The Best Winter Activity in Iceland
Visiting Iceland in winter has its pros and cons; however, one of the clear advantages is that you can visit ice caves. After my glacier hike in Patagonia, I wanted to do something similar in Iceland, and so I started researching options. I don’t like big groups or mass tourism, but knew I would have to explore the caves with a guide. I eventually found a local provider, offering an “Extreme Blue Ice Cave Tour”. The tour would last a full day and I’d be in a small group…I instantly knew this was the one for me!
Vigfús, the tour guide and company owner, picked me up from my hotel in Höfn to travel to the famous Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. The journey took 50 minutes, giving us plenty of time to chat.
I found out that Vigfús started his tour company just three years ago, but has been exploring the glacier and surrounding areas since he was a kid. Both he and his parents spent a lot of time taking in Iceland’s beauty and collecting local stones. He runs his glacier travel tours in winter and is a fisherman during the summer months — life could be worse, I guess!
Vigfús told me it had become harder to survive on fishing alone in recent years, hence his decision to turn his passion into a business and launch the tour company. He knows the area like the back of his hand, even though it changes every day.
After passing reindeer and seemingly experiencing several seasons in one journey, we arrived at the lagoon. Despite the snowy, gray skies, Vigfús told me it was perfect weather for going out on the glaciers. Arriving early gave me time to explore the lagoon before the rest of the group rocked up. Luckily, my group had just five participants, giving the tour a personal touch!
Getting Started and Equipped
After strolling around the breathtaking lagoon, Vigfús started a short briefing and handed out the necessary safety equipment for the tour. Unlike in Argentina, we used small crampons, which cause less damage to the softer ice at the end of the season and prevent twisting your ankle on uneven surfaces. We also received helmets and harnesses (for the worst-case scenario) before starting the journey into the glacier.
When we arrived, Vigfús explained that access to this side of the lagoon is limited to around 100 visitors on busy days. He outlined the plan for the day, explaining we would be visiting various caves, a tunnel, and the beach right in front of the glacier. I was delighted to have chosen to visit this side of the glacier, after Vigfús told us that the cave on the other side received over 1,000 tourists a day!
Adventure Time: Into the Glacier
The six-kilometer hike to the first cave took us along the edge of the Vatnajökull Glacier. At approximately 8,000 kilometers squared and with 500-900-meter-deep ice, Vatnajökull is Europe’s largest glacier. Sadly, however, it is melting so quickly that the glacier is now 15 kilometers further from the lagoon than it was 100 years ago.
After finding another group in the cave, Vigfús decided to take us to a small tunnel instead. He told us to drop our backpacks and follow him down into a different world. The narrow path brought us to a small hole in the ice, which I didn’t think I’d fit into at first. The small tunnel was a maximum of 1.8 meters high, meaning we had to squeeze our way through the beautifully clear ice (which appeared gray, blue, or black, depending on the light) and along the cramped creek. If you are claustrophobic, I’d recommend skipping the tunnel, as it features sharp bends and low ceilings, and you’ll even have to crawl at some points. It was kind of scary, but still the coolest thing I’ve ever done!
After ascending, we headed back to the ice cave. Standing at roughly four meters high, the cave was clearer than anything I’d seen before. Vigfús explained that the caves change every day and look different depending on the weather. Some parts had even disappeared by the end of the season (when I was visiting) and it won’t be long until the caves disappear entirely.
The next two caves had been connected earlier in the season, but a gap had since developed. Entering through a smaller hole, my eyes adjusted to the change in light surprisingly quickly, enabling me to fully appreciate the beauty of ice. Finally, we exited the low cave and entered a huge arch of ice, which had been a full cave just a few weeks prior.
Note: Local guides inspect the caves and ice regularly, closing areas they consider too dangerous. This happened just before our trip. Two days prior, in fact, it had still been possible to go over and under the arch. Vigfús showed us the newest cracks, explaining the risks that had recently developed.
Next Stop: Glacier Yoga and Off to the Beach
Just kidding, but we did take a break to lay on the snow and listen to the sound of the ice. Afterwards, we made our way down to the beach, which was at the far end of the lagoon and as far from the crowded tourist areas as you can imagine.
Vigfús explained that the huge iceberg we saw jutting out of the water must have broken off in the night, as it hadn’t been there the day before. While teaching us about the calving process (ice breaks off from the glacier and drops into the lagoon), we could hear the noise of breaking ice, which I’d found terrifying during my tour in Patagonia. The waves that are caused by the calving process can reach heights of up to four meters. If calving started to take place, there, we’d have to run as fast as we could up the dunes! Luckily, we didn’t witness any big parts breaking off and could simply enjoy the views before resuming our hike.
Final Thoughts About Europe’s Largest Glacier
I had been glacier hiking before, yet this tour was a completely different experience. Squeezing into tunnels and exploring caves was pretty intense and made me feel so small. Overall, my time in Iceland made me feel quite tiny and inferior and these emotions were just amplified while standing on the edge of the glacier.
The combination of a great tour guide and small group was truly amazing. Organizing a tour with a local company enabled me to give something back to the community and learn much more about the glaciers.
NB: The cave season usually ends around 31st March, when they begin to melt and break, before reforming in different spots the following winter.