A Complete Guide to Vatnajokull Glacier

What to See and What to Do in Europe's Largest national park

Fully licensed travel agency & tour operator
April 10, 2019
author Viktória Komjáti

By Viktória Komjáti

Viktoria is a restless adventurer with personal experience in all of the outdoor activities that Iceland has to offer. She loves to inspire others to get to know Iceland and to make a deep connection with the country during their travels.

The mighty Vatnajokull glacier stretches over 124.2 mi. (200 km) in Southeast Iceland. Rugged glacier tongues fall from the heights, giant icebergs float across glacier lagoons, glacier-carved canyons, jagged mountain ranges, Iceland’s highest summit, and its deepest lake await exploration... just to mention a few of the key features in the Vatnajokull area. Read our guide to learn more about Europe's most voluminous ice cap!!

A Complete Guide to Vatnajokull Glacier

In this article, you’ll learn about how this enormous glacier was formed. Find out what the measurements of Vatnajökull are and why its ice is so blue in places. Which outlet glaciers are the best location for glacier hikes? Where can we find the crystal ice caves? What are the most impressive sites within the national park? Read on to find out the answers to these questions and to learn more about Iceland’s most enormous natural treasure!


Svínafellsjökull, one of the many stunning outlet glaciers of Vatnajokull

Svínafellsjökull, one of the many stunning outlet glaciers of Vatnajokull

Vatnajokull Glacier Facts

Vatnajokull, the “water glacier” in Icelandic, is the second largest glacier in Europe by area, coming in second to Austfonna Glacier from the Svalbard archipelago in Norway. Based on volume, however, the Icelandic glacier beats the Norwegian. Vatnajökull covers 8% of the total landmass of Iceland. Here are its measurements:

  • Size (2017): 2963.7 square miles (7,676 km²)
  • Volume (2017): 719.7 cubic miles (3,000 km³)
  • Distance (West to East): 88.8 mi. (143 km)
  • Distance (South to North): 60.9 mi. (98 km)
  • Average Thickness: 1250 ft. (380 m)
  • Maximum Thickness: 3120 ft. (950 m)
  • Highest Peak: Hvannadalshnúkur 6921 ft. (2109.6 m)
  • Number of Outlet Glaciers: About 40
  • Number of Subglacial Volcanic Systems: 7
Hikers on Falljökull, one of the most scenic outlet glaciers on Vatnajokull

Hikers on Falljökull, one of the most scenic outlet glaciers on Vatnajokull

How Vatnajokull Glacier was Formed

Glacial ice forms from fresh snow over hundreds and thousands of years. It accumulates in winter and starts to melt in summer. The slightly melted snow starts to compress under the weight of the new snow. It gets harder and as its texture slowly changes into blocks of ice pellets. As the new snow buries the grainy snow, the lower layer becomes even denser.

These layers continue to build over the years, one on top of another. When the ice grows to be about 165 ft. (50 m) thick, these grains of ice grow together and fuse into one single piece of solid ice. This is the point at which the glacier will begin to move under its own weight.

At this point, the ice will not stop growing. It can grow to be hundreds or even thousands of meters thick. At approximately 2500 years of age, the Vatnajökull’s ice is about 1,250 ft (380 m) thick, but in some places, it can grow to a thickness of 3,120 ft (950 m)!

Glacial ice has a very unique texture and dynamics. As the ice moves slowly but steadily, it behaves like an extremely slow, heavy river. It flows towards the lower lands, moving a few centimeters or sometimes even up to a few meters each day. Along the way, glaciers shape the landscape and pick up sediment, just like rivers do.

A large ice cap has a number of outlets. These are the so-called “glacier tongues” that reach out of the main glacier and work their way down to sea level. Vatnajökull has more than 30 outlet glaciers.

How glaciers form. Source

How glaciers form. Source: Extreme Ice Survey

Why Is a Glacier Blue in Some Places?

Normal, everyday ice and snow appear white to us because of the number of air bubbles they contain. The air in these bubbles reflects the full spectrum of light back to us so that we perceive it as white. These air bubbles are forced out of ice when it becomes highly compressed, as happens in a glacier. This lack of air bubbles allows light to travel through the ice undisturbed.

More light from the red spectrum than the blue spectrum is absorbed by ice. For this reason, light loses more of the red spectrum as it delves deeper and deeper into the compressed ice, causing us to perceive it as blue ice.

