Updated: Oct 19, 2022
Glaciers are one of Earth’s great wonders. Usually found in the more remote and hidden parts of the world they are not an everyday sight for most. Even for Icelandic people sighting the cool expanse of a glacier invokes awe. Beholding one of these vast stretches of ancient ice will stop you in your tracks. And in the wild places of Iceland, there are well over 200 named ice caps and glacier tongues to discover. In this article, we will explore some of the incredible glaciers of Iceland. Finding out where and when to visit these gifts of Iceland's nature, and a little more about how they were formed.
What actually is a glacier?
First things first. What is a glacier? A glacier is formed over many centuries in an area of high snowfall. Layer upon layer of snow builds up over time without melting. This snow gradually compacts to form ice. As the weight increases, the ice gets extremely tightly packed and begins to slowly move under its own weight. Although it might not be perceivable glaciers actually flow very much like a river does. This happens very slowly over a long period of time.
As glaciers flow toward the ocean they exert tremendous force on a landscape. Their power can create deep valleys and dramatically shape the landscape through which they flow. The most ancient ice of a glacier takes on an amazing deep blue glow. This is why adventuring into the ice caves is so spectacular. Seeing the colors and the depth and contours of the ice is simply mesmerizing.
When to visit Iceland’s glaciers?
If you are all about the ice then the best time to visit Iceland would be during the winter months. Visiting Iceland in winter means that you’ll be able to really experience the glaciers up close and personal. This is the season to book a spectacular ice cave tour or go glacier hiking. At this time of year, you can also take snowmobiling tours across the ice fields. You will also have the opportunity to experience the Midnight Sun. It really is a magical time to visit the land of fire and ice.
If visiting at this time of year you will need to make sure that you are well prepared. If you are planning on driving a campervan in winter there is more to consider than in summer. You will need to plan your itinerary carefully and adapt it for the shorter daylight hours of winter. With wintery storms blowing through too you should also leave plenty of extra time for any road trip. Thankfully though many of the best glaciers to visit in Iceland are in the south. The weather is in general much milder in the south of the country. This means that you can plan shorter road trips. You could head along the south coast to the east or head west towards the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.
You can of course still visit the glaciers in summer and they are still wonderful to behold. But during the summer months, you generally won’t be able to hike on their surface. Venturing into the awe-inspiring ice caves is very much a winter activity too. You can only visit these subterranean ice caverns with an experienced guide. And for safety reasons, these guided tours only run in the wintery months when the ice is stable.
Where are glaciers in Iceland?
Around 11% of Iceland’s landmass is covered by glaciers and they are found all over the country. In this land of fire and ice, you don’t have to travel far to encounter one. They are easily accessible and in fact, the majority of the major glaciers are found in South Iceland. Up next we will run through some of the most exciting glaciers to visit and their characteristics.
The Vatnajökull Glacier is by far the largest glacier in Iceland stretching out to cover some 8,100 km2. It is in fact the biggest glacier in all of Europe and accounts for a staggering 8% of Iceland’s land area. It is to be found towards the southeast coast of Iceland and lies within the Vatnajökull National Park.
This mighty ice cap has many glacier tongues reaching out on all sides. Most of these are significant enough to have their own separate names. The Öræfajökull Glacier is very popular for glacier hiking excursions. It is particularly impressive because it lies very close to the highest peak in Iceland. Hvannadalshnjúkur lies within the national park and on the edge of the Öræfajökull volcano crater. It makes for some pretty impressive vistas if you are hiking in the area.
Jokulsarlon Glacier is another of the mighty Vatnajökull’s glacier tongues. This one is a particularly beautiful place to visit in Iceland, as there is a lot to see and do. It is not far from the town of Vik way over on the southeast coast. The glacier here fronts onto a glacier lagoon linking it to the open ocean. The lagoon is decorated with a mass of floating icebergs. These bergs have broken off of the main glacier and drifted seaward through the lagoon. Their sculptural forms and the almost glowing blue ice make them breathtakingly beautiful and very photogenic.
Visiting the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon is part of the classic South Coast Ring Road driving route. If you are hiring a camper van to explore it is a must-see. This trip can be taken in winter or summer and in either season there is plenty to see. In the summer months, visitors can take boat tours out onto the lagoon to see the ice wall and ‘ice sculptures’ up close. While in the winter season you can glacier hike nearby or visit the ice caves. The nearby Diamond Beach is another amazing sight. Here you will find a vast swathe of black sand beach dotted with pieces of gleaming ice.
Mýrdalsjökull Glacier is a smaller ice cap in South Iceland. Lying north of the town of Vik almost in line with Reykjavik. This glacier’s claim to fame is that below its icy surface lies Iceland’s largest active volcano Katla. Scientists are keeping a sharp eye on it as it is due to an eruption! Don’t be put off though. Visiting it is perfectly safe. There are many active volcanoes in Iceland and they are all carefully monitored.
The most popular and striking place to visit Mýrdalsjökull is on its long glacier tongue Sólheimajökull. 10km long and about two across with a steep incline it makes for a dramatic sight. The panoramic vistas are stunning and within the glacier are a myriad of ice caves to explore.
Visiting the glacier makes a good day trip from the capital at about a two-hour drive each way. If you are hiring a motorhome then you could easily base yourself at the campground in Vik. Staying nearby means you’ll be able to explore at a more leisurely pace.
The Langjökull Glacier is located in southwest Iceland and is the second largest glacier in the country. The name translates as the long glacier. It is some 50km long and 20km wide.
You may not have heard its name but you will have heard about the places it has helped form. The famous trio of sights known as the Golden Circle would not be the same without this glacier. It is meltwater from the mighty Langjökull Glacier that feeds the powerful Gullfoss Waterfall. One of the most visited waterfalls in Iceland its sheer power is a testament to the glacier’s vastness. Meltwater from Langjökull also feeds the underground springs that create the Geyser fields of the Golden Circle.
This glacier is great for exploring on a hike. But it is also one of the most popular for touring on a snowmobile. Snowmobile adventures are often combined with Into the Glacier tours. These involve traversing a manmade ice tunnel created to give visitors an insight into glacial activity. You will also get to see that amazing blue glow of the ancient ice.
Does the name sound familiar? Most people now associate the name with the famous Eyjafjallajökull Volcano that erupted to resounding effect in 2010. There are many glaciers in Iceland that have formed over active volcanoes. This is actually one of the smaller ice caps in Iceland. But its name likely makes it the most famous. Indirectly that is!