Iceland’s Ice Caves Could Last for Decades — or Be Gone Next Month. Here’s How To See Them.
Standing in the middle of a white void, it’s impossible — at least to my untrained eye — to tell north from south, east from west. There’s no obvious horizon line and all the curves and hills we’re told will be along our route are completely invisible. It turns out Langjökull, known locally as “The White Glacier,” lives up to its name. The view in front of us is as blank as a fresh sheet of paper.
I had just enough time to get settled onto the back of my first-ever snowmobile ride when it suddenly accelerated forward, headed blindly into the white vacuum of space. I was off to visit a newly discovered natural wonder: Langjökull Cave, one of the biggest and most captivating Iceland ice caves. Unlike solution (or rock) caves, ice caves are temporary, at the mercy of temperatures and glacial melt. They may sit mostly unchanged for years and years — or they could disappear come May, never to return again.
What’s the deal with Iceland’s ice caves?
As the name would suggest, ice caves are made from ice, and they’re somewhat of a blend between an annual and perennial experience. They don’t completely thaw and reform each year, but most of the ice and much of the shape melts in the summer, reforming again come November. It’s also worth noting that they’re technically called glacier caves, but ice cave is just the term that caught on in the country.
The Langjökull Cave is newly discovered, but Iceland’s caves in general have been well-known for centuries. Early Icelanders likely used them for shelter or ceremonial purposes. Modern-day tours of Iceland’s ice caves didn’t start until around 2010, though rock caves tours were popoular before that.
The tourism website for Visit Iceland advertises a host of experiences to see various Iceland ice caves that can range from a few short hours to multiple days. As the “land of fire and ice,” Iceland is fortunate to be home to a number of ice caves, which is rare as there are only a few parts of the world where the conditions are ripe for the ice caves to form. Oh, and the country also has the “fire” part covered with volcanoes, hot springs, and other natural wonders.
The new cave at Langjökull was discovered in fall of 2021 on the Langjökull glacier — the second longest glacier in Iceland — and was described by Icelandic news outlets as “unusually large.” Amazing Tours, the company I toured with this past winter, was one of the groups to actually discover the new site. Icelandic tour companies regularly conduct searches for new caves, and when they find them, they then set to work improving access and ensuring they’re safe for visitors. This new site took roughly four weeks of preparation before it was deemed safe and accessible. The companies tested for any signs of collapse, chopped away ice that was likely to fall, and installed lighting fixtures before beginning tours.
When I traveled in late November, this latest cave had only been open to tours for about a week. And though I didn’t know it at the time, the most remarkable part of the discovery is that it may disappear forever come spring. According to Jón Kristinn Jónsson, glacier guide and co-owner of Amazing Tours, the new cave will likely melt away after 2024, if not sooner. It’ll be a missed opportunity if you don’t see it before it melts: as a 12-year veteran in the industry, Jónsson has stated that this cave is the biggest he’s ever seen.
Inside Iceland’s Langjökull Cave
Even the most rugged of Jeeps won’t get you to this particular cave, which involves a 2,600-foot elevation gain to reach its entrance. Starting at the Skjól Campground, our tour group lined up on snowmobiles. I had expected to glide smoothly over the snowy terrain, but that couldn’t have been further from reality. I’d never been on a snowmobile, and getting accustomed to the acceleration and braking was a bumpy experience. As a rear passenger, I found myself clutching hard on the handles and praying we didn’t completely tip over (which is a thing that happens more than you’d hope with snowmobiles).
Upon arrival to the cave, it was impossible to tell where the sun was, but the blinding whiteness of the landscape made everything incredibly bright. The Langjökull glacier is known for being particularly unusual for the variety of colors in its ice, including blue, white, gray, and black. Approaching the entrance of the cave, you’re dwarfed by massive walls of bright blue ice, frosted with snow to create a picturesque arctic backdrop.
As we entered, the guides spoke about the cave’s geology and formations, like how the color of the darker gray and white ice comes from the remnants of volcanic ash mixing with the water that flows through the cave. Guides installed small lamps to make some of these features more visible. They also stabilized some of the larger rocks and added makeshift wooden stairs to make the descent easier. Daring travelers have the opportunity to climb down into some of the tighter cavern spaces using rope — only a few at a time, naturally — to access the deeper tunnels carved by flowing water. Skip it if you’re claustrophobic
You get about 30 minutes in the cave and the guides made sure everyone got the opportunity to take all the photos they wanted. Unsupervised, these types of caves are dangerous places to be — stepping onto the wrong ledge or rock could easily result in a broken limb. But this tour felt expertly managed, and the cave was well-marked and partitioned to keep guests out of unstable areas.
