Por Jonathan Duffy, Arctic Meta
Most people know that Iceland is a country overflowing with natural beauty. In almost every direction, there is some incredible sight to visit, experience to take part in or a hidden treasure to explore.
When people think of Iceland, they think of the waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes and sweeping lava fields. Iceland also has a famous road to help you get to see it all. The ‘Ring Road’ or Route 1 is 1332 km (828 miles) of road that covers a circle around Iceland.
If you wanted to take your time and see it all, most people would rent a car and set off on the most travelled and possibly most important roads in the country. But did you know there are things to see beyond the Ring Road?
There’s a massive expanse of wonders waiting to be discovered in the centre of Iceland. It’s big, it’s unique, it’s remote, and it’s unlike anywhere else on earth. It’s the Highlands of Iceland.
What are the tierras altas? Where are they? How can you visit them? Read on to find out all about this untouched wonder of the north.
What Are the Icelandic Highlands?
The highlands of Iceland are made up of a large area of uninhabited land. The highlands cover over 40,000 square kilometres of Iceland’s total surface area. In reality, there’s more of the highlands than any other place in the country.
The highlands are rugged, wild and very untamed. They are a region of the country that is beautiful but is also known to be challenging to access. For this reason, the highlands have long been a bit of a secret getaway for experienced hikers and locals.
The highlands sit above the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which is the place where the North American and Eurasian Tectonic plates are drifting apart. Because of this tectonic activity, the Highlands contain some incredible examples of Icelandic nature.
The highlands are home to waterfalls, hot springs, lava fields, mountain ranges and volcanoes.
Where Are the Icelandic Highlands?
The Highlands are more or less situated right in the centre of Iceland. It’s relatively easy to reach the edges of the highlands from most directions in the country. You could get to the outer reaches of the highlands from the North, South, East and West of Iceland.
It’s pretty easy to get to the edges of the Highlands, but it’s not that easy to go through them. The highlands regions are rocky, mountainous, and at times can be dangerous terrain to cross if you aren’t particularly familiar with it.
Iceland is pretty similar to Australia in the fact that most of the population live on the coastline and the centre of the country is uninhabited. This is because the rock of the highlands is tough to cut, so creating roads through it is no easy feat.
Iceland’s famous Route 1 highway only goes around the ‘outer circle’ of Iceland and doesn’t cut through the highlands. This is why, if you are travelling from the Northern town of Akureyri to the Capital of Reykjavík in the southwest, you must travel through the west instead of straight down the middle of the country.
Are the Icelandic Highlands Accessible All Year Round?
The Icelandic Highlands are not accessible all year round. Because of the rugged conditions in this wild part of the country, they can only be visited in summer. The Icelandic summer months are June, July and August when they experience the midnight sun; then the weather begins to become colder, and storms become more frequent from September.
How and When Should You Visit the Icelandic Highlands?
As I said before, the highlands cover a large part of the total landmass of Iceland. This means that the weather throughout it can be unpredictable and contrasting.
For example, the areas in the northern parts of the highlands will experience long winters, and the summer thaw of snow takes much longer than it does in the south.
As a general rule of thumb, it’s usually impossible to visit the highlands until the end of June because some of the roads won’t even be open until then.
The way you plan on visiting the highlands is also very important. There are various types of road conditions in Iceland that you should consider when you are travelling. Most of Route 1 is paved and well-maintained, but there are, of course, sections that are just gravel or are prone to flooding.
Iceland also has another type of road called an ‘F-Road’. You will definitely encounter these if you plan to visit the highlands.
What Are Icelandic Highland F-Roads?
F-Roads might sound like a swear word, and if you aren’t an experienced driver, travelling on them might make you swear a lot.
The Icelandic F-roads are a series of unpaved, largely gravel paths. They aren’t very well maintained and usually have large potholes and sometimes even boulders in them. Most ‘F’ Roads also cross rivers, which can sometimes have depths considered too high for any vehicle.
If you are looking at a highway map of Iceland, these roads are prefixed with the letter’ F.’
