Could the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon & Diamond Beach really be the most beautiful place in Iceland? With building-sized icebergs, shimmering black sand beaches, glittering shards of ice and sleepy seals dotted around the lagoon, I’d say it would be hard to say otherwise. We’ll let you decide!
This blog post was designed to give you all the facts about the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon & Diamond Beach but also to answer any burning questions you might have too, such as:
1. What is the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon & Diamond Beach?
2. Where is the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon & Diamond Beach?
3. What are the best tours to join?
4. What is there to do beyond getting incredible pictures?
5. Is there a best time of day to visit?
6. Is there a best time of year to visit?
7. Has climate change impacted it?
These are just some of the questions we get asked when people start to get excited about this unique landscape. The phrase ‘pictures don’t do it justice’ really rings true in this beautiful part of Iceland. So read on to learn everything there is to know about the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon & Diamond Beach.
Let’s jump right in…well not literally. We’ll leave that to Justin Bieber for now.
What is the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon & Diamond Beach?
The short version
This might sound like an easy answer, right?
Dozens of big blue icebergs, floating around a massive glacier lagoon with broken shards of pristine ice washing up onto the black sand beaches, creating a shimmer that resembles diamonds.
You can skip to the next question if you’re happy with that. However, the detailed version below is far more interesting in my opinion.
The detailed version
There are over 400 named glaciers in Iceland. Many of them have their own glacier lagoons. So why is the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon & Diamond Beach so special in comparison? And why does Hollywood love it so much? It can’t just be a coincidence that Batman Begins, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, A View to A Kill, Die another Day and of course, Game of Thrones, chose this part of the country to film.
Well firstly, it is one of the biggest lagoons in the country with a surface area of 18 square kilometres and a maximum depth of 284m. That’s the equivalent of 3 Statue of Liberties, base to torch, one on top of the other. Plenty of room for icebergs to bump around in.
In fact, it’s so big that even on our aptly named 2 Day Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon tour we only manage to explore the south side of the lagoon. And trust me, we spend plenty of time there. Especially during the summer. Though to be fair, that is where most of the icebergs congregate.
The Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon & Diamond Beach has one unique trait that holds it above the rest.
Basically, a glacier lagoon is formed when a glacier has retreated (melted more than it moved) and leaves behind a tarn (glacier footprint filled with water). The remaining glacier (in this case, Breiðamerkurjökull) will still feed the lagoon with calving ice as it melts and moves throughout the year. Depending on how often the glacier calves will determine how ‘busy’ the lagoon will be with ice.
In the case of Breiðamerkurjökull which feeds Jökulsárlón, we see calving almost every single day. So far, so normal.
Landlocked lagoon vs calving by the sea
When a glacier lagoon is landlocked, like at the Sólheimajökull glacier where we do our shorter glacier hikes, the ice that calves off the front of the glacier will often become static. This is because there is very little movement in the stagnant lagoon. This in turn allows dirt, pollution and a ‘sun crust’ to form on top of the icebergs. After a few months, if they haven’t melted away completely, they will barely look like icebergs at all.
On the flip side, when the edge of a glacier is calving into the sea, like in Greenland or Antarctica, there is a lot of movement and turbulence. The icebergs crash off of each other and flip over. This is a spectacular sight if you’re lucky enough to see it right after it calves. However, the icebergs inevitably float off into the ocean soon after.
The best of both worlds
The Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon & Diamond Beach get the best of both worlds. It acts like a landlocked lagoon, allowing uncountable icebergs to build up. But it is also dictated by the tides of the sea, meaning the icebergs flow and crash and break and swirl, keeping them pristine and blue for much longer.
This is because there is a narrow river at the base of the lagoon that is deep enough to allow sea water in and out throughout the day. This creates a tidal flow that sucks the icebergs towards the mouth of the glacier as the tide goes out, where they will inevitably get stuck, and then pushes them back into the lagoon as the tide rises. This constant dance is something to behold.
This is the reason why Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon is so beautiful compared to the others, the constant movement.
But wait, what about the Diamond Beach?
Well, the Diamond Beach, in simple terms, is the effect that occurs when an iceberg is small enough to squeeze through the river and out to sea. Luckily for us, the waves are usually there to wash these mini icebergs up onto the black sand beach (Breiðamerkursandur). When enough ice washes onto the shore it makes the black sand shimmer like diamonds, hence the name. In winter, this is the first places we go as the sun is rising on our 2 day Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon & ice cave tour.
Where is the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon & Diamond Beach?
Ok, I think I’ve convinced you to go by now. So how do I get there?
Sadly, it is actually quite far away from Reykjavik at around 5 hours drive each way. That’s during perfect road and weather conditions mind you. I’d suggest adding a few hours onto that in autumn and winter just to be safe.
If you follow the number 1 ring road along the south coast you will eventually end up in the south east of Iceland where there are very few people, tiny villages and unspoiled terrain. Thankfully, the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is right next to this road. In fact, there’s bridge that was built in the 1960s that goes over a small part of it.
It is located on the south side of Iceland’s largest UNESCO World Heritage Site, Vatnajökull National Park, which covers around 14% of the entire country. This area is mainly dominated by a city sized ice cap (8,100 sq km) and sub-glacial volcanoes. It is such an impressive terrain that UNESCO actually suggested it replicates conditions of early Earth and the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn.
