All About Icelandic Ice Caves
Iceland’s ice caves are among the most extraordinary and mesmerizing wonders of nature and can certainly be counted among the most breath-taking sights the world has to offer. When you are in an Icelandic ice cave you are literally standing inside a glacier; it is all around you – an absolutely unique and totally magical experience! Sometimes you will even hear the ice creaking, reminding you that the glacier is in fact a vibrant, moving phenomenon of nature.
There is always an air of rarity and preciousness associated with visiting an Icelandic ice cave, as none of these ice-beauties will endure for very long. The warmth of summer will bring rapid erosion, and the frosts of winter will stabilize newly formed caverns and tunnels. When a fabulous new ice cave appears, you have to grab the moment as next year´s ice caves will be completely different, but every bit as spectacular!
Iceland’s ice caves vary in color, from crystal clear ice which light can pass through easily, to more unexpected colors and opaque compositions. The colors can sometimes look as though a surrealist artist has been at work with their brush. Deep blues, turquoise, azure, white, grays and sometimes even blue/violet tones and blacks can be seen at certain times of the year. Poets who are in search of inspiration and photographers looking for a prize-winning shot are always drawn to Iceland’s ice caves!
When is the best time of year to visit Iceland’s ice caves?
The traditional ice cave season in Iceland runs from November to March when the weather has been consistently cold enough for the ice caves to become stable enough to visit and explore properly. Summer visitors are sometimes left disappointed when they learn that they cannot visit such beautiful sights as the crystal ice cave in Vatnajokull.
However, there is one ice cave which can be explored all year round. This is the man-made ice cave at Langjökull Glacier. This spectacular alternative to natural glaciers gives summer visitors the next best thing to a winter experience in Iceland. Getting to the cave is an adventure in itself; you are transported high up in Langjökull Glacier, giving you fabulous views over the vast white highlands of the surrounding area.
Does Iceland have ice caves or glacier caves?
Technically speaking, the ice caves in Iceland should be called glacier caves. However, ‘ice cave’ is the name which has caught on and is now recognised by tourists and locals alike. All of the Icelandic ice caves referred to below are actually glacier caves because they are formed entirely from ice within glaciers. In purely technical terms, an ice cave is just a regular cave which has a large quantity of ice inside it.
How are ice caves formed?
Ice caves are formed when meltwater runs under or through a glacier, melting the ice and leaving behind a cavern or passageways within the glacier. During the summer months, warmer temperatures and sunlight will melt the ice at the surface of the glacier. This meltwater drains downwards through crevasses in the ice or into sinkholes and moulins. These shafts are often almost vertical, allowing water to descend to the bottom of the glacier. The channels or conduits are far larger than most people who have never seen a glacier would imagine. They can be as wide as 10 meters and descend to the base of the glacier, helping it to move.
In Iceland, many ice caves are formed by a combination of surface meltwater drainage and subglacial flows caused by geothermal warmth. Warm water flows or hydrothermal rivers will also, sometimes, cause ice caves to form. For example, there is one particular ice cave in Kverkfjöll which is wholly formed by geothermal activity but this is very difficult to access.
Do ice caves change over time?
The transient nature of ice caves makes their astonishing beauty even more precious. During the winter, when an ice cave is stable and safe there will still be some changes, stunningly beautiful ice formations show up and these are continually evolving. Exceptionally cold weather will cause the ice to further harden and contract, while warm weather will cause snow and ice on the surface to melt a little. These kinds of changes make the caves even more beautiful, and certainly, more exciting for the guides, as they are presented with entirely new adventure every single year! Occasionally, a particular cave will have to be abandoned for a short time, or for the rest of the season, if it is deemed to have become too unstable. Arctic Adventures’ glacier guides are trained to put safety considerations first and foremost at all times.
Even during the colder winter months, natural ice caves change a little bit. Making separate visits to the same ice cave will give you the chance to see these changes, even over the course of a few weeks. Every spring and summer, more major changes take place, as older ice caves erode and other new and exciting ones are formed by glacial streams and rivers to replace them.
