Many refer to Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon as the crown jewel of Iceland. It is truly a unique and awe-inspiring natural wonder. The fact that it is very easy to access makes it one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country. In fact, Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach are the most photographed places in Iceland.
Some fun facts about Jokulsarlon:
Jökulsárlón is a large glacial lagoon at the foot of Europe’s largest ice cap, the Vatnajökull glacier. At the point where the melting glacier reaches sea level, it creates a large lagoon. As the ice melts, massive chunks break away from the glacier tongue.
These giant icebergs then move toward the ocean, floating slowly across the lagoon. This creates such an otherworldly sight that leaves no one untouched. The icebergs appear in many different hues. Some are an appealing blue and turquoise, while others are milky white. Many others appear transparent as if they were made of glass.
These thrilling natural phenomena are quite varied in size and shape. The biggest icebergs can be as large as 20 to 30 meters. The lagoon never looks the same. Tide currents, air temperature, and winds affect the movement and appearance of the icebergs. The view of this glacial lake can completely change overnight.
The color of an iceberg depends on its texture. Snow is white because it contains a lot of air, which reflects and scatters the full spectrum of light. This is what we perceive as the “color” white. The more air that is trapped within the ice, the more white an iceberg will appear.
Ice only appears blue when it is compressed enough that air bubbles do not interfere with the light reflection. Glacial ice is formed slowly over hundreds or thousands of years by compression under huge weight. This heavy compression pushes the air out of the ice.
Without air bubbles, light can enter the ice undisturbed. Inside ice, the absorption of light at the long wave red spectrum is six times greater than at the blue spectrum. The deeper the light travels inside the ice, the more red spectrums it loses along the way. A lack of reflected red waves causes the color blue in the human eye.
As the icebergs drift on the water, their surfaces start to melt. During this process, air starts to enter the iceberg, slowly changing and fading the blue color. When a white iceberg flips over, the part that was previously underwater appears blue, since that section didn’t have contact with the air. Once the ice hits the open air, it starts to slowly lose that beautiful blue color. This is why and how icebergs may seem to be constantly changing their colors.
What makes Jökulsárlón so unique is that its icebergs have bizarre black stripes. Some of these behemoths could pass for man-made works of art instead of natural formations.
The stunning thick black layers come from ancient volcanic events. Each layer could represent a violent volcanic eruption in Iceland’s stirring geological history.
Brownish stripes were caused when a glacier traveled downhill and picked up layers of sediment as it went. Similarly, sediment could have seeped into the glacier’s crack as it formed.
Green stripes, which are rare, are formed when algae-rich seawater freezes to the underside of an iceberg.
Only one kilometer from the glacier lagoon, a beautiful black sand beach awaits you. Since the lagoon is connected to the sea, the icebergs travel from the lake into the Atlantic Ocean. Here the powerful waves keep pushing them back onto the coast where they end up on the black volcanic sand.
Broken by the surf into millions of pieces, these former glaciers become sparkling ice rocks that decorate the pitch black coastlines for hundreds of meters. Sometimes, the giant icebergs come ashore in huge chunks that can be larger than a grown man. Most times, however, they are small like crystal stones or precious diamonds. No one can predict what will you see on this beautiful beach week to week.
Read our complete guide to the Diamond Beach.
The best time to visit the glacier lagoon is summer. During this time of year, the melting process is more intense than in winter. Warmer weather causes more ice to break down from the glacier, filling the lagoon with a huge quantity of gorgeous floating icebergs. If you want to see this stunning place in its full glory, we recommend visiting between April and October.
For the most fun, come between June and September. During this time, you can go on boat tours on the glacier lagoon. Sail between the enormous icebergs and get up close to them. For adventurous souls, we recommend trying the kayaking tour, which is even more fun!
In summer, huge numbers of arctic terns nest around the lagoon. They are vivid and loud. They don’t care about visitors at all. If you walk by their nesting grounds and find yourself being attacked by some furious tern parents, you will feel like you were on a National Geographic wilderness discovery tour!
The glacier lagoon is accessible year-round. In the winter, however, there are no birds around and the boat tours don’t operate. Sometimes, if the weather is very cold, the so-called “calving process” of the glacier slows down. The lagoon might be covered by a thin ice shield for shorter periods, making it more difficult for icebergs to float.