What are the best tours to join?
First of all, the most frequent question we tend to get is, “Can I go there from Reykjavik?” But often what they really mean is, “Can I get there from Reykjavik and back in one day?”
A quick google search will confirm that it is indeed possible. It is absolutely not advisable though. In perfect conditions you’ll be there and back in 11 hours. It doesn’t really give you much time for anything else though. Considering there are ice caves, glaciers, waterfalls, black sand beaches and deep gorges I’d say it’s a pretty good idea to give yourself at least 2 days to get to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon & Diamond Beach.
Small group tours
We’re a little biased of course but I recommend our 2 Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon Tour with glacier hike between April and November or our 2 day Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon & ice cave tour from November to March, which basically just swaps out the glacier hike for a crystal clear blue ice cave.
Honestly, I implore you. A one day trip version of this is going to be rushed at best. Disappointing at worst.
Unless you intend to go around the island like on our 6+ day Grand Circle tour (summer only) then Jökulsárlón is actually quite a nice end point for your travels eastward. There are of course lots of amazing sights beyond this but in reality if you are only able to join us for 3, 4, 5 or even 6 days in Iceland then we wouldn’t recommend going much further before returning west and checking out other great spots. There are lot of private tour options that include the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon & Diamond Beach so I’m going to simply list them below and let you compare the other activities to pick your favourite.
Essential South Iceland – 3 Day Tour (summer) – Includes a glacier hike
Essential South Iceland – 3 Day Tour (winter) – Swaps in a blue ice cave experience
UNESCO World Heritage Site – 4 Day Tour (summer) – can be amended for winter
Iceland Must See – 6 Day Tour (summer) – Covers almost all of our favourite spots
Iceland Must See – 6 Day Tour (winter) – Northern Lights become the focus here
If you are intending on driving yourself then simply fill out our contact form and we’ll make sure to include it as part of your itinerary.
What is there to do beyond getting incredible pictures?
This question has a much bigger answer than I’ll perhaps provide here. The best thing to do is to read up on our private tour pages to see what activities we include.
But in short:
Exploring blue ice caves behind the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon with our friends at Local Guide of Vatnajökull. We join them for all of the tours that include ice caves with Hidden Iceland.
Glacier Hikes on the Falljökull glacier. We run our own tours here and have compiled a handy Glacier Hike Guide if you fancy a read.
Hunting for the Northern Lights. Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is listed as our number 1 favourite place to search for the Aurora in Iceland.
Walking to the Svartifoss Waterfall. This is a peaceful nature walk with great views, culminating in getting up close and personal to a waterfall that is pouring between basalt columns. This is great for those less interested in the adventurous ice tours, which can be added to private tours.
Boat tours. If you have the time you can add on an exhilarating speed boat tour of the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon or even the neighbouring Fjallsárlón. We recommend the small boats as they can get closer to the ice safely.
Is there a best time of day?
Nothing beats sunrise at the Diamond Beach. The low light rises over the open ocean that pierces through the clean blocks of ice that have been newly marooned on the black sand is breath-taking. The orange glow and refracting light is something you can’t really describe with seeing it for yourself.
As for the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, both sunrise and sunset are magical. As the sun falls behind the mountains, the whole place erupts in a pink hue that doesn’t quite make sense. Add in the bright blues of the icebergs in the lagoon and you’ll swear your eyes are playing tricks on you.
Is there a best time of year to come?
First of all, there’s no ‘bad’ time of year to visit this wonderful spectacle but there are a few benefits to each season.
In summer, with its increased daylight hours means you are usually able to watch the sunset over the lagoon on day 1 then watch it rise again on day 2. At other times of the year this is a little trickier with limited day light.
In autumn and winter, the Northern Lights may make an appearance when you stop in the evening. How great would that be to see the Northern Lights hovering over the blue icebergs one evening?
Spring time is quite ideal for sunrise shots. The sun comes up at the ideal time of the day for you to get the perfect picture. In summer this might be at 4am. In winter it might be 11am. Spring time is best at around 8 or 9.
Has climate change impacted it?
In a word, yes!
The Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon literally didn’t exist before the 1930s. Due to a naturally retreating glacier the lagoon grew for around 40 years. This was considered normal in Iceland. After all, some glaciers advance and some retreat. It’s the normal life cycle of the glaciers.
However, in the 1970s the melting rate started to increase. And in fact, the glacier lagoon has quadrupled in size since then with even more melting occurring in the last 15 to 20 years than we ever imagined. At the moment the lagoon is growing (or the glacier is melting) by around 100m per year.
In the next few decades the glacier is expected to retreat further and further back. As this happens, it will continue to calve off icebergs for us to splendour at. However, once the glacier retreats too far back, up into the mountains, that calving may well stop altogether.
Best to come to Iceland sooner rather than later to catch this natural phenomenon in person.
If we’ve suitably inspired you to come to Iceland you can click on any of the links we included throughout this post. Or you can fill in our Private Tour form if you’re still undecided and we can help you plan the perfect trip when you are ready. Alternatively, just drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See you soon!