A Guide to Glaciers in Iceland Skip to content
A lake on top of Bárðarbunga on Vatnajökull glacier.
Photo: Golli. Bárðarbunga.

A Guide to Glaciers in Iceland

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What are the names of Iceland’s best-known glaciers, and how do these epic natural formations come to be? Which glacial activities can you take part in during your vacation? Read further to uncover just why this nation is known as Iceland, and learn about the mighty glaciers found all across the country. 

Iceland is known to many as the land of fire and ice; a striking, antithetical blending of molten fire and crystal-blue ice. 

In fact, this relationship is closer than it may at first appear. Many of its ferocious volcanoes rest beneath enormous vistas of frozen water known as glaciers, shielding fiery giants from view when dormant, and creating powerful natural spectacles upon erupting. 

It is these enormous ice caps that dominate around 11% of the island’s landmass. Travelling down the picturesque South Coast, you will see glaciers like Mýrdalsjökull, Eyjafjallajökull, and Vatnajökull from Route 1 – or the Ring Road – which is the major thoroughfare that circles the entire island. 

The Glaciological Society's spring trip to Grímsvötn on Vatnajökull glacier.
Photo: The Glaciological Society’s spring trip to Grímsvötn on Vatnajökull glacier.

However, there are glaciers to be found in the far west, the Central Highlands, and in the North, meaning that wherever you are in the country, ice is never far away. In total, there are around 270 named glaciers in the country. 

Speaking of names, Icelandic ice caps are often christened with labels that, frankly, appear unpronounceable to those without a rudimentary knowledge of Iceland’s mother-tongue. With Icelandic being a fairly literal language, rest easy knowing that Jökull simply means glacier, which is always placed after a descriptor. You will find translations for each of Iceland’s best known glaciers below. 

As a semi-related sidenote, Jökull has remained a popular boy’s name for many years, continuing the tradition of naming local children after natural features. 

How do glaciers form?

Hiking a glacier is one of many great activities during winter in Iceland
Photo: Skaftafell 5-Hours Adventure Glacier Hike

You will only find glaciers atop land, in locations where snow persists long enough to transform into ice. As the decades go by, layer upon layer of pearlescent white snow compresses, changing its density. 

As this snow and ice tends to form along sheer mountainous slopes, glaciers are propelled by their own weight, thus moving little by little each year. The ice cap remains persistent because more snow falls atop the ice than slips away. Despite this, the glacier’s movement creates crevasses and moulins within the ice.

In Iceland, it is often the case that glaciers end with their own lagoon. This is where large chunks of ice break away from the main body, creating meltwater that forms its own waterbody. These glacial lakes are attractions in themselves, drawing visitors to look upon their gentle aesthetic and floating icebergs. 

What glaciers can be found in Iceland?

An aerial view of a glacier in Iceland
Photo: Volcanoes, Waterfalls and Glacier Landing – Helicopter Tour from Reykjavik

There are many glaciers in Iceland, and each of them are as gargantuan as they are fascinating to learn about. Before reading on further, be aware that many glaciers have what are known as glacier tongues, or outlet glaciers, which are parts of the original ice cap that have drifted separately down a valley. 

Vatnajökull (“Water Glacier”)

Covering a total of 7,900 sq km, Vatnajökull is the biggest, most voluminous glacier in Iceland. It just so happens to be the second-largest in Europe, exceeded only by the Severny Island ice cap off the northern reaches of Russia. Vatnajökull is, in fact, so humongous that it covers 10 different volcanoes and has over 30 outlet glaciers trailing from it.

Breiðamerkurjökull is one such outlet glacier, at the bottom of which sits the beloved Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. This tantalising water body is among Iceland’s star sites, ethereal as it is with buoyant icebergs and epic surrounding views. The lake is home to a wild seal population, and there are a variety of boat tours available that take you right up to where Breiðamerkurjökull breaks away into the lagoon.  

