The Best Glacier Experiences in Iceland

The Best Glacier Experiences in Iceland

James Taylor James Taylor
22. Apr 2020 ∼ 8 min. read

Glacier tours in Iceland are one of the best ways to experience the powerful nature of the country. A huge part of Iceland’s magical landscapes, the country’s ice caps are one of the biggest draws for campervan travellers in Iceland.

Watching as a behemoth glacier grows larger and larger from behind the wheel of your camper is a special experience. But getting up close and personal is even better. There’s something incredible about exploring the ice in one way or another – these are the last links in Iceland to the previous ice age.

Whether it’s a snowmobile tour or a quiet glacier hike, there’s plenty of glacier tours in Iceland to choose from. Even just being in their vicinity adds another level to a hike or leisurely drive by. And you can discover Iceland’s glaciers in several locations around the country as well. 

As of right now, around 10% of Iceland is covered in glaciers. The most famous is Vatnajökull, the largest in Europe, located in the southeast of Iceland. The second most famous is Eyjafjallajökull in the south, known for the volcanic eruption in 2010 that put a stop to all air traffic over Europe for months. But there are also glaciers in the Westfjords, West Iceland, the Highlands, and the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.

All of Iceland’s glaciers are currently retreating; scientists predict that by the year 2200, they will be gone. But for now, they remain one of the biggest attractions of a campervan trip to Iceland. Read on to discover the best glacier tours in Iceland to experience these mighty ice giants.

1.    A Glacier Hike

The number one glacier tour in Iceland, and the easiest way to experience these giants up close, is a glacier hike. Available year-round, heading out with an expert guide to trek across the ice is an incredible experience.

It all starts by strapping on crampons to your boots and gearing up for your trek. Once you’re out on the ice, you’ll be surprised at just how much detail you find in the ice. Natural sculptures, cavernous ravines, and myriad shades of blue, white, and black all combine to create a fascinating experience.

The slow, thoughtful way of hiking on a glacier in Iceland really brings their power – and size – into perspective. With an informative guide by your side, you’ll also begin to understand more about how they shape the country, the effects they have on the environment and ecosystem, and what the future holds for the country when they disappear.

2.    The Glacier Caves

By far one of the most exciting glacier tours in Iceland is to join a tour that delves into one of the many glacier caves underneath the ice caps. It used to be that these tours were only available in the winter, but thanks to a stable cave in the Mýrdalsjökull Glacier near Katla Volcano, you can join a tour year-round.

For the rest of the ice caves though, they’re only accessible during the winter. Underneath the glaciers in the summer, running water carve out paths in the ice, which freezes over as the temperatures drop. At the beginning of each season, expert guides trek out across the glaciers in search of old caves and new, checking whether they’re safe and stable enough to take tour groups into.

Tours range from driving straight up to the caves in a super jeep to trekking across the glacier for an hour to arrive at one. Whatever you choose, they all have one thing in common: you’ll be blown away by the breathtaking display of natural ice formations, pockmarked and electric blue, streaks of black ash encased in the ice and echoes from the glacier creaking above.

Iceland’s Into the Glacier Tour

Another option exists year-round as well: the tour ‘Into the Glacier’. Located on the glacier Langjökull in West Iceland, a man-made tunnels burrows into the ice, letting visitors experience the inside of the glacier. It’s a bit of a different experience than exploring a real glacier cave, focusing more on education about the glaciers and the role they play in shaping the country.

Perlan: Wonders of Iceland

For those in the country only for a short trip with a campervan, you can also visit the Perlan Wonders of Iceland museum in Reykjavík. It’s here, in one of the old geothermal water tanks, where another man-made ice cave exists, letting you experience the cold, sounds, and feeling of being under one of Iceland’s glaciers.  

3.    Snowmobiling on an Icelandic Glacier

For a healthy dose of exhilaration, a snowmobile glacier tour in Iceland is the way to go. Shooting across the ice caps with the wind in your face is about as extreme as it gets in the country.

Tours start with a super jeep trip up onto the glacier, bouncing along the mountain roads before clambering up onto the ice. From here, you’ll transfer into a snow cat vehicle that transports you the rest of the way to where companies leave their snowmobiles waiting.

Once you’ve started the tour, for about an hour or so you’ll shoot around the ice (following a guide, of course) at speeds of up to 30km/h, stopping at the most scenic spots for great photo opportunities. It’s one of the most exciting glacier tours in Iceland.

4.    Kayaking or a Boat Tour in Jökulsárlón

Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon in the southeast corner of Iceland is one of the country’s greatest sights. This expansive lagoon has been growing ever larger as Vatnajökull retreats; as little as 100 years ago, the edge of the glacier reached almost all the way to the coast. As it inches backwards it slowly reveals more of the lagoon underneath. At the edge of the glacier tongues, icebergs break off the glacier and crash into the water, where they are pulled around by the tides and eventually wash out into the ocean.

One of the best ways to experience the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon is with a boat tour out onto the water. Getting up close and personal with the icebergs is exciting, letting you admire the electric blues and streaks of ancient ash encased in the ice. Spectacular shapes are also on show, as are lazy seals who use the ice as spots to relax.

For something a little more environmentally friendly at the lagoon, there are also kayak tours available. On both, you’re likely to learn about the retreating glacier, what it means for Iceland’s environment, and catch a glimpse of the local wildlife (seals and birds galore). It’s a great way to enjoy Iceland’s glaciers.

5.    Ice Climbing on Iceland’s Glaciers

A glacier tour in Iceland for the active adventurers, ice climbing on one of the country’s ice caps will be a memory you won’t forget. This tour is sure to leave your arms and legs aching long after you’ve returned to your campervan as well.

Combining a glacier hike with the scaling of an ice wall, these ice climbing tours are a great two-for-one deal. Strap on your crampons and ready your ice axes as you clamber across the glacier to the guide’s chosen location for the ice climb. Upon reaching your destination, under the careful guidance of your professional leader, you’ll scale towering walls of ice by slamming your ice axes into the wall and pulling yourself up (secured by a rope, of course).

It adds an extreme edge to the scenic glacier tour, and from the top of your climb will always be another magnificent view over the ice. It doesn’t get much better than that!

6.    A Glacier Flyover in a Helicopter

The most extravagant glacier tour on this list is to view the icecaps from above, flying over in a helicopter. Taking off from Reykjavík or at one of the smaller charter airports around the country, you’ll shoot over the top of the ice caps and get a chance to study the intricate patterns in the glacier tongues, admire the vast stretch of ice and even see where they end on a clear day.

There’s no denying that this is a wild experience to have, but you’ll have to pay for it. This is the most expensive option when it comes to exploring Iceland’s glaciers, but it’s sure to be unforgettable. Pilots might even land somewhere on the ice, putting you possibly somewhere no one else has ever been before on the glacier.

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