What better place to walk on some ice than Iceland? Iceland is home to many glaciers, the largest of them all being Vatnajökull. Not only is this the largest glacier in Iceland, it is the largest in Europe!
Vatnajökull directly translates to “Water Glacier” (after spending a few days in Iceland you’ll notice that their naming conventions are a bit… literal.), and is located on the South Coast of the island in Skaftafell. Skaftafell is about a 4 hour drive on Ring Road from Reykjavik, so I recommend staying in the area (Foss Hotel Glacier Lagoon comes highly recommended!) for at least a night. After all, there is plenty to see and do… Jökulsárlón, Diamond beach, Reynisfjara beach, and more, are all in the area as well! Here is my guide for the South Coast if you’re interested in learning more.
Navigating to the meetup point is very easy! It is right next to the park’s information center and “Glacier Guides” is even on Google maps.
Zach and I booked our tour (called “Into the Glacier,”) through Arctic Adventures. We chose “Into the Glacier” because it had both glacier walking and ice caving. During our expedition our tour guide, Kish, told us that Arctic Adventures was going to discontinue tours to this particular ice cave in April 2019 because it was becoming unsafe due to a rising global temperature. This really showed how fragile the landscape is, which was pretty eye opening. Everyday the glacier changes form, and being there to experience it will be something I never forget.
When planning this trip, ice caves were the part I was most excited for, however in reality, I was most impressed with the glacier hiking. This was by far my favorite part of our entire Iceland trip!
Make sure that you book your glacier tour in advance! These tours are in high demand and it takes lots of planning. Depending on the intensity of your tour, it can take anywhere from two to six hours. Our tour was rated “moderate,” and took about four hours from start to finish so give yourself plenty of time.
The Glacier Hike
The tour starts off with a long walk to reach the base of the glacier, where you put on your helmets and crampons. In advance of this, someone will inspect your boots (to make sure the crampons will stay on), supply you with an ice axe (it’s as badass as it sounds), and fit you with a harness. We learned that the harnesses are for fishing you out of a crevice in case you fall in… Kish told us that they’ve never had to fish someone out, but that the harnesses are like seat belts – they’re there for your safety. We appreciated that!
After a bit of walking on top of the glacier (FYI, the view does not get old), you wait your turn to walk through the ice caves. You have to wait because there are a lot of other tours ongoing. Pro tip: opt for the earliest tour of the day so that you get out on the ice first. Kish told us that it can get jam-packed in the afternoon.
One of the most cerebral experiences of the entire tour was the realization that the glacier and its caves are constantly changing. Kish warned us before we departed for the glacier that many of the photos we’d seen online would be very different once we got there. However one thing that hadn’t changed is the beautiful shades of blue that exist inside. Glaciers, no matter how they form and evolve are absolutely breathtaking.
Where the fun really began was when we hiked into the snake-like crevices of the glacier! Kish informed us that every tour guide takes a different path, and most of them are made up on the spot. This also means that no two tours are the same!
After a bit of hiking we sat on top of the glacier and enjoyed some hot chocolate before making our descent. Does it get much cooler than sipping some hot cocoa on top of a glacier in Iceland? It definitely helped me to not get cranky on the way back.
Overall I felt very safe (but still very adventurous) on the tour! The crampons make the walk incredibly sturdy and you don’t use the axe much but it makes for a nice walking stick up hills (and badass photos). If you do a single tour in Iceland, glacier hiking is one I absolutely recommend.