In the last few years, social media has exploded with photos of otherworldly landscapes of lava fields, imposing emerald mountains with snow-capped peaks, and thrilling slow-motion footage of frost covered gloves gliding over polar blue ice covered walls. I’m a sucker for both slow-motion footage and ice, and posts with Icelandic glacier caves in places like Vatnajökull National Park or Skaftafell always make me giddy with excitement. Autumn and winter in Iceland mean saying goodbye to the Midnight Sun and hello to wintertime outdoor activities like glacier hikes and ice caves. I find myself excited just writing that last sentence. If you are coming to Iceland for the first time and have never had the chance to experience our wondrous glacier caves and ice caves, let me give you the skinny.
Explanation of Iceland’s Ice Caves and Glacier Caves
Ice caves and glacier caves cannot be found everywhere. It takes a special confluence of factors to create these remarkable glacial phenomena. There are plenty of tours that you can take to explore both. So, how are they formed? Before we answer that question, we need to examine the differences between the two natural wonders.
Ice Caves in Iceland
Ice caves, in my opinion, are the less thrilling of the two. However, people often use the term “ice cave” interchangeably for both ice caves and glacier caves. There are some particular distinctions between both.
An ice cave is a preexisting cave that has accrued massive amounts of ice on its rocky walls. An ice cave is arguably more accessible, in that, they can be visited over a more extended period of time, and they are likely to reappear in the same places. Basically what happens is the icy tunnel incurs either glacier runoff, rain, or some other occurrence of water. Once temperatures begin to dip, the walls of the cave are coated in a thick sheet of ice.
Ice caves in Iceland also heavily differ from glacier caves in their color varieties. Ice caves tend to take on the color characteristics of the preexisting composition of the cave walls. If the walls of the structure already have a red hue before the ice forms, the ice will take on a deep red characteristic, so on and so forth. Ice caves also tend to be less dangerous than glacier caves. Glacier caves are not permanent structures, so they tend to melt. As ice does. So, you don’t need to be as conscious of your surroundings when you are visiting Vatnajökull and Skaftafell ice caves.
Glacier Caves in Iceland
Now, for the crown jewel, the piece de resistance, the bell of the ball: glacier caves. Visiting a glacier cave is a highly visceral and stimulating experience. It takes a substantial amount of luck to form a stable and stunning glacier cave. The colors they are capable of producing are divine, which for me is paramount. They can take on colors ranging from emerald-blue to foggy white. But, what forms them?
All glacier caves are found in glacier fields like Skaftafell. During the warmer months, glaciers begin to melt and produce glacial run-off. Small streams of water (and sometimes small rivers) form under the glacier and begin to wear away at the base of the glacier slowly. Then, when winter comes, that water that has been rushing under the glacier starts to freeze. This creates impressive internal cathedrals of ice, especially in Europe’s largest glacier at Vatnajökull National Park. The primary challenge when it comes to glacier caves is finding them and making sure that they are stable. It is no surprise that something so beautiful can be unstable.
Once found, you have a short window to actually visit one and it is rare that the same glacier cave will reappear year after year. This is incredible because it means that your glacier cave experience will be a wholly personal and unique, that others may never have again. This is one of the best things and coolest things about a trip to Iceland.
Tips For Visiting Glacier Caves in Vatnajökull National Park
If you are planning on visiting one of the glacier or ice caves in Vatnajökull, there are some things that you should know up front. First, definitely visit one; it should go without saying that it will be the highlight of your trip.
Okay, onto the real advice. If you have to choose between going on an ice cave or a glacier cave expedition, always choose the glacier caves. The colors found in these frosty chambers will blow your mind, and given the impermanence of the structure, you should always opt for a glacier cave visit.
My Best Pieces of Advice: Take A Guided Tour & Book In Advance
Never go into one of these natural formations by yourself, or that is at least the prevailing consensus. They can be highly unstable, and the guides that take groups on tours are certified in determining if the caves are safe to enter. Also, it is always comforting to know that someone has your back. When you sign up for a tour, they will outfit you with all the necessary gear (coveralls, helmets, crampons, etc.), which is nice because I don’t think most people can afford to bring all of that equipment with them on a flight to Iceland.
Book in advance. Book in advance. Book in advance. Hey, by the way, if you didn’t already know, you should book your tour in advance. The spots fill up on these tours insanely fast and long before the actual tour date. They are an extremely popular and highly sought-after activity, and if you don’t start looking now, you may not find a tour available during your trip. Don’t leave it till the last second, because I doubt you will find one available.
Lastly, always follow the guide’s instructions, warnings, and advice. The people who lead your Icelandic glacier or ice cave tour are trained professionals. They grew up around these glaciers, they know when they are unsafe, and what they say is like the word of God. They are only there with your best interest in mind. Keep those helmets fastened tight, make sure you wear enough layers and always be on alert for falling ice.
Vatnajökull National Park Activities: Glacier Hikes and Ice Caves
Do something out of the ordinary and go on a glacier or cave expedition during your Icelandic holiday. If you plan on spending majority of your time in Reykjavik, an adventurous day trip to the south of Iceland to go on a tour is beyond easy and many tour operators leave from the island’s capital. Also, it is just nice to get out of the city. Make sure that your cameras are charged, you have booked your reservation, and your mind is ready to be blown. It will be an experience you will likely never forget.