complete guide to visit the ice caves

les grottes de glace bleue en islande en hiver

Among the many exceptional sites that you can visit in Iceland, the ice caves are undoubtedly some of the most magical.

Whether white, blue or even black, ice caves leave no one indifferent. I had the opportunity to visit several, in Iceland and elsewhere, and each time it is the same thing, my eyes sparkle in front of the beauty of these natural formations.

So when I decided to do a winter road trip in Iceland, it was impossible not to plan an excursion to visit the ice caves!

But that was without counting on the huge number of possible excursions. Too much choice kills choice. From the 1-hour excursion to that of a half-day, at more or less exorbitant prices, how do you know which excursion to favor?

I must admit that I chose a bit off the cuff according to my budget and the opinions available on the booking platform.

It is therefore to make your job easier that in this article you will find some information to help you make the right choice.

The formation of ice caves in Iceland

Already, what is an ice cave and how are they formed?

As the name suggests, caves are formed from ice. In Iceland, these caves are said to be subglacial because they are created within a glacier itself. Subglacial caves are not to be confused with natural ice caves, where ice forms naturally on rock faces in all seasons. FYI, there are natural ice boxes in the Jura (where there have been no glaciers for a long time!)

Subglacial caves in Iceland are formed by the melting of the ice (from the glacier) which is most often linked to the proximity of a hot spring resulting from volcanic activity. However, with global warming the increasing importance of the ice in spring tends to form more and more subglacial torrents, naturally creating more ice caves in winter.

As a result, ice caves are in constant motion and can change in appearance from day to day. And that’s exactly why, apart from their sublime colors, I find these caves so fascinating.

The different ice caves and their colors

In Iceland you have the opportunity to see 3 types of ice caves; white, blue and black. Make sure that the color of the ice cave you plan to visit is mentioned in the description of the excursion because if you expect to see a beautiful blue cave and it is not , you risk being disappointed.

But where does their color come from and what is the difference between the 3?

Nothing chemical in there, just a little physics. In a few words, the color of the ice is related to its age. Indeed, a “young” ice cream contains a lot of micro-bubbles of oxygen which reflect and disperse the light, giving it a white or transparent color, like your frozen ice cube. The older the ice, the more oxygen disappears and therefore the further the light sinks into the ice. Red light being the first color of the spectrum to be absorbed, we therefore see the blue colored ice.

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It’s the same thing if you practice scuba diving. From a certain depth the colors of the corals are completely absorbed by the water and if you take a picture without filter you only see blue / green.

And then, you also have to take into account the depth of the cave, the weather and the brightness as well as the amount of snow because all these parameters will affect the color of the cave. The same cave will appear more or less blue more or less transparent according to these criteria. It is the magic of the caves.

Finally, for the color black, it is most often a layer of volcanic dust caught in the ice. But it can also be ice that has formed directly on volcanic rock.

blue ice cave in iceland
black ice cave in iceland

Where to see ice caves in Iceland?

In Iceland, most of the ice caves are located in Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap in the country. Knowing that most excursions start in Skaftafell or Jokulsarlon, it takes around 5 hours to get there from Reykjavik.

Although there are day trips from the Icelandic capital, I do not recommend this option. In my opinion, the best way to visit a cave is to take advantage of a stay of several days between Skaftafell and Jokulsarlon to include an excursion in the program. In addition, you will have more choices.

It also exists an ice cave at Katla, accessible from Vik. Two advantages, it is much closer to Reykjavik and it can also be visited in summer. On the other hand, it is not blue.

As you can see, if you want to visit an ice cave it requires a little planning and anticipation to plan your excursion as well as possible.

ice caves in iceland

The period to see ice caves

Despite their impressive number, unfortunately you cannot enjoy the natural ice caves all year round. Indeed, if you have followed correctly, the cavities of the caves are created by torrents due to the melting of snow / ice in spring and summer.

So you can mainly visit the natural ice caves in Iceland between October and March.

But don’t worry, if you come in summer you can also see ice caves! I’m not going to lie to you, you will have a lot less choice than winter, but there are several possibilities.

A few years ago a cave was discovered in the Katla glacier and has remained accessible during the summer in recent years. Hopefully it will be open when you’re in Iceland.

