Iceland, a small island in the Atlantic Ocean, also goes by another name; the land of fire and ice. Fire, for its volcanoes, and ice, for its glaciers. It is these natural features that shape the landscape of Iceland and provide some spectacular natural phenomena. The glaciers themselves are a thing to behold, but they are unfortunately shrinking: one glacier, the Okjojull glacier, already disappeared. Their meltwater, however, offers a silver lining; incredible rivers, waterfalls and glacial lakes are to be found wherever there is a glacier nearby. One particularly famous glacial feature is the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon.
How is the Lagoon Formed?
Jökulsárlón (which translates to glacial river lagoon) is fed by meltwater from the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, which is a glacier tongue of Vatnajökull glacier- this is both Iceland’s and Europe’s largest glacier. As the water and chunks of ice travel south on their way to the Atlantic Ocean, they fill the area below the glaciers, and the lagoon is formed. With a depth of 248 meters (814 feet), Jökulsárlón is the deepest lake in Iceland. The lagoon isn’t just filled with water; large pieces of ice that have broken off the glacier float gently through the water, making it an ice lagoon. Some pieces of ice also deposit on the nearby black sand beach, hence the name Diamond Beach. Since the lagoon is connected to the ocean, the fresh water from the glaciers mixes with seawater, giving it a unique color. The lagoon grows in size every year as Iceland’s glaciers continue to recede.
How Far is Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon from Reykjavík?
The lagoon is located on the south coast, 380km (236 miles) from Reykjavík. This is around a 5-hour journey, but there are so many other incredible sights between the two places that you’ll want to stop along the way; I’ll come to this later. It’s easy to reach the lagoon; just head out of Reykjavík and join Route 1 (the ring road) going counterclockwise. Follow it for 5 hours, and you’ll reach Jökulsárlón.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon Boat Tour
You are about to discover one of the best things to do in Iceland by far! In this glacial lagoon, you get the chance to explore the lagoon and see the icebergs up close, with Glacier Lagoon Boat Tours. The company runs both the Amphibian Boat Tour and the Zodiac Tour.
The Amphibian involves a 30-40-minute tour around the lagoon with an English-speaking guide, on a relaxed, slow-moving bus boat. The Zodiac, which utilizes a large dinghy instead, is an hour-long tour that covers a larger area of the lagoon and allows you to get much closer to the icebergs, and perhaps all the way up to the glacier itself. But it isn’t just icebergs you’ll be seeing here; the lagoon is full of wildlife.
The waters are home to several species of fish, which attract both seals and birds (including puffins) who want to make the most of the food supply. Recently, Arctic Terns have also come here to nest and feed off the local fish population. If you get hungry yourself after your lagoon experience, the tour company also operates a café on-site, which serves drinks and fresh sandwiches.
Boat tour season
You can, of course, drive past the glacier lagoon at any time and visit the Diamond Beach in summer or winter, but know that the boat tours only run from April to November, with June to August being peak operating season. Iceland is slightly warmer in the summer, and there is less chance of a storm of any kind, so the boat tours will certainly be slightly more comfortable between June and August. But keep in mind that if you are visiting Diamond Beach yourself in the winter months, it’s a great place from which to see the northern lights; there is no light pollution at all at night there. The café is open year-round, with opening hours varying depending on the season.
There is also a Super Jeep Tour and an Ice Cave Tour operating from this site. Both allow you to experience Vatnajökull glacier in a whole new way, with the knowledgeable guides giving you an insight into the local area.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon Camping
Keep in mind that free-camping is illegal in Iceland. It’s wise to follow this rule because if you are caught free-camping, the fines are heavy. The closest campground is Svinafell, located about 50km (31 miles) back the way you came along the ring road (if you are traveling it counterclockwise). The campsite itself is only open in the summer months, from May 1st until September 30th. Their other accommodation option is a series of heated cabins each sleeping four people. These are also only open during the summer and both the campsite and the cabins have access to a service building with toilets, showers and basic cooking facilities. Other sleeping facilities are offered year-round at Svinafell; check their website for more details.
There are also towns nearby with hostels and guesthouses to rest your head for a night. Hof is located in between Svinafell and Jökulsárlón, or if you want to continue driving on from the lagoon, guesthouses and hostels line the ring road.
Other Places to See on the Way to Jökulsárlón
The Golden Circle
As I mentioned before, it would be a great idea to spread out this trip to the glacier lagoon, because there is so much to experience on the way there. For starters, your trip takes you past the Golden Circle, Iceland’s most famous tourist route. It consists of three main stops: Þingvellir National Park which is one of Iceland's 3 national parks, Gullfoss Waterfall and Geysir Geothermal Area. There are many other wonderful sights along the route, and the drive itself takes about three hours, not including stops. You could either cut in and out of the Circle route on your way to the lagoon, or complete the whole Circle as a separate excursion.
This incredible waterfall, found about 130km (80 miles) from the capital, only a short detour from Route 1, is a particularly special water feature in Iceland. It’s 60 meters (200 feet) high and is one of the only waterfalls in Iceland that you can walk behind. Bring your hiking boots and a rain jacket, and prepare to get a little wet as you experience the waterfall from all angles. The waterfall is only really safe to walk behind in the summer months; in the winter it’s a little too slippery. This landmark became world-famous when it featured in Justin Bieber’s music video for his song “I’ll Show You” in 2015.
This small fishing village is famous for a nearby local feature; Reynisfjara black sand beach. It contains an abundance of basalt columns and natural rock formations, and it’s also home to several species of seabird, such as puffins. If you are embarking on a ring road trip, this is a good first place to stop for a night. It’s 187km (116 miles) from Reykjavík, a journey of around 2 and a half hours.
Located in Vatnajökull National Park, Skaftafell is a preserved area with a huge array of hiking trails. Take a look at some waterfalls, mountains, and glaciers as you explore this pristine area; it is truly a representation of Iceland’s wonderful nature. There are facilities, such as a visitor’s center, campground, and cafeteria on-site. Skaftafell could be a separate trip itself, worthy of a few days’ exploration, but it will also make a great stop on the way to Jökulsárlón; stop here for a few hours and pick a hiking trail. It’s a four-and-a-half-hour journey from Reykjavík, about 330km (205 miles).When traveling in Iceland, it’s always a good idea to have warm, waterproof clothing with you. Even in the summer, Iceland is generally not much warmer than 12 or 13°C. Travel prepared and respect Iceland’s nature; clear up any mess and take all of your rubbish with you.
Samuel Hogarth, Reykjavik Cars.