Hiking in Kerlingarfjöll to explore the steaming vents and rusty red mountains of Hveradalir was a highlight of our Iceland trip. Here is all you need to know to undertake this brilliant self-drive excursion.


Kerlingarfjöll is a small but stunning mountain range that lies deep in Iceland’s central highlands. Wedged between two glistening glaciers it rises out of the barren rocky landscape forming beautiful snowy peaks.

Lurking within these snowy peaks is the geothermal area of Hveradalir, a small valley of red rhyolite mountains, steaming vents and bubbling rivers. It is a hiker’s paradise, a photographer’s dream and an ideal day trip for the mildly adventurous traveller.

Due to the difficult terrain of Iceland’s highlands, Kerlingarfjöll isn’t overly visited by independent travellers. But the 35 Kjölur road which provides access is now one of the easiest mountain roads to negotiate. In addition, walking trails are being improved with markers and signs, making hiking in Kerlingarfjöll easier to do without an organised tour.

So, driving to Kerlingarfjöll is not too difficult and yet it’s still off the beaten track enough to make you feel like you’ve conquered some of Iceland’s barren terrain. This – and the stunning scenery – make Kerlingarfjöll a great destination to bring out your adventurous side. Go before it’s too late.

Hiking in Kerlingarfjöll and Hveradalir.

DRIVING TO KERLINGARFJÖLL

It was the penultimate day of our 10 days in Iceland and we planned to take a day trip, driving to Kerlingarfjöll deep in the highlands. With Iceland in the midst of its worst summer for 100 years, we had battled rain and cloud on an almost daily basis. As we peeled back our wafer-thin curtains, doing nothing to block the perpetual daylight, we were once again greeted with light drizzle, low cloud and chilly temperatures. Little did we know that today would be one of our most memorable in Iceland.

Rushing breakfast at our guesthouse in Blönduós in the north of Iceland, we set off in our slightly battered and very dirty 4X4 rental car. It had bounced along the rocky mountain roads to Askja and Landmannalaugar and was beginning to look a little dishevelled, but full of street cred.

Kerlingarfjöll is accessed via the 35 Kjölur road and the F347. Both of these roads are mountain roads and mountain roads in Iceland come in all shapes and sizes. Some have tricky river crossings, some rise steeply over snowy gravel roads, others traverse deep sand and massive boulders. Our 4X4 never quite knew what it would face on its journey, and we were never quite sure whether it could complete it.  But today’s drive to Kerlingarfjöll was proving somewhat easier. At times we zipped along the gravel track at 80km/h, almost unheard of on our previous mountain road experiences.

NAVIGATING ICELAND’S MOUNTAIN ROADS

After just over an hour the real adventure of driving to Kerlingarfjöll began. Climbing deeper into the highlands the gravel of the road turned to larger and larger rocks, slowing our progress considerably. It is a wild and remote place up here, yet as cloud enveloped us on either side, it became a close and claustrophobic journey. Boulders flashed past our window and mist lapped the edge of a lake. We passed one or two other cars, otherwise not a soul. Or a shop. Or a petrol station. This is barren Iceland. Just a couple of sheep searching for food amongst the rock and snow as Iceland’s majesty stayed shrouded in the darkening gloom.

But fortunately, the road to our Kerlingarfjöll hike is one of the easiest mountain roads to take. With all the rivers bridged, it requires some concentration but otherwise, it’s not too difficult. Two hours and 45 minutes after we set off from Blönduós we were climbing up a hill into the parking lot of the Kerlingarfjöll Mountain Resort at Ásgarður.


THE DETAILS/ HOW TO DRIVE TO KERLINGARFJÖLL

The 35 Kjölur road and the F347 are both mountain roads. Inaccessible throughout winter, they are generally open by the end of June and remain open until early October. A 4X4 vehicle is required for all mountain roads in Iceland; 2WD rental cars are not insured on these roads. Driving to Kerlingarfjöll from Blönduós can be done in any sized 4X4, even with an inexperienced driver. It takes about 2 hours 45 minutes one way, (5 hours 30 minutes there and back.)

