Where true adventure awaits
If you are longing for adventure, exploring spectacular landscapes off the beaten track, and a true escape from civilization, the highlands could be the best place in the world. So where are the Icelandic highlands? As the name suggests, it is the higher lands that reside inland from the coast, making up most of this island. With its 40 000 square kilometers, it’s one of the largest unpopulated areas in Europe. Colder temperatures, harsher weather, and an almost non-existent infrastructure have left these lands uninhabitable in the wintertime, but in summer, the highlands are a paradise for hikers, campers, and adventurers. It’s the beating heart of Iceland, full of raw power and energy, where new lands are forged by volcanoes and old ones slowly ground down by glaciers.
The season for visiting the highlands only lasts from June until September, many outdoor enthusiasts gather in these hard-to-reach lands when it’s open. Away from the busy ring road crowds, it’s the perfect place to experience true peace and calm in nature.
How to get to the highlands
Getting to some of the prettiest locations in Iceland comes with a challenge. The reason that Iceland’s main road, route 1 or the ring road, mainly follows the coast is that the mountainous highlands are harder to cut through. The roads up here, so-called F-roads or mountain roads, are known for making unprepared travelers use the f-word a lot. They are gravel roads at best but often come with more uneven terrain, potholes the size of craters, large rocks, ruts, and even river crossings can occur on many of these roads. To drive the F-roads of Iceland, you need to have a 4×4 jeep with insurance that covers driving here. Make sure you have a full tank of gas, check road conditions with the locals in the area, don’t drive off-road, and don’t push it if it gets too bad. There is nothing wrong with turning back if the road looks too rough for the car, or a river too deep to safely cross. There is always more to see with a car that still works, and other days to book transport into the highlands.
To answer the question though, there are three ways to get to the Icelandic highlands.
- Rent a 4×4 and study the road map. This should give you access to some of the great locations of the highlands
- There is a shaky but safe public bus that you can take in and out of the highlands. This is great if you’re unsure of the road conditions or how much your car can handle. It limits you to the one location where the bus drops you off, but that can actually be a great way to explore it more in-depth.
- Join one of the numerous guided day- and multi-day tours departing from Reykjavik on a regular basis.
When to go to the highlands
The season for visiting the highlands only lasts from mid-June until September. It’s a short season indeed, but it’s one controlled by natural forces that we humans can’t influence. The winter snow covering most of the way in usually melts away at the height of Icelandic summer, only to return a few months later and cover the roads again. Approaching the highlands outside these months on your own has a very limited success rate, but there are still a few tour operators doing winter tours in modified vehicles.
How to stay in the highlands
Finding yourself this far away from the inhabited parts of Iceland, there won’t be any five-star hotels or luxurious cabins to rent for the week. In fact, there won’t be any hotels or guesthouses at all. There is a way to still stay indoors when you are out there though, and that is to either camp and put a tent over your head or book one of the huts that some locations in the highlands offer.
The cabins offer great shelter but are usually fully booked way in advance, and often have shared sleeping halls and cooking facilities which can often make them feel crowded. However, they are great for drying your gear after wet days and staying warmer during the nights.
Camping in the highlands is what most people would go for. Bring a robust tent and an extra warm sleeping bag, and stay at one of the numerous campgrounds out there. Many would imagine that in remote areas like these, it’s easy to set up camp just about anywhere, but since even the highlands see many campers each summer, it is forbidden to camp outside of designated campgrounds.
As for food and supplies, there isn’t much to find out in the middle of nowhere, so bring with you whatever you will need in the wilderness. Food and snacks are of course essentials, while water can often be refilled along the road and trails up in the highlands. Swim gear is always good to have for the occasional hot spring you might stumble upon, and plenty of socks to replace the wet ones in the evenings. Another lifesaver for the highlands is blister plasters since you’ll most likely want to hike everything in the vicinity of the road and campgrounds.
Top places to visit in the Icelandic highlands
One can drive for hours and only cross never-ending black sand deserts with glaciers appearing and disappearing in the distance, but if you know where to go, there are plenty of unique and vastly different locations to explore.
This is where most explorers get introduced to the highlands. Landmannalaugar is an area in the Fjallabak National Reserve in the south-eastern part of the highlands. Famous for its amazing rainbow-colored mountains, maze-like lava fields, hot springs, and steaming, smoking terrain, this area is like a natural canvas where all the leftover paint from the world was dropped to paint it with. This is a great area to spend 2-3 days to hike all the local hikes, take in the scenery and bathe in the hot spring next to the campground.
Luckily, getting to Landmannalaugar is fairly easy compared to other parts of the highlands. While even this F-road can be tricky and you should drive carefully, most 4×4 cars can make it here. There is a river to cross just before getting to the campground, but you can also park just before the river and walk over if the crossing looks too deep and rough.
The land of Thor is a place unlike anything else. Below towering volcanoes covered in glaciers, numerous canyons open up, caves hiding in their walls, small forests growing on their slopes (yes, forests), and river deltas finding their way in the bottom of the valleys. They say that the hammer of Thor once struck these lands, and the landscape cracked up into the shape it is today. This is a paradise for hikers, and the more days you stay, the more unique hikes, peaks, viewpoints and caves you can find. There are also a few huts in the area where you can book your stay, but it also has some of the most amazing campgrounds if you choose to camp.
Getting here is easy, but driving your own car, even a 4×4 can go very wrong if you push it. There are around 14 streams and rivers to cross to get all the way into Þórsmörk, and they get deeper and deeper until the last of them swallows even the bigger jeeps. There is a chance to make it to the Básar huts just before crossing the last big river, but it might not be worth the risk. Talk to the locals if you’re considering crossing the last rivers, so they can tell you not to.
Luckily, there is a daily scheduled bus that can take you into the valley of Thor from Reykjavik and later Seljalandsfoss, so the best is to park your car there.
Want to fully immerse yourself in the highland experience? If you take the public bus to Landmannalaugar, you can start the 55km long Laugavegur trail (usually completed in 3-5 days), which ends up in Þórsmörk, where you can take the bus back to civilization. Including both locations mentioned above, this trail also takes you places where no cars can go, for what is considered as one of the best multi-day treks in the world for its ever-changing landscapes and stunning sceneries. There are huts every 12-16km where you can camp or book a bed, but you’ll have to bring all your own supplies and food (or book a tour with jeep support that drives it for you).
Kerlingarfjöll and Hveravellir
Taking a different approach, these locations are great to see if you are going north to south, or south to north. Instead of driving the usual ring road, these are great options with a good 4×4 jeep since they are situated close to the F-road going straight across Iceland. For being an F-road, this one is fairly easy in the summertime, but there is also public bus transport that goes there daily.
Kerlingarfjöll is a small but magical mountain range in the heart of Iceland, looking like it’s imported straight from Mars with its orange glow and geothermal activity. Mud pots bubble in the bottom of colorful rhyolite mountains while steam shoots out from the ground.
Continuing north for an hour lies Hveravellir. It’s a boiling hot spring field, where you can walk the short paths to discover bubbling mud-pots and hot springs in the active landscape. However, the main reason to come here is the campground, which has one of the best hot springs next to it (just make sure you enter the right one).