What is a glacier but a thick and immense expanse of ice? Experience one up close, and something else comes to light: glaciers are alive. Or at least they almost seem that way!
Europe’s largest glacier commands Iceland’s southeast corner, appearing on maps as a vast spread of white on an otherwise barren tundra fringed with occasional green. This mass looks to be a flat, solid sheet, and in fact it is on average 400-600 meters thick. Come closer, though, and a whole system emerges: great tongues of slowly-traveling ice slide down valleys, lined with massive grey cravasses and sometimes calving into lagoons. Underneath the glacier are long, glowing caves melted out of the ice by warm rivers, and inaccessible hidden lakes. Along with this great ice sheet, named Vatnajökull, Iceland is dotted with the remains of many more glaciers, all slowly succumbing to changes in weather in an age-old cycle. Langjökull and Snæfellsjökull are the most well-known after Vatnajökull, the former because of its proximity to the north-south route mentioned in the sagas, Kjöl, and the latter as the entrance to Jules Verne’s center of the Earth. Most recently, Eyjafjallajökull captured the attention of the world sitting as it does on the volcano that opened up in 2010.
Come to Iceland and meet a glacier for yourself ~ an immensity in ice you won’t forget!
The Great Giant of Iceland, Vatnajökull has commanded both awe and respect for over a millennia. Its sheer weight alone actually presses the whole island of Iceland down, the amount of ancient water stored frozen in its vast expanse being just over 3100 Gigatonnes, an amount that if melted would raise world ocean levels by about a third of an inch. That’s quite a bit of water! And when any one of the many volcanos underneath it gets hot and restless, some of that water gushes forth with such force that anything in its path is washed to sea. That means that the entire region to the south of glacier is nothing more than a wide plain of barren that has thwarted travelers since the days of Settlement.
That said, Vatnajökull is for the most part a gentle giant, and respectful visitors are welcome to explore its greatness, both topside on snowmobiles and on foot, though it’s imperative to go with guides who’ve studied it and know its every crack, fissure and crevace. There are also glacial caves to explore along its base, and high peaks and slow-flowing tongues of ice to climb with picks and crampons, though in all cases absolute respect should be paid to the unpredictable power of this awesome natural phenomenon.
Snæfellsjökull is Iceland’s beauty queen glacier, without a doubt. From just about any angle or distance, it poses with an almost glamorous attitude inviting you to snap photos and want to know it more. It drapes smoothly over a classic pyramid-shaped volcano, with two crowing tufts at the very top. Though a good 120km over Faxaflói bay from Reykjavik, in certain lighting Snæfellsjökull can seem to loom larger-than-life over the capital, adding a certain magic to an already amazing sight. As a matter of fact, that very optical illusion is said to have stunned the very first Norsemen who sailed into the wide bay almost 1200 years ago. In addition, most people know that Snæfellsjökull helps to hide the entrance to the center of the earth, according to Jules Verne, and to magnify the amazing healing energy potentials of the long-sleeping volcano it rests on.
Though it’s easy to just admire the glacier from a distance, it’s also a special treat to get to know it up close and personal. One of the three large national parks in Iceland is specially dedicated to it and the lovely nature at its skirts, including a black-pebble beach, puffin-laden cliffs, lava caves, rugged hills, grassy plains, waterfalls and more. It’s actually pretty easy to ice-hike to the top of the glacier if you’re fit for a good challenge (it’s recommended to go with a local guide, though!) or you can book a snowmobile tour for your magical peak experience.
If it’s possible to call a glacier super friendly, then that’s what should be said about Langjökull. As its name implies (‘lang’ means long in Icelandic) it’s a long swath of ancient ice, running north-south for about 50 km at a rakish angle, and surrounded by an entourage of smaller glaciers to keep it company. It’s an easily accessible glacier frequented by winter-sport enthusiasts and offering amazing views, though it does have its secrets and mysteries. For instance it’s recently been discovered that under the ice cap lies a surprisingly varied geology of deep broad valleys, high peaks and now-frozen lakes. And historically, there were stories of a deeply pagan, rough settlement of outlaws practicing witchcraftery at Þórisdalur valley at its southern end. Today there’s no evidence of that, and the overall magic of the scenery attracts more and more visitors each year.
At its northeastern edge, the beautiful highland desert hot spring oasis of Hveravellir adds a warm charm, while the southern region of Langjökull offers an array of outdoor activities, including dogsledding and snowmobiling, ice-climbing, and now the chance to travel deep into the glacier with a newly-opened tunnel that’s been carved into it. Langjökull is a galcier that welcomes you to enjoy it in a host of exciting ways.
