The Essential Guide to Ice Caves in Iceland That will Answer all Your Questions & More…
Since Ice Caving has Become the #1 Thing To Do in Iceland in the Winter, let’s get the facts straight. What is an ice cave? How are ice caves formed? Where do you find an ice cave? When is the best season to see one? Here is everything you need to know to plan your ice cave visit in Iceland
ICE-land – We Are All About Ice
We have 9 glaciers in Iceland, which is a total cover 11% of the country. And when you have ice, you have ice caves. There are natural ice caves and one manmade ice cave in Iceland. Some of them are blue, whilst others are black, grey and white. Now here is all you need to know about them… Come inside Iceland’s hidden Ice Cave with us!
What is an Ice Cave?
The definition of an ice cave is: An ice cave is any type of natural cave that contains significant amounts of perennial ice. At least a portion of the cave must have a temperature below 0°C all year round, and water must have travelled into the cave’s cold zone. This means that an ice cave only needs to be partly covered with ice to be considered an ice cave. So, for example, a lava cave with ice crystals inside it is technically speaking also an ice cave. However, when most people speak of ice caves they picture a blue glacier ice cave and that’s what they have in mind when wanting to visit an Ice Cave. Which leads us on to the next subject: Glacier caves.
Ice Cave vs. Glacier Cave
Technically speaking the ice caves in Iceland are glacier caves. The definition of a glacier ice cave is that it is formed entirely from a complete block of ice like found in glaciers.
However, ‘ice cave’ is the name that has caught on for the “glacier ice caves in Iceland” and is now recognized by tourists and locals alike. So when we talk about glacier ice caves here we will use the popular term: ice caves.
How are Ice Caves Formed?
Ice caves are usually being formed in the Summer months from the massive pressure of glacial melt-water. This melt-water drains downwards through crevasses in the ice or into sinkholes and moulins and starts carving labyrinths in the base of the glacier. This is essentially what helps the glacier move.
However, in Iceland melt-water can also appear when geothermal activity increases. This can happen from constant geothermal heat or because of volcanic eruptions or moving magma. Since many of the Icelandic glaciers are stratovolcanoes, this is quite common but also makes the ice caves change, or sometimes even disappear more quickly. For example, there is a famous ice cave in Kverkfjöll which is wholly formed by geothermal activity but it is very difficult to access. Another new factor is the more extreme weather we start to see due to global warming. In Iceland, we now get heavy rainfall even in the winter. This sometimes causing flooded ice caves and ice caves simply disappearing overnight. On the other hand, the water really makes the ice look more blue and clear.
Why Are Ice Caves Blue?
The short answer is that glacier ice is so compressed that it hardly has any air-bubbles in it. This makes the ice able to absorb all visible light except blue. So when light travels through the thick ice it turns out blue. So the more compact the ice is, the more blue it will seem. This what gives the beautiful blue ice caves for us to enjoy.
The longer and more detailed answer is that light travels in different vibrating frequencies and water molecules can also vibrate when it hits a certain frequency, which happens to be found in red light frequencies. This means that white light minus the red light gives us cyan / blue light. This process can only take place in the really thick ice where the ice is super compact. So this is actually more of an illusion than what is happening in real life. You can compare it to our blue sky and blue oceans. We all know that they look blue, but in fact, they are clear. But again the water molecules and light vibrate together and create the blue color that makes our planet so unique. So now you know that vibrant colors are actually vibrating.
Why Are Some Ice Caves Black?
You will very often see black streaks of black ice in between the blue ice. These are layers of black volcanic ash from previous volcanic eruptions trapped between layers of compressed snow.
The ice of naturally occurring ice caves can be black, grey, white or blue and can be amazingly clear like glass or far more opaque, depending on how it is formed. We sometimes also find completely black ice caves, which are best described as glass-like and very much like dragon-glass or obsidian. Almost like what imagine dragon-skin to be like… if only they existed…
Why do Some Ice Caves Constantly Change?
Ice caves are natural structures that come and go with the seasons. They are being born in the Summer from the massive pressure of glacial melt-water and can only be accessed in the winter when they empty. That is why the ice caves are never the same.
As Iceland is controlled by Mother Nature the ice cave situation changes drastically from season to season, and sometimes even daily. It all depends on weather, temperatures and geothermal energy. Even in the winter, we see changes in the ice caves as temperatures in Iceland can change rapidly. With sudden exceptionally cold temperatures, the structure and safety of the cave can be affected. With warmer temperatures we see changes in the surface and new ice formations show up. In some countries, ice caves look almost the same year from a year since they are always in somewhat similar temperatures. This is not the case in Iceland.
