I have written about my visits to a couple of seasonal ice caves in Iceland, which form in the wintertime, but did you know that there is an ice cave that is open all year round? It is called the Katla ice cave, located in South-Iceland, in the Kötlujökull glacier, a ruggedly beautiful icefall of Mýrdalsjökull glacier, Iceland's fourth largest glacier.
Here we are in the territory of the most dreaded volcano in Iceland - the subglacial Katla itself!
Top photo: inside Katla ice cave with our guide from Katlatrack
Inside Katla ice cave
I got the opportunity recently to visit Katla ice cave. It had been on my agenda for a year to visit this cave and when the opportunity arose I jumped on it. We drove from Reykjavík city to the scenic little village of Vík in Mýrdalur in South-Iceland.
The Katlatrack glacier guides picked us up in their super jeeps at their meeting point at Vík (by the N1 gas station) right by ring road 1. The ice cave is a 45-minute drive north of Vík through black volcanic sand plains from previous eruptions of the still active Katla volcano (i.e. we have been waiting for it to erupt).
The meeting point at Vík
Our guide blasted Highway to Hell on the radio, which I found to be both hilarious and fitting for where we were going - towards the notorious Katla, which most Icelanders are afraid of.
Another very active volcano in Iceland, Mt. Hekla, earned the nickname Gateway to Hell a millennium ago. When Mt. Hekla erupts we call it a tourist eruption - when Mt. Katla erupts we call it a cataclysm!
Parts of Kötlujökull glacier
That is why we Icelanders fear it, not that many of us have witnessed it erupting though, as the last eruption took place in 1918. But we have heard stories...
The ride is very scenic, through a ruggedly beautiful landscape with extraordinary contrasts. The pitch-black lava sand and the green mountains created a spectacular scene. Soon it was to become even more spectacular.
The track leading to the Katla glacier
For such sandy roads, the driver let some air out of the super jeep tires (to around 12-16 psi) as it gives the tires a wider grip on the sand. The same is done when driving on glaciers in Iceland.
I tell you this so that you know what is happening on your upcoming tour when the driver suddenly disappears and starts fiddling with the tires ;)
On the way to the ice cave
Once we reached the Mýrdalsjökull glacier the glacier guides provided us with sturdy glacier crampons and helmets with headlights. One has got to appreciate the glacier crampons, they give us such good grips on the glacier hikes and inside the ice caves.
We now followed the guide on a short hike to the black icefall Kötlujökull - the Katla glacier. It is an easy hike, only 5-7 minutes or so. We crossed a few creeks, with meltwater from the glacier, and in some places, the glacier guides had fitted planks over the creeks to make it easier for us to cross.
The entrance to Katla ice cave
When we reached the ice cave, I immediately thought to myself that it looked like a scene out of Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings. I was in awe just seeing the entrance to the cave. Don't you agree with me?
See also my travel-blog: The Extraordinary Game of Thrones Locations I have visited on my Travels in Iceland
The glacier guides have carved steps into the glacier to make it easier to ascend into the ice cave. You also have ropes to hold onto so it is easy to enter the cave. Once inside you will have ropes and small bridges for your aid.
Inside Katla ice cave looking out at the blue ice
These beautiful ice caves are formed in the glacier tongues when water from the melting glacier finds its way and carves an opening in the ice. Thus enabling us to have a rare peek inside. And in this instance to walk through a black and blue ice tunnel with beautiful shiny ice formations.
I love the blue ice, which is the oldest part of the glacier. Why it is blue in colour is explained in detail by Nanna in her fantastic article Ice Caves in Iceland - the Ultimate Guide. It is an essential read about glaciers and ice caves in Iceland in my opinion.
Our glacier guide picked up a piece of melting ice, shook it, and showed us some air bubbles trapped inside the ice
Inside the ice cave, you will see pitch black ash from different volcanic eruptions of Katla volcano through the centuries - ash which has been pressed into the ice and has never been seen before.
Since the Vikings settled Iceland back in 874 (give or take a few years) Katla has erupted some 20 times with the last big eruption taking place in 1918. So it must be due to erupt if there is a pattern to its eruptions.
Inside Katla ice cave
The year of the last eruption in Katla, 1918, was quite an annus horribilis for Icelanders as it gave us an extremely cold winter, referred to as Frostaveturinn mikli - the Winter of the extreme frost - with 27 polar bears from Greenland coming ashore!
At the same time, the Spanish flu invaded Iceland. I as an Icelander was in awe and felt like I was walking through a tunnel of Iceland's history when I walked through the ice cave looking at the old ash from the Katla eruptions.
Drinking the glacier - Icelandic Brennivín on the rocks - with ancient ice from the glacier
When we reached the end of the ice cave we came out through another opening - and were greeted with a refreshing Icelandic Brennivín schnapps on the rocks! Only the ice was age-old ice from the Kötlujökull glacier! Those who didn't want alcohol were offered water on the rocks.
I found it amazing being able to drink a toast to such forces of nature and somehow on returning through the ice cave I stepped more lightly and fearlessly. Or maybe it was because I had the flu and the alcohol went straight to my head ;)
We spent an hour by the ice cave giving us ample time to take photos of every angle of the cave. And you can take some spectacular photos of the ice caves. My amateur photos don't even begin to show what professional photos can look like.
If you have a yellow coat then I would advise you to wear it during your visit to Katla ice cave. I wore my blue parka but noticed that the best photos were of my fellow travellers who were wearing yellow. It makes you pop out of the photo.
Yellow colour stands out when visiting the ice caves
I didn't know whether to use the flash or not in the ice cave, so I took photos left and right with flash and without flash to see which ones would turn out better. The photos without the flash came out bluer, but with flash, the ice lit up.
