Iceland is a gorgeous place, truly one of the most scenic countries we’ve ever visited. With mountains, beaches, volcanoes, canyons and practically endless waterfalls, every day was a spectacular string of big sights and amazing photos. Yet, despite all those amazing spots, one of the biggest highlights of our two-week Iceland campervan trip was our guided visit to the Katla Ice Cave in south Iceland.
In general, we prefer to travel independently and don’t join a lot of group tours. However, we decided to make an exception in this case to experience the magnificent and highly unique Katla Ice Cave. If you’re willing to splash the cash (we paid €170 each), you’ll be treated to a fun, memorable journey through some wild terrain to one of the more unusual sights we’ve ever seen.
Named after the Katla Volcano and Kotlujokull Glacier, the scenery in the area is phenomenal, with the desolate volcanic moonscape interspersed with green hills, rocky escarpments and sharp glaciers. It is only accessible by rugged 4×4, ideally being driven by someone with knowledge of the area.
You will even pass a mountain that featured in the opening scene of Star Wars: Rogue One – our guide was deeply disappointed that none of us recognized it right off the bat (completely out of context, in fairness). So the journey was a scenic experience before we ever even reached the caves.
Other Iceland Posts You Might Like:
Is the Katla Ice Cave Natural or Man Made?
The Katla Ice Cave is completely natural and unlike anything else we’ve seen. It forms naturally as part of the Myrdalsjokull Glacier and is constantly changing. It is also the only natural cave in Iceland that can be visited all year-round.
There are several more ice caves that can be visited in winter but, of course, visiting Iceland out of season has many other drawbacks (mainly that it isn’t really that warm in mid-summer and one can only assume it would be extremely unpleasant in winter).
The Langjokull Glacier Ice Caves are also open year-round but they are man-made and offer a very different type of experience. Although we didn’t visit it personally, the photos we looked at show some interesting rooms and passageways. However, it all looks very neat and tidy and square, completely different from the wild and random beauty of the Katla Ice Cave.
Katla Ice Cave Tour
We went with Troll Expeditions and can highly recommend them, especially our experienced glacier guide, Joao, who clearly knew his stuff and didn’t take any of the safety shortcuts we saw from one of the other companies who entered the cave ahead of us.
We met at the Tröll Expeditions Vik office that is shared with The Soup Company café right in town, where you can pick up any last-minute refreshments or use the bathroom as needed. From there, our group of 13 travelled in a massive 4×4 super jeep with huge, adjustable tires for about 45 minutes through ruggedly stunning landscapes.
Then, in seemingly the middle of nowhere, we disembarked, donned our handy helmets and spent 10-15 minutes walking through post-apocalyptic terrain to the staging area. At that point we were micro-spikes for our shoes along with a stern safety briefing, then got started.
We ventured first up a snowy trail, then across a couple rickety wooden bridges past a big open gap in the ice where part of the Katla Ice Cave had recently collapsed, eventually making it inside the ice cave. Very cool.
On a bright, sunny day like we had the ice was actively dripping, adding even more atmosphere to the scene as we made our way through the dimpled natural caves. One thing to understand is that Katla Ice Cave is constantly changing. The caves are formed by rainwater or glacier melt carving holes in the ice, so the exact size, shape and number of the caves is completely dependent on weather and chance.
The main cave we hiked through apparently looked completely different last year, and Joao pointed out several spots where new tunnels were starting to form, potentially becoming the main cave by this time next year. He also explained the difference between clear, blue and black ice, as well as the factors that go into forming the caves over time.
As you pass through the main Katla Ice Cave, the ice is obviously very slippery in places so there are small, temporary wood bridges and ropes to hold on to. Troll Expeditions specifically warns claustrophobics ahead of time, although we never felt constricted. None of the areas were particularly high up, so heights shouldn’t be a big issue, although there were definitely some slippery spots where you needed to take care not to fall into the river/creek.
At the end of the main cave, you emerge into a fantastic ice bowl full of ashy snow, interesting spiky snow peaks and even a small waterfall where a new cave was starting to form. Here there is a little more room to explore and take photos, although it is best not to get too far off the established trails.
It was here we watched a group with another company clambering around above the new waterfall on fragile ice and precarious ledges, often with their helmets off (for more adventurous-looking photos, I guess). We were glad that Joao put the safety of his group first and didn’t encourage any of that.
