Glaciers are some of the most amazing natural features on Earth, and there is no better place to visit them than in Iceland. Especially since they are disappearing at an alarming rate due to global warming, it would be a crime not to visit one during your trip to Iceland. Luckily, contrary to popular belief, you don’t necessarily need special equipment, an expensive guide, or even more than an hour or two to visit one of the most amazing and beautiful attractions that you will see in Iceland. Let me tell you how to visit a glacier in Iceland for free!
You might be wondering what exactly I mean by “visiting” a glacier. Well, I think to fully experience how incredible and beautiful glaciers are, you should be able to stare right into the crystal clear ice and run your hand along the mesmerizing scalloped walls. Normally, you wouldn’t be able to do this without a guide or special equipment, but there is one glacier tongue, Solheimajokull, which is very accessible and is at least somewhat safe compared to other glaciers in Iceland.
To get to Solheimajokull, follow the Ring Road (Rt. 1) East past Skogafoss. Then turn left and drive on the gravel road 221 (which could be difficult or impossible to travel in winter) until you reach the parking lot. (See the map below, zoom out to get a better idea of where it is.) From there, find the trail which leads to the glacier and walk about 20 to 30 minutes until you see the edge of the glacier. The best time to visit the glacier is fall and spring, so you don’t have to worry about the road snowed in. Summer is fine, too, but due to melt water at the edge of the glacier, you may have trouble getting too close to it and might have to admire it from a distance.
When you see the edge of the glacier, admire its massive scale for a moment, then take a look around and assess your surroundings. (You’ll probably see something that looks like this!) You’ll notice that the trail hangs to the right side of the valley that you’re in, and for a good reason. Left of the trail, depending on the season, the ground disappears into a glacier lagoon full of freezing cold glacier water. In the winter, especially, this could be partially frozen or covered in snow, so don’t venture off the trail or you could fall in and die.
You should also notice that you aren’t the only one visiting this glacier. (If you are the only one there, it’s a red flag, and it may not be a safe time to visit) Due to its accessibility and beauty, it’s one of the more popular areas for guided glacier hikes. Pay attention to these guided groups, generally identifiable by a bunch of tourists fumbling around with ice axes and helmets sitting at awkward angles on their heads. These groups can be extremely helpful, because they are being led by a professional guide. If you just follow and observe one of these groups from a distance, you can feel confident your approach to the glacier is a safe one.
Stick to the right edge of the valley and walk toward the glacier, following a guided group if you can. Unless you’re visiting during a snowy winter, you’ll start to walk on the beautiful black volcanic sand, and you might begin to see increasingly large chunks of ice that have separated from the glacier.
Stick to the sand and stay as far away as possible from areas that look like they may have melted water and chunks of ice, these could be areas where you could fall into the lagoon.
Soon, you’ll reach the glacier, as it slopes down and intersects with the ground. You can walk right up to it and touch it, lick it, and admire it to your heart’s content, but don’t let your feet leave the sand! Sometimes you’ll even get lucky enough to find small cracks or caves that you can peer into and witness the beautiful clear ice that they hold inside.
Remember, observe the glacier from solid ground, and don’t attempt to walk on the glacier itself. It’s incredibly slippery, and in no way is it safe without the proper equipment and a professional guide.