When we were planning our trip to Iceland, one of the places that caught my eye the most was Jökulsárlón, especially when I found out that it was a stepping off point for a lot of ice cave tours. It was a little out of the way for us – we hadn’t been planning on going any further east than Vík – but I’m so glad we spent the extra time in the car.
The Vatnajökull glacier is the largest in Europe, and is protected by a national park. It’s size is truly massive and can be best appreciated by viewing a satellite map of the area. The area of the national park accounts for just over 13% of the entire country. It is massive and it is spectacular.
We booked our tour through Extreme Iceland, but it was operated by Glacier Journey, a small business owned by a local couple. We were only expecting to go ice caving, but they were evidently missing a guide that day, so we got combined with the snowmobile tour. We could not have been more thrilled with this development, or our tour guide, Laufey. On the way back to Vík, my sister and I spent more time telling my mom, who didn’t go on the adventure, about her than any of the sights we’d seen on the tour. She was absolutely hilarious and had the six of us in the van cracking up for most of the ride out to the base of the glacier. Our tour happened to fall on International Women’s Day, and as there was only one guy in our group, she gave him a fair amount of good-natured teasing.
Meeting Up with the Group
This was truly the hardest part of the trip. Our tickets said that the tour departed from the parking lot at Jökulsárlón, but when we got there, we discovered a sea of vans, trucks, and trailers for various companies. We hadn’t realized that our tour was being operated by a different company than we had booked with, so when we saw an Extreme Iceland van leaving the parking lot as we were pulling in, I got pretty nervous that we’d missed it. We went inside the little building at the end of the parking lot to inquire, and we were told that they usually picked up right outside.
We waited around for a while, but our 3pm departure time was rapidly approaching, so I went out and started wandering through the parking lot. After asking another tour guide, he pointed us in the direction of the Glacier Journey van, but no guide was there. We asked the passengers already inside, but when they said they were snowmobiling, we thought we were in the wrong place. Laufey eventually found us and took us her trailer to get suited up for the trip that we only then found out was going to include much more than ice caving.
I would recommend getting to Jökulsárlón with plenty of time to spare so that you don’t miss your tour. The parking lot there was very chaotic with tour vans parked everywhere, and you’ll want to explore the area anyway.
My sister and I thought we were pretty well-equipped for the trip, but we were wrong. Laufey has an excellent eye for size and provided us with perfectly fitting wind- and waterproof suits and snowmobiling helmets after just a glance at us. We had brought crampons with us for the ice cave, but those were discarded since she said we wouldn’t be needing them. Our ski gloves were also set aside in favor of what I was sure were much too thin wool gloves, but they were more than enough to keep us warm – even when we had to wait on top of the glacier for a long time (more on that later). We were told to put everything we’d need in our pockets, and I shoved my camera down the front of my snowsuit to keep it warm and safe. It was a very whirlwind process, especially since we hadn’t even expected to be snowmobiling that day.
Make sure to wear warm layers for your tour, since you’ll be leaving your coat behind. You’ll also want to make sure to wear warm (preferably wool) socks and waterproof boots so your feet stay warm and dry while you’re up on the glacier. The helmets we were given had sun shades on them, but sunglasses (wire framed would be ideal because thicker plastic ones won’t fit in your helmet well) would also be helpful on a sunny day.
The Ride Out
Our tour had six people on it, all of whom turned out to be Americans. It was kind of funny to end up in remote Iceland surrounded by a bunch of other people from the States, but it was nice to chat with them and exchange tips about other stops that were still on our itinerary.
When we got into the van, Laufey warned us that the road out to the glacier was horrible, but I had no idea just how right she was. I grew up riding roller coasters and have never gotten motion sick, seasick, or airsick anywhere and by the end of the 40-minute trip in the back of the van, I was a little queasy. There were several spots where I was sure the van was going to get stuck. Laufey has to be the best driver I’ve ever been in the presence of. I believe the road is publicly accessible, but I would not want to drive it myself. There were huge holes that would swallow my little Focus, and some downgrades so steep that I wouldn’t even attempt to drive a vehicle down them. Needless to say, I was very happy to finally arrive at the glacier.
Laufey said that it would take less than 10 minutes to snowmobile from the main road to the glacier, but that the national park no longer allowed that. She said that they also won’t fix the road for some reason, which is a shame.
Despite growing up in Michigan, neither of us had ever snowmobiled before. We had to double up and my sister insisted on driving first because she had driven a jet ski once. I was not at all pleased with this because I’m 11 years older than her and have severe trust issues. I will admit that she handled herself pretty well though.
Laufey gave us a brief demo of how to drive and instructions for what to do when we were up on the glacier. We were to follow exactly in her tracks and line up next to each other when she stopped and gave a hand signal. After a few more tips like what to do if we flipped it, she taught us how to start them up and we were ready to go.
After mounting up, we set off up the glacier. Laufey kept us going at what felt like a pretty fast pace. I was riding in back and felt like I was hanging on for my life. Every bump in the snow sent me bouncing around and I was sure that my little sister was going to get me killed. She did almost roll it at one point, but managed to keep us upright.
Stuck on the Glacier
We went a little way up the glacier and Laufey had us pull into a line to check to make sure that everyone was doing alright. She said we’d stop once more for a check-in and then go up into the mountains that she promised were spectacularly beautiful. We never made it there though.