However, there are fewer tourists this time of the year and the low winter sun paints this amazing place with surreal colors. Also, you have a pretty good chance of catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights! During winter, the Aurora Borealis might show up dancing over the lagoon, a sight that leaves no one untouched. This could be an unforgettable memory of a lifetime!
A winter visit also means you can explore the natural ice caves. These crystal blue ice caves are rare and short-lived wonders. They are formed in late autumn and they melt in spring, so you can’t visit them during summer. Therefore, when deciding on visiting Jökulsárlón, start by considering what you most want to see or do.
When the first Viking settlers arrived in Iceland around 870 AD, the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier was approximately 20 km (12 mi) further north of its present location. At this time, the lagoon didn’t exist. Centuries later, during the Little Ice Age, the glacier had grown and nearly reached the coast.
Then, when temperatures rose in the 20th century, the glacier tongue started rapidly retreating, creating the glacial lagoon around 1934–35. Today, the deepest section of the lake, which measures about 250 meters (820 feet) deep, is located at the point where the glacier’s edge originally existed and carved the ground.
Ever since it was formed, the glacier lake continues to grow. In 1975, the lake was about eight km2 (3.1 square miles) in area. Today it is 18 km2 (6.9 square miles).
The lagoon is just a short distance from the sea. It is feared that the combined action of the melting glacier, the river that empties from the lake, and the eroding power of the ocean may transform the lagoon into an inlet sea or a fjord. However, there are plans to prevent this from happening.
Simply put, glaciers are huge patches of ice. They form in places where fresh snow never fully melts but keeps accumulating, such as on high mountain tops or in the highlands. The snow then compresses under its increasing weight and transforms into dense ice.
Since the snow is constantly accumulating, the ice keeps growing. Over many decades and centuries, it reaches hundreds or thousands of meters of thickness. With an area of 8,100 km2 (3,100 sq mi), Vatnajökull is Europe's largest icecap. It covers eight percent of Iceland’s total land area. The Vatnajökull glacier is approximately 400 meters (1,300 feet) thick on average, with a maximum thickness of 1,000 meters (3,300 feet).
Being very heavy, the ice starts to move towards the edges of the glacier, down the mountain hills, like an extremely slow river. These edges accumulate on steeper hills and start to move faster than the other parts of the glacier. This is what we call “outlet glaciers” or “glacier tongues.” Vatnajökull has around 30 outlet glaciers, and Breiðamerkurjökull is one of them.
This glacier tongue is moving slowly but constantly. A growing ice cap covers the top and the edges continue to move, powered by the ice’s own weight, down the hills. When this frozen ice river reaches the low, warmer areas, the tip of the glacier starts to melt.
As the ice melts, and the heavy ice shrinks, a small lake starts to fill up space around the glacier’s bottom edges. As a result of its intense power and movement, the body of the glacier is full of deep crevasses and cracks. As it melts, huge ice blocks up to 60 meters break down from the glacier along these crevasses. This is often accompanied by a loud cracking or booming sound.
The ice contains a lot of oxygen so it floats on the surface of the water. The drifting icebergs continue melting and breaking into pieces until they melt completely. They can flip around and collapse at any time.
Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier were used as filming locations for many famous Hollywood movies. For example, two James Bond films were shot here: A View to a Kill (1985) and Die Another Day (2002).
The most famous movie filmed here is Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001). Jökulsárlón also appears in Batman Begins (2005), and Beowulf and Grendel (2005).
The popularity of this unique landscape has been further boosted by the American TV program Good Morning America, which broadcasted live from Jökulsárlón in 2006.
Read our article on movies filmed in Iceland
The glacier lagoon is located in the country’s southeast region, which means you need to travel along the south coast of Iceland from Reykjavík to get there. You will encounter the most beautiful places along Iceland’s southern coastlines. Don’t think that you can just drive from Reykjavík to Jökulsárlón without stopping. Two enormous waterfalls, pitch black volcanic beaches, dramatic coastal rock formations and sea stacks, and other thrilling landscapes await you on this journey.
In the summertime, when the daylight is long, there are day tours that take you to the most beautiful places on Iceland’s South Coast up to Jökulsárlón and then back to Reykjavík in one long day. However, in wintertime, when daylight is limited, it is better to split this tour into two days since you would miss a lot of this beautiful landscape due to darkness.
From April to October boat tours operate on the lagoon. Taking a boat tour upon arrival is usually optional on the one-day or multi-day tours from Reykjavik as well.
