Over 11% of the Icelandic landmass is covered by massive sheets of ice known as glaciers, leaving no doubt as to why the country bears its name.
These glaciers are so enormous in size that they cover mountains, valleys, and, often, active volcanoes, like a white sheet of bed linen.
It is this interplay of hot and cold—glaciers and volcanoes—which allows the formation of beautiful ice caves. Visiting any one of these magical glacial grottoes often tops many visitor’s bucket lists.
In this article, I’ve tried to cover every question you might have about glaciers in Iceland, ranging from how they are formed, why they get their blue colour shade, and which caves you should visit on your trip to this land of ice and fire.
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How are Ice Caves in Iceland Formed?
The majority of Iceland’s glaciers started forming approximately 2500 years ago. Over the centuries, snow accumulated and compressed to form glaciers at high-altitude.
These enormous ice bodies are consistently on the move, sculpted either by surrounding mountainsides or the pressure of their own weight.
Other factors, including the speed of their motion, can cause the glaciers to twist and turn in peculiar ways. This movement often leaves open crevasses which, when filled with meltwater, create deep vertical shafts known as moulins.
The glaciers which cover actual volcanoes have volcanic vents or hot springs which emit heat. This creates more meltwater which pours down the glacier moulins and digs tunnels in the ice.
These tunnels are what are commonly known as ‘ice caves’. However, the scientifically correct term is actually ‘glacier cave’.
In geology, ‘ice caves’ is the proper term used to describe rock caves that contain year-round ice, such as Víðgelmir cave in West Iceland. For the sake of ease, I will continue to use the more common ‘ice cave’ term throughout this article.
Where are the Ice Caves in Iceland?
Most visitors to Iceland arrive at Keflavík International Airport before making the short drive to Reykjavík. Both the airport and the capital are located in the western part of the country.
The most popular ice caves in Iceland—known as The Blue Ice Caves—are inside Vatnajökull glacier, found on the southeastern edge of the country.
Travelling to these caves can take up to two days, but the journey is very scenic with plenty of photography stops along the way.
Those with more limited time in the country can either visit the Katla ice cave, located on the southern coastline, or one of the man-made caves that are closer to the capital.
Katla Ice Cave, South Iceland
The closest authentic ice cave to Reykjavík is the Katla Ice Cave in Mýrdalsjökull Glacier, which is about 167 km (42 mi) west from the capital.
Unlike other natural ice caves, the Katla cave is available to visit all year round. This makes it a must-see for summer travellers who thought they might otherwise miss their chance to visit one of these true natural wonders.
From Where do Ice Cave Tours in Katla Depart?
Most tours which visit the Katla Ice Cave will depart from either Reykjavík or the seafront village, Vík í Mýrdal.
The excursions from the capital will often include sightseeing stops at the waterfalls Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss, as well as the black sand beach, Reynisfjara.
There are usually two departure times for the Katla Ice Cave from Vík. The morning departure is perfect for those on a self-drive tour who are staying near the town.
In contrast, the afternoon departure is more suited for those starting the day further away, such as in Reykjavík or Kirkjubæjarklaustur.
Your guide will take you to the cave in a super jeep, a large vehicle which has been modified to handle Iceland’s rough terrain. From the Ring Road, you will travel out onto a backroad in South Iceland’s wilderness.
You’ll approach Sólheimajökull, a glacial tongue of the far more magnificent Mýrdalsjökull glacier.
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After passing dark and stunning sceneries—which have been used as a backdrop in movies such as Star Wars: Rogue One and Noah— you’ll reach the base of the glacier.
Here, your guide will equip you with crampons, an ice axe, and a helmet with a torch, before leading you into a crystalline labyrinth of glassy tunnels.
What is the Difference Between Katla Ice Cave & Blue Ice Caves in Vatnajökull?
Aside from the Katla Ice Caves being accessible year-round, the main difference between the Katla Ice Cave and the Blue Ice Caves in Vatnajökull is the colour of the ice.
Although you can find blue ice at Katla, the cave is much darker, and the ice is streaked with black ash from past volcanic eruptions.
