By Jono Duffy, Arctic Meta
Iceland is a country rich in natural beauty. It is home to some of the most incredible natural wonders. This little island nation is absolutely filled with many natural attractions, including waterfalls, volcanoes, black sand beaches and many others.
Every year, millions of people make the trek to the land of fire and ice to see some of the most unique sights and enjoy some adventure. One of the most fascinating natural attractions people hope to see when they visit Iceland is the ice caves.
These magical structures look like they belong in a fantasy novel. Cavernous tunnels of whites and blues that seem to stretch on forever. Ice caves look like crystal castles, and stepping inside of one is like entering another world entirely. What exactly are ice caves? When is the best time to see them? How are they created? Read on to find out all this and more.
Can You See Ice Caves in Iceland?
In short, yes, you can see ice caves in Iceland. There are many ice caves, but it is impossible to say how many. The reason for this is that they form within glaciers and are only open to the public if they are discovered and deemed to be safe. Basically, wherever there is a glacier, it’s possible that there might be an ice cave within it.
There are ice caves that the public will never be allowed inside because of safety, and there are also ice caves that will never be discovered because they are far too deep within Iceland’s glaciers to ever be stumbled upon. All of this adds to their intrigue and mystery.
When is The Best Time of Year to Visit Ice Caves in Iceland?
There isn’t really a specific ‘Ice Cave Season’ in Iceland. The reason for this is that there are ice caves that will exist the entire year-round. There are also ice caves that will only be visible for a short period of time until they disappear because of warmer weather.
If there was a time of year when there’s a better chance of visiting an ice cave, it would be during winter. Many avid ice-cavers recommend visiting the country between November and March to increase the chances of visiting one.
Does Iceland Have Ice Caves or Glacier Caves?
In order to answer this question, it’s important to define the difference between ice caves and glacier caves.
An ice cave is a kind of natural cave that tends to have a significant amount of ice present in it for most of the year. Ice caves are basically just regular caves that maintain temperatures cold enough to freeze any water that runs through them. Glacier caves are completely made out of ice and are only found inside glaciers.
There is a clear difference between what defines an ice cave and what defines a glacier cave, and Iceland technically has both; however, when most people use the words’ ice cave’, they are normally talking about a glacier cave. This is the same from here on in this blog.
How Are Ice Caves Formed?
Although they look pretty stationary, glaciers are almost like living creatures. All glaciers are in a state of constant, slow change. The regular fluctuations in temperature throughout the seasons of the year causes glaciers to melt and freeze. This regular cycle spins and turns the glacial ice. Over time, pockets of air appear into the mix, and eventually, an ice cave is naturally formed within the glacier.
The lifespan of an ice cave can vary depending on many things, but the ice it’s made of can be thousands of years old. During each melt and freeze cycle of a glacier, ice caves are born and lost.
Where Are the Best Ice Caves in Iceland?
There are many different ice caves in Iceland, but there are three that seem to be the most popular because of their size and regular appearances.
Vatnajökull Ice Caves
Vatnajökull Glacier is the largest glacier in Iceland. It covers 8% of Iceland’s total landmass and is also the second-largest glacier in Europe. Vatnajökull is home to some of the most popular ice caves in the country, bringing many visitors to the southeast of this little island nation.
Langjökull Ice Cave
Situated to the west of Iceland’s remote Highlands is the little sister of Vatnajökull, Langjökull. It is the second-largest glacier in Iceland, and currently, its highest point is around 1,500 metres (4,900ft) above sea level.
Langjökull is the location of a man-made ice tunnel that stretches over 1,260 metres (4,133 ft) in length. This gargantuan attraction is the closest ice cave/tunnel to the nation’s capital, Reykjavík and took almost a year and a half to complete.
The surrounding landscape around Langjökull makes it a great place for snowmobiling. For this reason, many people visiting the ice cave will do it as part of an adventure with snowmobiling.
Katla Ice Cave
The Katla ice cave is probably the most famous of all the ice caves in Iceland. Chances are if you’ve seen an image of an Icelandic ice cave online, it was probably at Katla. The Katla ice cave is open all year round and is located in the south of Iceland. It sits within Kötlujökull, one of the glacial tongues that run from Mýrdalsjökull Glacier.
Do Ice Caves Change Over Time?
As stated earlier, ice caves are in a constant state of change. The ice within an ice cave was once snow that fell on top of a glacier. This snow could have fallen hundreds of thousands of years ago. Over the millennia, as the glacier freezes, unfreezes and then refreezes again, the ice is moved gradually.
As the glacier moves, the ice within it picks up elements from the surrounding nature. The different elements that become part of the ice eventually change the overall look of it. This is why the colour palette of ice caves can include whites, blues, greys and even blacks.
Another interesting side effect of the ever-changing nature of glaciers is that no two ice caves are ever the same. They are all as unique as human fingerprints.
Below are some of the different variations of ice caves that can be found in Iceland.
Crystal Ice Caves
When people mention the term ‘Crystal Ice Cave,’ they are normally talking about an ice cave where the ice seems to be clear, like a crystal. These are the ice caves that might look like giant crystal fortresses. They shimmer with dappled light that shines through from the wintry sun.
When the ice in the cave has more air bubbles trapped inside, it tends to take on more of a white or crystal-looking appearance.
Blue Ice Caves
Blue ice caves occur because of a special reaction that takes place inside the ice. When snow first falls on a glacier, it then becomes tightly compacted to form a solid piece of ice. Over time, small air bubbles are compressed, and the oxygen inside them is pressurised like it’s trying to escape.
Oxygen tends to absorb light on the red end of the colour spectrum. This means that the remaining colour of light left behind is the complementary blue. This same process is what gives the ocean the same hue.
