No trip to Iceland is complete without a visit to one of the country’s pristine glacier lagoons. Thanks to the majestic Vatnajökull glacier, southern Iceland is home to two popular and picturesque lagoons: Fjallsarlon and Jökulsárlón.
Each lagoon is worthy of a visit. However, if your time is limited, the following comparison may help you decide which destination to include on your itinerary.
This magical place is located just south of Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier. Jökulsárlón is probably the most well-known glacier lagoon in Iceland. The lake also happens to be Iceland’s deepest. It began forming in the 1930s as the nearby Breiðamerkurjökull glacier retreated.
Since the 1970s, the lagoon has quadrupled in size. It will continue to grow as the glacier melts—visible evidence of the effects of global warming.
Location of Jökulsárlón
Jökulsárlón is a five- to six-hour drive from Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city. It is easily visible from the country’s main Ring Road, Highway 1. The drive takes you past some of the southern coast’s most breathtaking scenery. This includes:
- The thundering waterfalls Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss
- The black sand beaches of Reynisfjara
- Mýrdalsjökull glacier
- Eyjafjallajökull volcano
In fact, you may want to allow a day or two for travel to the lagoon. This will give you time to stop and take in the spectacular sights offered by South Iceland. For more about this, check out our post South Iceland: 12 Incredible Experiences.
If you prefer not to drive yourself, you can always join one of the many tours available to the area. This includes this two-day tour that comprises glacier hiking, a boat trip and stops by the southern coast’s black sand beaches and waterfalls.
Both Jökulsárlón and Fjallsárlón are located within the Vatnajökull area. Thisis the second-largest national park in Europe (Russia’s Yugid Va is the largest).
More precisely, Jökulsárlón sits between the towns of Höfn and Skaftafell on the edge of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier. This is a tongue of Vatnajökull that towers more than a half-mile above the crystal waters. It makes this landmark impossible to miss.
Landscapes of Jökulsárlón
Because the lagoon is perpetually growing and shape-shifting as the glacier melts, its appearance can change from day to day. However, two constants are the pure, glassy surface of the water and the vibrant blue of the glacier they reflect.
As massive chunks of ice break off the glacier and fall into the lagoon, they slowly drift out into the North Atlantic Ocean. Here, they are tumbled and polished by the crashing waves before washing up on the black sand beaches of Breiðamerkursandur. There, the smooth chunks of ice glitter like diamonds in the sunlight, giving the area its nickname: Diamond Beach.
Visitors to Jökulsárlón are likely to spot members of the area’s thriving seal population swimming in the lagoon or frolicking along the coastline. The lagoon is also home to several feathered species, including the arctic tern.
However, don’t come to Jökulsárlón in search of the country’s famous puffins. These colorful birds are typically most populous along the tip of the southern coast near the city of Vik.
Activities around Jökulsárlón
During the summer months, boat tours are a popular method for viewing the area. In the high season—July and August—tour operators run as many as 40 trips per day on amphibious and Zodiac vessels. These boats were popularized by their appearance in the movie Tomb Raider and are likely to sell out. For this reason, be sure to reserve your spot as far in advance as possible.
Winter visitors may opt for an ice caving excursion, which are typically available from November to March, depending on the weather. The blue-hued caves form as the Vatnajökull glacier melts and rivers of water run beneath the ice. This creates a maze of tunnels for adventurers to explore.
If you do decide to visit the caves, be sure you’re accompanied by an experienced guide who has checked the cave for safety. The caves can fill with water and even collapse if temperatures rise too high.
If you have your heart set on touring an ice cave, only the Sapphire Blue Ice Cave is open year-round. Located high on the glacier, the cave maintains its shape and condition even in the warmer months. Although, it should be noted that bad weather may still prevent visitors from reaching it.
Many visitors to Jökulsárlón incorporate a search for the Northern Lights into their time at the lagoon. Here, the clear, placid waters reflect and magnify the stunning dancing colors of the auroras. The Northern Lights are most likely to be visible from late September to early April when nights are darkest. Weather can also be a factor in their appearance, so check the aurora forecast beforehand.
Accommodations near Jökulsárlón
If you decide to extend your visit to the lagoon area, you’ll enjoy a wealth of options for overnight accommodations. Located closest to the lagoon are the Hali Country Hotel and the Gerði Guesthouse. Both of these include guest rooms with private bathrooms.
Slightly further out is Hotel Skaftafell in Freysnes, located near the gorgeous Skaftafell Nature Reserve. This family-run business is well-known for its hospitality and prized for its proximity to the region’s natural wonders.
For visitors seeking a more luxurious setting, the four-star Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon is an elegant choice with a variety of room sizes and service levels available.
Though smaller and less well-known than its popular counterpart Jökulsárlón, the Fjallsarlon glacier lagoon may just be Iceland’s best-kept secret.
Location of Fjallsárlón
Located almost adjacent to Jökulsárlón, Fjallsarlon is about one-tenth its size, giving visitors the opportunity to get much closer to the calving Breiðamerkurjökull glacier. Most of the tour buses also flock to the larger lagoon, which means the crowds at Fjallsarlon are far more manageable.
From the capital city, Fjallsarlon is about a five-hour drive. Located off the Ring Road between Vik and Höfn, this hidden gem is tucked away behind a small hill just beyond the main road. Watch for the signage and you shouldn’t have trouble finding it.
Landscapes of Fjallsárlón
Once you park your car, a short trail will lead you to an overlook where you can take in the awesome views of the lagoon and surrounding glacier. You’ll bear witness to the powerful sights and sounds of the glacier calving, which can at times resemble a small earthquake at this short distance.
While you won’t get to see the glistening ice chunks on Diamond Beach, you’re still likely to see some smaller icebergs washing up on the shore of the lagoon.
Due to their proximity, the wildlife at Fjallsarlon tends to resemble that of Jökulsárlón. You’re likely to see seals bouncing playfully along the larger icebergs or bobbing in the waves, and during the summer months, large seabirds known as skuas make their nests in the area.
Activities around Fjallsárlón
Zodiac boat tours are available on this smaller lagoon as well. These 90-minute excursions are limited to 10 people per trip, so it’s always a good idea to book your ticket in advance. The small boats allow travelers a much closer view of the glacier and icebergs, and the knowledgeable guides provide unique insight into the nature and history of the region.
After your tour, you can warm up with a hot beverage and grab-and-go meals at Frost restaurant, open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Accommodations near Fjallsárlón
Its slightly more remote location means you’ll have to drive a bit to find a place to stay near Fjallsarlon . The closest hotels are the previously mentioned Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon, about 12 miles away, and Hof 1 Hotel, a quaint countryside inn in the town of Höf (about 20 miles away). If they’re booked, you’ll need to drive more than 25 miles to the Hótel Skaftafell at Skaftafell National Park.
Which to Choose— Jökulsárlón or Fjallsarlon?
Both Jökulsárlón and Fjallsarlon are incredible destinations worthy of your time, and because they’re located so close to each other, you’d be wise to squeeze in a visit to both if your schedule allows. However, if you have to make a choice between them, your decision will be driven by your tourism preferences.
If you don’t mind large crowds and want the quintessential glacier lagoon experience—complete with views of the sparkling shores of Diamond Beach—then you’ll want to plan a trip to Jökulsárlón. However, if you tend to choose the road less traveled, then the more intimate setting of Fjallsarlon is likely to appeal to your sensibilities.
No matter which glacier lagoon you visit, one thing is for certain: the destination is sure to become one of your most vivid and cherished memories from your Icelandic vacation.