The cave itself is named after the volcano Katla, on which the ice sits. Nearby is also the infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which famously erupted in 2010, halting all air traffic for a few days.
The Blue Ice Caves in Vatnajökull Glacier
The most popular of Iceland’s ice caves are found within Vatnajökull National Park, around 380 km (49.7 mi) from Reykjavík.
The nature reserve is named after its star attraction, the mighty Vatnajökull ice cap (meaning “Water Glacier”) which covers an incredible 8% of the country’s landmass (8,500 square kilometres). Vatnajökull’s size not only makes it Iceland’s largest glacier but also Europe’s.
Vatnajökull has about 30 outlet glaciers flowing from the ice cap. Although you can probably find an ice cave in most of them, many are inaccessible.
What is the Difference Between Blue Ice Cave, Crystal Ice Cave, and Blue Diamond Cave?
Among the most popular outlet glaciers for ice cave excursions are Svínafellsjökull (also used as a shooting location for HBO’s Game of Thrones), Eyjabakkajökull, Falljökull, and Skaftafellsjökull.
Collectively called “The Blue Ice Caves”, these glittering caves twist and turn elegantly inside the glacier, creating a stunning scene one needs to see to believe.
These caves sometimes go by different names depending on the tour operator, such as “Crystal Cave”, “Blue Diamond Cave”, “Waterfall Cave”, and even “Northern Lights Cave”.
In essence, the names are merely a marketing trick. Because the caves flood —and sometimes collapse—each season, this year’s Crystal Cave might be completely different from last year’s Crystal Cave.
From Where do Blue Ice Cave Tours Depart?
The distance between Reykjavík and Vatnajökull, paired with winter driving conditions, make visiting these ice caves from the capital a two-day journey.
However, staying overnight at a country hotel gives guests more time to enjoy the many attractions found along the way.
This includes the sites on the Golden Circle, Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach, Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, and the Diamond Beach.
Guided multi-day tours to ice caves depart from Reykjavík city and include sightseeing stops along the South Coast.
Stand-alone day trips—perfect for those on a self-drive tour—usually depart at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, but sometimes Skaftafell Nature Reserve.
To get to the glacier, you’ll travel in a large 4×4 vehicle capable of handling Iceland’s rough terrain.
Most tours require a short hike through beautiful glacial landscapes to get to the cave. Adventure-seekers looking to avoid crowds can book a longer ice cave tour where they’ll have to hike for about 1.5 hours each way.
When Can You Visit the Blue Ice Caves in Vatnajökull?
Unlike the Katla Ice Cave, Vatnajökull’s ice caves are only accessible during the winter months. Summer sees these subterranean tunnels flood with glacial water, thus becoming inaccessible.
Visiting Vatnajökull ice caves is, therefore, only possible from November to March each year.
Langjökull Ice Tunnel, West Iceland
The closest ice cave to Reykjavík is an artificially constructed tunnel at Langjökull, the second-largest glacier in the country.
The attraction took approximately 14 months to build and is located 1260 metres (4133 ft) above sea level. This means that visitors must ride in a specially modified 4×4 vehicle in order to reach it, only adding to the drama and exhilaration of visiting.
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The departure point for the Langjökull Ice Cave Tunnels is at Klaki Base Camp, located about 151 kilometres (94 mi) from the capital, Reykjavík.
You can find tours which travel straight from the capital to the Ice Cave Tunnels, often stopping at some of West-Iceland stunning natural attractions. But those on a self-drive tour will need to reach the base camp themselves.
To get to the Base Camp, you need a 4×4 vehicle as the road that leads to it is a rough gravel road. Those without a 4×4 or are not comfortable driving this challenging road can book a shuttle tour from the nearby settlement of Húsafell.
From the base camp, you’ll travel across stunning glacial landscapes in a NATO missile launcher truck, modified to move easily in challenging Arctic conditions.
Inside the glacier, you’ll get to walk through frozen hallways which are illuminated by artificial lights. You’ll learn about how the tunnels were made, and all about glacier geology; from the formations of these ice caps to the dangers they face.
