One of the many pleasures in visiting Iceland, is that you can experience a number of different ecosystems and micro climates, all within a relatively short distance. I mean, you can visit temperate forests, a variety of beaches in multiple colors, geothermal sites of lava fields and steam pits, and glaciers. I have been to a wide variety of countries, and none of the countries I have visited have so many glaciers so accessible to the average person.
There are a variety of glaciers in different parts of the country, but the most accessible ones are the multiple ones in South Iceland. In this part of the country, you can easily see the glaciers spilling out from the mountains as you drive down Ring Road 1. And most of these glaciers are easily visited with only a short walk from a parking lot. It’s an awe inspiring glimpse into nature, one that is becoming more and more threatened over the years as the glaciers recede.
Probably the most popular glacier site to visit (and probably also the most beautiful) is Jokulsarlon, which is a glacier lagoon just off Ring Road 1, in the southeast part of Iceland. This is the largest glacier lagoon in Iceland, and it is getting bigger all the time, as the glacier recedes, creates more icebergs and a bigger lagoon.
This is a site that is literally impossible to miss as you drive down the road, either from the lagoon itself, or the hordes of tourists in the parking lot. We approached Jokulsarlon coming from the east, because this was our second to last stop on our very long day of driving from north Iceland. We got there late afternoon, so there weren’t as many tourists, but it still was a bit of a shock to the system to see so many tourists after days of only small groups in the west and north.
You have some options when visiting Jokulsarlon when it comes to activities. There is no admission fee to the site itself (a common occurrence for the nature sites in Iceland), so you can just walk up and down the shores of the lagoon, taking in all the different angles to enjoy the different icebergs. You can walk all the way out to the beach where the icebergs eventually float into the sea after bobbing around the lagoon for a few years. It is also possible to take a boat ride in the lagoon (for a fee of course), which will get you more up and close and personal with some of the icebergs. I took a boat ride on my first trip to Jokulsarlon, but we elected not to this time.
The lagoon itself is quite large, with most of the iceberg chunks clustered in an area together, and you can see the parent glacier off in the distance. This lagoon is accessible year round, though as you can imagine, the views are a bit different in the winter when it is colder. This is one of those sites where you see it literally when you get out of the car. There is a small hill where you can get a good vantage of the overall lagoon, but this is one of the easier beautiful nature sites to visit. You could spend a lot of time just taking in all the different glaciers and imagining what the different shapes represent. My favorite icebergs were the blue ones, just because it really added a lot of icy winter beauty to the scene.
Our last stop for the day was just down the road at the other glacier lagoon of Fjallsarlon. This glacier lagoon is sort of the junior version of Jokulsarlon, because it is much smaller. The lagoon itself isn’t as big, nor are there are many icebergs as Jokulsarlon. However, you are much closer to the parent glacier. It isn’t a small thing off in the distance, but rather right in front of you. This glacier is easily viewed from the road at quite a distance, and it wasn’t until we got closer, we realized this was actually our destination of Fjarllsarlon.
Unlike Jokulsarlon, you will have to walk a little bit from the parking lot, but it’s only several hundred meters of a gravel path, and then you find yourself standing on the shores of the lagoon, looking up into the glacier. It is also possible to walk between the two glaciers on a path several kilometers, but since it was late in the day, I wasn’t exactly feeling it. I wanted to get to our hotel and relax.
The next day, we visited a couple of sites, such as Skaftafell National Park (covered in an upcoming blog post), where we hiked out to the resident glacier. But on our way back, we stopped at another glacier, called Svinafellsjokull. This is another glacier that is easily accessible to the public, though instead of being just off the road, the parking lot is down a very rutted gravel road. I had visited the glacier on my first trip, but for whatever reason, I either thought I couldn’t drive down to the parking lot, or wouldn’t be able to get my car, because I ended up walking the 2 kilometers each way to the glacier. This time I didn’t make the same mistake.
The trail to the glacier viewing site is a short hike from the parking lot, and the view soon opens up to see the glacier itself and its own lagoon. Even though it has only been six years since my first trip to Iceland, I could see where the glacier has receded and opened up the lagoon even more.
Once you get to the best viewing site, it is possible to scramble over the rocks a bit more to scramble up the canyon, though I don’t think you will necessarily get a better view farther up. On many of the glaciers in Iceland, it is possible to visit and hike on the glaciers as part of a guided tour. There are numerous warning signs around many of the glaciers cautioning people from attempting to walk on the glaciers themselves, because there are all sorts of hazards and dangers that can hurt or kill you if you don’t know what you are doing.
It is remarkable that in so many other parts of the world, glaciers are considered these exotic things, farflung from civilizations and hard to access, but in Iceland, they are literally just down the road and easily accessible for all to see.