Into the Icy Belly of Iceland’s Langjökull Glacier

Ice. No surprise – it’s a prominent feature of Iceland’s landscape. For a different perspective, go deep inside a glacier for a view from the inside out. On the Comprehensive Iceland Cruise Tour, a 10-day journey round trip Reykjavik, Iceland, an included excursion takes you deep into a tunnel under the ice.

Langjokull Glacier (“the Long Glacier” in English) is Iceland’s second largest glacier. It’s located in the Highlands, a plateau in the interior of Iceland, mostly uninhabited wilderness. The glacier is 31 miles long, up to 12 miles wide and 1,903 feet deep at its thickest area. At its highest point it rises about 4,757 feet above sea level. It conceals two active volcano systems, one of which fuels the geothermal area of Hveravellir.

The vivid blue color of glacier ice is otherworldly and unforgettable. In mid-winter, natural ice caves may exist and allow this view. But that’s not when most visitors come to Iceland. In order to allow visitors to see inside an ice cave and learn about the glacial processes year round, a tunnel was needed.

Baldvin Einarsson and Hallgrimur Örn Arngrímsson are credited with the initial idea for the tunnel. Geophysicist Ari Trausti Guðmundsson designed and constructed it near the highest peak of Langjokull Glacier.

The Into the Glacier tour takes you on a journey across the glacier in 8 x 8 specially modified monster trucks to the tunnel entrance.  A guided tour takes you deep inside the glacier. The tunnel is lit up to illuminate the ice formations and ice sculptures.  

Tunnel inside ice cave in the Langjokull glacier in Iceland
Tunnel inside ice cave in the Langjokull glacier in Iceland

We asked our tour guide Stefán Torfi a few questions about the ice cave and tour. Stefán leads tours and also drives the snowtrucks.

How many people visit the cave a year?
Ever since building the cave, the Into the Glacier tour has been one of our most popular tours.  Almost every departure is full. We don’t keep statistics, but we estimate that on the days when we were running the tour, 200-300 people would join it.  However this past year, due to COVID-19 the overall number of travelers in Iceland has dropped, therefore the numbers of Into the Glacier tour’s participants has dropped as well. 

How was the ice tunnel created and how long is it?
Our Into the Glacier cave is a man-made tunnel. The tunnel is 550 meters (1,805 feet) long in total and goes 40 meters(131 feet) below the surface at its deepest point. The oldest ice layers, that are near the chapel (yes, there’s a chapel inside the tunnel!) are around 30-40 years old.

Woman standing in chapel in ice tunnel
The Chapel in the ice tunnel

What makes the ice tunnel so blue?
As there’s no direct light in the tunnel, LED lights are used to light up the tunnel, so the light here is actually artificial. 

Can you tell us more about the specially modified equipment you use to get to the ice cave?
We use 8-wheel NATO trucks used for missile launches to transport people from our meeting point to the tunnel on the glacier. The trucks themselves are really spectacular.

How did you become a guide for the ice caves?
Being fascinated by nature, especially glaciers, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to get closer to them while also being able to share knowledge with people from all around the world. I applied as a driver-guide and have not looked back since.

Can you get lost in it?
There’s always a guide accompanying the group, so no need to worry about getting lost in the cave.

How is climate change affecting the caves?
Climate change poses a very real threat to Iceland’s unique landscape. Each year the glacier shrinks and moves alongside the tunnel. It is predicted that in the next 200 years, if no additional precautions are taken against climate change, Iceland’s glaciers will lose their glacier status. 

What’s your favorite part about the ice caves?
The blue colors are lovely and create a relaxing environment.

How long has the ice cave existed?
The excavation of the tunnel started in 2014 and it took about 14 months of constant digging to build it. However, the Langjokull Glacier itself is 7,800 years old! You can actually read more about the fascinating process of building it here.

Do you have a memorable experience leading a tour here?
The most memorable experiences for me are when travelers have never seen glaciers. They tend to be blown away from the moment they see the glacier trucks we use until we are back from the glacier.

What’s the funniest question you’ve been asked?
Hard to say, but kids have asked if there are any Yetis living in the area.  
(ARE THERE?? We didn’t get a definitive answer on this one. Please ask when you go.)

Do you have any tips for visiting the cave? What should you bring, not bring; do, or not do?
We provide clients with overalls and crampons during the tour in the tunnel. However, as the tour is inside the glacier, it’s really cold inside even during the summer. We always suggest our customers dress in comfortable and warm clothes and use sturdy waterproof footwear, as during warmer months of the year there might be some water puddles inside.  A warm hat and gloves are also a must. As sunlight reflects from the ice and snow, clients might wish to bring sunscreen or a sun cap to protect against sunburn. Sunglasses are also an essential item for sunny days. We also recommend that clients bring a small snack in case they get hungry, as there’s no place to buy food while on the tour. And must-haves on the tour are a good mood and a camera to capture all the special moments!

 

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