How Are Ice Caves Discovered?
Our team of Ice Cave Guides monitors the glacier all year round to follow its movements and development. But when we approach the cooler months our Ice Cave Guides go scouting and begin to explore the areas around the glaciers.
We first look into how the ice caves from last year are looking. During the summer the melt-water has often changed the form of the ice cave or completely destroyed them. Then we go scouting for new ice caves, large enough and safe enough to explore inside. Some ice caves are easy to access whilst some takes longer glacier hikes to get to. Each cave has its own personality, shape, and color. Some caves have several entrances, some look like tunnels, some are the size of a cathedral, some you have to cross rivers to get into. We are always excited to see what each season brings us.
What is a Crystal Ice Cave?
There is a general confusion about the term “Crystal Cave”. This name comes from an ice cave formed in Skaftafell in Svinafellsjokull glacier tongue around 2011, which eventually collapsed in 2013. This was the ice cave that made ice caving really famous in Iceland and it was named “The Crystal Cave”.
Since then the guests and other tour companies have named a reoccurring ice cave in Breidamerkajokull Glacier outlet “The Crystal Cave”. Which is roughly 60 Kilometres from Svinafellsjokull. This cave is being shaped by shaped by the flow of a large glacial river each summer. So it is simply wrong that there is only 1 crystal cave. “Crystal Ice Cave” is simply an expression for an ice cave with ice a ‘ceiling’, which is translucent and glasslike enough for light to shine right through it.
When is the Best Time of Year to Visit Iceland’s Ice Caves?
The ice cave season in Iceland runs throughout our winter season from November to late March.
This is when it is cold enough for the ice caves to become stable enough to visit and explore. The best months are usually January and February when it is coldest.
Can you see Ice Caves in Iceland in the Summer?
You can’t see the blue ice caves in Vatnajokull in the Summer. However, you can see the man-made ice cave in Langjokull Glacier. It is a totally different experience, but you will get a good feel for being inside a glacier.
We can also recommend going on a glacier hike where you will see ice tunnels, ice formations and see blue ice. You can also go to Perlan in Reykjavik and see a great interactive exhibition about ice caves and glaciers: https://www.perlan.is/en/exhibitions/glaciers-ice-cave/
Are the Ice Caves Open All Winter?
Ice caving is very dependent on weather conditions and safety. All this is controlled by Mother Nature and she can be very bossy up here in the winter. If we have heavy rainfall the caves can flood or simply wash away, if we get large snowstorms the trail to the ice caves can be blocked. In Iceland, we are used to obeying nature as we know how dangerous it can be if you don’t. So trust that your tour operator, or ice cave guide’s judgement on this.
How to Visit an Ice Cave With Kids
We generally recommend families with kids younger than 13 years old to only visit ice caves on a private tour.
Ice caving is not a walk in the park and safety is very important. On private tours, we can provide the best safety for young kids as our guide will have 100% focus on them. We do not recommend taking babies and toddlers to the ice cave area as the cold wind from the glacier can be extreme. So think twice before planning this especially if you come from a warmer climate. However, older kids can have a great experience in the ice caves and learn all about how precious our glaciers are.
Ice Caves & Global Warming – See Them Before It’s Too Late!
Due to the rising temperatures on our planet, the blue ice is disappearing, and we see that happening at a very fast ratio up here. To us glaciers and ice caves are some of the most precious natural phenomena on our planet, so we can only encourage you to come and see them before they are completely gone.
Ice Cave Tours – How to Choose the Right One
It is never recommended to visit an ice cave without a professional ice cave guide. It also takes modified strong, 4x4, vehicles with experienced drivers to get to the ice cave areas as most of the driving is through glacier territory which includes quicksand and other potential traps. So do not venture out on your own, go on a guided tour.
Most tours will take you to the largest, most accessible ice cave of the season, so expect other people in the ice cave. If you want to visit ice caves with fewer visitors you have to prepare for more hiking and a longer tour. Always contact us to get the latest update on which caves are available and current conditions.
Guided Ice Cave Tours from Reykjavik
A guided tour saves you for a headache and stress that driving on the challenging winter roads in Iceland. Depending on your time and budget there are many guided tour options to see an ice cave. You can choose one, two and three-day winter tours that will depart from Reykjavik and take you to the ice caves in Vatnajokull. The multiday tours will typically also take you to other famous sights and include Northern Lights scouting.
