The stunning Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon has become one of the must-see sights in Iceland. This vast coastal lagoon is dotted with floating icebergs of all shapes and sizes. The compacted ice glows almost electric blue in places and the lake resembles a floating sculpture park. It is all extremely photogenic and people have been known to max out their memory cards as they snap away. The play of light on the water and the ice at sunset causes the scene to change moment to moment. This is one of the top Iceland photography locations so make sure you come with plenty of space on your camera!
How was the lagoon formed?
This wide glacial lagoon connects the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier to the wild North Atlantic Ocean. This is a thin glacier tongue of the expansive Vatnajokull Glacier and it is currently in retreat. Vatnajokull is the largest glacier in Iceland but as the world warms its furthest reaches are receding. This is how the lagoon began to take shape. It began back in 1934 when the glacier began to warm and retreat. The meltwater created an ever-expanding lagoon connecting the glacier to the ocean.
Today the lagoon is the deepest lake in all of Iceland plunging to depths of around 250 meters in parts. It has expanded to cover a surface area of some 18 km². But it is in a state of constant flux forever changing and growing. Each day more ice breaks away from the glacier and makes its way through the lagoon and out to sea.
Some of the icebergs that bob across the ice lagoon are formed of ice that is over 10,000 years old. Over the centuries the ice has been compressed more and more. This is what gives the older icebergs their intense blue glow. It is a play of the refraction of light on compressed ice and the way the human eye perceives it.
After passing through the lake to the sea the ice pieces are battered, broken up and polished by the ocean. Some of them end up washing up at the nearby beach that has become known as Diamond Beach. This swathe of volcanic black sand is dotted with pieces of ice washed in with the waves. They come in all shapes and sizes but the smaller pieces catch the light and glitter just like diamonds. This is another very popular photography location. Especially when the sun is low and the ice lights up in the fiery oranges and glowing pinks of sunset.
Getting to the Jokulsarlon Lagoon
The lagoon is to be found in southeast Iceland right on the edge of the Vatnajökull National Park. It takes about five hours to drive there from Reykjavik and it is a straightforward route along the Ring Road. It is possible to take a day tour or drive it there and back in one day. However, it would be a very long day and you would miss out on the many beautiful sights on route.
The ideal way to visit would be to hire a campervan or motorhome and take a leisurely road trip. The South Coast of Iceland has so many incredible sights to enjoy. You could also include a tour of the Golden Circle before heading southeast along the Ring Road. You’ll be passing waterfalls and hot springs as well as black sand beaches as you wind your way there. You could easily spend a week to ten days or more exploring. If you are pushed for time though plan to spend at least three days on the trip.
When to visit the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon
The lagoon can be visited year-round and the experience changes from season to season. For a leisurely road trip, the summer months are ideal. With the Midnight Sun shining into the small hours there is plenty of time for sightseeing. It is also a lovely time to be outdoors and to camp. Boat tours will head out onto the lake every day in summer and birdlife around the lake will be busy.
During the winter months, boat trips don’t run but you’ll have plenty more to enjoy instead. In winter when the ice is solid you will be able to hike across the glacier surface. You can also try ice climbing if you’re feeling robust. One of the most impressive things to do in winter is to visit the ice caves. There are several that change yearly and others that form in the same place each winter. Walking under the ice and gazing into the deep blue expanse of the glacier is incredibly beautiful.
The winter months also bring with them the opportunity to see the Northern Lights. The lagoon is a fabulous place to see them if Mother Nature is obliging. Being far away from any towns and on the edge of the national park, the light pollution here is minimal. If the colourful lights of the Aurora put on their show it is spectacular. The colours reflect in the waters of the lagoon and the ice and the whole spectacle is transfixing.
Glacier lagoon Iceland boat tour
Boat tours are the most popular summer activity at the lagoon. The boats generally run from between about April to September depending on the Iceland weather. If the weather is too wild and stormy or the surface ice is too frozen up they won’t set sail.
In season the boats run really frequently. There are regular departures for the amphibian boasts and there is no need to book ahead. You can simply turn up and hop on the next one leaving. If the line is too long you can always go for a walk and come back a little later. The zodiac boats have a fixed schedule and don’t do as many sailings. During peak times these boat tours can book up. So if you really want a zodiac ride you are advised to book in advance.
These boasts are the very same ones that appear in the film Tomb Raider. In the movie, they are portrayed as being in Russia. You might recognise the lagoon from many other movies too as it is a really popular filming location. Other movies shot here include James Bond A View to a Kill and Die Another Day as well as Batman Begins.
Once out on the water, you will be able to see the sculptural icebergs up close. You will also see the glacier wall and hear the cracks and creaks as pieces break off. The pieces of ice with fall into the water then bob back up forming icebergs. These bergs that you see are only the tips of the icebergs though. The larger portion of the ice is underwater. As the ratio changes over time, you might get to see an iceberg flip in the water. You might also spot some of Iceland’s wildlife. It is busy with birdlife here as well as the odd seal venturing in to go fishing.
Where to stay near the glacier lagoon in Iceland
There are several very good campsites within easy driving distance of the lake. The closest ones are the excellent campsite at Skaftafell or the Svinafell Campground. At Skaftafell you will find many lovely hiking trails to enjoy right from the campsite so it is a great place to stay for a few days.
Both of these campsites take about forty-five minutes to reach so they are perfect for easy day trips to the lagoon. If you know the route you will also be fine driving back in the dark. This is perfect if you would like to stay for sunset or arrive in time for sunrise. These are both really magical times at both the lagoon and Diamond Beach. The same thing applies for going in search of the Northern Lights.
Quite a bit further away there are several campsites in and around the south coast town of Vik. This small but popular town is often used as a base for exploring the surrounding sights. It is just under a two and a half-hour drive to Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon from here. It’s more than doable for a day trip and fine too for confident nighttime drivers. If you’d like to go in search of the Aurora but prefer not to drive then consider a guided tour from Vik.
Just over an hour away in the opposite direction, there is a campsite in the town of Hofn. This is a coastal town to the northeast. If you are driving the Ring Road anticlockwise then you could visit the lake and carry on up to camp there.