Our bad-boy celebrity glacier! Eyjafjallajökull had its fifteen minutes of fame five years ago when the volcano that it sits happily on top of decided to blow. Locals desperate to get off the island to warmer vacation lands couldn’t, and all air traffic in western Europe halted due to the massive plume of thick ash it poured forth. Though Eyjafjallajökull, that is, the actual glacier (jökull means glacier) had nothing to do with that havok of April 2010, its impossible-to-pronounce name became synonymous with trouble, and to this day tourist shops sell vials of ash, ash ceramics, and t-shirts dedicated to our most notorious ice cap.
Located pretty close to Highway 1 in the south, Eyjafjallajökull is easy to see from the road, though it’s not a glacier you’d want to walk on: it’s steep and full of crevaces . For more experienced hikers, though, the Fimmvörðurháls trail passes close by, offering a chance to greet this fifth-largest Icelandic glacier from a friendly but safe distance away.
On a map, Hofsjökull is an almost-perfect white circle in the center of Iceland, sitting there innocently, looking pretty in between two larger glaciers to the east and west. Small glacial tongues and rivers radiate out happily in all directions from its center, but scrape the icing off and underneath you’ll find an active caldera straddling one of the most geologically active zones in Iceland. As a matter of fact, Hofsjökull is exactly where the island is splitting apart, constantly and over millennia, along the Mid-Atlantic Rift, and so is actually capping some of the youngest land in the country. So pretty it is, but volatile as well, though it wasn’t until the 1970’s that anyone realized that an active volcano resided below.
Hofsjökull, or Temple Glacier, has always been a distinct mid-way marker along the north-south Kjöl highlands road since the time of Settlement. At its south-west flank is the geothermally-active Kerlingafjöll area, and just west of that the Hveravellir hot spring area, both important resting spots in the olden days, and still popular destinations today. It’s also said that the Holy Grail was hidden below the western skirts of Hofsjökull back in the 13th century, a treasure still to be discovered.
The fourth largest of Iceland’s glaciers is also the most dangerous! Mýrdalsjökull, named after a vally at its base, may seem innocent enough at first, but has been causing mayhem for as long as records have been kept about Iceland’s history. As a matter of fact, only about sixty years after the Viking settlement of the island, the very active and dangerous Katla volcano that simmers underneath it exploded, pouring lava out to the south and destroying newly-settled farms in its path, as well as affecting weather as far away as modern-day Iran in the form of a deep cold spell from the lingering ash cloud it produced. More recently, Katla blew in 1755, spewing poisonous ash for months, and melting Mýrdalsjökull from below causing a meltwater flood, one of many from this dangerous glacier.
Aside from the constant outpouring of melted water from its underbelly (Katla is such an active volcano that it’s woken up just about twice a century since the Settlement Era) Mýrdalsjökull was also the site of a military plane crash that killed 9 airmen in 1952. Only one body was recoved at the time due to bad weather that eventually buried the wreck in snow and ice. 29 years later the other eight crewmen’s bodies were revealed and sent back to the US for burial. Today, though hiking paths crisscross it, this bad-boy glacier is considered safe only for the most experienced.
Finally, there’s the shy-kid glacier named Drangajökull. It sits low on the horizon in its northly home on one of the many fingers of the ancient West Fjords, which are geologically the oldest parts of Iceland. It’s a remote region, with some of the fjords to the north of it literally only accessible via boat or plane. It’s said to be the only glacier that hasn’t shown signs of retreat in recent years, not surprising as its sits farthest north of them all, and is farther from the more geothermally-active central island. Out of its flat expanse stick three rocky points, the most dramatic of which looks like a great black ship on a wide white sea. This glacier has been traversed for as long as the area has been inhabited, basically since the original Settlement Era of the 9th century AD, when plentiful driftwood, fertile lands at the bottom of fjords, and the occasional beached whale made survival there possible.
Today those original farmlands and steads are abandoned, and the area around Drangajökull has become, for the most part, a southern extension of the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve. It’s possible to book guided walking tours over the glacier and even week-long horseback tours around its perimeter. With comfortable natural hot springs in gorgeous calm valleys at its feet and wide, sweeping views over ancient mountains and fjords from on top, Drangajökull is a quiet and best-kept secret of Iceland.