Exploring Iceland’s Glaciers: Jokulsarlon and Vatnajokul National Park

As we made our way around Iceland, the East wasn’t really a place that I was all that excited about.  I knew there was the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, which looked pretty cool, and there was a plan for glacier kayaking, which I was very excited for, but other than that, meh?

Call me ignorant about the East of Iceland, that’s cool, I don’t mind. Don’t worry, I learned my lesson.

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Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon and

Vatnajokul National Park in Southeast Iceland

The main draw to this region is the Vatnajokul National Park, a huge swath of land that covers basically the entire eastern half of Iceland. Made up of the Vatnajokul Glacier, and probably what used to be the glacier, exploring this glacier and it’s surroundings can take an entire week just for itself.  We clearly did not have that amount of time, but we were also foiled by the Travel Gods, actually, the Weather Gods.

As we drove from the North to the East, the weather turned very sour (right after we spotted that reindeer in fact!).  By sour I mean, pelting rain, impenetrable fog, and all the while driving on a winding and potholed road.  I was surprised that Route 1 became so crap at this point, but I guess it is the lesser travelled part of the Ring Road.

As we drove, the fog would momentarily clear and we could see just how dodgy the road was, and how sheer that drop off the side of said road really was.  I was VERY glad to be in our 4×4 rental SUV! Thank you SADcars!!!! 

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It was during this evening of horrific weather conditions that the head cold I had fended off for two days thought would be a good time to surface. Freaking sinuses!  After hours in the car that day and the last several being somewhat tense with possible death by plunge, Dana and I pulled into the hostel in Hofn (pronounced basically as a hiccup sound), a small coastal town with a distinctly weathered vibe.

Unfortunately, because of the awful weather we were experiencing, the glacier kayaking trip that we had booked for the next day, was ‘postponed’.  Which in hindsight was a very hopeful sentiment.  Since the rain showed no sign of stopping for days!

Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach

Jokulsarlon is one of those beautiful places that seem pretty out of this world and is at the top of almost every Iceland Bucket List.  Also known as Diamond Beach, Jokulsarlon (which translates literally to Glacier Lagoon in Icelandic) is actually sadly the product of climate change.  The lagoon is one of the rivers that comes from underneath the Vatnajokul Glacier, and over the years and with changing temperatures, parts of the glacier have broken off and floated downstream.

The lagoon is the temporary home to floating icebergs that are slowly making their way out to sea, and as depressing as it is to know it’s because the glacier is receding, it is also super fascinating to look at.

Unless you’re the bow of the Titanic, floating icebergs are oddly mesmerizing.

They are massive blue ice cubes, that do not melt even though the temperature is above freezing.  How don’t they melt? What makes them blue? Why are they floating towards the ocean when there is no current?

jokulsarlon glacier beach southeast iceland

So many questions.

The best way to experience Jokulsarlon is to get onto one of the boat trips going out into the lagoon, and there are some day trips to Jokulsarlon that can do this for you if you have limited time.

The floating icebergs of the Glacier Lagoon are very interesting indeed, but my head cold was still raging, so standing beside a lake of frozen ice chunks, while it was raining wasn’t really my jam that day. I took a good look, got back in the car and cranked the heat.  Dana kept exploring and found some resident seals.  Are they arctic seals? How do they not freeze? Do they have special fat that temperate seals don’t have? Again, questions!

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Once Dana found the seals, we drove across the street to the Diamond Beach, which really is the last hurrah for these neglected icebergs.  They wash up on the black ashy beach for their last months as an iceberg before they become part of the ranks of rising seawater levels.

So Jokulsarlon is beautiful, and unique, but also scary and depressing because this is exactly what climate change activists are screaming about. Don’t tell Iceland that climate change doesn’t exist…

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Vesterhus Guesthouse

Speaking of climate change, the rain that we were experiencing in Southeast Iceland was not in any way typical.  Folks in the area were saying that they had never seen rain like this at that time of year, or at all generally speaking.

Our kayaking trip in Heinabergslon had been postponed until the next day, so we made for our accommodation: Vesturhus Guesthouse, near Hof.

The guesthouse is located on the side of a hill looking out towards the ocean with the mountains and therefore the glacier in the backyard.  The guesthouse was perfect for what we needed, a warm place to spend the afternoon, use the internet, drink tea, and watch Vikings.  Which is what we did that afternoon, mainly because I felt like crap, the rain was insane, and we had been talking about the show Vikings in the car for a week.

veturhus guesthouse budget accommodation in southeast iceland
Clearly I did not take this photo as it was pouring rain the entire time we were there

We had also been moving nonstop for a week, so I was totally ok with a quiet afternoon in such a comfortable abode. I think Dana would have liked to hike to a waterfall, but she was a good friend and recognized my near death congestion was both prohibitive and making me cranky.

