Hiking Iceland’s Stunning Sólheimajökull Glacier
I’ve been obsessed with trying to visit Iceland for quite some time (and it featured prominently in my list of places I was dying to visit in 2018). An in addition to all the volcanoes and waterfalls and such that you picture in Iceland, one thing that I was adamant about doing there was hiking on a glacier.
So this post is first and foremost inspiration…hopefully these pics will show you how amazing this experience is, and nudge you to try something like this for yourself if you’re visiting Iceland. Secondarily, I’ll provide the detailed information you’ll need to plan your own Iceland glacier tour.
Here’s everything else from our 3-day Iceland road trip!
Where to do a glacier hike in Iceland
The most common place to do a glacier hike in Iceland is in Skaftafell National Park. There are several tongues of the massive Vatnajökull glacier here, including Sólheimajökull (where we hiked). This map image from Icelandic Mountain Guides shows you where the glaciers in Iceland are. Vatnajökull is by far the biggest.
It’s not really important which piece of the glacier you’ll be on—they change depending on various safety considerations—but the main thing to know is that it’s all part of Vatnajökull, and make sure to look at where the meeting point is on the map (to make sure it fits into your itinerary).
Many people do this as a day trip from Reykjavik, meeting up with the tour company there and then just making a decently long day of it. It’s totally doable that way, but in general I recommend not just basing yourself in Reykjavik but actually getting out and doing a road trip along the Golden Circle and South Coast. I used Icelandic Mountain Guides, and they were amazing. You can see all the different types of glacier tours they offer here (and they have a ton of other types of tours as well).
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How to plan a trip to Skaftafell
We stayed at the Klausterhof Guesthouse in Kirkjubæjarklaustur, and would recommend it. It was about an hour’s drive from Vik, where we’d eaten dinner, and then another hour to Skaftafell National Park. There aren’t tons of places to base yourself around the park, and housing options go really fast (and are EXPENSIVE) in the summer in particular, so book as far ahead as you can. Other town options if you’re trying to stay somewhat nearby would be Hof, Kalfafell, or just stay in Vik and it’ll be a longer drive; if you’re coming from the other direction, Hofn is a good option but further on, quite a ways past the Jökularson Glacier Lagoon.
Side note, we had to get on the road early to get to the glacier, and nothing opens up early in Kirkjubaejarklauster. We hadn’t paid for breakfast at the hotel because we knew we wouldn’t have time to really sit and enjoy it (and I’m not a huge fan of continental breakfasts), but Google said that a coffee place called Caffe Munkar was open that early and super close to the hotel. So we got in the car and followed Google Maps, but it tried to take us to a private farm, then yanked us around for a few more minutes. Finally, after several dead ends and false starts, we realized that Caffe Munkar was *in* the hotel, just where you buy food ad hoc rather than the full breakfast. So…PSA. But good coffee and a decent pastry, so make sure to stop!
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The drive itself is gorgeous, since you can not only see regular beautiful Iceland scenery (mountains, green, ponies, waterfalls), but many parts of the glaciers are visible from the road as well. We parked and checked in with Icelandic Mountain Guides, then went over to grab a coffee and piece of cake from the Visitor Center cafe and killed time til our tour.
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Then we met up with our guide, Marco, and got our boots, harnesses, ice axes, and crampons sorted out.
It was a 15-minute van ride to the trailhead, then about a 15-minute walk to the base of the glacier.
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So freaking cool. There’s a massive glacial river running under the glacier, a gross muddy brown from all the dirt and minerals, but still very cool.
We had to cross a rickety little bridge to get over the river, which made some of our party nervous.
When we got to the base of the glacier, we sat down and tied our crampons on, then started crunching our way up the steep ice. It was a strange feeling, I had to kind of stomp with each step to make sure I had a solid foothold. I used my ice axe for balance and a little insurance as well. My hip wasn’t super happy with me but it was doable (and BOY, were my arches cramping by the end!).
