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Exploring Vatnajokull Ice Caves

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The elusive ice caves in Iceland are natural wonders that strike awe in anyone who gets the chance to explore them. Hidden in the underbelly of the glaciers in Iceland, these caverns are created as the ice rivers shift and slink down from their mountainous heights each winter, only to be destroyed as they once again retreat each spring.

Unlike the ancient volcanos in Iceland upon which many glaciers sit, ice caves in Iceland have a short life-span. They can generally only be visited between November and March. Once they collapse in the relative heat of the spring, they are unlikely to ever reform in the same way. As a result, expert guides head out to explore the glaciers each winter to discover freshly formed caves of striking blue ice.

Despite this, there are some places where you are more likely to find these wondrous ice creations returning every year. The most famous is the Vatnajokull ice caves. As the largest glacier in Iceland, the Vatnajokull glacier covers approximately 11% of Iceland’s total land area, creating a lot of room for ice caves to form. Home to the Vatnajokull glacier and its numerous outlet glaciers and glacier tongues, Vatnajokull National Park is the perfect place to visit if you hope to experience what it feels like to sit under a huge bulk of a glacier.

Vatnajokull National Park is located in southeast Iceland and encompasses Skaftafell National Park in the southwest and Jökulsárgljúfur to the north. Getting there includes traveling along the famed south coast road of Iceland, making it a great opportunity to visit many must-see sights along the way.

Vatnajokull glacier ice caves

Being one of the largest glaciers in area in Europe, it would be fairly impossible to not find an ice cave in the Vatnajokull glacier. In some places, the ice cap of Vatnajokull reaches up to 1000 meters in thickness. This creates walls of ice so high, you’ll feel like you’re in a Game of Thrones episode. Behind these walls lie ice caves waiting to be discovered. Whether you’re greeted with a wide-open entrance or a tiny space to climb through, once you’re inside the ice cave, its beauty will take your breath away. The shocking colour of the ice paints everything in a sea of blue. This is due to both lack of damaging sunlight and lack of air in the ice, as the pressure of the glacier grinds it out. Along with the waving walls of Vatnajokull ice caves, you’ll see striking ice sculptures and pillars that look straight out of the movie Frozen.

How to get to Vatnajokull glacier

Due to the sheer size of Vatnajokull National Park, it can be difficult to give accurate driving times. However, from Reykjavik, the journey is approximately 350 km as it is located just past Skaftafell National Park. Travel east along the south coast route 1 until you see signs guiding you to the Vatnajokull National Park. In winter the drive can take between 5 and 7 hours. 

Ice caves are found to be plenty in Vatnajokull glacier
An ice cave underneath the Vatnajokull glacier 
Vatnajokull National Park in Iceland is a good place for a day trip
A day hike to Vatnajokull National Park is a perfect way to explore Iceland

Breiðamerkurjökul glacier ice caves

Breiðamerkurjökul is an outlet glacier of Vatnajokull glacier. This glacial tongue travels down to the well-known Jökulsárlón lagoon, where large chunks of ice break off of Breiðamerkurjökul and become icebergs. This part of the Vatnajokull glacier is very famous and was even featured in the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movie.

While Vatnajokull ice caves are located mainly inland, striking ice caves are known to form where the glacier and the water meet. Huge openings taper down into tiny caves where the blue of the ice is reflected in the shimmering water of the lagoon. Of course, both Breiðamerkurjöku glacier and the lagoon are worth a visit in themselves.

How to Get to Breiðamerkurjökul glacier

Travelling by car from Reykjavik will take around 5 hours. Take the south coast route 1 east for approximately 380 km and signs will direct you to the lagoon.

Vatnajökull National Park is one of the national parks in Iceland
Breiðamerkurjökul is an outlet glacier that eventually reaches the Jökulsárlón lagoon (pictured here)

Skaftafellsjokull ice caves

Skaftafellsjokull glacier, which gives its name to Skaftafell National Park, is also a great place to begin an ice cave tour in Iceland. Skaftafellsjokull is a popular choice for travellers due to its proximity to Reykjavik, the accessibility of the roads and the dedicated tourist office. The ride from Reykjavik takes around 5 hours, 322 km along the south coast road and is clearly sign-posted.

Skaftafell Glacier
Traveler sitting in an ice cave near the Skaftafell glacier

Safety Considerations

Ice caves are parts of glaciers and should never be entered alone. Only set out with a professional guide. Iceland ice caves are liable to collapse and are closely monitored for safety.

No ice cave experience is complete without visiting the Vatnajokull ice caves. In the depths of winter, they are the perfect place to experience the stunningly raw beauty of Iceland.

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