On the top of Okjökull

A Day Trip to a Dead Glacier: Okjökull

Okjökull was the smallest glacier in Iceland and is now the first glacier which has been declassified by glaciologists. This glacier is now considered "dead" due to effects of global warming. U.S. scientists made a movie about the story of this glacier, and, as this movie was first screened in Iceland, they organized a hike to the top of the Ok so we could get a chance to witness these changes. I had the opportunity to take part in it.

Photo of undefined

Julien Achache

21. September 2018

Okjökull glacier tour

The name Okjökull probably does not mean much to you, although this glacier has a very interesting story. It is the first glacier to be considered dead by glaciologists, due to global warming. Its story has recently been told through a short a movie named “Not Ok”. The goal of the movie is not to be spectacularly dramatic, but rather to describe a contemporary concrete impact of global warming at a human scale. All glaciers in Iceland are predicted to be gone by 2200.
The movie was aired in BióParadís the 17th of August, in addition, a tour was organized the next day to hike the remains of the glacier, and learn more about its story.

A bus was waiting for the hikers for an early departure from Reykjavik. The ride took us through two scenic roads. First one is the road 36, which is always a beautiful ride packed with eye candies, and the stunning panorama on the largest lake of Iceland (Þingvallavatn, Þingvellir national park) at the end. We then took the road 550, heading towards Húsafell. Surprisingly, it was the first time I found myself on this road, and I definitely loved it. It’s often said that “all routes are scenic in Iceland”, this confirmed the saying. All along the way you’ll feel like in the Highlands, seeing alternatively lakes, green or brown mountains, deserted lands with rocks as far as your eyes could see, and suddenly; nothing more ... because a thick mist is coming out of nowhere.

It was in those misty conditions that we reached the bottom of Okjökull. On the way we were given a lot of information about glaciers, their formation, current situation and future. Except for a huge cairn on the side of the road, nothing indicates a hike starting there. And in fact, this hike is not on a marked trail. Fortunately, we had two guides from Ferðafélag Íslands with us. They guided us through this steep field of rocks and although I would not define this hike as a tough one, it was not an easy one either. For sure it was hardened by the rough conditions; the cold, the mist, and the wind. But also, as there is no trail, you have to mind every single step you make on the rocks.

We were told the weather would be ideal for the hike, and it was. It took some time, but eventually the fog faded and the sun came up to cheer and warm us up. We were already quite high on the mountain when it happened and we started to get a glimpse of the stunning landscapes surrounding us. Until the horizon, you can’t see the road, nor a town, nor a house, or any sign of human activity anymore. This was an odd feeling considering you were here to witness the effects of human activity.

Hiking to the top of the dead glacier - Icelandic Highlands

Panorama on the icelandic mountains of the highlands

After 3hr hike, we reached the top of the mountain (1170 m, 0,73 miles) and from there, we could see another famous glacier: Snæfellsjökull. Closer to us, we could just see a crater with bits of snow, a cairn indicating the top of the mountain and a vast field of black and brown rocks. This is where the Okjökull was once standing. It’s dramatically obvious, no need to be a scientist to figure it out: there are no signs of ice, so it’s no longer a glacier.

Despite the fact that the glacier is dead, few icicles remain at the top, even in August

We then went down, which took us two hours. On our way back to Reykjavik, we stopped briefly in Húsafell and visited Pall Guðmundsson’s farm. Pall is an artist; he is painting, sculpting and playing music on a traditional instrument called stone harp. He performed for us for about an hour; we then headed back to Reykjavík.

Magnificient panorama on Langjokull glacier hiking down Ok mountain in the icelandic highlands

You will never find this tour in a tourist brochure, and I must say it contributed to make it special. As mentioned before, the purpose of this tour was to tell a story, and it sure did the job perfectly. Adding a music show was also brilliant and made it even more unique. If you ever get the opportunity to go to a place you have never heard of and hear its story, just take the chance, and go!

Practical information:

How to get to Okjökull?

Okjökull is located in western highlands of Iceland. There are two ways to reach the mountain. The way we did it was to drive through the highlands until we reached the bottom of the mountain. This means taking road F338. Anyone who decides to venture by car in the highlands must know that the F-roads are only open for few weeks a year and, if closed, must not be driven under any circumstances. (Always check the website road.is and safetravel.is before driving there). Also, even if the roads are open and weather conditions are fine, one still must go only with an appropriate 4 wheels drive vehicle. Distance is approximately 91 km (56.5 miles) from Reykjavik meaning almost a two hours’ drive.
Other way would be to drive to Húsafell, and start hiking from there. Húsafell is accessible by regular roads. The hike to the top of the mountain is number 10 on this map.

Is the hike challenging? Can it be done all year long?

The hike is pretty challenging, but the main difficulty is not physical. Listed here you will find the main issues to keep in mind:

  • The hike takes about 5 to 6 hours total.
  • Trail is not marked, which means that you need good orientations skills and experience in using a compass or a GPS to find your way through the mountains. If you do not, you will expose yourself to a serious risk of getting lost. As there is no marked trail, you must show extra care about nature preservation and mind where you walk.
  • There is no cell phone reception during the trail, so do not forget to let someone know about your plans prior your hike. A good idea would be to inform the visitor center of Húsafell, or simply register your itinerary on safetravel.is. A better idea? Do both.
  • Once at Okjökull, you are in the Icelandic highlands, which mean that the weather is unpredictable, and can literally change within 5 minutes, so always check the weather conditions before going and be prepared for all kinds of weather. We did the hike in August and we got nice chilly 0°C (32°F) temperature with gusts of wind on top of the mountain. I forgot to take my gloves and regretted it. Deeply.
  • This hike must only be done during summer season. Even then, bear in mind that the conditions can be pretty harsh.
  • The walk itself is not too difficult. Although it is steep and rocky, it is nothing crazy, so hiking boots and warm clothes are enough to prepare for it. Many people during our hike used hiking poles, but I personally never use any, so it’s up to you if you want to use them.

To sum it up I would say that this is definitely not a hike for everyone. You need to be geared, skilled and experienced to do it on your own. But if you take all the necessary precautions, and do not overestimate yourself, you will get the chance to do a wonderful hike off the beaten paths, and bring back home a unique memory of your trip to Iceland. If you have even the slightest doubt about being able to do it, I would advise that you choose an easier hike or hire an official guide. It might look like a lot of warnings, and my point is absolutely not to scare anyone. Simply, Iceland is a beautiful country but wilderness and weather can sometimes be tough and dangerous.   

Can you meet Páll and see him perform with his stone harps?

Hmmm … This is a tricky question. I would say no. Not randomly at least, you can certainly not just knock his door and ask him to start a gig just for you. If you want to see him I think the best is to try and contact him. I do not know how to do this for sure, so I would suggest (and I insist on the fact that this is just a guess) that you get in touch with the visitor center of Húsafell and check with them how you could meet him or when he is performing. Also, if you wander around Húsafell, you will find here and there his sculptures scattered in the area.

Is there more than Okjökull and Páll to see in Húsafell area?

I will answer a big YES to this one, but let’s be honest; this is beyond my personal experience as I have not been there more often than mentioned above. It is a known hiking area; the real perk of it is to have several level of hiking trails, from family walks to longer and tougher hikes. You will find a peaceful nature in the area and it is often described as the “hidden gem” as is still quite well preserved from tourist buses.

For more details, I definitely recommend you to use Wonderguide.