Discovering ice caves in Iceland is one of the most breathtaking things you can experience in an Icelandic winter. The ice cave season runs from November to late March every year with new ice caves being discovered each year to accommodate. Most ice caves only last one winter season before collapsing or melting under the warm summer sun. This means each ice cave season is unique in terms of the ice caves you enter. Discovering ice caves in Iceland is one of the biggest challenges faced by local guiding companies and ice cave explorers each year.
This blog post will explore where the best ice caves in Iceland have been in the past few years. Where they are likely to be found this winter. How Hidden Iceland get you there on our tours. And what criteria is needed for companies like Hidden Iceland to want to take guests into them. Spoiler alert: big, blue and above all else, safe.
Please note that all the images of ice caves in this blog post are from past winters and do not necessarily reflect the ice caves we discover for the upcoming winter.
What is an ice cave and how are they formed?
Ice caves are formed in a many different ways. I will elaborate on the two main processes here as these often are the product of the larger ice caves that we explore on tour. Firstly, an ice cave is a stable structure crafted from glacier ice, often blue in colour. The glacier ice in Iceland tends to be around 500 -1000 years old and is constantly moving. It is very dense and is capable of twisting and bending under the strain of this movement. Sometimes the ice will move around mountains or past slower moving blocks of ice with ease. Other times it warps and arches in reaction to changing speeds and directions.
Ice caves formed from movement
It is from this contortion that ice caves can form. This process actually happens all year round creating stunning ice sculptures and archways (compression arches), you can often see them on summer glacier hikes. But it’s only in the colder winter months with the reduced melting rate that these structures become safe to enter for any length of time.
There are notable exception to this rule. An ice cave was discovered on the Svínafellsjökull glacier in the summer of 2016 which was large enough and stable enough to be enjoyed for a few months safely (pictured above). As a general rule these kinds of ice caves should only be entered in winter.
Ice caves formed from melting
Another prominent way for an ice cave to form is from water erosion and melting. In the summer months the glaciers melt at incredible rates. This causes rivers of melt water to pour over sections of the ice for months on end. This water can cut deep into the ice and make it erode very quickly, compared to melting from the sun alone. Throughout the spring and summer the water effortlessly creates huge vertical and horizontal holes (moulins) with a corkscrew effect.
If the water cuts out a shape big enough, and deep enough, it could become the winter ice cave that we venture into. When winter arrives the melting rate slows down drastically and all these flooded areas empty out, leaving behind strong caverns of clean blue ice. A great example of this is the ice cave referred to as the ‘light room’ that we were able to explore on Breiðamerkurjökull in the winter of 2018/19 (pictured above).
How do we discover ice caves each year?
It is always a bit of a gamble each year whether or not a suitable ice cave will be discovered. With over 400 named glaciers streaming out from the multiple ice caps in Iceland to choose from you would think it’s a full blown conclusion that you will find a usable one. Sadly, this is not the case.
Yes, each glacier that moves and melts has the potential to create an ice cave like feature. But a safe and stable ice cave? Often not.
High Altitude Glaciers & Ice Caps
Many of the outlet glaciers in Iceland are nestled high up in the mountains making access difficult for the average traveler. The higher up you go in altitude the more likely the glacier is to be hidden under a thick layer of snow too, making discovery even harder. Weather and wind can also be far more turbulent in these mountainous areas. This automatically discounts many of the named glaciers from being good places for ice cave discovery on foot. Other companies champion these snowy areas with snowmobile tours and more advanced expeditions.
Fast Flowing & Steep Glaciers
The outlet glaciers that advance down the mountains into lower, more accessible, areas seem a more obvious choice for searching out an ice cave. This is true. However, with the assistance of gravity, these glaciers can be moving rather quickly before flattening off at the bottom. This gives rise to ice avalanches in certain sections. It also means that many of the ice cave features that are created in these faster sections are unstable and unlikely to last long enough to explore with customers.
