A trip to Iceland without an injection of ice? You’d feel cheated, wouldn’t you? Ice caves are as much a part of the Icelandic landscape as lava fields and quaint fishing ports, but it’s wise to read up on them before you set out. With that in mind, we’ve created this guide to Iceland’s ice caves to get your started.
What’s an ice cave?
An ice cave is just what it says it is: you’ll be standing inside a glacier in a cavern whose walls and ceiling are made of ice. Some appear to be bluer than others; if the ice is compressed all the air bubbles will be squeezed out, which is what gives it the blue colour. You can also explore ice caves that aren’t the glacier type. Caves that have ice over their internal surfaces will take on the colours of the rocks beneath the ice: black, red, copper and grey. Whether they’re naturally occurring or manmade, Iceland’s ice caves have one thing in common – they’re truly spectacular.
How are they formed and are they permanent?
In summer, temperatures rise and sunlight partially melts the surface of a glacier. The water drains into the body of ice, finding crevasses and hollows to seep into and through. Gradually they erode vertical shafts and water passes through, reaching the underside of the glacier. These are no small holes either – it’s not uncommon for them to measure up to ten metres in diameter. Heat from under the ground known as geothermal heat melts the base of the glacier as well, creating sub-glacial rivers. Either of these, or a combination of the two, can create an ice cave. When the temperatures plummet in winter, the ice re-freezes, so ice caves are constantly changing. Even within seasons, experts notice changes. No two years are the same; what you see one year will be altered in some way if you return. Some will collapse – Waterfall Cave and Northern Lights Cave no longer exist. Some become too dangerous to visit, others will gain an extra entrance and yet more are waiting each winter to be discovered for the first time. But that’s the magic!
What’s special about a crystal ice cave?
Crystal ice caves are amongst the most beautiful natural landforms on the planet. They’re a particularly special type of ice cave has a ceiling made of ice which is translucent, meaning light can pass through as if it were a glass ceiling. You can find a crystal ice cave under Vatnajökull. It shines a vivid blue and if you imagine light streaming in through such ice you can perhaps imagine just how awe-inspiring a sight that would be. If your photography skills are up to the task, you’ll end up with a jaw-dropping image that could grace the cover of any magazine. But don’t worry if not, the picture will remain in your memory long after you depart for home.
Where will I find Iceland’s best ice caves?
Many winter visitors will make a beeline for Crystal Cave, teaming it with the breathtakingly beautiful Jökulsárlón lagoon as the two are located a convenient distance from each other. But there are, or have been, many more ice caves scattered throughout the country. Blue Diamond cave, which occurred in the winter of 2016-2017, was an ice cave so tiny that just a handful of people could fit inside. Other ice caves that stand out include the black ice caves under Vatnajökull (Dark Rubin) and at Mýrdalsjökull Glacier.
Well off the beaten track, there’s an ice cave ice cave in Kverkfjöll which is created solely by geothermal activity. Easier to reach is Langjökull glacier, which offers both natural and manmade ice caves. The natural cave is accessed by snowmobile and you can often see volcanic ash suspended in the ice. The manmade ice cave shouldn’t be dismissed as second rate – far from it. Its scale makes it a memorable destination and you’ll in a monster truck to reach this one.
In the north of Iceland near Lake Mývatn, you’ll find Lofthellir. It’s an elongated lava cave (though not strictly speaking an ice cave as it’s not located under a glacier) in which you’ll see ice sculptures. Víðgelmir, Iceland’s largest lava cave also contains such sculptures.
When’s the best time to visit an ice cave?
That’s a tough question to answer as it depends on the type of ice cave! Generally speaking you wouldn’t want to visit a natural ice cave in the summer, and a warm spring or autumn can also present problems. You see, an increase in temperatures causes the ice to melt; streams of water can affect the structure of the ice cave making it unstable. If that’s the case, it’s best to steer well clear. But there is an alternative: you can visit that manmade cave under Langjökull glacier. This ice cave is owned and operated by the team at Into The Glacier, who carefully monitor and maintain it so that visitors can be welcomed all year round. So no matter which month you plan to come to Iceland, you can tick off visiting an ice cave on your bucket list.
Can I visit an ice cave without a guide?
Technically, you can visit some of Iceland’s ice caves without a guide but it’s really not advisable to do so. Because of the risk of the ice cracking or potentially caving in, it’s best to access any type of ice cave with a qualified and knowledgeable local guide who can keep abreast of any changes in the weather or other factors which might influence the ice cave. And as they can tell you all about the cave’s features and explain its formation, you wouldn’t want to miss out anyway.
How safe is it inside an ice cave?
If you take sensible precautions, then a visit to an ice cave is safe. Basically that means placing yourself in the hands of the experts. Tour companies offering excursions into ice caves will issue specialist equipment and assess the status of the cave and the glacier above it very carefully before they take anyone inside. Weather patterns are logged and scrutinised. Temperatures have to have been at a sufficiently low level for a period of time before ice caves are considered safe to enter. As a casual holidaymaker, you won’t have access to such meteorological data and just because it’s cold outside doesn’t mean it’s safe to go in. Don’t take any chances – you don’t want to ruin your vacation.
OK, sign me up! Do I need any specialist clothing?
In most glacier ice caves, you’ll experience temperatures of around -10°C. Regardless of the temperature outside, you’re going to need to wrap up and pile on the layers. Warm outer layers and thermal undergarments are a must; waterproof jackets and trousers are also going to be suitable. Gloves and hats will reduce heat loss from your extremities. You might be reading this and thinking that these items just look like a regular kit list for a winter trip to Iceland. That’s true, though instead of your hiking boots, most operators will issue their visitors with studded boots and also a helmet. Because of the latter, make sure that any hat you bring is reasonably thin so that it can fit underneath. You might also need a head torch, crampons, ice axes and safety ropes. But don’t worry. Book with a reputable operator and any such specialist equipment will be provided as part of the package.