The surface of the glacier is the part which will lose that blue color as it comes into contact with the air and begins to melt. The less exposed parts of the glacier, such as the crevasses, ice caves and the cracks in its body, don’t melt as easily and so appear much bluer. To see this effect at its most spectacular, visit a glacier tongue or an ice fall as they will give off an impressive bluish hue.

Blue ice in a crevasse on Vatnajokull glacier

Blue ice in a crevasse on Vatnajokull glacier

Vatnajökull’s Best Outlet Glaciers and Glacier Lagoons

High on the top of the ice cap is a field of endless white as the ice is constantly covered by snow. Glacier tongues, however, look incredibly scenic as their crevasses and their bodies made out of ancient ice become visible in the areas where they reach lower altitudes.

Glacier lagoons form at places where a glacier tongue reaches the lowland. The retreating glacier carves a deep bed which then fills up with meltwater from the glacier. As the ice melts, large pieces break away from the tip of the glacier and fall into the lagoon. Slowly over time, these icebergs will melt away and new icebergs will break off and replace them.

The best outlet glaciers are the ones that decorate the landscape along the southeastern part of Iceland’s Ring Road. These are close to the road and are relatively easy to access. This is the reason why they are the ideal locations for glacier hikes.

The best outlet glaciers are the ones that decorate the landscape along the southeastern part of Iceland’s Ring Road. These are close to the road and are relatively easy to access. This is the reason why they are the ideal locations for glacier hikes.

Vatnajokull’s Most Scenic Outlet Glaciers

  • Svínafellsjökull
  • Falljökull
  • Fjallsjökull
  • Breiðamerkurjökull
  • Heinabergsjökull
  • Hoffelsjökull
The outlet glaciers of Vatnajokull

The outlet glaciers of Vatnajokull

Svínafellsjökull and Svínafellslón

One of the bluest glaciers in Iceland, Svínafellsjökull is approximately 1000 years old. While its name in Icelandic means the “pig mountain glacier”, it is now often called the “Hollywood glacier” because of the number of films and TV shows which it has appeared in, including Laura Croft, James Bond, Batman Begins, Interstellar, and Game of Thrones.

Outside of Hollywood, this glacier is a favorite spot for glacier hikers of all experience levels. With its deep, impressive crevasses and otherworldly formations, it’s no wonder that hikers love to come here.

Within this dreamy landscape, the first thing that hikers will see before heading up on the ice is a tiny lagoon. Its greenish-brown water has been dyed that color by sediment. The lagoon is also decorated by the huge, brownish and blueish-white icebergs floating through it. As a result of climate change, the lagoon is continuously growing, year after year.

Svínafellsjökull glacier

Svínafellsjökull glacier


Just next to Svínafellsjökull lies Falljökull, a gigantic icefall which drops impressively down the mountains towards the ocean. Its name in Icelandic means the “falling glacier”, which is pretty spot on. This is one of the most easily accessible glaciers that Iceland has to offer. Since it’s also one of the most impressive, it’s an exceptional location for glacier hiking day tours.

While, at the moment, there is no lagoon at Falljökull glacier, this doesn’t mean that one will not form in the future. As the glacier retreats rapidly each year, there’s a chance that a lagoon will form naturally in the near future.

Falljökull glacier

Falljökull glacier

Fjallsjökull and Fjallsárlón

Only a 15-minute drive from Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon or a 4.5-hour drive from Reykjavík, Fjallsjökull is an impressive glacier which features interesting ice formations and a dramatic, carved landscape.

A small and beautiful ice lagoon called Fjallsarlon lies at the tip of Fjallsjökull. This is the second most-visited glacier lake, after the nearby Jökulsárlón. It is incredibly scenic and easy to access. Iceland’s tallest volcano-glacier, Hvannadalshnúkur, towers above the area, providing a breathtaking backdrop to the ice lagoon.

Fjlallsjökull glacier and Fjallsarlon glacier lagoon

Fjlallsjökull glacier and Fjallsarlon glacier lagoon

Breiðamerkurjökull and the Jökulsarlon Glacier Lagoon

A bit further east, at about a 5-hour drive from Reykjavik, is Breiðamerkurjökull. Its beloved glacier lagoon, which goes by the name Jökulsarlón, is spectacularly dreamy. Anyone who visits will immediately see why it has become so famous. Huge chunks of ice break off of the ice tongue and fall into the small lagoon where they begin to drift towards the ocean.

This lagoon is connected to the sea so many icebergs make it to the open water. Here, the waves push them back onto the black sandy shore where they end up broken into millions of pieces. This dreamy place is called the Diamond Beach and it is one of the most beloved photography locations in all of Iceland.