The drive to Kerlingarfjöll can also be made from Gullfoss in the south-west in about 1 hour and 50 minutes. The distance is much shorter, but the roads are much worse. The benefit of arriving from the north (from Blönduós) is that you can end the day soaking in the warm natural spring at Hveravellir which is 1 hour north of Kerlingarfjöll.

HIKING IN KERLINGARFJÖLL AND HVERADALIR

We had been keen to come to Hveradalir after being lured in by dramatic photos of steamy rusty mountains. But the superb variety of trails for hiking in Kerlingarfjöll were a bonus we had not anticipated. On offer were short easy walks around Hveradalir, longer more challenging walks into the higher peaks of Snaekollur and Fannborg, and multi-day hikes circling the entire mountain range.

Our plan was to hike from Kerlingarfjöll Mountain Resort to geo-thermal Hveradalir, and explore the area, before returning.

Rugging up and heading south, we found the trailhead marker and followed the well-marked path up along a ridge and down and up a small valley. But before long, our path turned to snow and disappeared into the clouds.

Thinking the path was inaccessible, a French couple had just turned around and were heading back towards the carpark looking despondent. After assuring them with a very average map (we snapped a photo of a board in the carpark on our phones) and spying what could possibly be a walking marker hiding in the clouds, we coerced them to continue with us.

So, the four of us trudged through the snow and cloud as the path got steeper and darker. Our breathing was getting heavier and heavier as we ascended, while the clouds above us were getting darker and moodier.

But before our puffing and panting could get us down we rose over the saddle of two mountains. Just over an hour after we had started our Kerlingarfjöll hike, we reached a ridge and were greeted by the most beautiful metal sign we’d ever seen. Hveradalir was just 1.1km away.

THE BREATH-TAKING SIGHT OF HVERADALIR

The clouds suddenly lifted, elevating us to God-like status to the French couple. As we peered over the ridge, the sun that had been shackled all day – and almost all week – finally shone on our upturned faces. As we caught our collective breaths and gazed into the valley below us, we were treated to one of the most remarkable sights we had ever seen.

Appearing through the mist were bubbling blue rivers winding their way around red rhyolite mountains; vibrant green moss clinging to rusty rock; steaming vents rising from yellow sulphurous scars scratched into the earth; boiling mud-pots, hissing and spitting in a gurgling frenzy; the crystal clear Kerlingarfjöll mountains of rock and snow, rising into the skies.

“Enchanté” they cried.

The whole place has a fairy-tale feel. Even the paths are beautifully constructed. We stood and stared, walked a bit further, and then stood and stared some more. We climbed a hill to get a different perspective, then climbed the one opposite for the reverse. We did this for 2 hours. It was one of the best travel moments we have had the pleasure of experiencing.

Finally, having absorbed the scene to our heart’s content, we found a small bench, devoured our packed lunch and set off on the return hike, back the way we came.

Although the route of our Kerlingarfjöll hike was the same, nothing else was. The 360 panoramic views, that were shrouded in cloud on the way, were now stunning. Crystal clear vistas. Miles and miles of barren black and brown rocky wasteland and glistening glaciers stretched out across the horizon. In this moment, the harshness of Iceland’s interior lifted to a brilliant blue glow. Our faces lit up in the soft light. The French couple smiled. Even the sheep, who had found a patch of grass to chew on, looked happy.

“Enchanté” we cried.


THE DETAILS/ HIKING IN KERLINGARFJÖLL AND HVERADALIR

There are numerous trails for hiking in Kerlingarfjöll, accessed from any of the three car parks shown in the map (see: Map of Kerlingarfjöll hikes & parking above). The Kerlingarfjöll Mountain Resort at Ásgarður has toilets, a small shop and restaurant.

Our 5km hike from Kerlingarfjöll Mountain Resort to Hveradalir took 1 hour 15 minutes. You just need decent hiking shoes to cross the snow, but not crampons. Hiking to Hveradalir, spending 2 hours looking round and hiking back took 4 hours and 30 minutes. To shorten the walk, drive south to the car park next to Hveradalir (see: Map of Kerlingarfjöll hikes & parking above).

