Crystal Caves of Iceland
From all corners of the globe, Iceland’s ice caves are synonymous with the term “Crystal Caves.” This moniker suits these formations aptly for more than one reason – obviously, the name denotes the beauty of the island’s cavernous frozen formations. Look up a few images online and you’ll find some photos that almost do the caves justice – the walls of Iceland’s sub-arctic tunnels often look like pure, crystalline oceans frozen in mid-flow. The ice is typically so vividly blue it almost appears to glow in the dark, and it manipulates itself into elegant natural sculptures that would put any fine artist to shame. Like rare crystals, Iceland’s ice caves are precious, in part because they are impermanent. They melt and re-form along with alterations in seasonal weather patterns, so a cave you visit during one trip to the island may be wildly different or even melted away on the next visit!
These incredible frosty fortresses are consistent favourites of visitors to Iceland, and they provide veritable gold mines of material for traveling photographers. In fact, Iceland’s ice caves are so popular that availability on well-known guided tours is pretty tight. This is not the type of excursion you want to plan on short notice. Groups tend to be relatively small, and for good reason. It is absolutely not recommended that you enter any of the island’s ice caves by yourself, no matter how enticing the idea may seem. The experience will be infinitely safer – and probably a lot more interesting – along with a certified glacier guide who knows how to interact with the icy terrain within.
Depending on the season in which you are traveling, parts of the ice caves may be susceptible to collapse, a dangerous situation that can be easily avoided with the assistance of a trained eye for caving. Even smaller crevices in the caves often move and change and can be difficult for the amateur caver to spot. Furthermore, ice caving requires a bit of stamina – often tours will include a guided glacier hike, for which adventurers will require crampons, ice axes, safety hats, ropes, flashlights, harnesses, and of course, warm clothes. After all, Icelanders know that safety is the key to sustainable tourism. But don’t feel too intimidated by the popular winter activity – a lot of families bring their kids (aged ten and up) along for the adventure as well!
Though it is imperative to pay attention and watch your step as you traverse the inside of a glacial mass, you’ll probably find yourself gawking at the unearthly colours emanating from the ice…and wondering why it is so blue and so clear! Well, ice that is concealed and protected is often a blue or bluish hue. The whitish ice we are accustomed to seeing – from icebergs to small cubes in our beverages – gets it colour from exposure to external weather and sunlight. In other words, ultraviolet rays are what turn ice white.
As for the ice caves’ clarity and clean transparency, these factors arise mostly from pressure. The deeper into Earth the cave goes, the more intensely air bubbles confined within the ice will be forced out. As a consequence, the ice crystals themselves expand and enlarge, resulting in exceedingly clear, smooth ice. You can sometimes see ice of a similar quality on the undersides of icebergs that have just recently flipped over, or in the center of those that have just split in half. When you descend into an Icelandic ice cave, you are seeing an arctic formation process in its purest earthly form.
The most important part of ice caving is the experience, and surely you’ll want to be fully present and attentive as you explore. However, we’d be remiss to discourage you from taking advantage of the incredible photo opportunities ice caving presents. Obviously it will be quite dark in these cavernous, frosty tunnels, so many of the techniques employed for Northern Lights photography can be used within the caves. Visit our Northern Lights guide for very detailed photography information that may help you in other parts of the island. As an overview, here is roughly what you will need to capture glistening blue ice formations amidst dusky winter shadows:
A tripod: A tripod will be fairly important in this case, given that you’ll want to be shooting with an approximately thirty-second exposure. Shaky hands can ruin a shot, particularly when it is being shuttered so rapidly.
A good lens: As mentioned, you’ll fare best with a wide angle, fast lens or a macro lens. This is because the obstacles photographers face in deep, dark ice caves are similar to the issues presented by night photography: i.e., composition and focus. Always think about perspective, time, and lighting when you’re trying to get a great photo. The environment in an ice cave can be a bit restrictive, so we recommend shooting wide-angle and following the cave’s natural shape in order to get a dynamic yet balanced shot. We also recommend using manual focus as opposed to auto-focus. This is because there may not be enough light in the cave for the camera to focus appropriately – we can almost guarantee it, actually – and because the ice is so smooth in these caves that the camera won’t have many angles to focus on!