Vesturhus, run by a very helpful and friendly man named Bjarni, has six guest rooms, and a well stocked communal kitchen, with a large dining area.  The shared living room is super comfy with cushy couches, and what would be a great view of the ocean if the fog wasn’t against us.

Living-room-vesturhus guesthouse hof iceland

Each of the guest rooms are different, all with bunkbeds, but varying in sizes and amount.  Dana and I were in a room with 1 set of bunk beds that had a single on top and a double on the bottom. The room also had a small desk and a lovely view of the pastures behind the house.  The entire house was nicely furnished, clean, and cozy.  All good things, since all 6 rooms were filled with travellers who like us were just trying to escape the weather.

Weather Run Amok

As we burrowed into the guesthouse for the afternoon, I was emailing back and forth with the glacier kayaking people, about the possibility of still maybe doing that fun adventure.  But alas, the weather of Southeast Iceland was not in agreement.

As Dana and I had driven south from Hofn, we crossed over a river that was flowing very wildly under the bridge.  People were stopping to look at the river in wonder, as it sure was getting really high, and very close to that bridge deck.

Well wouldn’t you know, that bridge deck didn’t last too much longer, as that evening we got word that yes that river kept raising and there was no longer any way to get past.

Which means the kayaking trip was definitely off. Which sucked, because the trip with Ice Guide was something I was really looking forward to.  But it was just not meant to be this time.

Looking on the other side of the coin, we were VERY lucky to have crossed that bridge when we did.  I asked Bjarni how we could have gotten back to Reykjavik with that closed bridge if we hadn’t crossed when we did, and he said we would have driven all the way around the country in the opposite direction.  Probably 16 hours worth of driving.

Oh good lord.

So missing the glacier kayaking was actually not the worst thing that could have happened that day.  Phew! Ok Viking Gods, we’re cool again.

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A Glacier of Our Own

With only one direction to drive, Dana and I ripped south the next day.  The fog was still bitter, meaning we couldn’t see much of the Vatnajokul Glacier was we drove. The rain was still coming down, but not nearly as it had been.

As we drove we were looking for possible turnoffs to get us closer to the glacier and possibly give us a bit of a hike.  We took a chance on a barely marked dirt road that turn inland and followed a small river.  Ok, lets see where it leads us! Another reason to rent a decent sized vehicle that can handle our spontaneity.

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Wouldn’t you know, we were driving right for an arm of the glacier that we could indeed walk to! We abandoned the car somewhere (truthfully, finding the car again later was a bit of an ordeal), and started walking towards the glacier.  Tickled pink to find that we had not only come upon an accessible part of the glacier, but that we had actually found our own little glacier lagoon and diamond beach as well!

We were the only people there, what bliss! Foggy, rainy, cold, Icelandic bliss!

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We walked as far as we could and then did some probably not totally safe footwork over some glacier streams to get us right up to the side of the glacier. Where I was able to check off one of my long awaited bucket list items: “To walk on a glacier!” And here I had thought with the cancellation of the kayaking trip I had lost my chance, nope, we just had to find another glacier!

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We gallivanted around the beach of ice cubes for a while, always looking back at the glacier, which is a heck of a lot bigger than it looked from the car. We asked the questions again: What makes it blue? Why don’t they melt here? Does glacier ice taste different?

Well we could solve that last riddle. FYI, glacier ice tastes the same as regular ice.

vatnajokul national park skaftafell glacier

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Driving through South Iceland

Myrdalsjokull Glacier in south iceland

After our foray into glacier exploration, we found the car and continued south. Out of nowhere we left the fog of the east behind us and suddenly the day was beautiful and sunny.  Sunglasses came out and we could see much more of our surroundings.

As we drove, we gazed out the window at the crashing ocean to one side while inland the bucolic fields skirted the cliffs and mountains that marked the borders of the Myrdalsjokull Glacier. That’s the great thing about Iceland, every hour it’s changing and if you keep moving you’re never in one environment for all that long.

Onwards to the South!

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Exploring the glaciers of Southeast Iceland is a major must for any trip to Iceland. Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, Vatnajokul National Park, and getting off the beaten path are some of the best places to enjoy this fascinating region.

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