An Adventurer’s Guide to Iceland’s Remote Highlands

While everyone else is busy planning their trip around the Ring Road in a Yaris, why not head straight for the highlands where driving a car is optional – and superjeeps are mandatory?

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Hekla

Respected as one of Iceland's most dangerous active volcanoes, yet still one of its most beautiful mountains, Hekla is infamously called the “Gateway to Hell.” This ticking time bomb has regularly devastated Iceland since settlement times.

Covered in snow and small glaciers all year round, Hekla can be hiked in half a day. You can get there from route 26 to Gunnarsholt Trail, or from the village of Leirubakki, where public buses run to and from Reykjavik. Though Hekla’s seismic activity is monitored closely, hikers should be aware that it could erupt with little warning.

Hekla, the “Gateway to Hell.” Photo credit: iStock

Fjallabak and Landmannalaugar

Hekla is located in the Fjallbak, or “mountain back,” range of mountains sitting north of the Eyjafjallajökull and Myrdalsjökull glaciers.

One of the best hikes in the area (a 16mi or 26km trek possible in a day or two) is actually between these glaciers, starting at Skogafoss and ending in Þórsmörk. From Þórsmörk, you can continue on for four or five days to Landmannalaugar, a steamy, geothermal wonderland of colorful hills and hot rivers.

Don’t miss a visit to Gjáin, a river canyon in Þjórsárdalur full of hiking trails, waterfalls, lush greenery, and basalt columns. After snoring your nights away at well-equipped campsites and mountain huts, you won’t need to walk back, since buses make the trip from Landmannalaugar to Reykjavik city center several times a day (kr. 9,300 or US $90 one way).

You can also try to hitchhike, but be sure you pick a 4x4 you trust for river crossings, since the highland road isn’t for just any car.

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Kjölur and Kerlingarfjöll

From the south, the main entrance to Kjölur´s F35 dirt road is just beyond Gullfoss in the Golden Circle area. Thousands of tourists visit Gullfoss every day, but few wander further north across this ancient, highland pass between Langjökull and Hofsjökull glaciers.

It´s possible to hike or snowmobile on Langjökull, or even cross it east to west in a superjeep, but don’t try to do the same on Hofsjökull, a glacier notorious for unstable caps and crevices.

You can walk (a week), horseback ride (five days), mountain bike (two days) or drive (two hours) the south-north Kjölur pass, and with newly-maintained roads and bridges, it can be driven in a Yaris. In settlement times, this was the shortest walking or riding route from the North to Reykjavik or Þingvellir, and many of those trails are still in use.

Slightly east of Kjölur is Kerlingarfjöll, a mountain hut, camping, and hiking area with some natural hot springs. No mountaineering experience is needed to explore the so-called “Women’s Mountains.”

Most of the Kjölur crossings stop at Hveravellir, the rumoured home of Iceland´s most infamous outlaw Fjalla Eyvindur, and site of the biggest natural hot pool in the highlands. Several fjords can be followed from here to the north coast, but if you’re riding, definitely end up in Skagafjöður, the horse capital of Iceland.

Hveravellir hot pool near Kjölur. Photo credit: Katrin Sif Einarsdottir

Sprengisandur

This long, extreme highland pass starts near Hekla in the Fjallabak region, and ends up near Lake Myvatn. There are still folk songs sung about how difficult this pass is to ride on a horse, and it’s nearly impossible on foot without the help of a boat or car (there are several unpredictable glacial rivers that should not be waded).

Once you reach the desert area of Sprengisandur, between Hofsjökull and Vatnajökull, only a few raging, sediment-filled glacier rivers will supply you with water or nourish any vegetation.

Past Nyidalur hut, you can head northwest past Laugafell hut and stop at a hot spring there, go straight north past the photogenic Aldeyarfoss, or head northeast above Vatnajökull glacier.

Though this last route is the least traveled, the reward of arriving at Askja crater and seeing Lake Viti glistening at the bottom of it is indescribable. If you’re there on a dry, mild day, you may be able to take a dip in the bath-warm water, although some snowslides and unpredictable seismic activity in the area the last couple of years has made it less likely.

Lake Viti. Photo credit: iStock

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