Updated on June 22nd, 2023
As part of my road trip around the highlights of South Iceland, I spent an afternoon on a Sólheimajökull Glacier hike. Although it hadn’t been on top of my list of activities in Iceland, I enjoyed the experience so much that I wanted to share. Despite the relentless rain, I found this walk to be one of the best activities I did in South Iceland. Here is why. And anyway after the rain, comes the rainbows!”
Sólheimajökull Glacier, Southern Iceland
I was in North Iceland for a transformational yoga retreat in Akureyri, but as always wanted to explore further while I was there. After the 5-day retreat, I headed back to Reykjavik, picked up a car & adventured off on a solo road trip. I had originally wanted this to be a 10-day journey around the whole Ring Road, but the universe seemed to be conspiring against me (that’s a story for another day). Instead, I had ended up with 5 days to see the best of what the South Coast had to offer.
I’ll be honest, glacier hiking was not number one on my To-Do list. I really wanted to tour the Golden Circle, hike to the active volcano (Fagradalsfjall), snorkel between tectonic plates & kayak around the glaciers. Somehow the hike to the active volcano never happened & my kayak tour was cancelled days before due to lack of interest (How?! It sounded amazing!).
I don’t want to sound like a spoilt brat, but I had hiked on a glacier in Patagonia, Argentina (& loved it). Therefore it wasn’t top of my list for this time around. That time I had beautiful blue skies & drank whiskey with ice from the glacier itself. How can you top that?”
How wrong I was! The Sólheimajökull Glacier hike turned out to be one of the most fascinating experiences I had during my whole time in Iceland! This post is all about why you should add this activity to your Iceland adventures.
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Where is Sólheimajökull Glacier?
Sólheimajökull Glacier, (pronounced sole-hi-ma-yo-coot-luh) is the southernmost glacier of Iceland & lies just off the Ring Road, between Skógarfoss waterfall & the town of Vik. It is one of the easiest of all these natural wonders to access. It is between 10 to 13 kilometres in length, up to 2 kilometres wide & believed to be around 200 metres thick.
Sólheimajökull Glacier is an outlet glacier from the main ice cap of Myrdalsjokull. Effectively a tributary that runs down one of the valleys. However, it starts from the rim of the Katla volcano, the largest in Iceland. Katla usually erupts around every 60 years but, currently, it has been 100 years since its last eruption. When Katla does next erupt, the lava will flow down the valley, melting the glacier & potentially causing some serious floods.
Similar to many of Iceland’s glaciers, Sólheimajökull has been melting fast, particularly since the early ’90s. It is believed that the glacier is currently losing 60 meters of length & 10 to 20 metres of thickness each year. Unfortunately, this makes it a perfect place to clearly see the impact of climate change.
There is now a lagoon in front of the glacier which only began to form in 2007. The lagoon is around 70 meters deep, the same height as famous Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavik. If melting continues at this rate, the lake could stretch up to 4 ½ kilometres through the valley where the glacier currently sits. That’s a terrifying pace!”
Where to stay to experience the Sólheimajökull Glacier hike?
I stayed just outside Hella in the Hotel Ranga which is the perfect place to get away from it all, especially if you have a penchant for wood cladding, taxidermy & enjoy the relaxing rejuvenation of a hot tub! It is also an excellent place to see the Northern Lights.
Closer to the glacier itself is the town of Vik. If you fancy staying there then check out the Hotel Kria, Hotel Vik i Myrdal, Hotel Katla by Keahotels or use the search box below to find the best match for your needs & budget.
Where to book your Sólheimajökull Glacier hike
I booked my Sólheimajökull Glacier hike with Arctic Adventures who operate out of a yellow school bus in the car park. There are numerous other organisations that offer a similar hike. Take your pick from some of the more popular tours from Get Your Guide below. All start from the adjacent car park. One of these offers the hike as part of a one day tour of the South Coast from Reykjavik in case you don’t have transport yourself.
You should never attempt to climb the glacier without a guide. Crevasses are appearing all the time on the surface so can be dangerous if you don’t know where they are located. The guides take part in rescue training every week to ensure our safety.”
Sólheimajökull Glacier Hike – One of the Best Activities in South Iceland
It was a bleak day when I chose to tackle this hike & had been raining hard since the first thing that morning. When I arrived, I found limited facilities at the car park. Where there used to be a café there are now just basic toilet facilities (which you must pay for even though I couldn’t work out how to turn the lights on!). As my hike started at 2.30 pm it was the last of the day, which meant there were only 5 of us on the walk.
We were ticked off & introduced to our guide, the lovely Hang from China. She started with getting us kitted up. Crampons fitted, ice axe handed out (but never used so actually only for effect!), helmets adjusted, harnesses fastened. And we were off!
Getting to the glacier
It was about an 800-metre walk to reach the start of the glacier but just seeing it took my breath away. I was surprised to see how black it was, having romantically imagined the bright blue hues you see on all the photos (& those I had experienced in Argentina). However, the view was no less mesmerising as the glacier itself rose from the lagoon where it was reflected, with icebergs floating alongside. Then it disappeared into the mountains, squeezed between the rock. The view itself was like watching through a black & white lens.
Our first task was to attach the crampons… not as simple as it sounds! Everything had to be pulled tight to be safe. We then donned our helmets & were off on our big adventure.”