To put it simply, if you are looking at a map of Iceland and see a road marked with something like ‘F210’ or ‘F209’, you should not even consider driving on it unless you have a high range large 4×4 (think Toyota Landcruiser).
Source: F Roads of Iceland. safetravel.is
If you come to Iceland and rent a car, you should never take it on an ‘F-Road’ unless you know it is ‘F-Road’ approved by the rental agency. If you take a car on one of these roads and it wasn’t approved, you won’t be covered by insurance.
It’s also worth noting that just because a rental agency says that they’re ok with you taking a car on an ‘F-Road’ doesn’t mean you should. It’s a good idea to check the capabilities of your vehicle before you set out. Be prepared to turn back if you realise the road has become too unsafe and check the Road.is website as often as possible for news of conditions.
If you aren’t an experienced driver, it’s always more advisable to visit the highlands as part of a tour. If you choose to do it this way, an added benefit is that you will have more time to enjoy the incredible surroundings instead of being focused on how to get over the next bumpy hill.
The Best Places & Trails in the Icelandic Highlands
The Icelandic highlands are home to some of the most fascinating natural landmarks. If you’ve seen some images or videos of the otherworldly parts of Iceland, you’ve more than likely already seen the Highlands.
You could easily spend an endless amount of time exploring the abundant beauty of the highlands, but if you want to make a selection, there are a few places worth adding to your Icelandic bucket list.
Landmannalaugar is one of the most picturesque places you could visit in the Southern Highlands. Each year, many people come from all around the world to capture a glimpse at the colourful rhyolite mountains in Landmannalaugar.
The area is also home to some impressive hot springs and geothermal pools, so if you’re hiking here, bring your bathing suit and a towel. There’s nothing quite like a nice warm soak in the middle of nature after a long hike.
Landmannalaugar is often referred to as a ‘hiker’s dream’ because it has a number of trails available that suit many different levels.
Askja is located in Vatnajökull National Park. Vatnajökull is a glacier on the south coast of Iceland. It is the largest glacier in Europe and covers roughly 8% of Iceland’s total landmass. So when you think about it, most of Iceland is either Vatnajökull or the Highlands.
Askja is an active volcano in the north of Vatnajökull National Park. It is surrounded by immense lunar-like landscapes, craters, lakes and lava fields.
There are two lakes worth mentioning at Askja. Öskjuvatn is a large lake with an impressive depth of 220 metres (720 feet). There is also the Viti crater, with its warm milky waters.
Langjökull is the second largest ice cap in Iceland. It is located in the Western Highlands, and its name literally translates to ‘Long Glacier.’
As far as highland attractions go, Langjökull is the perfect location to visit if you’re looking for some adrenaline thrills. You can actually go snowmobiling here. You can take a tour on the back of a snowmobile and zip through the vast white expanses of the glacial tongue.
You can also get a unique view of Langjökull by going inside it. This glacier is up to 580m (1900 ft) thick, and you can actually go on a tour inside this ice giant.
Hveravellir Nature Reserve
Hveravellir is so hot right now… literally. This part of the Icelandic highlands is a centre of volcanic activity. Its name means ‘Hot Spring Fields’. When you visit here, it’s easy to see why.
Hveravellir is a true wilderness filled with bubbling water holes and smoking fumaroles. Some of the hot springs have been painted with mineral deposits of blue, red and even green. Most of the hot springs here are too warm for bathing, but there is one you can actually use for a refreshing dip at the end of a long hike.
Kerlingarfjöll and Hveradalir
About an hour and a half south of Hveravellir are the mountain ranges of Kerlingarfjöll. Kerlingarfjöll is a very popular hiking location filled with red mountains, steam rising from fumaroles and bubbling puddles of mud.
Visiting here, you could easily feel like you have been transported to Mars. You could spend hours looking out over the vast highland landscapes. The incredible contrasts of rivers and streams, daunting mountains and snow-covered peaks is unlike any other place on earth.
In the South of Iceland’s Highlands, you will find the Þórsmork Nature Reserve. This gem of the south features hot springs, gorges, rivers, glaciers, birch forests and much more.
This area of Iceland is also home to the infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which brought air traffic to a halt in 2010 when it erupted.
Þórsmork is known for having some incredibly diverse landscapes. It’s also where you can either start or finish the Laugavegur trail, a 55km (34 mile) hiking trek that is popular with both locals and tourists.
Þórsmork is also one of the most accessible areas of the Icelandic Highlands to visit. It’s just a short distance from Seljalandsfoss waterfall, by following the road F249 for about an hour.
Top Tips For Exploring the Icelandic Highlands
The Highlands of Iceland are an incredible place to visit, but it’s also important to remember that there is a reason why people don’t tend to live there. The highlands are truly wild and remote, and preparation is key to having an enjoyable experience. There are a few ways to prepare before visiting.
Driving in Iceland’s Highlands
If you have rented a car, make sure it is explicitly stated in your rental agreement that you can take it on F-Roads. Even if travel on F-roads has been stipulated by the rental company, ensure your insurance covers things like scratches and damage caused by volcanic ash.
Before setting off:
- Make sure you check your vehicle is in working order and that you have enough fuel, and of course, a spare tyre or tyres.
- Always check your route with the Icelandic Road Authority to see if there are any hazards to watch out for.
- Ensure that more than one traveller has a full battery on their phone and knows the emergency services number (in Iceland, it’s 112).
It’s a good idea to allow for extra time. For example, if your research says it might take 2 hours to get where you intend to go, that could quickly turn into 4 hours depending on the weather and potential hazards.
If you don’t know the depth of a river, don’t cross it. When it comes to any hazards on your journey, if in doubt, turn back. Remember, you might be travelling in a 4×4, but it’s not a tank.
Always notify someone who is staying behind about your travel plans or register them online, and at the first sign of trouble, call for help.
To avoid potential disasters, it’s always advisable to take an experienced guide with you, or even join a tour.
Hiking in the Icelandic Highlands
Before you start your hike, check where emergency huts are located along the trail. These huts are a refuge for use when the weather changes dramatically. They are free to use, and it’s a case of ‘leave it as you found it.’
As with driving, make sure you have informed someone not on your trip what your plans are and as soon as you experience any kind of trouble, call for help.
What Should You Remember to Bring With You?
One of the most important things when travelling in the highlands is to make sure you have weather appropriate clothing. Windproof, waterproof and thermal clothing are all essentials even though you will be travelling in summer.
Ensure you have enough water and food to last your journey time, and take extra just in case you travel longer than initially planned. Make sure you also bring maps and a compass. You can’t rely on cellular service in the Icelandic highlands, so it’s good to have some old fashioned implements that won’t fail you.
Where Can You Stay in the Icelandic Highlands?
Some who visit the highlands choose to camp, but if you are going to do that, it’s important that you only camp in designated camping areas. If you are caught camping outside of a designated campsite in Iceland, it’s seen as quite a serious offence and can come with hefty fines.
If you’re looking to have a more comfortable place to rest at the end of your highland explorations, you might want to opt for some of the amazing facilities available in the more remote areas of Iceland.
For example, if you plan on visiting Þórsmork or Landmannalaugar, one of the closest places to stay is the Panorama Glass Lodge. These private cabins are the perfect place to unwind at the end of a jam-packed day exploring the wilds of Iceland.
Imagine kicking off your shoes and relaxing in your own private hot tub, nestled in the unmatched natural beauty of Iceland’s South Coast.
If you’re going to ‘rough it’ in the highlands, there’s no reason you can’t have a little bit of pampering at the end of the day.
The Highlands of Iceland are a remarkable and enchanting place to visit that few people consider when visiting. They are an almost limitless source of inspiration, history, natural beauty and wonder just waiting to be discovered by you.
The next time you visit Iceland, consider spending some time off the beaten tracks and let the highlands be your window to another world.