Learn everything you need to know about visiting the ice caves in Iceland. What’s an ice cave, and how does it differ from a glacier cave? Where can you find the best ice caves in Iceland? When can you visit the Crystal Cave? Find the answers to these questions and more in our ultimate guide to Iceland’s ice caves.
Iceland is home to multiple glaciers, which lend the country many fascinating landscape features, including towering icy cliffs, crevasses, snow-covered plains, glacier lagoons, and natural glacier ice caves.
However, not all ice caves are the same, and the super stunning ones are natural glacier ice caves.
Iceland’s natural glacier ice cave season is in winter, from mid-October until the end of March, except for two glacier caves accessible all year.
Additionally, there are some options to see ice caves (not glacier caves) all year round—although they're not as impressive as the blue ice caves in the Vatnajokull glacier.
When most people think of an ice cave, they picture a glacier cave, like the one shown above.
By definition, an ice cave is any type of natural cave with some amount of ice in it year-round; it does not need to be made entirely out of ice.
However, a cave fully formed within a block of ice, such as a glacier, is a glacier cave. These two terms often get confused, and tourists talk about ice caves when they mean glacier caves.
Glacier caves in Iceland generally have stunning blue color ice. You can also see blue in ice caves mixed with the colors of the cave itself, such as black, red, and even copper-colored.
Before you book an ice cave tour in Iceland, be sure you read the tour description and look at the accompanying pictures so that you know exactly what to expect. Most of Iceland’s best ice cave tours refer to the glacier caves found inside the Vatnajokull glacier by the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, but not all.
Iceland has both ice caves, such as the lava cave Lofthellir that is filled year-round with magnificent ice sculptures and accessible during the summertime (from May to October), and natural glacier caves that you can only enter at the height of winter.
Iceland is home to many glaciers, and the largest one, by far, is the Vatnajokull glacier in the southeast and east part of the country.
Glaciers are made out of very dense ice that doesn't melt away during summer. Parts of glaciers may melt, and the glacier may shrink in size or grow larger, but if the ice melts completely, the glacier ceases to exist. If this happens, the glacier’s disappearance reveals the land beneath it.
Some glaciers in Iceland have already disappeared completely, such as the former “Ok” glacier.
Glaciers only exist on land; ice blocks in the sea or water are called icebergs or ice sheets. Glacier lagoons are often found at the tip of a crawling glacier, like the famous Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon.
Another characteristic of a glacier is that it's constantly moving, and it’s their weight that causes them to move and deform, creating crevasses, moulins, and seracs. Additionally, rivers often run underneath or through glaciers where they shape the ice.
It’s often said that the glaciers are crawling as they slowly move over their surrounding landscapes. During this movement, they constantly push sand and rocks from the ground, which causes their circumference to be covered in black dirt.
The glaciers and the glacier caves will change in appearance daily due to this constant movement. There's never a guarantee that you’ll see the same sight you’ve captured in a photograph; the glacier will have changed since you took the picture.
Please note that glaciers, and glacier caves, are extremely dangerous. Never attempt to hike on a glacier or visit a glacier cave on your own.
The glaciers are full of cracks that the untrained eye may not detect, and people can easily fall dozens or even hundreds of yards (meters) into a glacier crevasse. The icy ceilings of a glacier cave may break and collapse if the temperature rises above 32 F (0 C), trapping people underneath a heavy mass of ice. Glacier caves become even more dangerous and unstable during and after rainfall.
Surprisingly, the road leading to the glacier caves poses the greatest threat. For the last 600-700 yards (550-650 meters) before arriving at the caves, it’s necessary to drive on black gravel and sand paths. Although they appear to be solid ground, they’re actually on top of what's known as “dead-ice” and, therefore, are not as safe as normal roads.
Dead-ice occurs when the glacier stops moving and just melts on the spot. Underneath this dead-ice, there may be a river flowing, and if travelers don't proceed with care, their cars could fall straight through the dead-ice.
Moreover, when hiking on a glacier or visiting a glacier cave, it's necessary to be equipped with the right gear, such as helmets, ice axes, and crampons. This is why you should only explore glacier caves in Iceland on tour with a trained guide.
Glacier caves are famous for their vivid electric blue color. As mentioned above, however, not all of them are blue.
The ice in a glacier is thicker and denser than regular ice, such as what’s in your freezer or the icicles outside your home. The ice is so thick, dense, and old that it absorbs all colors of the spectrum except the color blue, so that's the color we see.