Initially, it was gravel & rocks that we were negotiating before we made our first climb up & headed onto the ice, just after a quick photo stop. We paused at what used to be an ice cave. Apparently, a great place to take a snap as you enter the ice field. However, 5 days earlier it had collapsed. This was a stark reminder that glaciers themselves are alive & constantly moving.
They are also much bigger than they look. My assumption was that as we scaled our way up the glacier, this was the edge. Then Hang pointed out that what I assumed were mountains of rock on either side were also the glacier. She showed us “scratch marks” on the side of the rock, clearly displaying the white ice underneath. This was a powerful beast we were about to explore.
Learning to walk with crampons
We learned quickly how to walk on crampons. Basically, don’t be shy. Each step needs to be purposeful to be the safest you can. Walking on the ice is always preferable to stepping on the stones as the grip is better. Kind of the opposite of the rest of our lives!
Along the way, Hang educated us about the Sólheimajökull Glacier. Here are a few of the fascinating facts that I learned along the way.
Why is the glacier so black?
The black deposits are caused by volcanic ash & each layer indicates an eruption. The top layer of ash is not there as it has been deposited recently, but because the ice has melted & therefore exposed the ash which it had been covering. There were also peaks across the surface of the glacier, all black. She explained how these were once the lowest points on the ice but were protected from melting by the ash which gathered in what was once these crevasses. The ice around melted & now they display as peaks across the surface.
The part of the glacier, closest to its head at the lagoon was particularly black but as we climbed higher, there was a distinct line where the ice beneath our feet became white.
The ice is not blue because it has more air in it. The bluer the ice, the more compacted it is & the less air it contains.”
The glacier itself is not just one big ice field, there are several features that we explored along the way. First was a magical ice cave. It would have been easy to miss, but Hang showed us the way to climb down into the cave. I took a few photos as I was engulfed by the bright blue ice around me, as the cave disappeared into the bulk of the glacier, too small to venture further.
Next, there was a stream, flowing powerfully across the top of the ice, carving its path with vigour as it headed to supply the lagoon. The water here was brown, but it created a small waterfall & crevasse within the glacier. Then a little further was just a deep sinkhole, layered with black ash as we stared into its depths, getting bluer, the deeper your eyes followed it down.
Eyjafjallajökull volcanic ash
Whereas most of the ash on the glacier was black & granular, at one point we came across a patch which was more of a light grey in colour & much finer in texture. Hang explained that this was from the legendary Eyjafjallajökull volcano.
In 2010, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland erupted & sent clouds of ash & dust high into the atmosphere. It caused chaos across Europe due to concerns that the fine powder could damage jet engines. Over 100,000 flights were grounded & millions of passengers were stranded. Ironically, everywhere apart from Iceland! It also caused much confusion across the world when journalists tried to report on the incident & had difficulty pronouncing the cause of all the trouble! AY-uh-fyat-luh-YOE-kuutl (-uh) apparently, if you would like to have a go ;).
By contrast to all this chaos, my experience of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano was more as an effective face mask!”
The magical rainbow
In total, we were on the glacier for 1 ½ hours. As I have already mentioned, the day I had chosen to take this fantastic hike had been miserable. It rained constantly the entire time I had been exploring the wonders of the Sólheimajökull Glacier. Then, finally, as we started to head back, the rain stopped & the sun started to peek through. It looked beautiful with the haze of the cloud & the monochrome of the glacier.
As we climbed down & began to remove our crampons, I heard a cry of joy from one of the other guides. A rainbow had appeared above the glacier. I stared in awe. Iceland had already delivered so many magical experiences, including the thrill of the Northern Lights. A second rainbow even tried its best to appear to us, but its efforts were fleeting. This was worth all the rain & soaking I had endured that day.
It felt like Iceland was trying to tell me something. I knew it was important, & its language was beautiful. I just needed to figure out what it was saying (or pronounce it for that matter!).”
My heart was full of this wonderful country & I just couldn’t stop staring. Eventually, as we reached the end of the track & re-entered the car park, I was forced to tear myself away. As we parted company, a picturesque mist had started rolling into the valley.
I headed back to my hotel satiated & high on the wonders I had just witnessed. During dinner at my hotel, the owner introduced himself & informed me that the chances of seeing the Northern Lights the next night were looking strong. Unfortunately, I was heading back to Reykjavik but I had seen them once, twice was greedy;).
What to wear for the Sólheimajökull Glacier Hike
My advice is to take layers. I had a thermal top, t-shirt, puffa jacket & waterproof jacket. Underneath were my walking trousers, with waterproofs over the top. I also wore my obligatory fingerless gloves (to allow lots of photos from my phone) & fetching woolly headband I had bought earlier in the trip.
On my feet, I had hiking boots & would advise longer socks as the crampons tie over the top & folding the socks back over once they are fastened helps secure them. Note that hiking boots, waterproof jackets & trousers can be rented from the tour company for a small fee if required.
Once up on the glacier, there were times when I felt a bit warm from the exertion but kept everything on due to the amount of rain!”
I loved my Sólheimajökull Glacier hike & I very much hope that if you decide to add this experience to your South Iceland itinerary you will find it a fascinating & magical exploration too. You never know, you may also get a rainbow for your efforts!
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