Glaciers come into existence when layers of compacted snow accumulate over the years, even spanning centuries and sometimes millennia. These vast blankets and rivers of ice are in a state of perpetual transformation, often expanding but predominantly contracting.
They constitute an unmissable spectacle on your Icelandic visit. Step off the beaten path and tread boldly onto the ice, equipped with non-slip crampons, and allow your knowledgeable guide to lead you through a frozen wonderland that truly captivates your senses.
The Best Glaciers in Iceland
One cannot talk about Iceland without mentioning Vatnajökull. This colossal ice cap, the largest in Iceland and indeed, in all of Europe, is an epitome of frozen majesty.
Spanning an awe-inspiring area of around 8,100 square kilometres, Vatnajökull is much more than a mere mass of ice. It’s an epic showcase of nature's raw power and timeless beauty, inviting adventurers from across the globe to explore its breathtaking landscape.
Vatnajökull is a melting pot of geological wonders, featuring towering peaks, deep valleys, and icy tongues that crawl their way down to the lowlands. As if these natural splendours were not enough, the glacier also conceals active volcanic systems underneath its icy façade, reminding us of the fiery heart that beats beneath Iceland's frosty exterior.
Walking on Vatnajökull is an experience akin to stepping onto another planet, where the serenity of the ice fields is occasionally punctuated by the groaning and creaking of the ever-moving glacier. Yet, this icy behemoth doesn't stand aloof and isolated.
It's the mother glacier from which numerous smaller outlet glaciers originate. An outlet glacier, simply put, is a stream of ice that flows more swiftly than the ice surrounding it, channelling its way through the terrain from an ice cap or ice sheet.
Think of it as an icy river flowing out from an enormous frozen lake. Outlet glaciers are fascinating features of glacial geography and are instrumental in understanding a region's glacial flow and the complex mechanisms of glacier movement.
As for Vatnajökull, it’s not just one large chunk of ice but a grandparent glacier from which numerous outlet glaciers extend, each with its own unique characteristics and mesmerising beauty.
Each of these outlet glaciers carries a unique tale of nature's artistry, providing a spectrum of experiences from leisurely hikes to adrenaline-pumping adventures.
The Most Famous Outlets of Vatnajökull
Falljökull: This outlet glacier sits side by side with Virkisjökull, another outlet from the Öraefajökull ice cap. The area around Falljökull, with its unique ice formations, deep crevasses, and knife-edged ridges, has become one of the most popular hiking locations in Iceland. If you're interested in ice-climbing, Falljökull, with its ragged ice walls, is your ideal playground.
Virkisjökull: It shares the stage with Falljökull as a twin glacier, offering a captivating experience of ice-walking on its glacier tongues. Both glaciers offer opportunities to witness dazzling ice sculptures that can easily be the highlight of your tour.
Breiðamerkurjökull: This glacier stands as a prominent sight, its imposing icy facade ending at the beautiful Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, filled with drifting icebergs. For fans of adventure films, you might recognise Breiðamerkurjökull from the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movie, where it represented the frozen wastes of Siberia.
Svínafellsjökull: the silver-screen superstar of the glacier world, it has starred in many blockbuster films from Interstellar to Batman Begins. However, caution is advised due to potential hazards, and visitors must respect the Environmental Agency's instructions for their safety.
For hiking enthusiasts, Falljökull and Virkisjökull are fantastic. These twin tongues of the mighty Öraefajökull ice cap present a stunning hiking paradise. Walking through their mesmerising ice sculptures, navigating deep crevasses, and standing atop knife-edged ridges is a truly exhilarating experience.
Iceland's smaller glaciers, though dwarfed by the behemoths like Vatnajökull, are every bit as mesmerising and offer their own unique experiences.
Iceland's Other Well-Known Glaciers
Langjökull, or the 'Long Glacier,' is a spectacle to behold. It's the second-largest glacier in Iceland, providing a playground for adventurers, surrounded by a vast expanse of snowy wilderness.
Its man-made ice cave, carved deep into the glacier, allows you to venture right into the heart of the ice. An experience that's truly unique to Langjökull!
Hofsjökull is the third-largest glacier in Iceland and the largest active geothermal area underneath a glacier in the country. This intriguing mix of fire and ice lends an air of mystery to Hofsjökull, beckoning the bravest explorers. Although somewhat remote, the glacier is a prime location for backcountry skiing and offers a truly immersive wilderness experience.
Mýrdalsjökull is home to the infamous Katla volcano and offers an intoxicating blend of icy serenity and underlying volcanic energy. The glacier's outlet, Sólheimajökull, is known for its varied landscape and contrasting beauty of blue ice and black ash.
Due to its easy accessibility, Sólheimajökull is a perfect location for adventurous families to try glacier hiking and ice climbing - no previous experience needed! Myrdalsjökull is also a fantastic place to take an invigorating snowmobile ride.
Of the known glaciers, Eyjafjallajökull definitely deserves a mention here. This mighty glacier-capped volcano shot to global fame in 2010 when it erupted, grounding air travel across Europe. Despite its complicated name – which has tested many a newsreader and tourist – Eyjafjallajökull is a magnet for travellers worldwide.
Often referred to as the crown jewel of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Snaefellsjökull is a small but mighty glacier that doubles as an active volcano. Immortalised in Jules Verne's "Journey to the Centre of the Earth", this glacier exudes an enchanting, mystical charm. Its summit reached through a remarkable glacier hike, rewards you with breathtaking panoramic views of the peninsula.
The Best Glacier Hiking Locations in Iceland
Glacier hikes in Iceland are steeped in history, dating back to the early settlers as depicted in the Saga of the People of Laxardalir. Safety is paramount in these explorations, so remember: venturing onto a glacier should always be done under the guidance of a qualified guide.
Choosing the best glacier to visit largely depends on what you're after. If you're a snowmobiling enthusiast, Myrdalsjökull might be your go-to. If you prefer glacier hiking and ice caving, the immense Vatnajökull, Iceland's biggest ice cap, offers the best scope for these thrilling activities, including mountaineering. Hvannadalsnhjókur, Iceland’s highest peak is located on the southern part of the glacier. If ice climbing sparks your adventurous spirit, the craggy ice walls of Falljökull are the perfect playground!
So, whether it's your first time or your tenth, there's always a new corner of Iceland's icy wilderness to explore. Each glacier tour offers its own unique adventure, be it a daring trek across vast crevasses, a thrilling snowmobile ride across frozen plains, or a contemplative stroll through a shimmering ice cave. Experience the mystical beauty of these colossal ice giants and immerse yourself in an adventure like no other.
Iceland's glaciers are waiting for you. Come, explore, and let the icy breath of these ancient giants whisper their stories into your ear.