Eyjafjallajökull (“Island Mountain Glacier”)

A lady looks on Eyjafjallajökull
Photo: DT 03 Thorsmork and Eyjafjallajokull

Those who remember 2010 will remember Eyjafjallajökull from the countless news bulletins that covered its cataclysmic eruption. Given that many broadcasters had trouble even attempting to pronounce its name, the stratovolcano was designated an easier sobriquet – E15 – titled as such because of its fifteen letters. The 2010 eruptions caused significant disruptions to air-travel across Europe, wrecking vacation plans and stranding passengers across the globe. Somewhat ironically, one of the only airports that remained operational was Iceland’s Keflavík International Airport given the fact the ash plume was blowing in the other direction.

While this was the latest eruption, Eyjafjallajökull has exploded many times before, most notably in the years 920, 1612, 1821. Despite its unpredictable and explosive history, Eyjafjallajökull is actually one of Iceland’s smaller ice caps, covering only 80 sq km. It can be seen while travelling along the South Coast.  

Langjökull (“Long Glacier”)

Guests in the ice tunnel
Photo: Into The Glacier

Langjökull is the closest glacier to Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik, and the second largest in Iceland. It is named after its elongated shape, covering 950 sq km at an elevation of 1300 ft. Plus, it’s easily accessible from the Golden Circle sightseeing route, presenting guests with the opportunity to explore the glacier alongside other famed sites like Þingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal area, and Gullfoss waterfall. 

It is possible to visit Iceland’s only artificially-made ice tunnel with Langjökull. As opposed to the naturally-formed ice caves beneath Vatnajökull or Mýrdalsjökull, these caverns and tunnels were created by huge drilling machines for the intended purpose of hosting the many visitors who arrive to Iceland each year. 

The tour is called Into The Glacier, and sees guests driven to the tunnel in large, specially-made treaded vehicles capable of travelling across smooth ice. Aside from experiencing the ice-tunnel, there are many other activities available atop Langjökull, including: snowmobiling, glacier hiking, and skiing.

Snæfellsjökull (“Snow Mountain Glacier”)

carbon neutral Iceland 2040
Photo: Golli. Travellers heading into Snæfellsjökull National Park

Like Vatnajökull to the east, the westerly-located Snæfellsjökull glacier is the centrepiece of its own national park. Its dense ice sheet shields a powerful stratovolcano that last erupted approximately 1800 years ago. 

On clear days, free of mists and clouds, the devil-horn peaks of Snæfellsjökull can sometimes be seen from Reykjavik. If the weather is fitting, be sure to look out for this 1446 m [4744 ft] landmark across the lapping blue waters of Faxaflói Bay. 

Those who have read Jules Verne’s classic science-fiction story, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, will know Snæfellsjökull as the entry-way to the molten core of our planet. The adventure begins when Professor Otto Liedenbrock discovers a secret note within the pages of an Icelandic saga. The note reads: 

Go down into the crater of Snaefellsjökull, which Scartaris’s shadow caresses just before the calends of July, O daring traveller, and you’ll make it to the centre of the earth.  

Open throughout the year, Snæfellsjökull National Park was established in 2001, joining the ranks of Þingvellir National Park and Vatnajökull National Park as recognised areas of supreme natural beauty. It covers 183 sq km of lava fields, glacier ice, black sand coastlines, and hardened craters. 

Mýrdalsjökull (“Bog Valley Glacier”)

Katla Ice Caves
Photo: Golli. Katla ice caves in South Iceland.

Mýrdalsjökull is found halfway along the South Coast, looming over the remote yet scenic coastal village of Vík í Mýrdal. Beneath its vast ice sheet sits Katla volcano, one of the more historically active volcanoes in the country. Since 930 AD, Katla has erupted twice each century, meaning an eruption is overdue. 

Mýrdalsjökull comes in fourth place when ranking Iceland’s biggest glaciers. It covers approximately 600 sq km, and thus comes hand in hand with many outlet glaciers. 

Famed for its ash-stricken ice, Sólheimajökull is one of the glacier tongues that trail off Mýrdalsjökull ice cap. It is one of the most popular spots for glacier hiking tours in the country, as well as conceals the Katla ice caves beneath. 

What tours are available on Iceland’s glaciers? 

 

There are many ways to discover Iceland’s glaciers other than seeing them when driving by. 