Perlan Ice Cave (Wonders of Iceland Exhibition), Capital Region
Visitors to Reykjavík will likely spot the strange dome landmark that overlooks the city skyline. This is the iconic Perlan Museum and Observation deck, situated on Öskjuhlíð Hill.
Once used for storing the capital’s drinking water, this architectural marvel now stands as one of Iceland’s most beloved museums.
This proud institution has a great reputation for offering its guests fascinating insights into the island’s nature and wildlife.
While also host to a Northern Lights planetarium and a full-scale reproduction of an Icelandic sea-cliff (complete with nesting puffins) it is Perlan’s artificial ice cave that draws the most attention.
Inside this magnificent 100-metre long reconstruction, you will learn about Iceland’s glacial environments in a fun, informative and interactive way. The attraction was built using an incredible 350 tonnes of pure Icelandic snow.
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While you’re visiting Perlan, make sure to stop by its impressive 360-degree viewing deck. Not only will you have fantastic views over the capital’s colourful tin rooftops, but also Mount Esja and the glittering Faxaflói Bay.
Are There Ice Caves in North Iceland?
North Iceland lacks the ice caves of the South for a straightforward reason; there just aren’t as many glaciers in the region. With that being said, there is one particular site that has long dazzled visitors with its otherworldly charms.
Lofthellir Ice Cave, North Iceland
Near Lake Mývatn, you can partake in a guided tour of the always staggering Lofthellir ice cave.
Note that Lofthellir is an “ice cave” in the scientific meaning of the word and not a “glacier cave” like the other mentioned above (remember, we talked about the difference earlier).
This ethereal cavern is famous for its fantastic, naturally-formed ice sculptures and stalactites. Lofthellir formed over 3500 years ago and extends an incredible 370 meters (1213 ft) underneath the Laxardalshraun lava field.
Tours to Lofthellir mainly set out from Akureyri, otherwise referred to by its nickname, “Iceland’s Northern Capital.” However, there are others which leave directly from the Mývatn area.
Adventurers who opt for visiting Lofthellir will travel to the site in a 4WD, passing sights like Hverfjall volcano and the Lúdentsborgir craters, before completing their journey with a hike to the cave mouth itself.
This hike is roughly thirty minutes long and crosses directly over the rocky outcrops of Laxardalshraun. Most tours to Lofthellir will spend around an hour exploring inside of the ice cave.
Why are Iceland’s Ice Caves so Blue?
In most locations, lakes and rivers appear blue because water absorbs all other colours on the spectrum more efficiently. In Iceland, this gorgeous chemical process is taken to new heights entirely.
A phenomenon unique to sub-arctic environments, ‘Blue Ice’ is not only seen in Iceland’s ice caves but also its floating icebergs and staggering glacial walls.
The science behind Blue Ice is as fascinating as it is stunning to look at. After the snow falls on a glacier, it becomes compressed, and eventually part of the glacier itself.
Tightly squeezed, the oxygen attempts to escape, leading to the formation of air bubbles and large ice crystals. To the human eye, these factors make the ice appear a vibrant aquamarine blue.
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Are ice caves in Iceland safe? Can you visit on your own?
As with all nature-based activities, ice caving poses several inherent risks, making it essential that travellers only venture inside in the company of a professional guide.
Thankfully, all ice caving tours sold in Iceland come with a guide included, ensuring that your trip is safe-hands from the get-go.
Guides will provide you with the safety equipment necessary to make ice caving possible. This can include a headlamp, crampons, walking poles and a helmet.
They will also bring with them a wealth of knowledge and experience, both of which are vital to ensuring the activity remains fun and accessible for all experience levels.
Ice cave operators are vigilant in checking weather forecasts and should conditions be too rainy or blizzardous, it is likely your tour will be rescheduled for another day.
It is always crucial that guests keep an eye on weather forecasts also, as the country’s unpredictable climate will often mean having to reassess your travel plans and itineraries.
