Once again picturing the clock face now right around four o’clock, if I’m lucky, things should start to get icy. But as I work my way south around Iceland’s Ring Road, I have a lot of uncertainty as I approach the glacial lagoon area. Now being the warmest time of the year, will there be ice in the lagoons? What about the famous “Diamond Beach?” If there are no “diamonds” (ice formations) washed up on Iceland’s famous black sand beach, it will be a serious let-down.
One thing for sure, I had long decided I would not spend any money on any of the ridiculously expensive lagoon tours. One can get out into the lagoons for an up close view of the ice in a number of ways; kayaks, rubber inflatables, and even those ridiculous amphibious vehicles that drive on land and turn into a boat on the surface. Nope. There would be none of that. I was there to just have a quick look, and move on.
I am a bit of a self-proclaimed “ice snob.” Having set foot on the frozen continent of Antarctica, strapped on crampons to walk on the Perito Moreno glacier in Patagonia, and chased icebergs around the northern coast of Newfoundland, I figured this was an area where I would scale way back on the budget. No need to board a boat just to see a few less-impressive “bergy bits.” Or so I thought…..
This was another early morning start. I have discovered the way to get a jump on the crowds is to skip any kind of coffee or breakfast. Just wake up, jump into my clothes, and leave the campsite bound for the first attraction at once. Then once I have toured it, return to my kitchen on wheels for coffee and breakfast. This has proven to be a successful strategy, as the tour buses don’t typically show up until around 10am, giving me at least one location free from tourists traveling in packs. This held true for my first glacial lagoon visit as I arrived before 8:00am, with hardly another person in sight.
But as soon as I saw those majestic ice sculptures floating in that aquamarine water, something snapped. It was Antarctica, Patagonia, and Newfoundland all over again. I had to get out on that water for a closer look at that beautiful ice!
As soon as the ticket office opened, I was the third person in line. The RIBs (rubber inflatable boats) and kayak tours had been sold out for weeks. She had nothing to offer me but the goofy amphibious, half truck, half boat tour. How embarrassing. At least it wasn’t decorated as a duck. So I shamefully plunked down my credit card, and off I went, once again called by the lure of the ice.
Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon
The southeast of Iceland offers the best opportunity for close encounters with the ice due to its “outlet glaciers” that extend from Vatnajökull glacier, not only Iceland’s largest, but the largest ice cap in Europe. Eleven percent of Iceland’s surface is covered by glaciers, with eight percent being made up by Vatnajökull.
Glacial lakes and lagoons form in troughs eroded by glaciers. When the glaciers retreat out of these troughs, water accumulates. It’s a bit of a snowball effect, as the warmer seawater then enters the lake, accelerating the melting of the glacier “snout,” causing the ice to break off in a process called “calving.” The largest of these troughs is Jökulsárlón, 25 km (15.5 miles) long and over 284 m (932 ft) deep.
Jökulsárlón is less than a mile from the coast, so its broken bits travel with the current, flowing out through the trough toward the sea. Many of these bits wash up on the nearby “Diamond Beach,” Iceland’s most famous black sand beach.
Just down the road about a mile is the much smaller, quieter, more intimate Fjallsárlón Glacier Lagoon. While its muddy water lacks the brilliant blue color of Jökulsárlón, its small boat tours offer an opportunity to get closer to the face (or “snout” as it is technically called) of the glacier.
Unlike Jökulsárlón, Fjallsárlón is not connected to the sea. This means the icebergs stay there bobbing in the lagoon until they melt.
The third glacier I visited, also right off the Ring Road (Route 1) was Sólheimajökull. It is an outlet glacier of the Mýrdalsjökull icecap, Iceland’s fourth largest glacier. I chose to visit this spot because it’s easy to get close to the face of the glacier without requiring an expensive boat ride. There is also a very small ice cave and arches that can be reached without specialized equipment like crampons or a guide.
Sólheimajökull appears to be so dirty because it lies in between two volcanoes, one of which is Eyjafjallajökull. If that name looks familiar, it’s because this is the volcano that erupted for 14 months back in 2010 when its drifting ash caused flights to be cancelled all across Europe. The black coating on the surface of the glacier is ash from that eruption.
There is a lot of information displayed on the kiosks at the glaciers warning of the effects of climate change. The glaciers are melting rapidly owing to warmer annual temperatures. From 1890 to 1998, the glacier retreated 3.8km (2.4 miles.) Jökulsárlón lagoon alone has increased four fold since the seventies. It is believed that many of the country’s glaciers will become extinct within the next century. Better go now!
Camping along this section: Vik Campsite