Shortly after setting off again, she led us through a slushy puddle. My sister was next in line and sped through it just like Laufey did. However a little ways beyond the slush, Laufey had us stop next to her. She had looked back to check on the other two snowmobiles and saw that they were stuck. I never asked exactly what happened, but I think the guy driving the one behind us slowed down when he saw the slush and sunk in. As a result, the girls behind him got stuck too.
Laufey told us to wait there and rode back down to assist the others, who were far enough back that they were out of earshot. After watching them struggle for several minutes, one of the girls hopped on the back of Laufey’s snowmobile and they set off down the glacier. We were alone. And confused.
My sister and I debated whether we should loop around and drive down to where the other three people were, but eventually decided against it because we figured Laufey wouldn’t be pleased. After debating whether we were likely to start an avalanche – we’re from Michigan where it’s flat and don’t know about such things – I decided that it was worth a shot to try yelling down to the others. I waved at them until I got their attention and then shouted to ask what was going on. They yelled back that Laufey had gone to get rope to try to pull the stranded snowmobiles out.
We just had to wait it out until she got back. My sister had her phone with her, so she got it out and started playing some music for us. We had a little sing-along (with minor seat dancing) on our snowmobile parked on top of the glacier. Apparently we were loud enough that the others could hear faint traces of music because they asked us if we were singing Adele songs later on. It was definitely one of the more unique moments I’ve had in my life. How many people can say that they’ve had a dance party on top of a glacier?
Eventually, Laufey returned with not one, but two more snowmobiles. I think she found other guides that she knew down by the ice cave and they rode up with her. She had decided to leave the two stranded snowmobiles there and come back for them later with a Jeep. The two guys who rode up with her left one snowmobile behind and hopped on the other one together and rode back down.
The guy who had gotten stuck hopped on the back of Laufey’s and the other two girls got on the new snowmobile together. They caught up to where we had been waiting and we set off further up the glacier.
My Turn to Drive
We went a little ways further up the glacier, but we’d wasted too much time with the stuck snowmobiles and didn’t have time to go all the way up into the mountains. We got to a good spot near the top and stopped to take pictures for a while. I got to walk around for a bit to take some pictures, and then I switched spots with my sister for the trip back down the glacier.
Driving was a lot more fun than riding. I was getting bounced around a lot less than I had been when I was in back and I liked being in control. The speedometer said we were going 40-50 km/hr, but it felt so much faster. I found myself laughing with joy as we flew across the snow-covered landscape. It was a huge thrill.
As much fun as snowmobiling was, the ice cave was the highlight of the trip for me. We got very lucky with the timing because we had the cave almost to ourselves for a few minutes, and even Laufey was snapping pictures because she said that she rarely got to visit it without crowds of people.
The blue ice surrounding us was spectacular. The ripples and waves in the walls of the cave were mesmerizing. Water flowing under the glacier carved the cave out of the glacial ice leaving the huge cavern for us to explore. It’s inaccessible during the summer and after rainfall when the cave floods once again, so visiting in winter is your best chance to tour it. Even that is no guarantee though, as Laufey told us that the cave was flooded for several weeks earlier this year due to rains.
We were expecting it to be slippery inside – it was an ice cave after all – but the floor wasn’t icy at all. This was the main reason my mom hadn’t wanted to join us on the tour, so don’t let that hold you back. It was also quite warm inside and we were sweating in our snowmobiling suits. Drips of water were coming off of the ceiling as the ice above us melted due to the warmth.
We had free reign to explore on our own and take as many pictures as we wanted. Laufey pointed out a black streak in the ceiling above us and said that it was ash from a volcanic eruption in the 1200s. She also showed us a spot on one of the walls with a thin sheet of ice that we could stick our heads behind to take pictures looking like we were frozen in the glacier.
Outside of the cave was a little tunnel through the ice. My sister and I climbed up the outside and then lowered ourselves into the crawlspace. It was very slushy inside and we would’ve been soaked if we hadn’t been wearing the waterproof snowmobiling outfits we were provided. Crawling through the ice was fun, but I’d skip it if you’re not wearing waterproof clothing from head to toe.
Once everyone was done exploring, we headed back to the van for the long, rough ride back to Jӧkulsárlón. When we got back to the parking lot, we took turns hopping into the trailer to return our snowmobiling gear and pick up our own coats, gloves, and other miscellaneous belongings.
The site we booked through recommends staying near Jökulsárlón the night before for the morning time slot or the night after for the afternoon time and this was very good advice. The other people on the tour were all staying in Reykjavík, which meant that they had a very long drive back to their hotels that night. Our trip to Vík was only about half of their drive and we still didn’t get back until almost midnight after a stop for dinner and Northern Lights viewing.
I would definitely recommend this tour to anyone visiting southeastern Iceland. We loved Laufey and her sense of humor. The tour is not cheap – it costs nearly 29,900 krona – but the experience was amazing. I’ve never seen anything like the ice cave before, and the adventure was the highlight of our entire trip. If you don’t want to snowmobile, you can take a tour that is only to the ice cave at a much cheaper price. We absolutely loved our afternoon with Laufey, and I couldn’t imagine our trip without this adventure. If you have the time and budget for the tour, do it!
Want to learn more about visiting? Check out the perfect 6-Day Southern Iceland Itinerary!