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Waterfalls and Glaciers: Vatnajökull and the Glacier Lagoons

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After our monster day of exploring the southern coast the kids had gone to sleep in their long underwear and just needed to have three more layers thrown on ahead of our glacier hike. We hurriedly packed and cleared out of our expensive villa and drove down the hill for buffet breakfast at Adventure Hotel Hof, which was quite good. Newly fortified we drove another fifteen minutes back along the Ring Road to the Skaftafell Terminal Tour Center to meet our hiking guide. It was quite a busy place and after some difficulty I identified our outfit at the far end of the parking lot. I brought the kids over but our guide looked a little concerned when she saw Spenser. She asked how old he was. I told her he was six which was the minimum age for the hike. I'd had to search quite hard for an tour outfit that would take six year olds and this had been the only one. She told me that the smallest crampons they had were a size 34, which corresponded to a US size 2. Spenser is an average size kid but his shoe size is 11 (kids) meaning that he would have needed size 28 crampons. Size 34 would have been absolutely enormous for a six year old and I couldn't understand why they would have a minimum age of six if the smallest crampons they had were for an average size eight year old. Even Ian, who was just about to turn 8, had shoes that were too small for the size 34 crampons. The guide kept insisting that their booking site made it clear that size 34 was the minimum but we had booked through a third party that had provided no such information. We tried to think of a solution but it seemed like the guide and another employee she had called over wanted us to just give up on the idea of the hike. This wasn't a disaster on the order of the vaccine card at the airport, but it would have been quite infuriating to have lost one of our major planned adventures and to have stayed at the $700 villa for nothing.

Of course it was Mei Ling who ultimately solved the problem in a way I would never have come up with. The company happened to have some extra pairs of kids' hiking boots in the van that fit their smallest crampons. Of course they were way too big for Spenser but Mei Ling told me to go back to the car and get all the winter socks we had brought. Fortunately we hadn't skimped on packing thick socks because it took about four layers before Spenser's feet wouldn't slip out of the boots. We put another two layers on Ian 's feet and he was good to go as well. The boys both tromped around for a bit and the boots stayed in place. The guide was rather nonplussed but agreed it was an acceptable solution. She was far from the first and won't be the last person to get spun around by Mei Ling's resourcefulness. I should be used to it but I was also in a state of disbelief as we piled into the van. We'd delayed our start by a good twenty minutes but there was only one other couple on the tour and they were good sports about it.

The jeep took us on a gravel road to the edge of a glacier called Falljökull, one of dozens of tongues of the enormous southern glacier Vatnajökull. Our guide explained to us that since "ll" is pronounced more like "tl" in Icelandic it was easier for English people to call it "Fat Yogurt". The actual pronunciation is closer to Fahtle Yuhkuhtle. The lower edge of the glacier was black with ash, making it look more like the filthy piles of plowed snow on a New York City sidewalk than the pristine white expanse we had imagined. We crossed a wooden bridge over a murky brown stream emanating from under the glacier and then climbed a hill of volcanic rubble before we reached the beginning of the ice.

Putting on the crampons was a fairly difficult procedure requiring several rounds of working and tightening the straps. Our guide had finished two kids before I was done with one and had to rework the one I'd done as well. Once we set out uphill on the ice it was clear that the crampons were indispensable as there would have been no traction gained with even the best hiking boots. The kids adapted to them fairly quickly although Ian did trip a couple of times. It was easy to tangle the crampons by walking without being focused on keeping one's feet widely spaced. One of the first things we encountered on the ice were clusters of "glacier mice", small balls of moss that form on the slope and gradually roll downhill via mechanisms that are still largely a mystery to scientists.

We didn't penetrate very far into the glacier, which might have disappointed me if we hadn't had the kids with us. It was pretty obvious that glaciers could be very dangerous places as well and our guide's top priority was keeping us well away from holes and crevasses. We all wore harnesses that could be hooked into if one of us was unfortunate enough to fall but I had no desire to find out if they worked. As we moved up the mass of ice we saw larger and deeper holes in the ice that were filled with water. Some of them were large enough to swallow the kids or maybe even the adults. We peered into one and couldn't see the bottom, just an emptiness that disappeared into a blue haze. Further up was a tantalizing tongue of jagged ice but that was clearly beyond our capabilities. Instead we explored one shallow and wide crevasse between two ridges.

We were offered one last challenge which was called a glacier push-up. Our guide demonstrated by placing her axe across a stream of clear water running downhill. Using the handle of the axe to brace herself she lowered herself enough that she could drink from the stream without her body touching the ice. Mei Ling was able to do it as were the kids with a little assistance. I took the role of photographer.

We had a few hours before our scheduled boat tour of the glacier lagoon and I considered making a stop at Múlagljúfur Canyon. This would have been a rather challenging adventure as the turn-off from the Ring Road is notoriously hard to find and I wasn't sure how much hiking would be necessary to reach the payoff. Our glacier guide seemed to think it might take us an hour each way which probably wouldn't give us enough time to do the hike and eat, even if we didn't get lost at all trying to find it. In the end I decided to give it a pass as there wouldn't be any shortage of hikes for the rest of the trip, but according to some people we may have missed one of the most amazing places in the country. If you decide you're up for it this link provides the GPS coordinates for the turn-off and the parking lot.

Since we skipped the canyon we reached Fjallsárlón glacier lake more than an hour early. Rather than trying to get on an earlier boat we kept driving until we crossed the bridge over Jökulsárlón, the glacier lagoon. People were lined up on the bridge to take pictures of the lagoon and traffic moved slowly. On the other side was a large parking lot with a couple of food trucks. We could see the blue water of the lagoon with clusters of icebergs floating near the shoreline. Some of the ice was tinted in different shades of pale blue while other blocks were striped with ash. The kids were sleeping so Mei Ling and I went out in shifts to explore. Mei Ling went first and got some amazing shots of the lagoon and even caught a huge iceberg flipping over on video.

The kids were up by the time my turn came and I took Cleo and Spenser over to the famous Heimahumar food truck for lobster soup and a lobster roll. It's kind of a stretch to call the diminutive Icelandic langoustine a lobster but nevertheless the meat was delicate and sweet and the soup was the best I'd had in Iceland so far. Afterwards we took our own stroll along the banks of the lagoon to admire the oddly-shaped chunks of floating ice. Some of the flatter bergs were being used as rafts by flocks of Arctic terns and gulls.

Back at Fjallsárlón we found ourselves getting kitted out for the second time that day, this time in bulky drysuits and flotation devices. We tromped across the rocky landscape to the Zodiac boats that were lined up at the shore. This was a different scene from Jökulsárlón in that there were far fewer boats in the water and no one standing at the shore so it felt less like a roadside attraction. At the far end of the lake a tongue of the glacier rolled right up to the water's edge providing a clear view of the enormous mass of ice that had given birth to the bergs that were floating in front of us.

It felt good to be out on the water as the Zodiac skimmed the rippled surface. The lake was filled with tiny chunks of ice that floated at the surface and we were able to grab some to taste. The guide explained the variation in color of the icebergs and particularly why some were blue on their undersurface and white above. The ice contains countless microscopic air bubbles which reflect blue light but disappear from the ice under direct sunlight. The ice protected from the sun by overhangs maintains its blue color for much longer.

We crossed the bridge over Jökulsárlón once again but this time we took the turn-off on the right side for Diamond Beach. I had gotten the kids worked up by telling them the name of the place but not the reason for it and they had concluded on their own that there would be diamonds scattered around free for the picking. At first they were disappointed to see that the diamonds were actually jagged chunks of ice of various sizes that had washed up onto the black sand but soon they surrendered to the fun of targeting the larger ones with rocks. I was hypnotized by the gradual disintegration of the irregular pieces that were being lashed by waves in the surf. I could see their shapes slowly changing and they would suddenly shift to new stable positions as the water washed away their supports. Further out in the ocean larger icebergs wavered between drifting out to sea or being washed up onto the sand as well. I found one smaller piece with a hole that was perfectly finger-sized and gave it to Mei Ling to compare with the relatively tiny piece of ice I'd put on her finger ten years earlier.

On the other side of the parking lot a pile of boulders formed a seawall for the short strait between the ocean and the lagoon. From here we could marvel at the sight of the icebergs slowly making their way under the suspension bridge with a backdrop of the glacier and the mountains partially obscured by low clouds. Several seals were making intermittent appearances in the strait as they hunted for fish in the frigid waters.

Skipping the canyon hike had allowed us to spend a lot of extra time at the glacier lagoons which had turned out to rival Eldfell as the top experience of the trip to that point. For the next hour we were treated to the most scenic Ring Road driving of the entire journey. The mountains on the inland side had a unique terraced appearance that created dark striations against a background of greenery. Every few miles we would see another tongue of the glacier creeping through a pass between the mountains. There were no towns at all, just a few scattered farms and clusters of buildings that were mostly guesthouses. We took one interesting turn-off and encountered a partially-painted whale skeleton on the ground, possibly an art project that had been abandoned.

Eventually we pulled into Höfn, a town whose position at the tip of a short peninsula at the southeastern corner of Iceland suggested it would be extraordinarily beautiful. Instead it was a disappointingly utilitarian place and our motel was the most bleak and depressing accommodation of the entire trip. We were excited to try the highly-recommended restaurant Pakkhus which was famous for its seafood but they didn't take reservations and by the time we arrived at 7:30 they already had a waiting list that carried through closing. Fortunately our second choice Otto Matur & Drykkur was just a few steps away. There we had our standard serviceable Icelandic dinner and retired to our two motel rooms rather grateful that we hadn't stuck with an early plan to base ourselves in Höfn for two nights.

Posted by zzlangerhans 19:52 Archived in Iceland Tagged road_trip family_travel glacier_lagoon family_travel_blog glacier_hike

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