We’ve mentioned this in other articles, but it is important: take good care of your camera equipment and try to avoid rapid exposure of your materials from warm temperatures to cold temperatures. Introduce the equipment to the cold gradually. Cold temperatures can drain your batteries of life very quickly. Further to that, your camera lenses can fog up and lose focus if they transition to different temperature environments too fast. You may not have the time to wait for your equipment to recover. Just plan ahead and give your camera some time to adjust.
Digital fingertips: We wouldn’t classify this one as a necessity, really – but gloves with digital fingertips make for pretty snazzy accessories for the serious photographer! Adventure photographer Tim Kemple, known recently for following professional climbers Klemen Premrl and Rahel Schelb for a documentary called Climbing the Iceland Trifecta, gave some insight into Icelandic nature photography just a couple of years ago. He’s a big advocate of proper liner gloves to keep your hands warm while managing your camera, and an even bigger advocate of those with fingertips that allow you to use your touch screen or the back screen on your camera. We can understand his perspective – you’ll not be too eager to take your hands out of your gloves in the middle of an ice cave.
Definitely check out Tim Kemple’s extraordinary work, and we also recommend viewing the jaw-dropping photography of local ice cave guide Einar Runar Sigurdsson. He is well-known for his captivating images of the caves on the Vatnajökull glacier’s south side. Along with his wife Matta and his son Aron, Einar now runs seasonal ice caving tours through their company Local Guide of Vatnajökull. As such, he’s also captured some striking images of brave adventurers witnessing and navigating the ice caves.
We don’t want to spoil any fun, but we cannot emphasize this point enough: do not go ice caving alone! Always, always go with a certified glacier guide/expert. You won’t have any trouble finding some good ones in Iceland, trust us. Here are a few of the chief reasons why ice caving solo or without an expert is ill-advised:
Driving 4×4 vehicles is not for everyone. Unless you’re on a guided, mapped-out tour out of Reykjavík, there aren’t any public buses to ice caves out of the city. For that reason you’ll almost certainly end up having to drive a four-by-four vehicle. The good news is that Iceland is famous for producing and distributing great cards for off-road excursions. But that doesn’t make the drive easy – if you’re not used to it, the unpaved roads and river crossings might wear you out before you even get to your caves.
Your mobile signal will be limited in the ice caves. Iceland is known for having highly efficient 3G mobile connectivity. In fact, it’s so dependable that travelers often find that their connection is still working in extremely remote parts of the island. However, ice caving is a different story. The signal has to penetrate layers and layers of thick ice in its purest, most undisturbed form. If something goes wrong, there’s no guarantee that the signal will make it through.
Risk of collapse. Ice caves are rather solid during the icy winter months, but they are still natural phenomena and are out of human control. Ice can always melt and collapse, and only a trained, studied eye can perceive potential risks in sections of the cave before any movement happens. The risk of collapse is very low from December to February, so it’s safest to go caving then.
Safety equipment is a no-brainer when it comes to ice caving. But for the sake of specificity, we’ll expound on some of the more important items every caving adventurer should have on his/her person:
Helmet: Headgear is very important. While ice caves are generally very stable in the winter, it nevertheless is susceptible to breakage. When the ice falls, the rocks and boulders concealed within tend to fall as well. So even if you’re aesthetically opposed to hat hair, never enter an ice cave without a strong helmet.
Head torch: Most caving helmets will have head torches attached. It’s not totally necessary – though you will at the very least need a flashlight – but it’s very handy. You can see and perceive a lot more with a head torch, resulting in a more interesting experience, and you will also be able to make out any potentially dangerous crevices more easily. We recommend that you carry a secondary light as well, just in case your primary head torch fails for any reason.
Safety rope: The safety rope is the same as a traverse line, which is made of low-stretch rope that is plunged into solid ice using ice screws (which we’ll explain later). You’ll then have a harness attached to the rope, which has more elasticity to reduce any trauma on the body should you slip and fall.
Ice axe: Ice axes are pretty self-explanatory; they are used for chipping away at intrusive pieces of ice in order to facilitate easier exploration. More importantly, the ice axe creates a deep enough hole in the ground so that screws can affix to the ice securely.
Kneepads: Ice caves are all different – some passages are broad, while others are short and narrow. The sleek, hardy ice combined with rocks and pebbles on cave floors can really do a number on your knees if they’re unprotected! In case you run into an area that requires some crawling, kneepads should be a standard piece of equipment.
Crampons: Crampons are essentially metal plates with spikes affixed to your hiking boots. They are invaluable for all ice-related activities, from climbing to caving to hiking.