At the end of each summer, Arctic Adventures’ guides look forward to searching for newly formed ice caves. Older caves often break down over the summer, or became structurally unsafe, but new ice caves are always waiting to be discovered! None will remain exactly the same. Every cave is different in shape, despite being crafted entirely by the hand of nature. Certain caves even have more than one entrance, making them a little more tunnel like in structure. Others are very high and cavernous, shaped like regular caves. All of them though, have incredible nooks, crannies, colors and ice features which make them totally unique, just like our fingerprints, each one is an individual.
Crystal Ice Caves
Crystal Ice Caves have ice ‘ceilings’ which are translucent enough for light to shine right through them, just as it would were the ceiling made from glass.
Iceland’s Crystal Cave is a very famous natural structure located in Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe. Since 2011, this cave has formed in more or less the same location, shaped by the flow of a particularly large glacial river each summer. The light pouring through very thick, heavy blue ice is absolutely outstanding to view, and particularly photogenic. The grandeur of the Crystal Cave is breath-taking, with a high cavern-like interior that is is roomy enough to accommodate up to 100 people at a time. Photographs of the Vatnajökull Crystal Cave have winged their way around the world and even won prizes in major photography competitions. The Crystal Ice Cave tour from Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is one of the most awe-inspiring must-do experiences in all of Iceland.
Blue Ice Caves
When a glacier has been compressed beneath its own weight for hundreds or even thousands of years, this forces the air bubbles out and enlarges the ice crystals, creating areas of blue ice. Sometimes there will be large expanses of shimmering transparent and crystalline ice which literally looks like deep blue quartz crystal, with the light penetrating through. Other times, blue ice can be more opaque and solid looking. Regardless of the opacity of the ice, very deep jewel blue tones can show. Algae can become encapsulated within glacial ice which further strengthens vibrant blue hues and, on quite rare occasions, these blues can be so deep that they are almost violet in tone.
Unusual Ice Caves
While all ice caves could be described as being unusual, there is such a dazzling variety among them that some stand out more than others. The star-features of some, like the Crystal Cave are very well known, while other caves can boast blue, white, gray and sometimes black ice in various quantities. 2017´s Langjökull natural ice cave stands out as being particularly unusual and stunning, with incredibly beautiful and dramatic colors. The ice roof produced a really vibrant ‘river’ of turquoise blue ice running through it. Around this deep blue ice rivulet, the ash of volcanic eruptions has left layered gray zebra-like patterns in the surrounding white ice. This particular cave is located in a very remote spot, so getting there will require you to take a thrilling guided snowmobile journey. An adventure day tour is available from Gullfoss Waterfall or Reykjavík.
Black Ice Caves
The ice of a naturally occurring Icelandic ice cave can be black, grey, white or blue and can be amazingly clear like glass or far more opaque, depending on how it is formed. Of course, it is rare for an ice cave to display only one color but it can happen on occasion. There is even a black ice cave in Iceland, known as the Dark Rubin, which is situated not far from the Vatnajökull Crystal Ice Cave. Perhaps unsurprisingly, with black ice, this cave is quite dark! Although, there would be space for around 30 people, due to the lack of light this is not somewhere many people end up going. Another very dark ice cave can be found in Mýrdalsjökull Glacier, close to the infamous Katla Volcano.
How big are the Icelandic ice caves?
Iceland´s ice caves vary greatly in size. In winter 2016, a small cave, with a lot of really vivid blue ice, became known as the Blue Diamond Cave. This was only large enough to accommodate around 16 people in comparison to the 100 people who can comfortably visit the renowned Crystal Cave.
Iceland’s man-made ice caves
Langjökull Ice Cave is a man-made cave which even has a church complete with a chapel room built into its icy depths. This ice tunnel will take you right into the vastness of Langjökull, the second largest glacier in Iceland. Even though this ice cave is man-made, the forces of nature create fabulous stalagmites and stalactites as well as other impressive natural ice formations. It is possible to visit this ice cave at any time of the year, meaning it can be visited as a part of a summer vacation or winter holiday. You will also get to experience the thrill of being taken very high up on the 953 sq/km icecap, giving you a real appreciation of Langjökull´s vast white wilderness.
