When glaciers end their slow motion tumble down the mountains, they calve off into serene glacier lakes. At the south end of Iceland’s epic glacier Vatnajökull, the glacier pools into the Fjallsárlón glacier lake, and nearby Jökulsárlón. Iceland is a rough circle shape – and if you imagine it is a giant clock – we were driving somewhere around the 5 o’clock point. We were just a speck, sandwiched between two giants, the Atlantic sea and Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier.
Vatnajökull National Park
In 2008, Vatnajökull was designated a national park, incorporating the existing national parks of Skaftafell and Jökulsárgljúfur. Now, it’s Europe’s largest national park, occupying 13% of Iceland’s total area.
The size of the glacier is astounding – 8300 square kilometers. That’s bigger than the island of Crete, and nearly as big as Hawaii’s Big Island!
The national park has seven volcanoes beneath the surface of the ice, and all of them are active, with the most recent eruption in 2011.
What happens when you mix volcanoes with glaciers?
In 1996, an eruption under the glacier launched a 10km plume of ash into the air, and lifted the surface of the ice by 10 metres. Meanwhile, melting ice began to fill a subglacial lake, which was dammed in by an underground caldera.
Three cubic kilometers of melted ice could not be contained for long, and a month after the eruption, it burst. The river that it created was, while it lasted, the second largest in the world.
This phenomenon is called jökulhlaup. The 1996 eruption caused significant damage to roads and bridges, and added several square kilometers to Iceland’s landmass.
Fjallsárlón glacier lake
We reached the first glacial lagoon by a short off road track that branched off the Route 1 highway.
Tip: All the interesting sights in Iceland are marked on brown roadsigns with the apple command symbol – ⌘
Our rental car shook and shuddered, clearly not designed for any kind of terrain other than highway. The 4×4 might have been a better rental car choice!
Vatnajökull, the glacier, was stunning. It looked like a furious avalanche roaring down the mountain, but frozen in place.
The sun hit the ice in curious twinkling reflection patterns, pure white snowfields, and jagged mountaintops, all contributing to a very dramatic view.
Ancient blocks of ice crumbled and fell into the wide brown lake at the glacier base, rippling in the wind. Whereas Skaftafellsjökull reached the mountain base funnelled between canyon walls, Fjallsárlón widened into view like a spectacular, dramatic panorama. Our faces wrapped tightly like mummies with scarves, jackets and hoodies, the strong winds coming down the mountain battered and tousled us as we took pictures. The wind was burning our faces, so we hopped in the car to find Jökulsárlón glacier lake.
Jökulsárlón glacier lake
The neighbouring Jökulsárlón glacier lake is just down the next road. It is also formed by Vatnajökull’s ice (technially, Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, which is part of Vatnajökull).
Jökulsárlón is much larger, more dramatic, and is completely filled with a million icebergs that twinkle like shattered blue glass.
Each ice block was reflected perfectly in the mirror-clear waters of the lake. There was no noise but the drip drip of melting ice. Occasionally an iceberg would creak under stress, or fall into the water with a soft plop.
Jökulsárlón black sand beach
On a whim, we followed another car down the next gravel path, to find another one of Iceland’s hidden curiosities. The ice from Jökulsárlón’s glacial lagoon was being pulled out to sea via a small channel, and were washing up on a nearby beach.
The beach, black as night with volcanic sand, was covered in lumps of ice, collecting on the sand or drifting back and forth in the dark water.
They were polished and crystal clear from their wash in the sea, contrasting profoundly with the black sand. I picked up some sand. It was coarse and sticky. This was the strangest beach I’d ever bee to – what planet had we found ourselves on!?
Höfn, home of the langoustine
That evening, we stayed in tiny Höfn, a town in the south east and a relatively short drive from Vatnajökull. A fishing town by trade, the town name literally means ‘port’.
The town was tiny and quiet, and beautiful in the sunset. Down by the waterfront, the mirror-flat harbour projected perfect copies of the fishing boats at anchor.
We walked along the harbour, starting to think about food. The lightvwas dyin and long shadows yawned and elongated in the orange glow. Time to find some langoustine!
Eating langoustine in Höfn
Höfn has a local reputation for serving fine seafood, in particular the langoustine, a mini lobster from the Atlantic.
The restaurant we chose was called Pakhús, a converted shipping warehouse, was by the water. There were several great choices of seafood restaurant around, and they all appeared to be converted warehouses at the harbour.
We ordered seafood, of course; I took cod and the girls ordered langoustine. The langoustines came, a dozen or so, served in melted butter and herbs. I leaned over and tasted one, and I immediately realised I made the wrong decision.
The glacier lakes in a nutshell
The beauty of a self-drive around Iceland is the number of amazing attractions along the ring road, and how quickly a stunning sight presents itself. Finding the glacier lakes was as simple as taking the turnoff where indicated. And suddenly, the lunar highway takes you to otherworldly lakes populated by silent ice blocks, the great white glaciers creaking far in the distance. And to top it off, a meal of buttery langoustines is the perfect way to tip off an amazing day.