Ice screws: Ice screws are tremendously important forms of protection. On the surface, they must always be securely embedded, with the attached slings/ropes often wrapped around large boulders to ensure maximum security.
Waterproof gear: To traverse the ice caves in comfort and safety, you’ll want a warm, waterproof jacket and tough, waterproof hiking boots. Even if you’re tempted to pack other kinds of shoes in order to pack light, don’t do it! You’ll need all the extra material that comes with the hiking shoe design for maximum ankle support. After all, ice is slippery!
Vatnajökull Glacier and its Crystal Caves
The most popular locations for ice caving are in Southeast Iceland, specifically on or around Vatnajökull, Iceland’s largest glacial mass. Nowhere else on the island does more rainfall flow through the earth’s crevices and into the ocean than on Vatnajökull. The amount of water currently stored on the south side of the glacier is so abundant that the great Icelandic river Öfulsá would need an estimated 200 years to usher it all to sea! As you can imagine, with all the glacial flooding inundating Vatnajökull’s highlands and lowlands, its ice caves are inevitably massive, unique, and beautiful.
Vatnajökull covers approximately 14% of Iceland’s surface, and represents a titan regional marriage of Iceland’s most fascinating topographical features: rivers, glacial ice, geothermal activity, and volcanism. The glacial ice enveloping much of the Vatnajökull region conceals and protects several great valleys, mountain peaks, and even volcanic systems (most notably included are Öræfajökull, Bárðarbunga, and Grimsvötn)! As you can imagine, the aforementioned ice masses are incredibly thick – they reach four hundred to six hundred meters in thickness most of the time, but can reach nearly one thousand meters during the coldest of winters.
Here’s the sad news: decreased snowfall and elevating environmental temperatures are impacting the world’s most powerful and beautiful glaciers. Unfortunately, Iceland is no exception. In fact, a very recent report from Iceland’s Committee on Climate Change warned that many of Iceland’s most impressive glaciers will melt by the next century. Vatnajökull is included in this estimation; its ice has been retreating at a rate of one meter per year, and its outlet glaciers are receding faster. As we said, Iceland’s ice caps are precious and impermanent, so if you have an opportunity to visit the polar island’s extraordinary glaciers and glacial caves, please take advantage of the time we live in and do so!
There are numerous options to enjoy Vatnajökull’s ice caves, but the best – and safest – ones are undoubtedly during the wintertime. Depending on where they are coming from or lodging, travelers often elect to depart from the incomparable Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, which is situated within Vatnajökull National Park. Please refer to our article A Beginner’s Guide to Jökulsárlón for specified information regarding boating and adventuring opportunities near and on the lagoon. You won’t want to pass up the region’s famous black sand beaches, striking masses of glistening icebergs, shockingly blue waters, and charming, baby-faced seals. After enjoying some time on Iceland’s surface, you can descend into the island’s mightiest ice caves.
Ice Caves on the Mýrdalsjökull Glacier
The Mýrdalsjökull Glacier is situated in the southern Icelandic highlands, and is the island’s fourth largest glacier. Concealed under the icecap is the great volcano Katla, which is notoriously active and typically erupts on a half-a-century cycle. In fact, it is one of the island’s most famous (or infamous) volcanoes, given that its eruptions tend to yield very impactful consequences on its surrounding environment. Mýrdalsjökull is an extremely damp location, receiving more than ten meters of precipitation on a yearly basis. Whenever Katla erupts, the ice above its caldera melts rapidly and accumulates until a massive flood ensues. Since this area is so wet, it comes as no surprise that several astonishing ice caves form near and around Mýrdalsjökull when temperatures plummet.
The secret ice caves of the Mýrdalsjökull Glacier are absolutely unforgettable. As we’ve mentioned, ice caves are fickle formations so the same ones don’t tend to reemerge cyclically – but it’s a safe bet that you’ll find a particularly fantastic one at the Mýrdalsjökull Glacier in wintertime. They have been dubbed “secret” ice caves, because in this region in particular the crevices leading into caves and tunnels tend to be difficult to spot for some reason – all the more incentive to go with an expert guide so you don’t miss anything! The floods outpouring from Mýrdalsjökull’s basin have given rise to several extraordinary black sand plains, and you will often see clear, impeccable ice formations outlined by sand and ash in the region’s caves. The result is a truly incomparable and almost alien landscape.