Irregular Ice Caves
Most ice caves cannot be visited during summer because the conditions they are in are normally too dangerous for the public. When the weather gets warmer, many ice caves flood, become too slippery or disappear altogether, never to be seen again.
Irregular ice caves don’t really follow the common cycle that most ice caves go through. They are the reason that there’s no specific ice cave season in Iceland. Irregular ice caves are safe to visit all year round; the Katla ice cave is a great example of an irregular ice cave.
Black Ice Caves
Many people know that Iceland is famous for having some incredibly otherworldly black sand beaches, like the one at Reynisfjara near Vík on the south coast. This black sand is a direct result of volcanic activity. In fact, black volcanic sand, rock and ash can be found all over the country, even inside glaciers.
When volcanic eruptions happened in the past, some of the dark volcanic ash made its way to Iceland’s glaciers. Over the next millennia, the ash became part of the glacier, moving with it as it morphs through the landscape. Sometimes ice caves form with this ash and sand visible. The black sand appears almost like the streaks that can be seen in marble.
How Big Are Ice Caves in Iceland?
The true answer to this question is that it’s impossible to say. Ice caves can be of a wide range of sizes. They can be so small that only a few people at a time can visit them, and they can be so large that a group of 100 could very comfortably wander around and never feel crowded.
How to Photograph Ice Caves
The experience of stepping inside an ice cave is truly magical and one that won’t soon be forgotten, but most people also want to be able to take a few snapshots to commemorate the occasion. Taking a photo inside a structure that’s completely made of ice can pose some challenges. There isn’t the same amount of available light as there is outdoors, and using a flash can also be like taking a photo in a hall of mirrors.
Here are a few tips to help capture the magic of an ice cave on camera.
If you set the focus of your camera to manual, you will be able to pick a centre point that the eye will be drawn to in the final image. It’s a good idea to focus on the closest object to the lens because this is how the human eye actually focuses on things.
The aperture is the amount of light that the camera brings in through the lens. If there is less light, it’s wise to let more light into the camera. The aperture values on a camera are the ones with a number accompanied by an ‘f.’ Generally, for a full-frame camera, the aperture should be set somewhere between f/11 and f/16.
In an ice cave, it’s a good idea to choose a lower ISO to increase the chances of capturing a really smooth image. A good range to aim for is ISO 100-400, and remember that using a tripod will limit the amount of possible blur in a shot.
As a rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to choose a shutter speed that’s under 30 seconds so that enough information is captured in the camera at the time of the photo.
Ice Cave Safety Tips
Many tourists might expect Iceland to be a ‘great untamed land’, and it is in a lot of ways; however, there aren’t really any ice caves that can be visited without an experienced guide. The reason for this is that without experience and the right equipment, ice caves can be very dangerous places.
Nobody should ever enter an ice cave without a helmet, and for some ice caves, it’s actually impossible to enter them without also having an ice axe and crampons. Ice caves are made of ice, so there’s always melting and freezing going on. They are in a constant state of change, and the experienced park rangers and guides assess them every day. If there is even a slight chance that safety could be compromised, an ice cave will become closed to the public.
The best safety tips for anyone visiting an ice cave are; only visit as part of a licensed tour, dress warmly with layers, wear and use all safety equipment given to you, and always stay within the area your guide has stipulated.
Can I Visit an Ice Cave From Reykjavik?
For some people visiting Iceland, they might want to visit an ice cave but don’t really have enough time to make a long trip. Perhaps they only have a quick stopover, or maybe they really want to do a lot and would just like to delegate their ice caving adventure to a day trip.
Luckily there are ice caves within ‘day trip distance’ from the capital of Reykjavík. The Katla ice cave, for example, is located near the town of Vík, around two and a half hours away from the city.
There are many companies that offer ice cave tours from Reykjavík, with pick up and drop off included.
Great Ice Cave Tours to Join
When picking an ice cave tour that’s right for you, the question to ask yourself is ‘what do I want my experience to be like?’
There are many options and loads of caves to choose from. You could choose to combine an ice cave visit with Iceland’s famous Golden Circle. On this tour, you spend the day visiting some of Iceland’s most sought after locations. You will see Geysir, Gullfoss Waterfall and Þingvellir National Park, as well as a visit to one of Iceland’s most recently discovered caves, the Amazing Crystal Ice Cave.
If you’re looking for more of an adrenaline rush, you could visit the incredible Langjökull ice tunnel via snowmobile. This is a thrill-seeking day trip to the western part of the country that will introduce you to the incredible landscapes of Langjökull Glacier on the back of a powerful snowmobile. You will then take in the wonders of the ice tunnel, all 1260 metres of it.
There are some incredible tours leaving from Jokulsárlón Glacier Lagoon in Iceland’s southeast, like this small-group tour, ideal for those who want more of an intimate experience.
However you choose to visit an ice cave, it’s worth mentioning that a great place to base yourself for most of your ice cave adventures is at the Panorama Glass Lodge.
Situated in the pristine Icelandic countryside, just a stone’s throw away from some of the best natural attractions the country has to offer, the Panorama Glass Lodge combines privacy, luxury and comfort in an affordable accommodation option with unmatched views.
If you have your travel dates, check out the Panorama Glass Lodge’s options today, so you don’t miss out on this incredible accommodation option.
Ice caves are an incredible feat of nature. They are the architectural product of thousands of years of the environment moving and changing. Stepping inside an ice cave is like jumping into a time capsule. It’s a preserved moment that will exist for a short period of time and then will never be seen again. If you are planning to visit Iceland in the future, you should definitely add an ice cave visit to your ‘must see’ list.