In the summer months, between June and August, there are scheduled boat departures between 9:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., every 20 to 30 minutes or so. You can choose between two types of boats: Amphibian and Zodiac. The Amphibian boat is cheaper and it can transport up to 18 people at once. The excursion takes 30 to 40 minutes.
The Zodiac boat tour lasts about one hour. This boat is much smaller and faster than the Amphibian, so t is able to cover larger areas of the lagoon and get closer to icebergs. This boat tour goes almost all the way up to the glacier. The Zodiac has a fixed time schedule and can get fully booked so it's advised to book your boat trip in advance.
For those with adventurous minds, taking a kayak trip on the iceberg-filled lagoon could be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. The tour is suitable for both beginner and experienced kayakers. Very stable boats, qualified kayak guides, drysuits and life vests keep passengers absolutely safe on the lagoon.
Natural ice caves are formed by the interaction of the air temperature, the ice, and the glacial meltwater. The resulting ice caves offer an otherworldly view, a temporary natural wonder… temporary because ice caves forms in autumn and they usually melt or collapse in spring. But ice caves can change overnight during a heavy rainfall as well.
Breidamerkurjokull glacier is known for some of the most beautiful ice caves in the world. They form inside its thick ice every year. Visiting a crystal blue ice cave is definitely a
bucket list” experience!
With so much to see, we recommend you stay overnight in the area. Accommodation options are abundant in the nearby towns of Höfn (80 km from Jökulsárlón to the east) and Kirkjubæjarklaustur (124 kilometers to west). Hotels, guesthouses, farm accommodations, hostels, and camping facilities are all available.
There is no accommodation directly at the lagoon but there are several options in the surrounding area. The following accommodation options are located between Höfn and Skaftafell:
The closest town is Höfn, which is 80 kilometers from Jökulsárlón to the east. Höfn is a larger town with plenty of excellent hotels, guesthouses and hostels. There is also a spacious campsite in town.
The lagoon is located 370 kilometers - about a five-hour drive - from Reykjavík, at the south end of the Vatnajokull glacier, between the Skaftafell Nature Reserve and the town of Hofn. It is very easy to get there: just take the road 1 (ring road) from Reykjavik. This is the only road that leads along the South Coast. It takes you directly to Jökulsárlón. The lagoon is clearly visible from the road. In fact, you will cross a bridge right over the ice lagoon!
While the drive takes five hours without stopping, keep in mind that Iceland’s most beautiful waterfalls and black beaches are located on the South Coast between Reykjavik and Jökulsárlón. You can easily stop and explore some of these beautiful natural attractions. With short, 20- to 30-minute stops and a 40-minute lunch break, a Reykjavík - Jökulsárlón round trip can take around 14 to 16 hours.
In winter, the daylight might be too short to complete this travel in one day. Between November and February, there are only four to six hours of daylight per day, and the rest of the day is pitch black. Therefore, we advise you split your Jökulsárlón trip into two days in winter.
Jökulsárlón is easily accessible by normal car, even the smallest ones, in the summertime. While the glacier lagoon is accessible year-round, it can be trickier to get there during the winter. Snowstorms and difficult driving conditions are common in winter.
Roads are icy, and driving can be challenging, with road closures occurring at any time. Therefore it is advised to rent a 4X4 (four-wheel drive) car if you plan to go to Jökulsárlón and monitor the weather forecast and warnings very closely. If you are not experienced in driving in difficult winter conditions, your safest option is to join a guided tour where professional drivers will keep you safe.
When visiting the glacier lagoon, make sure that safety is your number one priority. Do not attempt to swim in the lagoon or in the sea. The water is extremely cold all year round... cold enough to cause hypothermia in just a few minutes.
Those who purchase a kayaking tour receive safety equipment, life vests, and drysuits. They are also accompanied by a professional kayaking guide.
Never try to step on the ice. The icebergs can flip or collapse at any time. Even during the coldest winter, the lagoon can’t freeze enough for it to be safe to step onto a glacier, as the lagoon’s water is mixed with salty seawater. Sometimes when snow covers the shores, it’s difficult to see where the water starts and the land ends. It’s better to keep your distance from the ice.
The surface of the ground is somewhat rocky and uneven around the lagoon. Walking and getting around might be difficult for small children and people with reduced mobility.
The surface of the ground is also slippery in winter. Sometimes it can be fully covered by ice. Place spikes or crampons on your shoes for safe walking. You can buy crampons at larger gas stations along the way or at sport equipment stores in Reykjavík.