The Mýrdalsjökull Glacier is very close to the charming seaside town of Vik, where you can rest and recuperate after your ice-caving excursion. Vík is surrounded by striking cliffs dotted with thousands of Arctic birds’ nests and glittering black sand beaches. The whole of Iceland’s south shore is really a paradise for nature lovers, so if you have leftover energy after the invigorating experience of exploring the secret caves, definitely give Vík and its extraordinary landscape a visit.
Crystal Caves at Skaftafell
Skaftafell is another extremely popular location for ice caving enthusiasts. Skaftafell National Park is a gorgeous, lush mountain region located on the southern edge of the Vatnajökull glacier. It is a well-known locale for spectacular mountain climbing, the most popular climb being the ascent to Hvannadalshnjúkur, the highest peak of the Öræfajökull Glacier, which is incidentally one of the most powerful volcanoes in the world as well. Courageous ice climbers are often eager to take on the challenges of the Skaftafell region, armed with all the necessary winter gear and a love of the frozen terrain. However, you don’t necessarily have to ascend – you can also decend into Skaftafell’s strikingly beautiful ice caves.
Skaftafell’s most renowned ice cave formations are created in a sub-region called Svmnafellsjvkull. The so-called Crystal Caves of Svmnafellsjvkull are formed by the unparalleled power of the Vatnajökull icecap, where its glacier meets the Icelandic coastline. They result from a glacial mill, in which rainwater and melted water on slanted surfaces rush into streams that fill up the glacier’s many crevices. The flowing water channels itself towards lower elevations, resulting in long, tunnel-like ice caves with an outlet at the glacier’s terminus. The Crystal Caves of Svmnafellsjvkull are unlike many others you’ll see in Iceland, as the ice at its base is quite nearly black. This is because the frozen meltwater at its bottom absorb fine-grained sediments as the water funnels to the glacier’s lowest elevations. In contrast, the ice at the upper walls and the ceiling of the caves is impeccable, aquamarine blue.
These caves tend to be low to the ground, so the claustrophobic may want to avoid this adventure. There is a twenty-two-foot entrance to the caves near Skaftafell’s shoreline, but the cave quickly tapers to a meager four feet in height (the cave is about one-hundred-fifty meters in length, though). However, if you’re not too concerned with slightly limited spaces, these caves are luxuriously beautiful and entirely worth it in the wintertime. The otherworldly blue ice is so close that you can hear the crackling, popping sounds of layers of frost building upon each other as you pass through the caves. Furthermore, since the caves are low and so highly pressurized, the ice gets even smoother as you move further into the cave. It forces out any bubbles and absorbs any visible light available in the caves, making for an ethereally beautiful scene.
Skaftafell is probably one of the world’s most recognized places to search for ice caves, but there is even more to explore around the Öræfajökull Glacier. Some have compared the ice caves in this region to Superman’s “Fortress of Solitude,” an unearthly crystal castle built using alien technology, in the film Man of Steel. Indeed, take a step into Iceland’s crystal caves and you’ll have no doubt that they would make the extraterrestrial superhero proud!
Ice Caving on Þórsmörk and Eyjafjallajökull
If you’re even a little bit interested in Iceland and/or have a relatively solid long-term memory, the word Eyjafjallajökull will look at least a little familiar. It refers to a volcano whose immense power is visually concealed by a mid-sized ice cap. Regardless of its glacial camouflage, Eyjafjallajökull has become synonymous with the enormous power of Iceland’s volcanic landscape. In April 2010, around three thousand small earthquakes were detected around the Eyjafjallajökull area, resulting in an unusual amount of seismic activity. Ultimately, the newly loosened magma pouring into the stratovolcano’s magma chamber created enough pressure to cause a massive eruption from its epicenter – so massive that nearly all European flights were grounded due to seismic disruption. It was not until August 2010 that Eyjafjallajökull was classified as truly dormant again.
Fortunately, Eyjafjallajökull has been quiet again for quite some time, and if you visit it during the winter months, you can explore some extraordinary ice caves on this unique and lively landscape. Most end up forming at the very edge of the volcano, so you can satisfy the temptation to get close to arguably the most famous volcano in the world and engage in an incomparable ice caving adventure.