Ice that’s entirely free of white air bubbles appears to be the most blue. Tiny air bubbles reflect and scatter visible light, so when no bubbles are in the way, the light can penetrate the ice further and lose more red color.
In ice, the absorption of light is six times greater at the red end of the color spectrum than the blue end; so the deeper the light gets to travel into the clear ice, the bluer it becomes.
However, the caves can also be white, turquoise, grey, brown, or black. Much like water has many different colors depending on daylight and its depth, so does the glacial ice.
Some glacier caves have openings that are covered by snow or are constantly in the shade, so the sunlight doesn't reach the ice inside. In those situations, the ice will appear darker or even black. Fresh or newly frozen snow on the ice's surface will give the ice a white complexion, but the ice can also contain a lot of sand, gravel, and stones, giving the ice black patterns.
Glaciers turn up the ground when they crawl forward, and since many glaciers in Iceland are situated on top of volcanic craters, there's often a lot of black volcanic ash in their ice.
The most impressive caves in Iceland are the glacier caves. They form naturally when summer meltwater carves long tunnels and caves underneath the thick ice sheets.
As these are natural caves that melt and break down each summer, they’re constantly changing and evolving. Each year the caves exist in different locations, varying in size and shape. Some years a few accessible caves are discovered, and others none.
The glacier caves also change daily in size and shape, and, therefore, each visit is unique. The pictures above and below show the same cave from a similar angle so that you can see the difference between days or weeks.
Sudden intense cold can make the cave stronger. The cold may freeze droplets falling from the ceiling, resulting in impressive icicles. It may also make the cave tighter and more challenging to access.
Iceland's weather is notorious for changing continuously, so the difference between days or possibly even hours may be drastic.
A couple of days of mild winter weather may erode much of the cave; it can make it bigger; it may melt a hole into the ceiling, bathing the cave in sunlight or snow; and it may cause the cave to collapse or become too dangerous to enter.
Never try to enter a glacier cave on your own, even if you are an experienced hiker. To enter the glacier caves safely, you'll need to go with a professional glacier guide who will decide whether or not the cave is safe to enter.
A glacier cave tour is only ever canceled to ensure your safety. If this happens, you'll receive a full refund or be presented with alternatives such as a glacier hike or a snowmobile ride and then get a partial refund.
As the glacier caves are situated in Vatnajokull, about 243 miles (391 kilometers) away from Reykjavik, a 2-day tour or a 3-day tour of Iceland's South Coast that includes a visit to a glacier ice cave is recommended to have ample time to enjoy all the sights along the way.
Since the caves in Iceland's glaciers are only temporary, it seems futile to give them names. But if many are discovered in the same location, each receives a descriptive name, so they’re easily distinguished.
One of the sizeable Vatnajokull glacier ice caves is The Crystal Cave, and it has appeared roughly in the same location since the winter of 2011-2012. Currently, this is the undisputed best ice cave in Iceland, although, with the ever-changing nature of ice caves, this will undoubtedly change in the future.
Each summer, Iceland’s Crystal Cave is carved out by a large glacial river. This is the glacier cave most travelers have been to, as multiple cave tours in Iceland take visitors there due to its size and favorable access. The inside of the cave resembles a crystal dome, explaining the name.
In recent years, the Crystal Cave has been the largest glacier ice cave in the area, large enough to fit 70-100 people. It’s located a little west of the glacier lagoon Jokulsarlon, the starting point for all tours leading to the caves in the Vatnajokull glacier.
Close to the Crystal Cave, another smaller cave called the Dark Rubin has sometimes been accessible. The Dark Rubin is large enough to fit 30 people; it's entirely dark, made up of black ice.
The Blue Diamond Cave was the name of one of the glacier caves that appeared in Vatnajokull in the winter of 2016-2017. Like many glacier caves, the Blue Diamond Cave had a gorgeous blue color, but it was smaller than the Crystal Cave. Only 17 people would fit in the Blue Diamond ice cave at a time.
The Blue Diamond had an arguably more beautiful blue color than the Crystal Cave, hence the name.
The Blue Diamond was, in fact, a moulin cave (also known as a glacier mill). It was formed by snow, high up on the glacier but not carved out by a glacial river like the Crystal Cave. A moulin is ordinarily vertical, but the Blue Diamond was an exception since it was horizontal.
However, access to the Blue Diamond Cave was often possible even when the Crystal Cave was not accessible. This was because the Blue Diamond Cave was situated higher up on the glacier, where the temperature was generally lower, which also meant that it was harder to access.
