With the ring road getting busier every year, take your sense of adventure off the beaten track to the dramatic landscapes of the Iceland Highlands. Here’s where to go and how to see it.


The Iceland highlands are the country at its very best.

Majestic volcanos which scar the region do more than just cause travel disruptions. They create a weird landscape, unlike anywhere else on earth. Bubbling mud pots erupt from the land, rivers wind through colourful mountains and huge glaciers – the largest in Europe – rest on the barren rocky landscape. The scenery here is magnificent, even if sometimes cloaked in mystery by steaming sulphur vents.

In the emptiness of the highlands, the crowds of the ring road are a distant memory and the real adventure begins. Here the vistas are wide, the roads rough, and the facilities minimal. It is a place to hike, to marvel at the wonder of mother nature, to breathe in the fresh mountain air and to have an over-visited country entirely to yourself. A place of dramatic isolation where humanity has barely left its mark.

Like most exceptional places, getting there is a bit of a challenge. But, if you’re up for an adventure and you think getting there is half the fun, then the Iceland highlands might be for you.

Here are our suggestions for the best off-the-beaten-track destinations in the Iceland highlands and how to see them all.

WHAT ARE THE ICELAND HIGHLANDS

Iceland’s Highlands stretch across the centre of the country covering over 40,000 square kilometres. Sitting above the mid-Atlantic rift (a gap between two tectonic plates) the area is continually being destroyed and reformed by volcanic activity. A constantly changing environment created by mother nature.

Today vast zones are uninhabited volcanic desert; huge parts of the country that rarely see visitors. But hidden amongst this desolation are colourful mountains, deep canyons, steaming volcanos, hot natural pools and bubbling mud pots.

Although it’s possible to spend hours driving through nothing but barren black and grey rocks, find the right spot and the beauty of this barren part of Iceland is mesmerising.

HOW TO GET TO ICELAND’S HIGHLANDS

The roads to Iceland’s Highlands are known as F-roads or mountain roads. These are unpaved gravel tracks that are not regularly maintained. Prefixed with an F, such as F210, they could have anything from large potholes to bone-rattling ruts; giant boulders or silky smooth tracks of sand. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some are pretty good gravel tracks where you can drive at 80kph, others will have you fording rivers or rising up steep rocky inclines.

There are three ways to get into the Iceland Highlands, but all of them require a 4×4 vehicle (it’s illegal in a 2WD).

Firstly, you could hire your own 4×4 and set off on your own self-drive adventure. Secondly, you could take the rather sketchy and infrequent public transport. And, finally, you could join one of the many tours that venture into the highlands from Reykjavik.

If you are tempted by your own self-drive adventure then read our F-roads in Iceland post, which gives a lot more information on the thrill and challenge of driving these roads.

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WHEN TO GO TO THE HIGHLANDS

For independent travellers, the highlands are strictly a summer activity. The F-roads open in June or early July and close when the snows arrive in September or October. You can keep up to date on f-road opening times on the Iceland roads website.

So if you intend to self-drive or go by public transport then the season to visit the highlands is short. However, if you are travelling to Iceland outside the summer months and want to visit the highlands you can explore the glacier on a snowmobile tour or a super-jeep tour.

TOP 6 PLACES TO SEE IN ICELAND'S HIGHLANDS

Amongst the miles and miles of barren desolation of Iceland’s Highlands there are some truly beautiful gems that shouldn’t be missed. While some are popular tour options, others are under-visited natural wonders that really make a trip to Iceland a special experience. Here are our top 6 places to visit.

1 / MOUNTAINOUS KERLINGARFJÖLL & STEAMING HVERADALIR

Kerlingarfjöll is a small but stunning mountain range right in the centre of the country. Its snow-capped summits are wedged between two mighty glaciers. It’s our favourite place to hike in Iceland, but the real highlight is hidden in one of the valleys.

Hveradalir is a geothermal area of truly breath-taking scenery. Here gurgling rivers wind around red rhyolite mountains; mud-pots bubble and splutter and steaming vents drift into the air. It’s a misty, ethereal volcanic wonderland easily explored on the beautifully cut paths that criss-cross the area. It’s a hikers’ paradise and a photographers’ dream.

Fortunately the mountain road here (Kjölur 35) is one of the easiest to drive. There is also a public bus service that runs daily. You can find all the details about different hikes in this area and how to get here in our Kerlingarfjöll article.

2 / NATURAL POOLS OF HVERAVELLIR

Just 1 hour north of Kerlingarfjöll lies the geothermal area of Hveravellir (hot springs fields). A series of paths deliver you to steaming lava fields, multi-coloured bubbling mud-pots and hot springs. But the real reason to come here is for the warm natural pools that soak and soothe the limbs of even the most world-weary of travellers.

A dam has been built in the flow of the stream creating a small pool which fluctuates between 20 and 40 degrees Celsius. Hop into your trunks, slip into the pool and search for your ideal temperature. Then sit for a few hours staring out at the magnificent vistas while getting toasty and warm in the natural thermal pool.

There are no changing facilities, but there is a wooden bench and some hooks to store your gear. Alternatively, there are toilets a couple of hundred meters away. All the details can be found on our Kerlingarfjöll post.