I’m not a rugged adventurer. Most of my Icelandic vacation was spent in the city of Reykjavík, strolling idly through the main shopping center and filling my stomach with pastries and crepes. This excursion was by far the most extreme travel activity I’ve ever done – but what’s amazing is that it’s still just a day trip. From the basecamp (the meeting point for tours just outside the city), everyone piles onto a bus to meet the snowmobiles for the trip in the snowy wilds. Before sunset we were back at the basecamp, eating brick-oven pizza and sipping sweet hot cocoas in the cafe.
In other words, it was the perfect adventure for an absolute beginner. But there are definitely a few important things to know if you plan to visit any of Iceland’s ice caves.
Tip: Don’t carry anything delicate
As a photography enthusiast traveling into such a naturally beautiful environment, I wanted to bring my camera everywhere. But the mental image of it accidentally smashing into a wall of ice or falling into one of the cave’s crevices was enough to make me glad I had left it behind. My phone was the only truly valuable thing I had on me, and I didn’t dare pull it out while we were driving.
Anything you bring with you should be kept in a zippered pocket close to your body. You will definitely get time for selfies and quick shots once you actually get to the cave, but only with whatever equipment you’re willing to risk on the ride there. If you drop something while in the middle of the icy tundra, there’s a very strong chance it’s gone forever.
Tip: Pack light
For day trips to other parts of Iceland, I carried a backpack with some basics like a water bottle and snacks. I brought that same bag to the Iceland ice cave tour meeting point, but I left it on the bus. Navigating the environment in the cave was challenging enough without carrying extra weight. It’s also important to have your hands free in the cave to grab climbing ropes and pushing yourself off the snow when you slide or stumble.
It’s also very important to have your hands free when ice caving. You’ll be grabbing onto ropes to haul yourself in and out of the caves, and to pull you through the thickly packed snow. Most people are likely to fall at least once or twice – maintaining your balance on slopes, slippery surfaces is no easy feat.
Tip: Be prepared for a workout
The difficulty level of this particular tour was advertised as “challenging,” and I was surprised by how accurate that was. From the area where we parked the snowmobiles to the cave required a long walk through several feet of snow, crossing slopes marked only with stakes and ropes. It took nearly an hour to reach the cave. Weighed down by heavy snow gear and trudging through freezing temperatures, it doesn’t take long for your heart rate to skyrocket and breathing to accelerate. Be sure to wear a moisture-wicking base layer on your torso and legs. Try to avoid cotton socks, too.
Tip: Bring thick gloves
More than any of my other cold-weather gear, I wish I had brought thicker, more durable gloves. I was sweating a bit while hiking, but my fingers were freezing for most of the trip. You’re risking frostbite without gloves, and even with the gloves I had, the strong wind and cold temperatures were very uncomfortable and left my fingers feeling stiff, especially during the snowmobile ride. I was constantly flexing my fingers to keep the blood circulating and just to make sure I could still feel them.
It goes without saying that you’ll be coming into a lot of direct contact with the snow and ice and guides will provide properly insulated snow gear to keep warm. Still, it never hurts to have your own trusty pair of gloves as used gear can get compressed and worn down. Water- and wind-proof accessories are going to be your best friends.
How to visit Iceland’s ice caves
The most important thing to know is to go as soon as you can. In the summer, much of the cave ice melts, and when it reforms in late autumn, the formations and save of the cave could be quite different — or it could be completely gone; the beauty of Iceland ice caves is that they’re ephemeral.
With all that in mind, it doesn’t take much to begin adventuring into one of the most beautiful locations in Iceland. Tours run October through April, and all you need is a valid driver’s license. Several companies offer various tours to Langjökull Cave, among others, including a tour that includes a drive to the cave entrance in a monster truck. Expect to pay around $300-$400 per person, depending on where you leave from and the length of your tour. While Langjökull is the most recently discovered ice cave, it’s not the only one. There are several caves in Vatnajökull National Park open to tourists as is Katla Ice Cave. If you’re visiting in the summer, you may want to take a tour to Hjörleifshöfði Cave, which served as Yoda’s home in 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
As challenging as the experience was, it was well worth it to see the crystalline beauty of the cave, surrounded by the purest snow I’ve ever witnessed. This marvel won’t be around forever, and I’m glad to have seen it in all its glory. While I haven’t been fully converted into a hardcore adventurer, this trip definitely encouraged me push beyond my comfort level for the sake of seeing the truly unique and wonderful things in this world.
But I still strongly recommend relaxing with a hot chocolate afterward.