This cave, like many others, has now disappeared and is not likely to reappear in winters to come.
Close to the Blue Diamond Cave, the Black Diamond Cave was accessible and could fit around 20 people. But it only had black ice inside and was not as popular with travelers.
The Waterfall Cave existed in the winters of 2015-2016 and 2016-2017. This large cave was safe to enter, even though a small river and waterfall ran through it.
This cave was formed by the river flowing into it instead of running out. Out of all the glacier caves mentioned here, it's the only one situated east of the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, by Vedurardalur valley.
The ceiling was not very high, but the Waterfall Cave was sizable. By following the small river, you ended up by the small but picturesque waterfall seen above. Icelanders are hopeful for an ice cave in the exact location with a waterfall to be accessible again in the future.
Only accessible one winter a few years ago was the stunning cave named after the dancing auroras: The Northern Lights Cave. The beautiful lines in the cave ceiling were reminiscent of the aurora borealis.
All the ice cave tours would go to this cave when it existed, but unfortunately, it was just accessible for one year.
Photo from: Katla Ice Cave Tour | Departure From Vík.
One of the latest ice cave discoveries was made in the glacier of Katla, one of the most dangerous volcanoes in Iceland.
There are several glacier caves here, but they’re darker than those in the Vatnajokull glacier and do not contain as much blue ice. The caves are small, with short tunnels in varying colors. If you don't mind getting down on all fours and doing a bit of crawling, then you'll be rewarded with some beautiful sights!
On the other hand, this location is more accessible from Reykjavik as the drive to get to the glacier is half of what it's to get to Vatnajokull. Additionally, the Katla ice cave is accessible during summertime.
Photo from: Katla Ice Cave Tour | Departure from Reykjavik.
Tours going to the glacier cave by Katla started in the winter of 2016-2017. Because the caves stayed safe to enter into the spring and summer months, they were also accessible throughout the summer of 2017 and continue to be accessible.
Expect to see black ice when visiting these glacier caves, with small patches of light blue ice, white snow, and even some waterfalls with glistening rainbows on sunny days.
In Iceland's second-largest glacier, Langjokull, you can both visit a natural glacier ice cave, as well as human-made ice tunnels (which will be detailed a bit further on).
The natural ice cave was discovered only recently but is accessible year-round. Its main benefit is its proximity to Reykjavik and that it can be added to a thrilling snowmobiling excursion. The ride to reach is exhilarating, conducted on a large super truck.
Photo from Glacier Hike & Ice Cave Tour from Skaftafell
If you also want to go on a glacier hike, that's a bit more demanding than simply driving up to an ice cave. Sometimes it's possible to hike up to some glacier ice caves or find your way through massive cracks in the ice. Of course, the main requirements are a qualified guide and necessary gear.
This Glacier Hike & Ice Cave Tour from Skaftafell is a 4-hour trip from mid-October through March. The hike takes you further into the glacier, where you're more likely to come across a glacier cave than closer to the edge of it - meaning that this tour is available a whole two weeks before the majority of the glacier ice cave tours start.
Photo from Discovering Langjokull Ice Cave Tunnel
Lastly, the human-made ice tunnels in Langjokull mentioned above need further clarification. These impressive tunnels have been dug into the glacier and include a chapel.
This space was also used for the Secret Solstice Festival; concerts were held in the glacier tunnels.
Photo from Discovering Langjokull Ice Cave Tunnel
The tunnels were created high on the glacier, in contrast to the natural ice caves, which are typically at the edges of glaciers and quite unstable. The tunnels, however, are very stable and are accessible all year round. Inside you'll be able to see the alluring blue ice of the glacier.
Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen
Even if you're in Iceland at an unsuitable time for visiting the glacier caves, you can still learn a lot about them and get a feel for what they're like by visiting the Glacier and Ice Cave Exhibition located in Perlan, in Reykjavík.
The Glacier and Ice Cave Exhibition is the first of its kind to be open to the public. It’s a part of a more extensive exhibition named Wonders of Iceland, including a Planetarium, a Northern Lights Exhibition, and a Land, Coast, and Ocean Exhibition.
In the Glacier and Ice Cave Exhibition, you can visit the first indoor ice cave in the world, right in the center of Iceland's capital city - and it's accessible all year.
Which glacier caves in Iceland have you visited? Are there any cave experiences in particular that you would recommend? Feel free to leave your thoughts and queries in the Facebook comment box below.