Accessibility and rocky terrain
Finding a great ice cave is just half the battle. Yes, the ice cave itself might be massive, blue and safe. But if you have to traverse a rock avalanche area, paddle in a kayak, or clamber over broken rocks to find the entrance then this becomes a problem for usability and safety. Sadly, due to the current warming period in Iceland many of the glaciers that were previously accessible from the road now require longer hikes over sometimes very difficult terrain.
Suitable and safe ice cave discovery
So discovering ice caves that are ‘suitable for exploring with customers’ is far more difficult than simply finding one on your glacier travels. And as they retreat (melt) at lower altitudes this discovery continues to get harder and harder.
The process is technically year round. The glaciers are like slow moving rivers. This means that the ice often will act in similar ways from year to year. Therefore if an ice cave melts away in one section of the glacier there is a chance that a new one will form in a similar area the following year. Even at the start of the summer new structures begin to form that could be the beginning of a new ice cave.
Examples of ice cave discovery
The fast flowing Falljökull glacier will create dozens of features that could ultimately stick around long enough to reach winter time. Though most don’t. The ice cave that we took guests to in the winter of 2017/18 was watched expectantly for the duration of the summer in the hope that it would be our winter ice cave. Thankfully it was (pictured above).
That year we got lucky though. The ice caves are not normally so readily found and closely monitored. As a company we know our limitations and although all of our guides are trained glacier guides and Wilderness First Responders we simply don’t have the resources to take part in this exploration across the multitude of glaciers in the country.
Collaborating with local explorers
So for the first time, in the winter of 2018, we joined forces with local ice cave explorers, Local Guide of Vatnajökull to assist with discovering the ice caves for the upcoming winter. Together we run a two day ice cave tour. They have been exploring the glaciers in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Vatnajökull National Park for almost 30 years. To call them experts would be an understatement.
It is with this new partnership that we are confident that we will find suitable ice caves in the coming years together. We run the glacier hike and ice cave discovery section of the tour together. We combine our own experiences with theirs to take small groups to more off the beaten path locations on the glacier ice. Finding ice caves that are big enough to walk through, blue enough to get that all important picture of and safe enough to explore is the priority for our ice cave season each year.
The Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon & Ice Cave Discovery two day tour
Hidden Iceland run ice cave tours as part of a 2 day tour or can be experienced as part of a private itinerary upon request.
The tour begins with pickup back in Reykjavik and travels along the entire south coast of Iceland. Along the way we stop off at many of the popular spots like the Seljalandsfoss waterfall and the Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach. If we get to the Vatnajökull National Park early enough on day one we can splendour in the view of the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon in the low light as icebergs float past. If we’re lucky with the weather the secluded hotel we sleep in overnight is the perfect spot for viewing the northern lights right from outside your window.
The following day we get up bright and early to meet up with our partners at Local Guide of Vatnajökull at the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon to start our ice cave discovery tour. We begin with a short journey towards the glacier in a super jeep as the sun rises. It’s here that we strap on our crampons on your hiking boots and start our day tour of the glacier.
We take our time to explore the glacier itself before getting to the newly discovered ice caves along the front of the glacier. It’s here that you can also see out across the glacier lagoon. We explore every inch of the ice cave in the area before the sun begins to drop in the sky. We finish the day by travelling back towards Reykjavik stopping at a local restaurant under the starry sky. Not a bad way to spend 2 days in Iceland.
Hidden Iceland run the ice cave and glacier tours with the expectations that each guest has never hiked on a glacier before but has a moderate fitness level capable of walking at a steady pace for a sustained period of time on sometimes uneven surfaces and slopes. To find out a little more about what our glacier hikes entail click here for more information. For an easier going glacier hike or ice cave excursion get in touch with us directly and we can run through this years options.
Hi, I am Ryan Connolly; Co-Founder and Marketing Manager of Hidden Iceland.
I’ve guided in multiple countries around the world and stepped foot on all 7 continents. My passion for the outdoors, science, nature, glaciers and volcanoes has led me to study and write about many aspects of my adopted home, Iceland. I have been interviewed by Forbes, Conde Nast Traveller and Travel Pulse on various subjects such as over tourism, climate change and sustainable tourism.