collage of people in an ice tunnel

What's the Difference Between Man-Made and Natural Ice Caves?

April 27, 2023

Iceland is well-known for its unique natural wonders. The country boasts a diverse range of geographical formations that are sure to leave you in awe. If you have already experienced the thrill of standing atop a glacier and taking in the panoramic view, then you should consider the equally impressive experience of standing inside a glacier. 

people exploring an ice cave

Iceland is home to numerous ice caves, ranging from natural caves with stunning blue ice to man-made ice tunnels. With so much natural beauty to discover, how do you decide which ice cave to begin with? In this article, we discuss all about the difference between natural ice caves vs man-made ones to prepare you for your ice caving tour.

What is an ice cave?

An ice cave is a type of cave that is formed by the natural processes of melting and freezing water. It is typically created by the flow of water through cracks in the rock, which then freezes and creates a hollow space within the rocks. They can also be formed by the melting of glaciers, which can reveal cave systems underneath.

a man in a blue jacket standing in an ice cave

Man-made ice caves can be created by drilling into ice and extracting it from the glacier, creating a pathway for visitors to explore. Glacier caves can range in size from small and narrow to large and spacious. Inside you can observe colors ranging from white, opaque, translucent, crystal blue, or even black. Glacier cave tour is a popular tourist attraction for those looking to explore the beauty of nature in its frozen form.

Natural Ice Caves in Iceland 

Natural glacier ice caves are ever-changing, and therefore, every winter you can find them in new sizes, shapes, and locations.

During the summer months, warm temperature leads to the melting of the glacier, and icy cold rivers begin to flow within the glacier. These meltwater rivers eventually carve long tunnels and caves in the glacier.

When winter arrives, the glacier stops melting, and the meltwater rivers retract and stop their flow. As a result, the tunnels formed by the rivers during summer remain as stunning blue ice caves that are accessible for tourists to explore. However, the caves are vulnerable to changes in weather during the winter season. Even just a few days of mild weather can have significant impacts, such as enlarging the cave or melting a hole in the ceiling or even collapsing a part of the cave.

Generally, the most popular area to visit glacier caves in Iceland is the Vatnajökull National Park southeast of the country. Typically, ice cave tours will include a short glacier hike to reach the entrance.

Crystal Ice Cave in Vatnajökull

a woman in a yellow sweater standing in a crystal cave

There are several famous ice caves within the Vatnajökull glacier, but the Crystal Cave happens to be the most popular natural cave because it is so easy to get to. In most winters, it is the largest ice cave you can visit in Iceland (fitting up to around 100 people at a time!) and a stunning photography location.

Katla Ice Cave

ice climbing near cave exit

The natural ice cave beneath the Katla volcano offers a thrilling experience for those seeking adventure. You won’t see as much shiny blue ice, but this cave has a distinct beauty of black ice. It’s located beneath the Katla volcano within the Mýrdalsjökull Glacier. This stunning cave has been around for 800 years and is considered one of Iceland’s most remarkable natural wonders. You can explore this cave’s remarkable blue and black walls, created by ice and snow on one side and volcanic rock on the other.  

Man-Made Iceland Ice Caves

Langjökull Ice Cave is the world’s longest man-made ice cave that also features a chapel room built entirely out of ice. This tunnel with a fascinating story takes visitors deep into the heart of Langjökull, the second-largest glacier in Iceland.

a man taking pictures in an ice tunnel

To reach Langjökull cave, you’ll traverse a glacier up to 1,260 meters above sea level, which is only possible with a guide, in a specially modified glacier vehicle. The cave is accessible year-round, making it a great addition to any summer or winter vacation. Due to its close proximity to Reykjavik, this glacier ice cave is an ideal location for a day trip from Iceland’s capital city. The best part is this man-made ice tunnel on the Langjökull glacier is open all year round! The ice paths are inspected and maintained regularly, which is why it is an accessible and safe place, even for visitors with children. 

Natural vs. Man-Made – Which is Better?

Both natural and man-made caves have their beauty and unique features that are worth seeing. The good news is you don’t have to be an experienced climber or hiker to go on most ice cave tours. Most importantly, whichever cave in Iceland you decide to visit, never attempt to go into a glacial cave alone without a certified guide. Book one of the many glacier cave tours instead and enjoy the safe exploration!