Ice Cave Safety Tips
The ice caves which tour guides take people into have always been thoroughly assessed for safety. Tours do not begin until temperatures been consistently at a low enough level for the caves to be safe and stable, usually early in November. Arctic Adventures’ glacier guides have the expertise to determine cave safety on a day to day basis, so you can always rest assured that the safety aspect has been well and truly taken care of. Your guide will issue you with all necessary glacier and ice caving equipment, and make the experience really fun and fascinating.
No one should even think of setting foot on a glacier unless they are accompanied by an experienced glacier guide. Tourists who have ventured onto the glacier without a guide have met their deaths there. There is a memorial on Svínafellsjökull to two German tourists who tragically perished there a few years ago after setting out on their own. Go with an expert and you will go safely!
Ice Cave Tours
There are a variety of ice cave tours to choose from including two and three-day winter tour packages which will take you to the Crystal Ice Cave in Vatnajökull Glacier. There are also meet on location tours, which begin at Skaftafell or Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon.
Self-driving is also a possibility, but natural ice caves can only be visited in the winter when driving conditions are at their most challenging, with snow, ice and sometimes poor visibility all contributing to the difficulty level. You should not attempt this if you are an inexperienced driver or you are not used to driving in this kind of winter weather. Journeys take much longer and staying somewhere nearby overnight before your tour is strongly recommended.
Some of the more popular ice cave experiences offered by Arctic Adventures include:
- The Crystal Ice Cave tour from Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon.
- For the Crystal Cave also see these two and three-day tours from Reykjavík.
- An Into the Glacier tour from Skaftafell combines a 20 minute each way glacier hike with a 20 minute visit to a natural Vatnajökull ice cave / tunnel.
- Snowmobiling on Langjökull Glacier and a visit to a natural ice cave
- The Langjökull man-made cave tour, travel high on the glacier and explore the ice cave
Can I do the Crystal Ice Cave in a day from Reykjavík?
In theory, if you book an early afternoon tour departure time this is just about possible. There are, though, a few things you need to think about quite carefully. Check out the road conditions at www.safetravel.is and www.vegagerdin.is – bear in mind that weather and conditions can change rapidly in Iceland. Always allow plenty of extra time; missing your tour because you got delayed on the road is a heart-wrenching experience.
If the weather forecast and road conditions say you are good to go, book your tour and plan your journey. Leave early, really early, to allow some leeway. The journey to Jökulsárlón takes 4.75 hours in the best conditions. If you have not already rented a car you should think about arranging to pick one up the day before your trip. You cannot normally collect a rental car before 07:00, or even later with many companies – there can easily be queues and delays before you get behind the wheel. The best advice we can give is to relax, stay over and arrange your meet on location ice cave tour for the following day! Whichever way you organize it, make sure you have good hiking boots, warm outdoor layers, gloves, hats and waterproof trousers and jackets – see our full list of things to bring to Iceland for more details.
Accommodation around Skaftafell and Jökulsárlón
There are a few country hotels, farms offering accommodation, guesthouses, hostels with dorms and private rooms and self-catering accommodation options in this area. It is always best to book in advance if you possibly can, in the ice cave season demand can be high. Check out your options at www.booking.com, www.hostel.is, and www.is.hotels.com.
A good option in this area is Hof 1 Hotel at Hof on the edge of Skaftafell National Park. The hotel is next to a historic church and farm with views of Öræfajökull glacier, really convenient for tours with a Skaftafell or Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon start point.
Private Ice Cave Tours
A private tour to the Crystal Cave can be arranged, but there will be other groups inside the cave at the same time. So, yes, it is possible to arrange a private tour where your guide will be guiding just you and your chosen group, but this does not guarantee exclusive access to the Crystal Cave. There are still several advantages related to a private tour. For example, you can choose how long you want to spend in the cave, or you can tailor your tour around a special interest, for example, photography.
If you have any queries or would like to book a tour, be sure to contact us and see what we can do for you!