What kind of caves are there in Iceland and where exactly can you go caving?
Iceland is filled with caves of all sizes and shapes. Caves are important in Icelandic history, as many of them have served as shelters for people or animals in harsh winters. Some caves in Iceland are still used as sheds, or barns, for sheep.
Iceland is situated on top of a ‘hot spot’ on Earth, where there are dozens of volcanoes, craters and hot springs. Many lava tubes from the volcanoes have turned into caves, some of the craters have cracks that reveal hidden caves and some of the hot springs are even situated within caves! (Such as the one in the video above, Grjótagjá, where the water is now unfortunately too hot to bathe in...)
Essentially, there are three kinds of caves in Iceland: Lava caves, glacier caves and man made caves. The best thing to do on a rainy day in Iceland is either to go swimming or caving!
For any caving experience in Iceland you will need a helmet, a headlight and some warm and sensible clothing. There are many caving tours to choose from, all of them include helmets and a headlight.
Following are descriptions of some of Iceland’s beautiful and more known caves.
Glacier caves in Iceland
The most famous caves these days are glacier caves. The difference between glacier caves and ice caves is that ice caves are bedrock caves that contain ice all year round, whereas glacier caves are formed within the ice of a glacier. When you come to Iceland you will really want to see a glacier cave, but for some reason or another everyone calls them ice caves. See below to read how they form, or go see one in Vatnajökull glacier up until March.
Glaciers are constantly moving, or crawling, so glacier caves are therefore not permanent. Most of them are unstable and can collapse and can therefore be very dangerous to enter. Most glacier caves start forming by water running through or beneath the glacier or due to geothermal heat from volcanoes beneath the ice. The most known glacier caves in Iceland are formed because of geothermal heat, such as Kverkfjöll glacier caves in Vatnajökull. They were measured to be 2.8 km long with a vertical range of 525 meters in the 1980’s!
If you want to see a glacier cave whilst you are in Iceland, it is best to get in touch with a guide that knows where current glacier caves can be found. They can be hard to find and off the beaten track, your most likely bet is to find them in Vatnajökull glacier, the largest glacier in Europe!
Vatnshellir cave (Water cave)
Vatnshellir cave is found on Snæfellsnes peninsula and is only accessible on a guided tour. To enter it one needs to go down a circular staircase and once down, there is a 200 metre long cave that’s very wide and has a high ceiling. It is necessary to dress warmly and wear gloves because inside the cave it is cold. The guided tour takes about an hour.
Leidarendi cave (End of the road cave)
Another cave that’s not far from Reykjavík is Leidarendi cave. Leidarendi cave is a lava tube located in the Tvibollahraun lava field, close to the Blue Mountains, at about a 25 minutes drive from Reykjavik.
Leidarendi is notable for its incredibly diverse and colourful scenery, and is considered a prime example of an Icelandic lava tube.
A distinctive feature of Leidarendi are various lava flakes that have fallen from its walls and roof, due to frost and erosion. The cave walls are polished by lava streams and filled with stalagmites, stalagtites and other fascinating formations. In winter you are likely to see glistening natural ice sculptures in the cave, adding further beauty to the already otherworldly scene.
The cave Gjabakkahellir is also considered a prime example of an Icelandic lava tube, offering breathtaking sights with its many beautiful lava formations and ice sculptures. Gjabakkahellir (a.k.a. Helguhellir or Stelpuhellir ('Girl cave')) is a lava tube, located in the area of Thingvellir National Park that was formed around 9000 years ago.
The crater Thrihnjukagigur, east of the Blue Mountains in Southwest Iceland offers the unique experience of exploring the inside of a volcano.
The volcano has been dormant for the last 4000 years and shows no sign of activity, so you are safe to descend right to its bottom. Reminiscent of a citadel and vibrant in colours, Thrihnukagigur offers a fascinating adventure into the earth.
Through the crater's opening you will enter a humongous magma chamber, one of the most amazing natural phenomenon of its kind.
Búri cave is situated on the Reykjanes peninsula and was only discovered in 2005. Búri's size is unparalleled in Iceland, 10 meters high, 10 meters wide in its largest chambers and 1 kilometer long! At its innermost section there's a 17 meter deep vertical pit, made from a lava fall, the deepest lava pit on earth.
The entrance is narrow but once you enter you'll be inside a vast chamber where you can marvel at the cave's spectacular ice sculptures and formations. The ice sculptures are at their most marvelous in winter but tours to the cave are available during all seasons.
Having climbed the cave's ice slope you'll go through a rocky tunnel about 700 meters long. Thereafter the floor is relatively flat all the way to the lava pit.
Lofthellir cave (Air cave)
Lofthellir is a lava cave in North Iceland, situated in the lava field of older Laxardalshraun.
The Lofthellir lava cave is renowned for having some of the largest, most varied and most beautiful ice sculptures of any lava cave in Iceland and spectacular lava formations as well. You can find out about tours to this breathtakingly beautiful cave here.
Maríuhellar caves (Maria’s caves)
The closest caves to Reykjavík are Maríuhellar in Heidmörk Nature Reserve, about a 15 minute drive from the city centre. Mariuhellar caves are three in total and popular for locals to bring their kids to. The most obvious one is Urriðakotshellir cave that’s close to the main road. It’s a large open lava tube in a large grassy lava opening and inside there is a small hole where you can see through to the sky.