I don’t know about you, but a glacier isn’t exactly something I get to see every day at home. I have seen glaciers on tv many times, but I was always under the impression that those otherworldly landscapes were not easy to reach, let alone hike. In my head, the whole thing involved flying to a faraway land, plus owning a helicopter, mountaineering skills, hundreds of ropes of some sort, plus an athletic body. All kinds of things I definitely do not possess, since I am not Paul Nicklen or Christian Grey.
And yet, as I recently discovered, if you find your way to Iceland a glacier is indeed something you get to see every day – and if you get in contact with the proper guide, you can even get the chance of walking on the surface of one. How cool is that?
Now, I don’t want to tell you everything and spoil all the fun, but I’d like to give you a taste of the feelings you can experience on an ice cave and glacier hiking tour in Iceland.
GLACIER HIKING AND ICE CAVE EXPLORING IN ICELAND: TOUR REVIEW
I booked my tour with Melrakki Adventures, an established Icelandic tour operator focused on glacier adventures.
Around 10 AM I met with my local guide, Oddur, right outside the Skatafell Tour center in South-East Iceland. After some chit-chat, he promptly showed me my new fashionable accessories for the day: crampons (those spikey things that give you extra traction on ice), a safety helmet, a harness, and last but not least, my all-time favorite: a marvelous Lara Croft-ish ice axe.
I tried my best not to look like a kid who just received his favorite toy weapon for Christmas – although that was exactly how I was feeling – and listened carefully to all the safety recommendations. I later discovered that the harness was only needed so that Oddur could hoist me back out of a crevasse in case my uncoordinated ass slipped in. Mmmkay, that can happen, I thought.
After this introduction, we jumped on a huge monster jeep and drove toward the base of the glacier outlet, just a few kilometers away. The plan was to conquer Falljökull, otherwise known as the Falling Glacier, in Skaftafell National Park, which is one of the outlets of Europe’s largest glacier Vatnajökull. While on the road, Oddur explained that at the moment about 9-10% of Iceland is covered with glaciers. As we approached Falljökull, I started seeing in the distance the snow-covered ice picks revealing themselves in all their majesty.
At some point there was so much snow on the road that we had to leave our monster jeep behind and go ahead by walking. When we reached the base of the glacier, we put on our crampons and started the hike.
Stepping onto the ice with crampons on for the first time is quite fun – while Oddur was elegantly sliding like a gazelle, I started walking like a penguin, or a cat wearing socks. I’m just that graceful. It was so satisfying to feel the spikes crunch through the ice and hear the cracking sound. The air was fresh and crisp, probably the purest one I’ve ever breathed. The sun was bright, almost blindingly so as it shone off the snow like a mirror.
While watching the glacier from the bottom, the ice blocks somehow appeared relatively small, but the more we headed toward the peak, the more I started to realize they were actually humongous.
It was all so incredibly beautiful. I kept stopping along the way for pictures because the landscape was that unbelievable. During those breaks, Oddur told me all about glaciers’ formation and their evolution.
To simplify, glaciers are formed when multiple layers of snow build up in one spot. When these layers are added, they compress the ones underneath and force out all the air, turning the snow into dense ice. Also, glaciers might look very static on the surface, but they’re actually moving, because the ice at the bottom constantly melts due to the weight on top and therefore slides along the ground.
After 4 hours of hiking we reached some sort of summit, which is where I had what I’ll remember as the most spectacular lunch break of my life. Not for the lunch itself – that morning I was so sleepy I barely managed to put together a ham sandwich – but for the view. I mean:
We started descending shortly after, and about halfway we started walking towards a beautiful ice cave that the local guides had recently discovered. From the outside, I actually couldn’t see much besides a hole in a big pile of snow, so I was kind of puzzled at first. As I ungracefully squatted down to go through it, I started seeing some ice on the sides, then above my head.
Then, all of a sudden, I found myself inside a beautiful, shimmering chain of ice tunnels. I felt like I was standing inside a frozen wave. The spectrum of translucent blues created by the ice was mesmerizing, unlike anything I had ever seen.
I learned that ice caves are formed when meltwater works its way inside the glacier, melting the ice around, widening cracks, and creating chambers. All ice caves are unstable, “alive”, changing from day to day, so the ones you can see in my photos won’t necessarily be the ones you’ll see on your trip. I took about 5000 photos (probably more) then we headed out as soon as we heard a few other tourists approaching. Perks of traveling in Iceland during off-season months: you’ll have all these beauties mostly for yourself.
I got out of the ice cave with that buzz you get after seeing something really incredible and knowing that I’d repeat this experience again whenever I got the chance.
We headed back to our monster jeep, and that was the end of my tour.
Are glaciers hiking and ice cave tour worth it?
Yes, absolutely. The landscape is truly otherwordly. If you have time to do only one thing while you’re in Iceland, I’d recommend glacier hiking.
What’s the best tour for glacier hiking in Iceland?
There are many different tour companies offering this kind of activity, but I’d strongly recommend the following:
- Pick a tour operator that only arranges tours with extra-small groups, I’d say maximum 5 people. I had a great time with Merlakki Adventures and would definitely recommend it.
- Unless you have children, don’t go for the shorter hikes that only last 3 hours. Instead, pick the longer ones that let you stay on the glacier for at least 5 hours.
How far are glaciers from Reykjavik?
The Vatnajökull region is a 6-hour drive from Reykjavik, so of course it’s impossible to do a glacier and ice cave tour on a day-trip. You must spend the night in the vicinity. Moreover, most tour operators do not provide transport to the meeting point and I wouldn’t rely on public transportation during winter, so renting a car is usually necessary.
Where to stay for a glacier hiking tour in Skaftafell?
Anything in the Skaftafell area is fine, but I’d recommend these options:
- Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon
- Hotel Skaftafell
- Hof 1 Adventure Hotel
- Litla-Hof Guesthouse
- Hörgsland Guesthouse
Got any tips for glacier hiking in Iceland?
- Wear waterproof hiking shoes, waterproof gloves and pants, and some thermal layers.
- It’s possible to hike glaciers all year round, but if you want to explore some ice caves then you need to visit Iceland between November and March, when they are safe to visit.
- It is always a good idea to bring water and some snacks in your backpack, you’ll get hungry when you reach the top!