The stunningly blue Crystal Ice Cave can also be found in Breiðamerkurjökull. This unique natural phenomenon can only be witnessed in winter (between November and April). A day spent hiking on a glacier and exploring an aquamarine ice cave could be the most amazing experience of your lifetime!

Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon

Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon

Hainabergsjökull and Heinabergslón

Heinabergsjhökull is located further east, about 25 mi. (40 km) from the town of Höfn. It’s a scenic glacier but is not so easily accessible. This is the reason why it’s not that well known. The glacier tongue has a nice lagoon which is often listed as one of the best alternatives to Jökulsárlón.

Hoffelsjökull and Hoffelslón

Hoffelsjökull is the closest glacier to Höfn, located only about 15.5 mi. (20 km) from the town. It has the largest ice lagoon in East Iceland, which is filled with giant icebergs. The area is popular with local hikers thanks to the incredibly scenic landscape.

Both Hoffelslón and Heinabergslón lie off the beaten path, so accessing them requires a 4X4 car with larger wheels. This pair comes highly recommended for anyone who wants to see a glacier while avoiding crowds.

Hoffelslón glacier lagoon

Hoffelslón glacier lagoon

Glacier Hiking on Vatnajökull

Glacier walking tours are offered to visitors on some glacier tongues. As they are relatively easy to access and located near Iceland’s most popular natural attractions, Svínafellsjökull and Falljökull are the most ideal locations for tours on Vastnajökull Glacier.

Both outlet glaciers are located in the Skaftafell Area, a major travel destination in South Iceland. The surrounding landscape is incredibly scenic and the terrain on both glaciers is highly varied.

It’s possible to go on a self-guided hike up to the point where the glacier starts and to have a look at it, up close and personal. You are, however, not allowed to step on a glacier alone without being accompanied by a local glacier guide.

If you would like to explore Vatnajökull by hiking on its surface, you must book a guided tour. Local glacier guides are highly experienced. They know the terrain and are properly trained and equipped for the special Icelandic circumstances which may occur.

The difficulty of the tours varies from easy to moderate. The difficulty depends on the time spent on the ice and if the tour includes ice climbing or not. This activity is usually optional, so if you choose not to climb, you will be able to watch the others do so.

The Best Vatnajokull Glacier Tours

Glacier Lagoon Boat and Kayaking Tours

Glacier hiking on Vatnajokull is an absolute must-do

Glacier hiking on Vatnajokull is an absolute must-do

Ice Caves on Vatnajökull

Every year, some astonishing blue glacial ice caves are found deep inside Vatnajokull Glacier. Meltwater forms these caves as it makes its way through the glacier’s caves and crevasse channels. Glacial melting can be caused by both air temperature and geothermal activity.

The meltwater will flow powerfully through the body of the glacier, carving tunnels, digging holes, and cutting new paths deep into the ice. Cold season then comes and causes the water to freeze completely, making any of the caves left behind stable enough to visit safely.

Most ice caves are natural wonders with exceedingly short lives. They come into being at the beginning of winter and disappear in the spring. This is why the ice cave season in Iceland begins in November and ends in March or April, before the caves can melt or collapse.

Most ice caves can’t be accessed in summer. In the warmer summer temperatures, the meltwater returns and begins to create new paths and caves. This cycle will repeat year after year. To top it all off, glaciers are constantly changing, meaning that as they move, any ice cave that has disappeared may never reappear.

The Crystal ice cave near Jokulsarlon

The Crystal ice cave near Jokulsarlon

Vatnajökull’s famous Crystal Ice Cave is an exception to this rule as a new ice cave has been forming in the same place since 2011. This is due to the specific geological attributes of the area which allow ice caves to form in the same location every winter.

We discover new ice caves on our glacier walks every year. The ice caves where we operate tours are regularly examined for safety hazards. No one should enter an ice cave that has not been inspected by professionals. All ice cave exploration tours should be done using proper safety equipment and accompanied by a local guide.

The Best Ice Cave Tours on Vatnajökull

A frozen waterfall in an ice cave

A frozen waterfall in an ice cave

Vatnajokull National Park

Vatnajökull National Park was established in 2008. The protected region has grown larger as other nature reserves have become attached to the national park. Today, it covers an area of 5460 square miles (14,141 km2).