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But if you don’t like to gamble with luck, you got left the artificial tunnel of the Langjökull glacier which, as its name suggests, is accessible all year round.

Small precision which is important, whether it is summer or winter, access to the ice caves is conditioned by the weather and the stability of the cave in question. Thus, it can unfortunately happen that the conditions are bad and the visit cannot take place. If so, your excursion will be fully refunded.

My experience at Jokulsarlon

Now that you have all the practical details, I will describe my experience to you so that you know a little better what to expect on the spot.

I had already had the opportunity to visit ice caves, whether artificial like that of the Mer de Glace in Chamonix, or immense like that ofEisriesenwelt in Austria. And as much as I had been able to see these bluish caves, I had never seen a black one. So I couldn’t wait!

With my ticket in my pocket for several weeks, I had to join my group at the Jokulsarlon car park, but the heavy snowfall the day before had made the road impassable. I discovered the hard way that even Route 1, the most traveled on the island, the one that is normally always clear, is not always in fact. Fortunately I had anticipated and planned a large margin to get to the meeting point.

I did well because that morning I was following tourists who were not used to driving on snow … (yes, not sorry, but if you come to Iceland in winter the least thing is to know driving on snow).

I finally join my group of a dozen zozo all as awake as me at this ultra early hour and we embark with our guide in one of these machines created to go to Mars, or at least it looked like it. We take the direction of the glacier in this monster truck and, while on a clear day the experience must be fabulous, I confess that apart from being tossed around and holding back from returning my breakfast, I don’t I didn’t really appreciate the short half hour of driving to reach the first cave.

When we get there we start by putting on our crampons, loaned by the agency. Then we follow the guide a bit blindly on the glacier, concentrating on our feet so as not to slip.

Well hidden under the layer of snow and ice, a small opening is waiting for us. The cave is usually easily accessible, but due to the bad weather and the wind blowing the snow on the opening, the opening had started to fill up. It is therefore on all fours that I progress in this small gut.

visit to an ice cave in iceland
visit to an ice cave in iceland

*** What did I come to do here ??? ***

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And when I look up, wonder.

It’s small, it’s cozy, it’s pretty.

The cave is neither very wide nor very deep (about twenty meters at most), but what I had come to see was present. Floor-to-ceiling blue ice.

Guaranteed 100% natural, without coloring or preservatives.

blue ice caves in iceland in winter

We can even detect the thin black layers of volcanic dust trapped between two layers of ice.

The guide provides us with some explanations of the different colors of the ice and lets us take pictures without hurrying too much.

Two important details:
• Ice caves are usually much smaller than the ones you see in the picture. Indeed, the latter are often taken with a wide angle lens which gives them this impression of grandeur.
• The colors are generally not as vivid as in the photos, which have often been more or less slightly retouched to bring more contrast to the colors.

iceland ice cave excursion

After this first cave, the monster truck drops us off near a second site. The sun which has just risen behind the clouds diffuses a splendid luminosity on the canyon in which we are about to descend.

We arrive in a beautiful and large cave overlooking the outside and as promised, the inside is this time covered with black ice.

The color here is linked either to volcanic dust or to the very nature of the cave, created in a lava flow.

black ice cave in iceland
black ice cave in iceland
black ice cave in iceland

It is frankly not hot, and in addition we are in a draft but I am captivated. Here again, our guide gives us the necessary time to take pictures.

We then take the road again with several stops on the glacier. As much on the way out we saw absolutely nothing, as this time the panorama on the glacier and its frozen lake is sublimated by this magical light, so special in this winter season in Iceland.

Half an hour later, we reach the Jokulsarlon car park where I continue my visit for the day. In total, the excursion will last nearly 3 hours, including the briefing on the excursion, 1 hour of road (round trip), the visit of the caves and the stop on the glacier on the way back.

iceland ice cave excursion

In conclusion, if you have the time and the money, I find that well worth booking such an excursion to visit the ice caves in Iceland. If you want to enjoy it even more, there are even excursions that combine a glacier hike with a visit to the caves.

However, if you have the opportunity to go to the Alps in winter, know that there are also magnificent ice caves, accessible on foot, with or without a guide.

Would you like to visit the ice caves in Iceland? Do you have any other advice? Do not hesitate to share them in the comments!

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