought-after natural wonders, the iceberg-filled Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and the famous Diamond Beach, are located at the tip of Breiðamerkurjökull which itself is a huge glacier tongue from Vatnajökull. Vatnajökull National Park is the largest national park in Europe, encompassing the whole area and including Skaftafell National Park.

If you travel further east, you will have the chance to see the majestic Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. This magical place is a lagoon filled with giant floating icebergs. Jökulsárlón is also part of the vast Vatnajökull. You can go on glacier lagoon boats, kayak trips, and ice cave exploration tours here!

You can find tours to Skaftafell’s glaciers here. Our Skaftafell Booking Center is located in the car park at the Skaftafell Visitor Center, 319 kilometers (198 miles) from Reykjavík. GPS Coordinates: 64.0704°N, 16.9752°W.

Glacier hike on Falljökull, the glacier tongue of Vatnajökull

Glacier hike on Falljökull, the glacier tongue of Vatnajökull

Langjökull: The Second Largest

Langjökull, “the long glacier,” may not have very picturesque glacier tongues but is an amazing playground for snowmobile riders all year round. It is also known for its outstanding ice caves, both natural and man-made, that form around October every year.

Lagjökull is located only 1.5 hours driving distance from the capital, making it ideal even for those who have only a short time to spend in Iceland. You can find snowmobiling and ice cave tours on Langjökull.

Glacier snowmobiling on Langjökull

Glacier snowmobiling on Langjökull

Myrdalsjökull: Potentially Very Famous

Myrdalsjökull is the other glacier that is closest to Reykjavík, located approximately 160 kilometers (99 miles) from the capital. It has the potential to become very famous. Everyone in the world will probably know its name when the furious Katla volcano, which is hiding under its ice sheet, erupts. This will probably happen very soon.

Katla is Iceland’s largest active volcano. It has erupted every 40 to 80 years over thousands of years. It has not, however, erupted for the past hundred years, so it is very overdue for an eruption. Don’t worry though! This does not mean that you will be in any direct danger. Scientists are monitoring the volcano closely and will be able to note the warning signs of an eruption.

Ice cave beneath Katla volcano on Myrdalsjökull glacier

Ice cave beneath Katla volcano on Myrdalsjökull glacier

In the meanwhile, both glacier hikes and ice caving tours operate safely on Myrdalsjökull. In fact, its stunning glacier tongue, Sólheimajökull is one of the most popular glacier hiking locations in Iceland. It is wonderfully panoramic and can be accessed as part of a day tour from Reykjavík. This is highly recommended! You can find Sólheimajökull glacier tours here.

Glacier hiking and ice climbing on Sólheimajökull, the outlet glacier of Myrdalsjökull

Glacier hiking and ice climbing on Sólheimajökull, the outlet glacier of Myrdalsjökull

Eyjafjallajökull: Actually Very Famous

The world came across the unpronounceable name of Eyjafjallajökull when it erupted in 2010, causing major disruptions to air travel. The event affected 20 countries and left more than 10 million people without their flights over a period of six days.

Eyjafjallajökull is a 100-kilometer (62 mile) wide ice cap which covers the volcano of the same name. It sits right beside Myrdalsjökull. But, unlike its larger neighbor, this glacier is not ideal for glacier hikes as it is not easy to access and does not have any outlets that offer easy glacier hike options. Therefore, it is mainly visited by snowmobilers and mountain climbers.

Eyjafjallajökull glacier view from The Ring Road

Eyjafjallajökull glacier view from The Ring Road

Snæfellsjökull: The Entrance to the Center of the Earth

The volcano in the famous novel Journey to the Center of the Earth is a real-life volcano that is located in Iceland. This is Snæfellsjökull, a distinctive, cone-shaped, snow-capped volcano that is often visible from the capital.

Snæfellsjökull, the “snowfall glacier,” is 1446 meters (4744 feet) at its summit. There are no classic glacier hiking tours here, but there are guided tours to climb to its summit. This is an exciting challenge for the brave-hearted!

Snæfellsjökull glacier in West of Iceland. Photo: Axel Kristinsson on Wikimedia

Snæfellsjökull glacier in West of Iceland. Photo: Axel Kristinsson on Wikimedia

Adventure Options On Iceland’s Glaciers

All glacier adventures are exciting and promise to be mind-blowing, whether you want something fun and easy or incredible, adrenaline-raising action. For these adventures, Vatnajökull, Myrdalsjökull, and Langjökull are the most popular options. These glaciers offer the best views, the easiest access, and the safest environment!

You can go on easy and short glacier hikes that are suitable for children aged 8 and up. Or you can go on longer glacier explorations that require you to be more physically fit.

You can try ice climbing, which is suitable for beginners, and can go on ice caving tours. These sometimes include short glacier hikes, but sometimes will take you directly to the cave in a Super Jeep.

You can explore some outstandingly beautiful glacier lagoons where giant icebergs drift towards the sea. Moreover, you can go sailing or kayaking on the glacier lagoons! You can also go snowmobiling or even combine snowmobiling with ice caving adventures!

Crystal ice cave on Vatnajökull

Crystal ice cave on Vatnajökull

There are day tours and multi-day tours that include some of these activities. The options are endless, but here you can find everything you need:

Guide to Glacier Hiking in Iceland