At 7.5 kilometers long, Gígjökull is one of two major glacial outlets from the volcano Eyjafjallajökull (the other is Steinholtsjökull). Gígjökull is primarily responsible for emptying out the volcanic summit’s crater, resulting in a two-hundred meter icefall! Due to the volcanic explosion we witnessed from Eyjafjallajökull in early 2010, Gígjökull has been particularly busy thanks to a consistent rush of melted glacial ice. As you can imagine, the ice caves of Gígjökull have become even grander and more impressive since the cataclysmic seismic activity seven years ago. It is now a favourite for ice climbers, cavers, and geologic enthusiasts. Furthermore, the ice lagoon forming in front of Gígjökull’s basin has been expanding and spreading, and the result is fascinating. The lagoon is filled with approximately twenty-five cubic meters of tephra! Eyjafjallajökull’s influence is definitely still being felt.
If you haven’t had enough of the volcanic territory or its ice caves, we suggest that you trek to nearby Þórsmörk, an absolutely stunning nature reserve named for the Norse god Þór. It is renowned for its extraordinary hiking trails, lush mountain passes, and luxurious hot springs, but it is also a great location for ice cave-hunting and exploring during the winter. Þórsmörk is the location of one of Iceland’s most famous – or perhaps infamous – rivers, Krossá. A frosty glacial river, Krossá is notorious for changing its course almost constantly, making crossing it a serious challenge.
However, the area’s highly active aquatic life results, of course, in ice caves with fascinating patterns and powerful clarity. Þórsmörk is definitely the place to go to get the best of Iceland’s outdoor activities – you can experience great hiking, ice caving, volcano trekking, and Super Jeep off-roading, if you’re eager to take on the mighty river Krossá. Just make sure you’re accompanied by well-prepared guides in the sturdiest of motor vehicles – there are actually many smaller rivers you’ll need to cross to make it to Þórsmörk’s ice caves aside from Krossá as well.
The Ice Tunnels at Langjökull
At the heart of Europe’s second-largest glacier, the ethereal Langjökull (which literally translates to “Long Glacier”), is Iceland’s first man-made ice cave. But before we dive into the frosty tunnels, which were just erected very recently and are already amassing international attention, we’ll brief you quickly on the might Langjökull glacier. It is the second-largest of its kind in Iceland, at 935 kilometers squared. It is easily the most popular venue for snowmobiling in Iceland, and its beauty and crystalline surface attracts many hikers and skiing enthusiasts as well. Langjökull’s ice and seasonal rush of ice-melt feeds into the famous river Hvíta, which culminates in Iceland’s “Golden Waterfall,” Gulfoss. East of Langjökull is the river Borfarfjordur, from which the waterfalls Hraunfossar and Barnafoss rush. While precious few rivers actually originate at Langjökull, it is well-known for funneling massive quantities of water to external rivers and sub-surface streams.
The man-made Langjökull glacier cave has been in the works since 2010, and as of Spring 2017, it is open to visitors. This one is a truly unique experience – it gives adventurers the opportunity to literally witness the inside of ice formations that have literally been forming for hundreds of years.
The ice cave tunnel is approximately five hundred meters long and plummets around thirty meters down into Langjökull’s massive glacial mass. The benefit of this tunnel being man-made is that there are numerous information signs lining the walls of the tunnel (not enough to overwhelm the ice’s natural beauty, of course), illuminating fascinating factoids regarding Iceland’s landscape and the cave itself. You will learn that, much like the rings of a tree, each layer of ice reveals each chronological stage of the glacier’s extensive life, and each streak of black reveals a volcanic eruption. There is even evidence of Eyjafjallajökull’s massive eruption embedded in the layers of the ice cave walls!
Towards the back of the ice tunnel, there is a large, half-moon-shaped hole drilled into the walls that allow you to look directly into the glacier. The glacial body’s internal landscape is beautiful and quite shocking – you’ll be sharply reminded that you are smack in the middle of a massive ice mass! Near a timber bridge built in the middle of the tunnel, there is a plummeting crevice lit up with surreal, crystalline icicles. Finally, among the various interconnected ice caves is actually a small, aquamarine blue ice chapel. If you’re looking for an unusual place for a winter wedding, you may want to check out this fascinating venue!
The Langjökull ice tunnel may be manmade, but it is still composed of natural Icelandic ice, of course. As such, it is not exempt from ice-melt, and will not be standing strong forever. The world’s largest man-made ice cave is expected to stick around for approximately a decade with regular maintenance, so if you want to see it, now is the time!