After a bit of time exploring the bowl and taking photos, it was time to turn around and head back through the main Katla Ice Cave. Which looked surprisingly different coming back the other direction, plus gave us a chance to experiment with some photos we hadn’t thought of the first time through (alas, none of our super-closeups of the ice looked like much of anything, despite our best artistic intentions).
Katla Ice Cave Tips
You need to have your hands free to hold the ropes so either take only a very small backpack or leave anything you don’t need in the jeep. We brought lots of layers but on a sunny day with no wind we didn’t need much. It probably never gets too windy at the cave itself (mostly sheltered) but the walk to it could be cold.
There was lots of dripping water, though, so we would recommend wearing a fleece or sweater with a rain jacket over top, although there is no need for rain pants (unless it is raining outside, obviously). Gloves were nice for grabbing wet rope although I have to take mine off for photos, so that wasn’t ideal.
Depending on the weather and the depth of the cave during your visit, a headlamp could come in handy. We brought ours but didn’t need them because it was a bright, sunny day and part of the cave ceiling had recently fallen in, allowing in more sunlight than usual.
Getting to the Katla Ice Cave
Vik is the closest town to the Katla Ice Cave and is a pretty beautiful place, especially from the flowery vantage points up on the hill around the iconic church. Vik (which translates simply to “bay”) is the main town in the area, with a good campground, pleasant beach, fields of lupins and a surprisingly pretty church.
Katla Ice Cave is located about 45 minutes from Vik and most of the trip is on very rough, volcanic terrain. You need a sturdy 4×4 with plenty of clearance just to reach the area, which meant we could never have got there on our own. The Troll Expeditions super jeep was huge, with gigantic tires that Joao inflated and deflated as the terrain changed.
Although it is technically possible to do the trip on your own, our rental campervan was two-wheel drive and completely inappropriate. And even regular SUVs would be a stretch on this terrain, and that’s assuming you could actually find the right road among the various paths winding through the wild open fields.
The hike from the Katla Ice Caving parking area to the staging area is mostly flat and quite easy. You walk along well-established paths through rock, dirt and volcanic ash, surrounded by incredible scenery.
To get into the cave itself you climb a short, icy hill but the micro-spikes make this fairly easy and there are also ropes to help you keep your footing. The wooden bridges inside the cave are narrow and a bit flimsy but plenty strong enough to hold a couple people at a time.
Altogether, the Katla Ice Cave tour involved about 1.5 hrs of travel and 1.5 hrs on foot, with tremendous scenery the whole time, whether hiking, caving or driving.
Is Katla Ice Cave Worth It?
The Katla Ice Cave tour was definitely worth it, both in terms of time and money. Although the tour technically takes place in the highlands, it is close enough to Vik to enjoy the whole experience in around 3 hours. And nothing comes cheap in Iceland, so the price of the ice cave tour represented very good value for such a unique and memorable experience.
Where to Stay Near Katla Ice Cave
Vik is the main town in south Iceland and has a pretty impressive range of accommodation options. Hotels in Iceland are never cheap but there are some reasonable choices in Vik. And those on a tighter budget can choose one of the three good campgrounds in the area.
This nice, fairly new hotel on the east side of town is just a short walk from the beach and has some great mountain views. Comfortable, modern rooms come with an excellent included breakfast in the popular restaurant. There is also a garden and a games room.
Hotel Vik i Myrdal
In the same area, lovely Hotel Vik i Myrdal also includes a good breakfast, which can be enjoyed with amazing panoramic views. There is a fitness centre for adults who feel the need to work off some of that heavy Icelandic food and a playground and community pool nearby for the kids.
If you prefer to make some of your own meals, these fully equipped apartments have terraces, wifi and some feature sea views (and overlook fields of lupins in season). Continental breakfast is available, as well, if you don’t feel like self-catering but just want a bit of extra space.
Vik Campground (1950 ISK/pp + 300 ISK/pp shower)
A large, sectioned campground right in town with good facilities, wifi, a common area with a stove, 3 sinks, outlets, microwave, kettle, tables and chairs, no heat but big windows that could warm it up (if it happens to get sunny).
Skogar Campground (1800 ISK/pp + 400 ISK/pp shower)
You just camp in the parking lot here but it’s all about the location as you can see the waterfall at all times from everywhere. There are ok bathrooms, ok showers and a woman shows up to collect fees and make change around 8 pm.
Thakgil Campground (2300 ISK/pp incl shower)
Remote and beautiful, the campground has a good shower, heated bathroom and there are even a handful of cabins for rent. Only one lucky tenter gets the coveted cave site but everyone can enjoy the impressive valley location, great scenery and nice hikes right from the campground.
