Vatnjökull Glacier – East Iceland

Glacier lagoon

Lake Glacier

Vatnjokull Glacier dominates the landscape in South East Iceland.  In translation, Vatnjökull means “Lake Glacier”.  Vatnjokull Glacier is not only the biggest glacier in Iceland, but it is Eurpoe’s largest piece of ice and is more than 300 square miles and almost a mile thick in places. 

On my travels around Iceland over many years I saw Vatnjokull from the North, South, East and West, but was nowhere near seeing the whole thing.  I once flew over the glacier, but that was only a small section of a vast area. 

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Öræfi Volcano

Vatnjökull is home to some of Europe’s biggest volcanoes.  Öræfi is the second largest volcano in Europe.  Bardabunga is the third largest and is also covered by the Vatnjokull Glacier. 

The massive glacier is also the home of the highest mountain peak in Iceland called ‘Hvannadalshjukur’.  This mountain is over 2000 meters and takes a full day hike to get to the top and back. 

The Vatnjökull Glacier has many outlet glaciers (or glacier tongues) that can be accessed for activities such as hiking, climbing or photography.

Iceland’s glaciers are huge rivers of ice that cut deep grooves into the landscape.  During ice ages, the whole of Iceland would have been under glaciers. The glaciers forged the fjords. 

Heavy Ice

The weight of the glacier affects the height of the land with the colossal weight of ice.  Recent melting and shrinking of Vatnjökull has caused the town of Höfn in East Iceland to rise a few feet.  This has caused issues in the harbour for small fishing boats who can’t reach the jetty.  In the mountains surrounding Vatnjökull  glacier, you will also notice how the horizontal striation lines are not horizontal but slant downwards towards the glacier.  Those line were perfectly horizontal when the mountains were created. This proves that glaciers can move mountains (like ‘Faith’ and ‘Earthquakes’).

Hvannadalshjukur Vatnjokull
Hvannadalshjukur, the highest mountain in Iceland. View from Foss Hotel Skaftafell.
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Svinafellsjökull

The most accessible outlet glacier is Svinafellsjökull.  There is a road leading from the ring road down to the glacier tongue.  The road is in an awful condition & in spite of many millions of tourist tax dollars, the road hasn’t been graded in over 6 years (at time of writing).  Any car can drive on this road, but it would be extremely uncomfortable in a small car.

Although Svinafellsjökull is easy to access, it is not the safest choice for a glacier hike.  A metal plaque is placed on a large boulder to commemorate the lives of two young German men.  They went hiking up the Svinafellsjökull glacier on a clear August day.  The weather turned bad and they were never seen again.  Recent mud slides have closed this glacier for hiking.  The glacier guides now use a nearby glacier outlet for hiking tours.  Svinafellsjökull is a ‘Game of Thrones’ location.  The scene above is close to where Jon Snow met Ygritte.  “Strike hard & true”, she begged him.

Svinafellsjokull Glacier
Close to the car park at Svinafellsjokull Glacier.

Skaftafellsjökull

Skaftafellsjökull is a glacier outlet descending from Vatnajökull Glacier (Iceland’s largest ice cap). The panorama scene was photographed  from the ring road close to Skaftafell National park.

Skaftafell National Park is separate from the Vatnjokull Nation Park, but only in function.  Skaftafell National Park is very tourist oriented with camping accommodation and information center.  The best Hotel in the Skaftafell area is the Foss Hotel which is just a 5 minute drive from Skaftafell.

Glacier Viewpoints

Skaftafellsjokull viewpoint

These are many hiking trails in the National park. This picture was taken from a viewpoint on one of the hiking trails as it split to the right just before Svartifoss waterfall. The viewpoint is a fair hike if you go via Svartifoss waterfall. There is a more direct path close to the visitor’s center which takes you straight up to this point. Although it s called a viewpoint, any point along the edge of Skaftafell hill can work equally well.   

Summer Hiking

There are 2 benefits to making this hike in the Summer time. Firstly, the days are long enough to take your time with the hike. Secondly, the mountains are usually free of snow, so the glacier stands out much better and has a good contrast against the mountains.

Panorama Photography

Skaftafellsjokull Panorama

The reason for shooting this view as a panorama was to communicate both where the ice was coming from and where it is going to. On the right of the scene, yo can see how the glacier ice is breaking up and melting into the lagoon and eventually the rivers. To the left you can see the glacier rise up into the mountains and even getting lost in the clouds. So the panorama is able to tell the whole story when an individual frame at 24mm would only tell you one half of the story.

Glacier Lagoons

The Vatnjökull Glacier  has some of the best glacier lagoons in Iceland.  As the glaciers advances and shrinks, it leaves deep channels that fill with the melt water and sometimes even icebergs.

Jökulsarlon

The famous ice lagoon is usually full of ice bergs that can be blue.  It is also possible to see stripes of black in the ice where a volcanic eruption has covered the glacier in black ash. The lagoon is so close to the ocean, that it is possible to see icebergs on the black sand beach.

Jokulsarlon Ice reflections
Jökulsarlon is undoubtedly the best place to photograph glacier ice.

Fjallsarlon

The glacier lagoon at Fjallsarlon is often full of icebergs as well.  The lagoons is much smaller than Jokulsarlon. but it is possible to see the ice calving from the glacier shelf in the Summer. A Summer boat tour could get you in a good position to see the ice calving.  Fjallsarlon Lagoon is more likely to be frozen and it is sometimes possible to walk on in.

The best hotel close to the Glacier lagoons is Hali Country Hotel.  This excellent hotel is just 10 miles from Jokulsarlon.

Glacier Tours

Top glacier tours in Iceland. These guided tours with professional glacier guides give you South Iceland trip and extra edge.

Multi-day tours

This selection of Multiday tour will visit the main locations around the Vatnjokull Glacier.

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By Tony Prower

Tony Prower spent over 15 years photographing the landscapes of Iceland. Tony Prower is a pioneer of the Magic Cloth Technique and ran thousands of photo tours in Iceland over 10 years.