In fact, it is encouraged to actively explore these immense natural features by taking one or two tours that directly bring you to them. So, what activities do visitors get up to atop the ice? 

Glacier Hiking Tours 

Photo: Golli. Hiking towards the glacier’s edge

Equipped with walking poles and a pair of spiked crampons, locals and visitors alike have been hiking up Iceland’s glaciers for decades. Traversing these magnificent ice giants by foot allows for guests to experience the vistas up-close and personal, as well as get a healthy dose of physical activity during their holiday. 

From atop Iceland’s glaciers, guests are privy to incredible and majestic perspectives over the adjacent landscape and coastlines. Ultimately, they are the best viewpoints that money can buy. 

Regarding safety, it is important to know that you should NEVER attempt to hike up a glacier alone. 

These features are scarred with fissures and crevasses. Sometimes covered by thin ice. It is an environment that might pose a significant threat to anyone unaware of the best routes. Always book a glacier hiking tour with a certified operator. You remain safe during your trip, and your guide will offer you countless tidbits of information about how glaciers form, and how best to enjoy them.

Ice Caving Tours 

A man inside an Icelandic ice cave
Photo: Skaftafell Blue Ice Cave & Glacier Hike

While hikers experience Iceland’s glaciers from the surface, ice cavers discover the sapphire caverns beneath. Ice caving tours tend to be at a more gentle pace than glacier hiking, and some even have pre-built walkways to aid accessibility. Ice caving is at its most dramatic during the winter, and in the summer, many actually melt away, making them impossible to enter. 

Stepping inside these crystalline caverns allows guests to look upon curling walls of blue and white ice. Inside, you can appreciate the natural way they twist and turn beneath the surface. The reason why they are so blue is because the ice is ancient and extremely dense. This means that it has had time to absorb each and every colour of the spectrum – except for blue, leaving that as the only tone visible. Some ice caves in Iceland, such as those at Katla, are speckled with black ash, creating some truly abstract scenery. 

Before booking an ice caving tour, it is important to realise that ice caves and glacier caves are different things. Ice caves describe caves that have ice in them, while the latter are those specifically found as part of ice caps. However, for all intents and purposes, the term ice cave tends to be used for both. 

Ice Climbing Tours 

Skaftafell Ice Climbing
Photo: Skaftafell Ice Climbing & Glacier Hike

Finally, ice climbing tours present the chance to scale the wide, domineering walls of Iceland’s glaciers by way of spiked boots and double-sided ice axes. If you have a good fitness level and desire to conquer physical obstacles, ice climbing is the sport for you.

There are various routes available up the ice, some that are suited to beginners, and others that require more experience. Ice climbing takes discipline, so listen closely to how your guide instructs you on how to ascend. They will provide you with all of the necessary kit. But bring a waterproof jacket and trousers, as well as a hat and gloves. 

Snowmobiling Tours

A man rides a snowmobile across a glacier in Iceland
Photo: Unforgettable Golden Circle & snowmobiling – A Private Tour

Speed-freaks have only one true option when it comes to maximising their time atop Iceland’s ice caps – Snowmobiling

Given the amount of terrain that snowmobilers can cover in little time, this form of travel has become immensely popular. Through snowmobiling, guests can see far more of the ice cap than would otherwise be possible hiking. And, of course, they can have great fun doing so as they skid across the ice at heart-racing speeds. 

These adrenaline-fuelled tours are open to experienced and beginner riders. If you are over 18 years old and have a driving licence, you are free to operate a snowmobile yourself. If not, you can always ride as a passenger on the back seat. 

In Summary 

The Glaciological Society's spring trip to Grímsvötn on Vatnajökull glacier.
Photo: Golli. Grímsvötn

Exploring Iceland’s glaciers should be considered a must-do activity by anyone spending significant time in the country. Doing so allows guests to gain an appreciation of the wondrous geological forces that have shaped the island. Plus, it presents the chance for them to revel in otherworldly beauty – vast vistas of crystal ice and snow. 

Before you head off, make sure to check out these incredible glacier tours available across Iceland.

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