Along with Vatnajokull glacier itself, the park encloses an area ranging from Skaftafell in the south to Jokulsargljufur in the north. This is 14% of Iceland’s total land, making it the largest national park in all of Europe. UNESCO is currently reviewing the 2018 nomination of Vatnajökull National Park for inclusion in the World Heritage List.

Aside from the glacier with its picturesque outlets and glacier lagoons, the park is home to a number of epic waterfalls, small birch forests, wide tundra plateaus, moss-covered lava fields, black sand deserts, and impressive volcanic craters and fissures.

The boundaries of Vatnajokull National Park

The boundaries of Vatnajokull National Park

The park has several visitor centers, out of which the one in Skaftafell is the largest. It has a small exhibition about the park’s flora and fauna. There is also a souvenir shop which puts special emphasis on local handicrafts and products.

Must-See Places in Vatnajokull National Park

  • Skaftafell Nature Reserve
  • Svartifoss waterfall in Skaftafell
  • Iceland's highest summit, Hvannadalshnjukur
  • Fjallsarlón Glacier Lagoon
  • Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon
  • The Diamond Beach
  • Crystal Ice Cave

Weather in the Vatnajökull Area

The weather in the Highland areas around Vatnajökull is the coldest in Iceland while the southern regions get the most rain and snow.

The glacier can sometimes generate very strong katabatic winds. These winds happen when cold air from a higher elevation flows down the slopes causing strong winds and gusts of wind. This phenomenon mainly affects car drivers, especially in winter. Always make sure to check the road conditions and the wind speed when before you leave the city for a road trip!

The temperatures in the coastal lowlands around the glacier aren’t very different from what we would experience in other areas in the country. They are slightly colder but usually stay way over freezing in summer, so there’s no need to worry about that! Glacier hiking tours take place in more protected valleys without any risk of weather hazards.

The temperatures in winter drop from -5°C (23°F) down to -15 to -20°C (-4 to 5°F). In summer, one can expect the temperatures to stay over freezing, usually between 5–15°C (41–59°F) around the glaciers.

Rain showers can be expected at any time and can even happen several times on a normal day. Windless days are not very common, so we advise you to put effort into choosing the right clothing for your Iceland trip. Remember: there is no bad weather, only unsuitable clothing!

The Ring Road in winter

The Ring Road in winter

Vatnajokull Glacier and Climate Change

Increased temperatures cause increased melting in the glaciers. Increased meltwater leads to increased sliding as the water lubricates the glacial bed. This also causes glacier lagoons to grow while the glaciers constantly shrink. Glacier calving – where a glacier “gives birth” to an iceberg – is intensified as well.

Vatnajokull Glacier has been reacting to climate change for many years. The total area of Vatnajokull was 3368 sq. mi. (8723 km²) in 1890. This area had decreased by 474 sq. mi. (1047 km²) by 2017. The speed of its melting and shrinking has increased a lot over the last decade and Vatnajokull Glacier continues to waste away rapidly.

Recent climate change studies show that a warming of 1°C would mean a loss of 25–35% of the volume of Vatnajokull. A warming of 2°C would eventually lead to a loss of almost 60% of the original ice volume of the glacier after approximately 100 years. After 200 years, only small ice caps would remain on the highest mountains.

Safety on Vatnajökull Glacier

The same features that make a glacier look so magical and surreal are those that make it very dangerous to navigate. As the glacier is constantly moving, the ice, in turn, is constantly cracking. The result is that the surface of the glacier becomes craggy, marked by hundreds of deep crevasses and vertical shafts (moulines), each of which can be hundreds of meters deep.

To make it even more dangerous, these crevasses and shafts also change constantly. In no time at all, a glacier can have a complete makeover. New crevasses can form, snow bridges can collapse, and a bit of rain can alter an area completely. The regularly occurring small earthquakes and subglacial geothermal activity only intensify this.

Absolutely no one should set foot on a glacier without being accompanied by a local glacier guide. It doesn’t matter how experienced a hiker you are. Only a local guide knows the terrain and has the proper training and equipment for these special, ever-changing circumstances.

Do not attempt to swim in any of the lagoons or in the sea. The water in these bodies is extremely cold all year round. In just a few minutes, they can cause hypothermia in anyone unlucky enough to come into contact with their freezing temperatures.

Any ice that you see in Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon will never be frozen enough to step on, even in the coldest of winters. This is because the freshwater in the lagoon becomes mixed with saltwater from the sea, making it impossible for it to freeze fully. It’s also important to remember that icebergs are temperamental and can collapse or flip over at any time. Keep your distance and keep safe.

A Complete Guide to Vatnajokull Glacier