Most of my photos in this travel-blog are taken with flash. The flash, on the other hand, lights up the ash as well and makes it look brownish.
The glaciers are constantly moving so the ice caves change every year. In previous travel-blogs, I have shown you my visits to the seasonal crystal ice caves in Breiðamerkurjökull and Fláajökull glaciers, where the ice was blue and sparkling on the days I visited them.
The staff of Guide to Iceland taking in the beauty of the ice cave
Each time you visit the ice caves they will look different, so the photos I show you here are just what they looked like on the day of my visit. You can see a selection of good photos of the ice caves at Katlatrack.
The seasonal ice caves are open from the beginning of November until the end of March each year and can be visited when the weather permits. We never know though if or where they are going to form.
Looking out from the Katla ice
Some years the most beautiful ice caves form and are never to be seen again. And new ones appear. So it is always a new and exciting experience visiting an ice cave.
The Katla ice cave is open all year round.
Icefalls move under their own weight and calve, so the glaciers and natural glacial ice caves cannot be visited without a trained and experienced glacier guide. We were in super good hands with the Katlatrack glacier guides.
By the entrance to Katla ice cave :)
Never try to enter an ice cave without a trained glacier guide, as they always check out the condition of the ice caves before they enter them with a group. Safety is of the utmost importance in the ice caves.
Inside Katla ice cave
Some of our volcanoes have female names - maybe because they are dangerous when they erupt ;) Icelandic folklore tells us how Katla got its name.
I found this folklore in Þjóðsögur Jóns Árnasonar - the Collection of Folklore of Jón Árnason, which is a compilation of folklores in five volumes, and translated it into English:
"It happened once upon a time that at Þykkvabæjarklaustur monastery an abbot living at the monastery had a cook called Katla. She was a bad-tempered woman - she owned trousers, which were of the nature that anybody who put them on could run forever without feeling tired. Katla used these trousers when needed.
The information sign in Katla Geopark - it shows Katla running in the trousers
People were afraid of her witchcraft and her temperament and even the abbot feared Katla. At the monastery, there was a shepherd by the name of Barði. Katla would often scold him severely if any of the sheep he was herding went missing.
One autumn the abbot went to a feast and Katla joined him. Barði, the shepherd, was ordered to round up all of the sheep prior to their return. But he wasn't able to track down all of the sheep.
Inside the Katla ice cave looking out at the photographer Iurie Belegurschi preparing his drone
He then decided on putting on Katla's trousers and with the trousers, he was able to run and find all of the sheep. When Katla returned back home she noticed that Barði had taken her trousers!
Find more folklore on Katla and the glacier bursts in my travel-blog about the notorious Katla
She then secretly took Barði and drowned him in a barrel of whey acid and left him there. Nobody knew where Barði had disappeared to, but later on, that same winter the whey acid in the barrel had little by little run-out, people heard Katla utter these words: "Senn bryddir á Barða" meaning "Soon Barði will appear".
The view from Katla ice cave
Katla realized that her evilness would be uncovered and that she would be punished. She then grabbed her trousers, ran out of the monastery, and headed northwest towards the glacier and apparently plunged into it and was never to be seen again.
But shortly after this happened a flood burst from the glacier and headed in the direction of the monastery and Álftaver.
The ice is blue, grey, and brown depending on how much ash there is trapped inside it
From then on people started believing that Katla was using her witchcraft and causing the floods. The rift was from then on named Kötlugjá or the Rift of Katla, and the area, which this flood had destroyed, was called Kötlusandur or the Sandplains of Katla".
(Translated into English from Þjóðsögur Jóns Árnasonar - the Collection of Folklore of Jón Árnason)
Above you will see parts of the beautiful Hafursey opposite the ice cave. Hafursey is a palagonite mountain standing tall on the black sandplains of Mýrdalssandur. During one of the Katla eruptions, the glacial flood burst through a gorge in Hafursey on its way to the sea.
Read much more about the glacial floods in my travel-blog on Katla Volcano & Kötlutangi Spit
In the Katla eruption in 1755, some 6 men were able to seek shelter in a cave in Hafursey with the glacier burst roaring outside. In my abovementioned travel-blog, you can read several stories on what happened to the inhabitants of this area during the glacier bursts.
Returning back to the jeeps after the thrilling experience of visiting an ice cave
The owners of this area are the same owners as of the historical Hjörleifshöfði, which I have told you about in other travel-blogs. They gracefully allow a few tour operators to offer guided tours into the Katla ice cave to show us its beauty.
Under the conditions though that it be tastefully done and that it will never become overly crowded and touristy. So that is what we can count on when visiting Katla ice cave :)
I love travelling in super jeeps and had a field day in the Katlatrack super jeeps ;)
Tours available by Katlatrack:
Katla Ice Cave Tour | Departure From Vík - 4 hours
Katla ice cave in 2021 - the one we visited earlier had collapsed and another one was discovered close by
If you decide on visiting the Katla ice cave from Vík, then you can rent a car in Reykjavík and drive to Vík in a couple of hours. It is located 187 km away from Reykjavík with many beautiful stops on the way.
If you choose to be picked up in Reykjavík, then Katlatrack will stop by many of the sights on the south-coast on the way to Vík. They will then continue driving up to the Kötlujökull glacier through the vast Mýrdalssandur sand plains.
Map from the Icelandic Land Survey
Sólheimajökull is another glacial tongue stretching out from Mýrdalsjökull glacier. Glacier hikes are very popular on Sólheimajökull, which also sports a small glacial lagoon. You can see what a glacier hike is like in my travel-blog:
Have a fantastic time visiting the rare and beautiful ice caves of Iceland :)