Hiking Skaftafell Glacier
This was our Day #3 activity and was located along the Ring Road in southeastern Iceland, about 2.5 hours east of Vik. This was hands-down my favorite activity that we did during our trip. My sister thought it was a little too hard as it was about a 4 hour hike total and also required some more strenuous climbing. We went with Iceland Adventures Tours and you meet them at the main visitor center in the National Park. After they gear you up with safety harnesses, crampons, helmets and ice picks, you hop on a shuttle bus and they drive you to the bottom of one of the glacier tongues that you will hike up.
We hiked up over the glacier moraine until we reached the ice. As glaciers push forward, they act as a bulldozer, pushing dirt and rock in front of them (the moraine) so we climbed up that big pile of dirt and then put on our steel crampons when we reached the ice. I have never worn crampons before and these were heavy duty suckers that you strapped into and they really worked. There is no slippage on the ice while wearing these and they have big, sharp steel teeth on them. They weren’t uncomfortable but they do add weight to your legs/feet.
We walked across the glacier and looked at several crevasses and holes along the way. Some of them were 30 to 40 feet deep. If you’re wondering how cold it was, it really wasn’t cold at all. I didn’t need gloves and the helmet was sufficient. I wore lined leggings, a t-shirt and lined waterproof jacket but nothing very heavy. I had a scarf but didn’t need it at all. The important thing is having solid waterproof hiking boots that come up over your ankles for stability. My sister wore jeans and a lightweight jacket and she was fine.
We then reached the point that required us to climb up the ice, using a series of ropes and steps that had been cut into the ice. We clipped in for safety here using our harnesses. This is the part that my sister really hated as she doesn’t like heights and it was more strenuous. I was having a great time!
But, I won’t lie, it was physically challenging. Once you got up over this big ice fall, you reached a more smooth area of ice. From there you can look up and see the main ice flow coming down the mountain. We got very lucky because right when we got there, the clouds parted and the sun came out so we got a great view of the glacier. It was incredible!
We got some great views of blue ice from this vantage point as well. We could also walk around and in some places we were able to taste glacier water straight from a stream and relax and enjoy the view.
After spending a good 30 minutes or so at this point, we walked back down the glacier, taking an easier way down. It took about 3 hours up and 1 hour down. I felt the climb was worth it and the views of the glacier, the fresh air and overall experience were better than I expected.
Jokusarlon Glacial Lagoon and Diamond Beach
After we finished our glacier hike, we decided to drive an extra 40 minutes further down the Ring Road to visit the most well known glacial lagoon where icebergs break off the glacier and float out to sea. Unfortunately, it started raining as soon as we pulled into the parking lot and it was SO cold and windy here so we didn’t stay long. Just took a few pictures of the beautiful blue bergs in the bay. If you have more time, you can take boat tours of the lagoon to get closer to the icebergs. We also swung by Diamond Beach where some of the smaller icebergs wash up on a black sand beach but they have been polished smooth and shiny by the ocean so they look like diamonds. How many “diamonds” will be there varies depending on the wind and ocean currents. We were unlucky and there were very few ice chunks on the beach but we found one decent one for a photo op.
Katla Ice Caves
On our last day, we did a short morning tour of some ice caves on a nearby glacier. This was only a 20 minute drive from Vik and is a much, much smaller glacier than Skaftafell. Our small tour group took a “super jeep” that off-roaded right to the base of the glacier. We wore some much smaller and less weighty crampons for this hike than our glacier hike and this was much, much easier and shorter. Overall, the ice caves were interesting but I didn’t find them all that impressive. There are ice caves near the Skaftafell glacier that are larger and feature more “blue ice” than these, though.
We walked into the ice cave and as this is at the front of the glacier, all that “bulldozed” dirt and rock is there as well. The inside of the cave is really dark and muddy and you mostly see the beautiful blue ice on the ceiling of the ice caves and some of the upper walls. I loved the pattern of colors in the ice.
They give you handheld flashlights/torches for the short trip through the cave that requires you to duck in a few places and cross a few bridges here and there. Not much to see in the interior of the cave as it’s mostly dark and muddy with ash and dirt.
Nearing the exit of the cave, you start to see some light and some blue ice ahead. You then enter a vestibule area with a lovely blue domed roof of ice. It then lets you out into a large amphitheater-like area on the interior of the glacier.
To complete the hike, you simply walk back through cave to where you started. We went with Arctic Adventures Tour Group that met us in Vik and drove us back there afterwards. Our guide, Willi, was very sweet and the overall tour took about 2.5 hours. I would put the activity level of the ice cave tour at easy whereas the glacier hike was more moderate to strenuous. Personally, I loved the glacier hike experience and the views at Skaftafell were incredible. The ice caves were interesting and if you have plenty of time, are worth the look-see but I wouldn’t consider them a must-do while in Iceland. Also, there is an “easy” glacier hike at Skaftafell that you can do which doesn’t require as much climbing. I think it’s more like a glacier walk but I preferred the activity and adventure of our “moderate” hike.