We began ascending, weaving around the glacier a little to make sure we had the safest route. The guides are incredibly skilled and knowledgeable, with a major focus on safety. Marco would point out all sorts of cool things for us as we went, from great camera angles to the massive glacial river hundreds of feet below us.
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We stopped at one really great viewpoint and took tons of pictures. Even with a good camera, it’s nearly impossible to truly capture the awe-inspiring scale and perspective of the glacier—all of those little tiny ice spikes in the distance in these pics are way bigger than a human being. It’s insane!
We did so much climbing…by this point I was feeling like Vanessa and I had burned off that piece of cake from earlier! It was crazy how much the landscape immediately in front of us changed constantly as we kept winding through.
Like a chilly game of follow-the-leader… 🙂
For most of the time up on the glacier we had pretty good weather, but this stop right here was the best of the blue skies. The hole Marco is standing by has glacier runoff pouring into it, and it’s then a sheer drop waaaayyyy down into the loud rushing glacier river below.
This was one of my favorite things of the entire hike—this cool little carved-out waterfall where we could get right up close! If you look closely you’ll see the tiny spout of blue water coming down the side of the ice.
The starkness of the landscape was just fascinating. People think of glaciers as just white snow, but the minerals and dirt in there create these stunning wrinkles and depth that you forget until you’re up close and personal. And then there are cool wave formations, different shades of blue, and crevices so big you could fall into them.
In case it’s not clear, this experience ranks up there for one of the neatest things I’ve done. These are a few of my favorite pics from the hike, but as you can see from this entire post, it’s hard to pick favorites!!
Finally it was time to descend. We took a different route back down to the base of the glacier and removed our crampons, then hiked back to the van. The weather had turned on us a little by this point, still fairly clear visibility but cloudy overhead, which made it feel a lot chillier.
After divesting ourselves of our gear, Vanessa and I hit the road toward the famous glacier lagoon and Diamond Beach. We were famished after all our hiking, though, so stopped for a traditional Icelandic lamb stew to warm us up and keep us going til dinner.
Tips for an Iceland glacier tour
- We used Icelandic Mountain Guides, and would highly recommend them. They have a lot of different kinds of tours, from glacier hikes to ice cave tours to a hike in Laugavegur. You can get picked up in Reykjavik or drive to the meeting point yourself.
- We did the 4-hour glacier hike, and it was $169 (US) per person.
- We stayed at the Klausterhof Guesthouse in Kirkjubæjarklaustur, and would recommend it.
- It was about an hour’s drive east of Vik, and then it took us about an hour to drive to Skaftafell National Park in the morning. There aren’t tons of places to base yourself around the park, and housing options go really fast (and are EXPENSIVE) in the summer in particular, so book as far ahead as you can.
- Other town options if you’re trying to stay somewhat nearby would be Hof, Kalfafell, or just stay in Vik and it’ll be a longer drive; if you’re coming from the other direction, Hofn is a good option but further on, quite a ways past the Jökularson Glacier Lagoon.
- If you’re a big breakfast fan, make sure to book the breakfast at the hotel. Otherwise, Caffe Munkar is *inside* the hotel (same as breakfast) and you can pay for coffee and pastries separately. Don’t let Google Maps fool you 🙂
- Tips for Skaftafell National Park
- If you can spare the time, there’s a short (2-mile round trip) hike to a nearby glacier tongue from the Visitor’s Center at Skaftafell. This is Skaftafellsjökull glacier tongue and an easy walk down a pebble path, about a half hour each way. We didn’t have time but have heard it’s great.
- Similarly, there are a ton of beautiful hiking trails you can explore in the park. For example, you can hike to the wonderful Svartifoss waterfall, a 1.5-kilometer hike away from the Visitor Center along a marked trail. It’s only about 60 feet high but stunning (again, bummed we missed this). It’s backed by a massive black basalt lava wall so super photogenic.
- Driving in Iceland is very easy, but make sure not to speed! The fines are insane and there are a lot of speed cameras.
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- Floating on a Glacier Lake in New Zealand
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