Wide glacier leading onto a grassy plain.
Glacier along Iceland’s southern coast.

Land of Fire and Ice

Iceland is a truly amazing palette of the geological wonders of our planet.  You can really see geological processes at work – the earth around you seems so young and alive. The presence of recently created volcanic formations as well as glacial features being created in real time have earned the country the moniker of the Land of Fire and Ice. I would have loved to come here when I was learning about physical geography in high school.

Jökulsárlón

Glacial lagoon with large chunks of black and white ice floating in it and a large glacier in the background.
Glacial lagoon at Jökulsárlón.

An outstanding exemplar of the earth in action can be found a two hour drive east of Vik, at the glacial lagoon of Jökulsárlón.  This is the edge of the Vatnajökull National Park, at the head of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier.  Vatnajökull is the largest ice cap in Europe taking up an area of 8,100 kmand extending to a thickness of 950m in places.   It occupies a significant percentage of the total land mass of Iceland. Jökulsárlón is where one of its large glaciers meets the ocean.

You’ve Probably Seen This Place

Glacial lagoon with large chunks of black and white ice floating in it and a large glacier in the background.
Glacial lagoon at Jökulsárlón.

Jökulsárlón has been used in a number of movies, most notably  A View to a KillDie Another DayLara Croft: Tomb Raider and Batman Begins.  It is no wonder, with this impressive view of icebergs floating on the lagoon right in front of you, backed by an impressive glacier.

Getting Up Close

Panorama of glacial lagoon with shoreline in the foreground with various people walking around, icebergs floating in the water.
Panorama of Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon.

The icebergs slowly move towards the sea, eventually exiting the lagoon through a narrow channel under the road bridge and along the very, very short Jokulsá river out to the ocean.  For those who wish to, there are various opportunities to get out onto the water and up close to the icebergs. Amphibious vehicle tours, zodiacs, and even sea kayaks are all available, each for an escalating cost.  Prices of these tours have risen 40% from those listed in our 2 year old guide, for the exact same companies operating the exact same tours,

One of the gimmicks on these excursions is to break off a piece of “thousand year old glacier ice” for guests to taste. Watching the various birds sitting on the glaciers and the dirt they leave behind, I would hope the guides are very careful about where they pick the ice to taste.

Woman eating small piece of ice from a glacier.
Eating glacial ice.

However, the glaciers are so close to the lagoon shore that it is not necessary to go out on the water to see them clearly.

The area at the main parking lot gets pretty crowded, but there are lots of port-a-potties there, as well as some limited food service, and of course the various tour operators.  Head back over the bridge and along the road just a short ways and there are several separate parking areas.  Each of these has a path over the glacier’s terminal moraine which puts you back on the lagoon shore with a great view with few, if any other people in the vicinity.

The View Many Miss

Glacial Ice on the beach near Jökulsárlón, Iceland.

Once the icebergs shrink and head out to sea under the bridge, many of them wash back onto the shore, which is made up of black volcanic sand, yielding a spectacular sight.  To see this, you need to head away from the crowds at the lagoon and cross the road to the beach.  Actually since the river cuts through here, there are actually two beachs you could go to, but it was the westerly beach (back over the bridge towards Vik) that had the larger pieces shown in these photos.  These are not the huge chunks of ice that you see in the lagoon, but their location makes them a memorable sight. Clearly, this is NOT Hawaii.

It is easy to break off a clean piece of ice and “taste the glacier”.  You might even get a hint of seasoning from the journey through sea water too.

Moving On

Glacial lagoon with a large glacier entering the water.
Glacial lagoon at Fjallsárlón , Iceland

Jökulsárlón’s little sibling is the Fjallsárlón Glacial Lagoon, a little further west and not quite as popular with the tourists, meaning it is a bit more pleasant to visit.  Perhaps not quite as spectacular, but still really cool.

Skaftafell

View of Vatnajökull from Skatafell. Wildflower in a grassy area with a mountainous glacier in the distance.
View of Vatnajökull from Skatafell.

An easy way to visit part of  the vast Vatnajökull National Park is to head to Skaftafell, from where there are various hikes with different levels of difficulty.  We chose to hike to the Svartifoss waterfall, which is apparently prominently featured in the Iceland Tourism Board’s marketing materials.  As we took one of the “easy” hikes, I quipped to Kelly that when we visit places in Asia, like Thailand, a “medium” curry there would be considered “hot” in the US.  Similarly, I think a “moderate” hike in the US would probably be categorized in Iceland as “easy”.

svartifoss waterfall. Wide basalt cliffs with a narrow, powerful waterfall.
Svartifoss waterfall at Skatafell, Southern Iceland.

The path was well maintained, but it was steep in places and involved walking down  a rocky section at the end. That was perfectly fine with us, but this would have been way too much for someone with less mobility, like either of our fathers.  In Yellowstone, an “easy” walk generally means short, flat, and on a boardwalk.  Something you could take a person in wheelchair to if you wanted. Not so on this hike.

Geographical Term of the Day

Sandur outwash plain in Iceland. Bare, flat rocky landscape
Skeiðarársandur outwash plain in Southern Iceland

There is an incredible array of varied scenery driving along the highway in this part of Iceland.  You pass beautiful mountains, waterfalls, glaciers, beachs, grassland, and sandur.  In particular the Skeiðarársandur we drove across is the largest sandur, or glacial outwash plain in the world and has a terribly beautiful austere quality to it.

A Great Dinner to End a Great Day

On our way back to Vik we stopped for dinner at the IcelandAir Hotel Klaustur in Kirkjubæjarklaustur. Yep, that’s a real name.  Even the locals just shorten it to “Klaustur”.  Kelly had an amazing mushroom burger and I had a wonderful Artic Char dish.  I know a mushroom burger doesn’t sound like something that would be “amazing”, but this was the most flavorful patty that we have ever had, and expertly seasoned.  I think this was clearly the best meal of our time in Iceland.

IcelandAir own a number of hotels in the country.  Just for fun, I looked up what they were currently charging for a room.  At this time of year (peak season), a single room goes for about $450/night.  Some dates are booked out as much as a year or more in advance, but during the low season, the same room could be had for as little as just over $100.  By contrast our comfortable, but basic guest house (with a shared bathroom) cost us $200 per night and they charge the same price year round. Go figure.

Up Next

Check back soon for a post about driving back along the South coast and eating an unusual lunch in a commercial tomato greenhouse.

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