Bonus Accommodation Idea
If you are continuing on to the East Fjords and have a little extra cash to spend, you might be interested in setting aside a night at the most unique and cool place to stay in Iceland. Fjallsarlon Overnight Adventure offers stays in a comfortable floating mobile home right among the icebergs on Fjallsarlon lake with closeup views of the glacier.
No, it is certainly not cheap (although meals are included as well). But cruising through the icebergs with the glacier looming right next to you as you enjoy a drink on your deck? Well, that is exactly the sort of memory that lasts a lifetime.
Places to Visit Near Katla Ice Cave
Southern Iceland features several of the best things to see in all of Iceland. Which makes Vik or one of the nearby campgrounds good places to base yourself as you explore all the great attractions in the area.
Just west of Vik (and visible from town), this wonderful area features black sand, photogenic sea stacks, sheer cliffs and climbable basalt rock columns. It was also crazy busy and might be worth trying to see either early or late in the day (not at 1 pm like us).
Overlooking Reynisfjara Beach, this classic lighthouse provides some great beach views in both directions, plus some scenic cliff walks. It was here that we saw our first few puffins, which we may have missed if not for the intense photographers with their tripods and giant zoom lenses piquing our curiosity. In hindsight, this paled in comparison to our later puffin experience in the northeast but at the time, it was pretty exciting.
More commonly known as the Yoda Cave, it is just a couple of kilometres toward the sea from the turnoff to Katla Ice Cave. Gigjagja isn’t very deep and won’t take long to visit but there is a handy posing rock and a pretty clear Yoda shape, something not every cave can say.
One of the largest, most impressive waterfalls in the country, Skogafoss is one of the classic tourist destinations in Iceland. It features a wide entrance area and several sandbars that make it easier to get good photos without a bunch of people in them than at some of the other waterfalls.
We camped in the parking lot with views of the waterfall right from our windows and whether you stay the night or not, it is also worth taking some extra time to hike some of the Fimmvorduhals Trail.
This relatively easy trail starts at the top of Skogafoss and follows a beautiful canyon inland past many, many more waterfalls. I think we saw 5 more in about 3 km before turning back. I’m pretty sure this was also a Game of Thrones filming location (one of many around Iceland).
This terrific waterfall is one of the top attractions in Iceland and one of our personal favourite spots. The huge water flow plunges down off a high cliff – extremely photogenic from all angles in itself. However, the really cool part is that you can actually hike in BEHIND the waterfall on an easy dirt path, for exceptional views back out through the heavy curtain of water.
Which involves getting VERY wet, though, which was actually a benefit since we came prepared in all our rain gear (jackets, pants and gloves) and even though this was a very busy site, only a small portion of the people ventured back that far.
So definitely don’t miss Seljalandfoss, just dress to get wet. And while you’re there you may as well walk 10 minutes down to Gljufrabui, a narrow canyon with a “hidden” waterfall tucked inside. You’ll have to do a bit of easy rock-hopping to get back there but once you do there is a huge posing rock that works perfectly for photos.
This amazing valley just west of Katla Ice Cave is located a 45-minute drive inland from Vik on a rough, dirt road. However, we did it in our regular 2-wheel drive campervan and found it to be fine, especially compared to some of the much rougher gravel roads we faced later on our Iceland Ring Road trip.
Plus, the scenery is truly remarkable, with amazing valleys surrounded by steep, sharp green hills and black lava moonscapes, a basic campground and several well-marked trails to enjoy through the hills.
This stunning canyon looks like it was made in a CGI studio. Steep, narrow, green and winding, it is easy to see why it earned a starring role in a Justin Bieber video, as well as a huge surge in popularity afterward. Not to mention the new nickname, “Bieber Canyon”, which we used mainly because we had absolutely no chance of properly pronouncing the real name.
Katla Ice Cave Map
Click the star to save this map to your Google Maps – then find it under Saved/Maps (mobile) or Your Places/Maps (desktop)
Katla Ice Cave Summary
Our trip to Katla Ice Cave was one of the big highlights of our time in Iceland. The exceptional scenery, spectacular ice cave and wonderful natural surroundings made it one of the best days of our entire trip.
The perfect weather certainly didn’t hurt, although even with less-than-ideal conditions (also known simply as Iceland weather), the panoramic views might suffer but the caves themselves would still be amazing. All things considered, anyone looking for a truly unique Iceland experience should set aside a day for a Katla Ice Cave trip.
Other Posts You Might Like: