Iceland’s Amazing Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
By Matthew Karsten Location: Jökulsárlón, Iceland Useful Notes: While Jokulsarlon is open year-round, the lagoon is often frozen over in the winter. Due to the summer heat, you’ll see the most icebergs in the summer months as ice calves into the lagoon from the glacier and floats out to sea. Recommended Guidebook: Lonely Planet Iceland Suggested Reading: The Little Book Of Hidden People The landscape is full of broken icebergs, streaked blue and black, floating with the tide, occasionally breaking apart in a mighty crash. This is Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon in Iceland. Jokulsarlon iceberg lagoon is Iceland’s deepest and most spectacular glacial lake, beloved by tourists, photographers, adventurers – even world-famous Hollywood super-spies. If you visited this frozen landscape a hundred years ago, all you would have seen was ice. But then, the world started to heat up… thanks global warming! Because of this increase in the world’s climate starting around 1920, the icebound edge of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier started to melt. The Icelandic word Jökulsárlón actually means “glacier’s river lagoon”. Jokulsarlon lagoon forms part of Vatnajökull National Park, and has become one of Iceland’s most popular attractions. Icebergs At Jokulsarlon In less than a century, this vast frozen landscape collapsed into a mess of shattered ice & liquid that we see now — Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon. A river soon formed, and found its way to the sea, pulling broken icebergs into the North Atlantic and sculpting unearthly shapes along its black-sand banks. Every year, this fledgling glacier lagoon is made larger as icebergs break off Vatnajökull glacier, float around in the lagoon, and eventually drift out to sea in the summer months. Jokulsarlon doubled in size between 1975 and 1998. It now covers 7 square miles – and is growing every year. Iceland At Its Most Beautiful Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon is a photographer’s paradise. I was in heaven during my visit in November. First and most obviously, the ice is jaw-droppingly beautiful. Compressed glacial ice often turns glassy and a deep, luminous blue, and that’s best seen when the icebergs break and flip over. You’ll see plenty of broken blue icebergs at Jökulsárlón – and the contrast against the white backdrop of the distant glacier and the black sand of the lagoon’s beach is truly other-worldly. You may even see seals too. Thanks to that small river leading to the ocean, the lagoon is filled with fish, and seals regularly gather at the river mouth to feed, along with huge numbers of seabirds. Glacier Lagoon Boat Tours A tour company called Glacier Lagoon has been running boat rides at Jokulsarlon for nearly 30 years, ever since the world’s most famous super-spy James Bond himself made an appearance. In the opening scenes of Roger Moore’s A View To A Kill (1985), the iceberg lagoon was used as a stand-in for Northern Siberia – and when news got out, tourists started arriving, as did boat tour services. (In 2001, Jökulsárlón again doubled as Siberia for scenes in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – and in the same year, the James Bond crew returned to film parts of Pierce Brosnan’s Die Another Day.) There are two types of tours to choose from. There is an amphibious boat ride (ISK 5500 / $55 USD) for a relaxing tour round the biggest icebergs, accompanied by guided commentary. For the more adventurous, get fitted with a flotation suit and lifejacket and take a Zodiac (ISK 9500 / $95 USD) for much closer views of the ice, including right under the glacier’s edge if conditions permit. When To Visit The Lagoon Jokulsarlon’s boat tours only run between May and October, and outside of those months, Icelandic weather can get fierce – although bad weather can hit at any time, so it’s wise to always be prepared for white-out conditions. The best months for good weather (and clear-sky photography) at the lagoon are July and August – but September/October can be a better time to visit Iceland because the tourist season has ended, prices are lower and there will be less people around. You’ll also have a better chance of seeing Iceland’s incredible northern lights! Getting To Jokulsarlon The Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon is hard to miss off the side of Iceland’s famous ring road (Route 1) – but it requires some planning to get out here. Rather than try to cram it into a single day, you should really plan for two days. Rental Car I visited while driving around Iceland’s Ring Road in a campervan from Happy Campers – it helps to have your own transportation because Jökulsárlón is pretty far away from major towns. The trip takes about 4 hours from Reykjavík, provided you don’t stop along the way (which is almost impossible in Iceland, there’s tons to see!). Another car rental service I’ve used in the past is called Sad Cars. By Bus Strætó Bus: Route 51 from Mjódd bus terminal (Reykjavík) to Jökulsárlón. It’s a 6 hour trip that starts at 1pm – and the next bus back is usually at 12:55pm the next day. If you visit Jokulsarlon by bus, you won’t be returning the same day – and since accommodation at the lagoon is non-existent (see later), you’d have to be pretty adventurous to pick this option. Hitchhiking Another adventurous option, but hitchhiking in Iceland is pretty common and safe. How long it will take you to hitchhike here from Reykjavík just depends on your hitchhiking skills, luck, and how many stops you make. Where To Stay I spent the night camped out at the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon parking lot in my Happy Campers van. There are no hotels, hostels or guesthouses at the lagoon itself. Höfn is the closest large town, about an hour away. If you’re wondering where to stay in Iceland near Jokulsarlon, here are my recommendations: Hostels Near Jokulsarlon Vagnsstaðir Hostel – This is the closest hostel to Jokulsarlon, about 13 miles to the northeast. Höfn Hostel – An environmentally friendly hostel with sea views, located an hour away in the village of Höfn. Hotels Near Jokulsarlon Hali Country Hotel – This small hotel is a 15-minute drive from the lagoon, offering double & triple rooms and apartments plus a restaurant. Hotel Höfn – Located in Höfn about an hour away, this hotel offers modern rooms with glacier & sea views. Jökulsárlón Travel Tips & Advice • Iceland in the summer can be surprisingly warm, but icebergs at Jokulsarlon lagoon give off waves of cold air you can feel on your face. Take a hat and a warm gloves, even if it looks sunny. • Watch out for the fiercely territorial skua seabirds that live in the area – if you get close to their nests, they’ll dive at you noisily until you back off! • Sunrise is the best time to photograph the glacier lagoon icebergs, not only because of great lighting conditions, but also because there are less tourists. Sunset is also good, but more crowded than sunrise. • During the tourist season, there’s a small café that serves a limited amount of snacks. But that’s about it. • Iceland’s incredible crystal ice caves are not far away from Jokulsarlon, so if you happen to be visiting in the winter, I highly recommend exploring them with a guide! • No trip to Iceland is complete without a stop at Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, as you can see, there’s a good reason why it’s one of Iceland’s most popular natural attractions! Traveling To Iceland Soon? Don’t forget travel insurance! I’m a big fan of World Nomads for short-term trips. Protect yourself from possible injury & theft abroad. Read more about why you should always carry travel insurance here.