What to Look for in a Guided Tour
Choose a company who doesn’t use sub-contractors, but does the whole tour incl. the ice caving to get the best and most professional experience. In this way, you are sure to get a welcoming experience where you are treated as a human being and not just another number.
Self-drive tours to the Ice Caves
It is possible to do a self-drive tour, which we only recommend if you are an experienced winter-driver. Unfortunately, we see more and more road-accidents with a negative outcome
The terrain and driving conditions can be very challenging. Strong Arctic wind and icy roads are a very dangerous cocktail. Also, note that journeys take much longer than Google Maps will tell you. So we strongly recommend that you stay overnight close to the ice cave area. It will save you a lot of stress and make your journey safer. Check-list if you rent a car:
- Always double-check that your rental car has spiked winter tires!
- Always get an all-inclusive deal with ALL insurances. Take NO chances and take the full insurance! We hear
horriblestories about tourists getting scammed by car rental companies.
- Always book your accommodation in advance as the Glacier Lagoon area has limited availability.
Private Ice Cave Tours
You can never get an ice cave just to yourself as all ice caves are in national parks, which are accessible for all. But you can book a private guide, who can take you to less busy ice caves and tailor the tour to your interests
The tour can focus on photography, geology, climate changes, etc. You can then decide how long time you want to spend ice caving. Just contact us to get more details on the current ice cave conditions and what we recommend.
How to See an Ice Cave in 1 day
Goecco and Icelandic Ice Cave Guides have a 1-day Ice Cave Express tour to see the ice caves in Vatnajokull Glacier. This tour is a marathon against light, weather and road conditions. The sole focus of the tour is to take our guests with limited time to get a chance to see an ice cave.
The tour also includes South Shore highlights like Skogafoss, Reynisfjara Black Beach, Seljalandsfoss, Glacier Lagoon and the Crystal/Diamond/ Glacier Beach. And on the way back we stop for the Northern Lights if we spot them. This has become an extremely popular tour. We have several drivers, a guide and ice cave guides involved in every single tour. We never recommend self-drivers to do this! Always drive safely and travel slow. Such a tour can only be done by local, experienced drivers. Ice Cave Express From Reykjavik
Good Tips to Driving Safely in Iceland
- Make sure to rent a safe car – don’t go for the smallest and cheapest.
- Always check the local weather forecast before you venture out and check the days ahead to make sure you can make the journey without missing your flight.
- Check the road conditions and keep yourself updated throughout the day: http://www.road.is/
- And the local weather forecast: www.http://en.vedur.is/
- Don’t have a too tight schedule or try to stuff too much into your tour. It is essential to travel slow.
- Call your ice cave operator or accommodation to hear about the local conditions in the area, if you are in doubt of the forecast. They will be able to help you.
- Make sure you always have warm clothing, water and food with you.
- Slow down when you see trucks coming against you, because they don’t and their tailwind is surprisingly strong.
- 112 is the common emergency telephone number in Iceland. This number is identical to 911 in USA and 999 in the UK.
How to Dress for an Ice Cave Visit
- It will always be colder on the glacier than at the meeting point at Glacier Lagoon. The wind from the glacier is cold, and can be fierce, so warm, windproof and waterproof layers are great. Wear good winter footwear with a good grip – trainers are not ideal here. We sometimes have to cross small rivers, streams and wet parts, so bring extra socks or waterproof footwear. Bring waterproof protection for your camera as the ice cave can be wet and dripping. Only bring a tripod if it works on ice. See our guide on how to photograph an ice cave here: Goecco Ice Cave Photo Guide
Facts about Vatnajökull Glacier
- Vatnajökull glacier is not only the largest glacier in Iceland it is the largest glacier in all of Europe.
- Vatnajökull covers about 8,100 km2 or 3,100 sq miles.
- The average thickness of the glacier is about 400 m or 1,300 ft.
- Vatnajökull has numerous outlet glaciers like Breiðamerkurjökull, Falljökull, Fjallsjökull, Heinabergsjökull, Hoffellsjökull, Morsárjökull, Virkisjökull, Svínafellsjökull and many others.
- It is the origin of Jökulsárlón Glacier lagoon, Fjallsárlón glacier lagoon, and Heinabergslón glacier lagoon. Vatnajökull is home to the highest peak in Iceland, Hvannadalshnúkur.
- The two ice caves found on Vatnajökull are the most famous ones in Iceland so this comparison will be more detailed.
Where Else in the World Can You find Ice Caves?
- Spanish Pyrenees The largest ice cave in the world is Eisriesenwelt in the Austrian Alps, reaching over 42 Kilometers.
Our Tours that feature Ice Caves!