The Top Glacier Experiences in Iceland
Part of the magical Icelandic landscapes, the glaciers are one of the biggest draws for campervan travellers in Iceland. Seeing a massive ice cap materialize and grow larger from behind the windshield as you cruise along the ring road invokes a special feeling. Experiencing these massive ice caps is a must while in the country, even if you’re just hiking in their vicinity.
As of right now, around 10% of Iceland is covered in glaciers. The most famous is Vatnajökull, the largest in Europe, and Eyjafjallajökull, known for the volcanic eruption in 2010 that put a stop to all air traffic over Europe for months. All of Iceland’s glacier 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 activities you can do to experience these might ice giants.
1. A Glacier Hike
The easiest way to experience Iceland’s glaciers is by undertaking a glacier hike. Available year-round, heading out with an expert guide to trek across the ice is an incredible experience. Strapping on crampons to your boots and going where not many others have gone before, you’ll be surprised at the details you find in the ice. Natural ice sculptures, cavernous ravines, and myriad shades of blue, white and blacks. The slow, thoughtful way of touring on the glacier really brings their power into perspective, and with the informative guide by your side, you will begin to understand more about how they have helped shape Iceland and their effects on the environment and what the future holds for the country when they disappear.
2. The Glacier Caves
A highlight of any winter campervan trip to Iceland is joining a tour that delves into one of the many glacier caves underneath the ice caps. In the colder months, the water that usually rushes out from underneath the glaciers freezes, creating natural caves of ice. 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.
If you’ve arrived outside of the winter season, there is only one glacier cave that is stable enough to be available year-round, which is near Katla volcano underneath Mýrdalsjökull. Otherwise, you can enter a manmade ice cave on the ‘Into the Glacier’ tour, which burrows underneath the glacier Langjökull in West Iceland. 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. 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, where they have recreated an ice cave in one of the old water tanks.
For a healthy dose of exhilaration, snowmobile tours are the way to go. Shooting across the ice caps with the wind in your face is about as extreme as it gets in Iceland. 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 snowcat vehicle that transports you the rest of the way to where the snowmobiles lie in wait. For 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.
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 larger ever since Vatnajökull has retreated; as little as 100 years ago, the edge of the glacier reached almost all the way to the coast. As it inches backward 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.
Boat tours out onto the lagoon are a great way to get up close and personal with these icebergs, revealing electric blues, ancient ash encased in the ice, and the most spectacular shapes. For something a little more environmentally friendly, 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).
5. Ice Climbing
One for the active adventurer, ice climbing tours will be sure to leave your arms and legs aching after you’ve returned to your campervan. 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 tour, and from the top will always be another magnificent view over the ice.
6. Helicopter Flyover
The most extravagant option on this list is to view the glaciers 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.