How cold are ice caves in Iceland and what should I wear on an Ice Cave Tour?
For ice caves to form in the first place, temperatures must be freezing. Warmer weather causes glacial melts and floods, making the caves unsafe and, eventually, impossible to enter. Thus, most ice caving tours are limited to only the winter season in Iceland.
With all this in mind, make sure to arrive at your tour departure point with the warmest winter gear you own. This includes thick woollen jumpers, waterproof trousers, extra pairs of socks and, naturally, gloves, a scarf and a hat.
Make sure to wear good hiking boots which can be fitted with crampons. These will not only keep you warm but help on the hike across glacial landscapes to the ice cave. Hiking boots can be rented on many tours.
How long are Ice Caves Tours in Iceland?
There is no straight answer to this question. The duration of your tour could depend on any number of factors, amongst which include the departure point of your trip, the ice cave you wish to visit, the weather that day and the tour operator you’ve chosen.
Day tours from Reykjavík could take anywhere from 9 – 11 hours with the travel included.
Those already on-site at the tour’s departure point will only need to meet their guides before embarking on a shorter 2 – 4-hour experience, unless they’ve booked an extended tour.
Putting travel aside, guests can expect to spend between 20 – 45 inside the ice cave.
What activities can I add to my ice caving tour in Iceland?
As mentioned previously, expect there to be hiking included with any ice caving tour. Do note that when it comes to picking a tour, the amount of time hiking can be lengthened or shortened depending on what ice cave you wish to visit.
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Many guests jump at the opportunity to add a spot of ice-climbing to the mix. This exhilarating activity sees participants ascend a mighty wall of glacial ice using only a harness and a pair of sharp ice axes.
Under the mentorship of an experienced climber, you’ll be strapped in safely before being let loose on one of these towering white monoliths of the ice caps.
Ice caving tours can often be added as a complementary activity to multi-day packages. These exciting excursions will take you to Iceland’s most popular sightseeing routes, including the famous Golden Circle, while also allowing you the time and space to partake in tour activities of your choosing.
Other ice cap based activities that can be added to your multi-day packages include; glacier hiking and snowmobiling. You can also balance your icy adventure with a hot one by visiting one of the many Spas dotted around the country.
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Those with the resources could also opt for a private helicopter tour. Flying high over the ice cap, you’ll be privy to a fantastic bird’s eye view of the many moulins and peaks below, offering up the chance to capture award-winning photographs.
When is the “Ice Cave Season” in Iceland?
The “Ice Cave Season” is not official in Iceland, given that there are ice caves that can be visited throughout the year.
However, the best time to visit the majority of the island’s ice caves is during the winter, when the ice caves freeze and reform after the summer flooding. The Blue Ice Caves in Vatnajökull National Park is between November and March.
We’ve come to the end of our Icelandic ice cave odyssey, but let’s remind ourselves as to the most essential points we’ve learned.
Most importantly, and to the joy of man, Ice caves in Iceland can be visited year-round. That is not to say, however, that ALL ice caves can be visited year-round, only certain sites.
For instance, the popular “Blue Ice Caves” in Vatnajökull Glacier can only be visited in winter, between November and March. But, summer visitors can enjoy the natural Katla Ice Caves and the man-made Ice Cave Tunnels and Perlan Ice Cave.
At the very beginning of each season, Iceland’s ice caves are inspected by a trained glacier guide to determine whether they are safe to enter or not. Travellers should never attempt to enter an ice cave on their own.
When it comes to equipment, remember that glacier guides will provide you with all the necessary gear, including such items as crampons, a helmet with a headlamp attached, and even your very own ice axe.
If you are planning on visiting an ice cave, it is essential that you wear warm and waterproof clothes on your tour, as well as good hiking shoes.
And please—for the love of God; remember your camera! Given the breadth of natural beauty on display beneath Iceland’s glaciers, you’ll be sure to want to capture the experience forever on film.
Have you visited an Icelandic ice cave? How was your experience, and who did you choose to travel with? Are you planning a trip to Iceland in the future? Let us know in the comments below.