Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull

She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
At the mouth of the crystal cave

Vatnajökull glacier is the largest icecap in Iceland, spanning nearly eight percent of the entire island. While driving southeast along the ring road you simply cannot miss the sightings of the huge glacier fingers, called outlet glaciers, of which there are more than 30. They are slowly carving out the mountains all around you and each time you see one, you’re aware of the truly breathtaking expanse that is Iceland.

After leaving Vík at the southern tip of the country, we stopped at an epic gorge called Fjadrargljufur Canyon (trying saying that one correctly!) with a cascading waterfall and a sapphire river winding its way through the rock. With a break in the snowfall, we donned our crampons and headed up the rope-lined gorge.

It was not easy. I’m not a total schlub, but heavy boots with spikes, combined with a steep uphill hike, had me winded. Not to mention that the same photo tour we saw at Dyrhólaey pulled up soon after us, so Jon had us practically running to the top to get a shot without any other photographers. But other than that, it was a nice hike. The crampons relieved any worries of slipping and the way was straightforward and well-marked.

The canyon has recently been fitted with a lookout, which to Jon’s dismay, changed his ability to get the shot he was looking for. I, however, am terrified of heights, so the see-through nature of the lookout left me frozen and unable to reach the end of the railing. That didn’t stop Jon, who despite the warning signs, went over the rail and out on a ledge. I could barely pass him his things! The whole thing left me with a few gray hairs!

She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
Yep…that’s a “you will fall and die” sign on the right
She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
The see through viewing deck of my nightmares
She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
Photographers at the top

But it was worth it for the view, of course!

She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
Fjadrargljufur Canyon in the snow

After my pulse came down, we drove back to the main road and stopped so I could bring you my best impression of this “do not poop here” sign.

She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull

I guess it’s a thing in this spot? It seemed so random!

Nearby was a beautiful, snowy wonderland of evergreens and a black river, so we wondered around off the side of the road to explore.

She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
Loved the ombré greens in this area
She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
Crossing the riverShe's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull

A few hours later, we pulled up to the ultra modern Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon in the middle of a snowstorm. The concrete building stood out against the snowy plain like a bunker calling us to safety. When we got out of the car, Jon’s door nearly blew off the hinges and my hat went flying off my head and across the parking lot. The gusts must have been 40 mph and we held down all our things, grabbing our bags from the trunk and hurrying inside.

To go from the whipping wind to the interior of the hotel was a funny shock. Our hair was windblown, our faces were red from the cold and as we passed through the automatic doors suddenly all was calm. The lobby was nearly silent, playing soft Icelandic music, impeccably decorated, and completely isolated from the roaring wind outside. There, at the desk were two perfectly calm Icelanders, hair and clothes in perfect place. “Hello,” one of them says in that peaceful Icelandic accent. I wanted to say, “do you even know what it’s like out there?!” but I realized they did know, which was why they were inside and not out in the freezing wind with the crazy Americans!

She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
The big windows looked out into the snowy expanse

The Fosshotel was another, under-sold hotel on our trip. The photos online did it no justice, making it look more clinical and much less cozy. The high ceilings and clean design contrasted perfectly with the snowy exterior, and our upgraded suite was well worth it. I just wish we could have stayed there longer!

She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
So cozy!

The next morning we slept late, took advantage of the breakfast buffet and headed out for an easy afternoon hike, which turned out to be a little more grueling than originally anticipated. Most visitors hike directly toward the Skaftafell glacier, or up toward Svartifoss (a pretty waterfall), but we opted for an outlook, which was an hour hike up through a very muddy trail. The weather was strangely incredible and unexpectedly hot for the day, at least 60 degrees after what had been freezing temperatures the day before, so I was a tad overdressed, particularly in the foot region.

The views of the glacier were worth it though…

She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
Views of Skaftafell, one of Vatnajökull outlet glaciers.

And here’s how Jon got this photo…

She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
Gravel left behind by the receding glacier

Just another couple of gray hairs for me! Then we headed to the glacier lagoon for a few practice shots at the beach before dark.

She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
Iceberg, right ahead!