3 / VOLCANIC CRATERS OF ASKJA AND VITI

Askja is a series of calderas deep in Iceland’s highlands. The largest is the country’s finest example of a subsidence caldera. Its circular crater was formed when a lava chamber just under the surface of the earth emptied in a volcanic eruption. Today an 11sq km body of brilliant blue water fills the crater creating a beautiful scene. Tucked into one edge of this massive caldera is the smaller Viti caldera. Created by a more recent explosion its milky white sulphuric waters attract risk-taking bathers down its steep slopes.

But the real joy of coming to Askja is not the destination but the journey. It’s a magnificent 3-hour drive through the most desolate and barren scenery. Here you will be fording rivers, sliding through sand and zig-zagging across jagged lava fields. It is a wild Icelandic experience and an adventure in itself.

For more information see our detailed Askja article.

Altenatively, if you don’t have your own car in Iceland, you can join one of the many popular tours to Askja.

4 / COLOURFUL MOUNTAINS OF LANDMANNALAUGAR

Landmannalaugar is in the Fjallabak National Reserve on the south-west edge of Iceland’s highlands. It is the most colourful and varied of the highland destinations. Red, green and yellow mountains encircle rivers and jagged lava fields. Towering volcanos peer over blue azure crater lakes. Geothermal pools shimmer amongst lush green meadows.

If you’re ready for some hiking in this amazing scenery there’s a quick 1-hour stroll to colourful Brennisteinsalda or a half-day hike up to Bláhnùkur and the Ljótipollur crater. For the more adventurous, the 4 day Laugavegur trail slices through some of the finest scenery in the country as it makes its way to Thórsmörk.

Fortunately getting to Landmannalaugar is easier than many other Iceland highland destinations. While the F-road from the south is tricky, the roads from the north and west are much easier to navigate.

There are lots of day tours and more public transport options to Landmannalaugar. You could organise a hiking tour from Reykjavic or skip the hiking and do a super-jeep tour of this interesting landscape.

All the information about self-driving and hiking around Landmannalagaur is included in our article.

5 / PICTURE PERFECT SIGÖLDUGLJÚFUR CANYON

There are not many places more picture perfect than Sigöldugljúfur Canyon. A babbling brook, crossing from Krókslón lake to Hrauneyjalón lake has cut a small canyon through the hard black rock. Its proportions aren’t dramatic like some of Iceland’s other canyons, but it is beautiful.

After rain, multiple small waterfalls tumble over the sheer black walls into the river that drifts along the valley floor. At the top, lush green vegetation fights for life against the barren rocky desolation while mountains frame the remarkable scene.

Sigöldugljúfur Canyon is just a 45-minute drive north of Landmannalaugar on the F-208. But not many people come here and it is not well sign-posted. In fact, a small empty gravel car park by the side of the road is the only suggestion that there is something of interest here. If you park and then walk for 5 to 10 minutes along a looping gravel track that heads northeast you will find the canyon. It’s well worth the detour.

You can find more information, including where to park, on our Landmannalaugar article.

6 / VALLEY OF THÓRSMÖRK

Thórsmörk (Thor’s wood), in the southern highlands, has a unique beauty unlike anywhere else in the country. Fed by the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap, the River Krossa snakes its way around mountains and lava fields as it heads to the sea. This combination of mountains and ice cap has created a distinct micro-climate allowing lush woodlands to flourish amongst the barren wastelands.

Thórsmörk has a number of hiking options. In 2 hours you can climb up to breath-taking panoramas of the Thórsmörk valley. In 4 hours, you can complete a loop that visits many of the highlights of the region. The hardiest of hikers brave the Icelandic weather and set off on the challenging one day Fimmvörduháls trail. This hike starts at Skogafoss (near the ring road) then drops into the Thórsmörk valley, 25 kilometres later. It is one of the great hikes of Iceland.

Thórsmörk is probably the most accessible of Iceland’s highland areas. There is a comprehensive public transport system (especially from the car park at Seljalandsfoss waterfall). There are also a number of tours, including this volcano walk and super-jeep tour.

If you are self-driving however take local advice before you set off. The main Krossa River is deep and difficult to cross for any inexperienced 4×4 driver. To make the driving a bit easier, park at Básar Hut (before the main river crossing), then walk over one of the footbridges to Thórsmörk.


MAP / 6 PLACES TO VISIT IN THE ICELAND HIGHLANDS

Being in the centre of the country, most itineraries of Iceland will circle the highlands on the ring road. In many cases, you’re not actually venturing too far off the main road to get to these places. However, distances should not be underestimated in the highlands, especially on some of the more difficult terrain on the F-Roads.

To see how we collected these places, have a look at our Iceland itinerary where we cover costs, accommodation recommendations and top things to see.

WHERE NEXT?

If you found this guide useful, please head over to Instagram and follow us to stay up to date with our adventures.

If you are thinking about self-driving in Iceland’s highlands then read our F-roads in Iceland article which has a lot of information about what to expect with some tips for a fun but safe adventure. We’ve also put together our general tips about driving in Iceland.

We combined all these destinations in our 10 day in Iceland itinerary which also gave us time to explore the ring road as time efficiently as possible – something very important in a country as expensive as Iceland.

If you have any questions please leave them in the comments section below – we will always reply. To stay up to date with our travels, follow us on social and signup to our NEWSLETTER.

With the ring road getting busier every year, take your sense of adventure off the beaten track to the dramatic landscapes of the Iceland Highlands. Here’s where to go and how to see it. / #iceland #highlands

With the ring road getting busier every year, take your sense of adventure off the beaten track to the dramatic landscapes of the Iceland Highlands. Here’s where to go and how to see it. / #iceland #highlands

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