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BATHING IN HVERAVELLIR (NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH HVERADALIR)

Back in the car, we headed north to start the drive back to Blönduós via a pitstop at the thermal springs of Hveravellir. After an hour of bumping and rattling in our 4X4, we arrived. Sneakily close to Hveradalir, physically and phonetically, Hveravellir is one of Iceland’s many natural geothermal springs.

Heated by volcanic activity, the thermal pool at Hveravellir was one of our favourites in Iceland thanks to the casual relaxed atmosphere, complete lack of facilities and stunning views all around. While it’s great to swim up to the bar in the Blue Lagoon, there’s something about stripping down in the middle of nowhere and jumping in a natural pond that just happens to be the perfect temperature for bathing.

We carefully slipped on our trunks and tiptoed over the rocks to ease ourselves into the warm water. Ducking in and out of a group of Dutch tourists, we found a spot in the corner that was deliciously hot with an outlet of cool water nearby for the occasional refresh.

Relaxing back into the rock we took stock of a fantastic travel day. Awesome hiking. Some of the most incredible views we have seen. Unique and weird landscape. And now, unwinding in a bliss-filled thermal pool, bright green grass surrounding our watery detox, mighty glaciers in the distance and two very happy travellers soaking in Icelandic nature. Our drive to Kerlingarfjöll had been a massive success.


THE DETAILS/ BATHING AT HVERAVELLIR

The Hveravellir Geothermal Area is located 1 hour north of Kerlingarfjöll just off the 35 Kjölur road, on the F735. There are a number of walks in the area including to Kjalhraun – an enormous lava field. There are also a number of bathing spots in the area. The main one is by the entrance. There is a small decked area with a bench, but no changing rooms. The site is free of charge.



MORE READING | Read about our less successful day hiking Tre Cime in the Italian Dolomites or our slight misadventure hiking in Turtagrø in Norway. Alternatively, if impressive landscapes are your thing, our Norway Itinerary is packed full of top quality scenery.


MORE READING

Read about our less successful day hiking Tre Cime in the Italian Dolomites or our slight misadventure hiking in Turtagrø in Norway. Alternatively, if impressive landscapes are your thing, our Norway Itinerary is packed full of top quality scenery.


TIPS FOR DRIVING TO KERLINGARFJÖLL AND ADVICE FOR YOUR KERLINGARFJÖLL HIKE

While the mountain roads on this day trip are easy to drive, the highlands are a remote part of Iceland with few facilities so it’s important to be prepared for your journey. Here are some tips before you head to your Kerlingarfjöll hike:

  1. For the whole day trip, driving to and from Kerlingarfjöll, hiking to Hveradalir and the pit stop at Hveravellir, you should allow 10 to 12 hours.
  2. Always leave with a full tank of petrol, there are no petrol stations on this route and running out is not something you want to worry about. We used about half a tank to get there and back.
  3. Take enough food and water with you for the whole day. There is a small restaurant and shop at the Kerlingarfjöll Mountain Resort, but you shouldn’t rely on it for too much.
  4. Check weather conditions and pack warm clothes, waterproofs and hiking boots for you Kerlingarfjöll hike. The highlands are colder than the coast and the weather can change quickly. Be prepared.
  5. Buy the Official Hiking Map: Iceland 03 Kjölur – Langjökull – Kerlingarfjöll. Before you make the drive, download google maps for the area onto your phone. Your GPS will work even if you don’t have data. It can be invaluable if the cloud comes in when you are hiking.
  6. Although the 35 Kjölur road is one of the easier mountain roads, tell someone where you are heading, ask them about local road difficulties, and make sure you know your rental company breakdown and Iceland road safety phone numbers.
BUS AND TOURS TO KERLINGARFJÖLL

If you don’t want to self-drive to Kerlingarfjöll then you can take the 610 or 610a scheduled bus or join a tour.

Unfortunately, the bus timetable doesn’t allow time for a day trip hiking in Kerlingarfjöll. So, if you want to use public transport and explore the area you will need to spend the night at Kerlingarfjöll Mountain Resort. The resort has camping facilities and some cute but pricey cabins and huts.

Tours start at about US $250 per person, making it a pretty expensive option. In fact, the price of doing our Kerlingarfjöll hike on a tour was one of the main reasons we hired a 4X4 on our trip to Iceland.

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