The next morning, we met our guides early and headed out to the glacier in their giant retrofitted vehicles. I planned ahead and took a dramamine the night before to take the edge off any possibly motion sickness – it undoubtedly saved me. The gravel road was potholed and rocky, so every van had comically giant wheels that were deflated before heading out on the rocky terrain.

She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
The potholes were huge!

We visited three caves, two dark and smokey caverns full of ash, and one blue cave which was teaming with tourists.

I loved our guide, a handsome Icelandic man who joked frankly about his challenges with depression and the glacier as a remedy for sadness. He told us stories the whole journey and his enthusiasm was infectious. I wish I could remember his name, but it was so Icelandic I couldn’t even pronounce it!

When getting out of the vehicles, we were handed helmets and Jon and I used our own crampons, while everyone else was given them. The guide told us that if we didn’t see footprints, to not go there, and not wander off. There were a few wooden stakes around the site and he pointed to one of them. “You see that marker?” he said, “there’s a hole there 150 meters down – we’d never find you.” I guess I won’t be going over there!

She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
The abominable snowman lives in there…pretty sure

The caves were beautiful and wondrous.

She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
Just exploring the crystal cave!
She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
One of the dark caves had a big hole in the roof
She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
I couldn’t stop photographing the icy texture of the ceiling
She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
Jon asking me to take a picture. See the thread of ash in the ice behind him?
Little cairns made out of snow, letting travelers know their in the right place. This vein of ash is from a volcanic eruption 800 years ago.
She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
They call it the crystal cave because at the back, the ice has formed into what looks like crystals. Water was gushing here.
She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
Sheets of ice along the floor and the inky slick texture of the cave ceiling
She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
Icicles at every entrance
She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
Our guide, who loves every day he gets to spend with the glacier

The guides all talked of the rain that was headed for the region the next day, and said it was likely that we had caught the last day of the season. They watch the weather carefully, as any additional rain or warmth brings instability to the caves, which can fill up with water in less than 3 minutes. The caves are literally gushing rivers in the summer.

After the rough ride back, we headed straight for Jökulsárlón, the glacier lagoon. Jökulsárlón is a large lake formed by the melting glacier, and it’s full of floating icebergs that have broken off the ice. The lake leads out into the ocean where the jagged ice is slowly broken down and washed back to shore.

Jon and I split ways, I went to the lagoon, and he went across the road to the ocean to photograph.

She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
Jökulsárlón at sunset

As the sun was setting, I could see photographers all along the hillside that overlooks the lake, photographing from above. I tried, but I couldn’t see a shot and after hesitating a little, I finally decided to go down to the water to see what I could find.

Off I went, photographing anything that spoke to me. I was gone so long that Jon came looking for me!

She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
Parts of the lake were frozen on the surface
She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
A dripping icicle off an iceberg at sunset
She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
A hiker catching the last light
She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
A pastel sky over Jökulsárlón. One of my favorite photos of the trip!

After an incredible sunset, we headed back to the hotel for a meal. There’s really no food nearby, so you’re stuck eating at the hotel restaurant or at the bar. The main restaurant was seriously delicious but deathly expensive, so the second night we took our chances on two chicken club sandwiches with fries from the bar. It was exactly the kind of thing I craved after a full day in freezing weather. But just as we were settling in, waiting for the meal, we realized the night was not yet over…

More stories and photos from Iceland will be coming next week on She’s So Bright, so stay tuned! To read about the other parts of our Iceland trip, check out day 1 and day 2. And be sure to share your own story from Iceland in the comments below!

She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
Just off the side of the road
She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
The mouth of the crystal cave
She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
Our suite at the Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon
She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
Jon sitting on a natural ice bench in one of the dark caves
She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
Icebergs on the black beach of Jökulsárlón
She's So Bright - Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
Jon and the waterfall at Fjadrargljufur

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6 Comments on "Into the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull"

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DANIELLE GRALL
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DANIELLE GRALL

ABSOLUTELY STUNNING! WISH JON WOULD NOT TAKE SUCH CHANCES HOWEVER.

Erika
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Erika

Amazing pictures!!! The caves are so cool!!

Jennifer Liepin
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What an adventure.
Was it hard hiking in that bulky coat and boots? It’s hard to balance comfort over warmth.

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