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

The Iceland highlands are the country at its very best.

Majestic volcanos that scar the region do more than just cause travel disruptions. They create a weird landscape, unlike anywhere else on earth. Bubbling mud pots, rivers winding through colourful mountains, huge glaciers and barren landscapes cloaked in the moody mystery of steaming sulphur vents.

In the emptiness of the highlands, the crowds of the Ring Road are a distant memory and the real Iceland adventure begins. 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.

Like most exceptional places, getting there is a bit of a challenge. But, if you’re up for an adventure and you believe the journey 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 go about getting there.

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WHAT ARE THE ICELAND HIGHLANDS?

The Iceland Highlands are vast zones of uninhabited volcanic desert which has formed above the mid-Atlantic rift (a gap between two tectonic plates). As a landscape that is destroyed by volcanic activity then reformed through the forces of nature; the Iceland Highlands are a continually changing environment.

Expect to see beautiful rainbow-coloured mountains, canyons cut deep into barren landscapes, waterfalls cascading over multi-layered gorges, steam rising from cracks in the earth’s surface, 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 desolate part of Iceland is mesmerising.

WHERE ARE THE ICELAND HIGHLANDS?

The Iceland Highlands are a huge landmass, stretching across the centre of the country and covering over 40,000 square kilometres of barren, but fascinating space.

The popular Ring Road (Route 1) circles the edge of Iceland, not because there’s nothing to see in the middle, but because the highlands are inaccessible for most of the year. Accessing the highlands requires journeying on F-roads (or mountain roads) into the interior. These roads are remote gravel tracks which only open in summer months and legally require a 4×4 vehicle to travel on.

READ NEXT / OUR ICELAND ITINERARY

IS VISITING THE ICELAND HIGHLANDS WORTH IT?

Yes. There are several excellent reasons to visit Iceland Highlands. Landmannalaugar is a beautiful scenic landscape with multi-coloured mountains, deep craters and crystal blue lakes. Askja is a barren volcanic area that’s an adventure to get to, and Kerlingarfjöll is quite possibly one of the most beautiful areas in Iceland.

But, as most tourists stick to the Ring Road, one of the best reasons for visiting the highlands is to get off-the-beaten-track, leave the crowds behind and have a truly memorable experience in Iceland.

Driving the F-roads is an adventure in itself and there are few travel experiences in the world where the challenge to get somewhere is met with such rich rewards.   

Iceland highlands kerlingarfjöll

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 breathtaking scenery. Gurgling rivers wind around red rhyolite mountains, bubbling mud pots and steaming sulphur vents. It’s a volcanic wonderland, best explored on the beautifully hiking paths that criss-cross the area.

The mountain road to Kerlingarfjöll (Kjölur 35) is one of the easiest to drive. There is also a public bus service that runs daily. Find all the details in our Kerlingarfjöll guide.

READ NEXT / HIKING IN KERLINGARFJÖLL
Iceland highlands kerlingarfjöll

2 – NATURAL POOLS OF HVERAVELLIR

The geothermal area of Hveravellir (hot springs fields) is 1 hour north of Kerlingarfjöll. A series of paths through steaming lava fields and bubbling mud-pots deliver you to one of the most remote natural springs in Iceland.

A dam has been built in the flow of the stream creating a small pool that fluctuates between 20 and 40 degrees Celsius. It’s a beautiful, natural thermal pool. Find the right temperature spot, then soak while staring out at the magnificent vistas.

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 guide.

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 11-kilometre2 body of brilliant blue water fills the crater.

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.

Getting to Askja is an adventure. It’s a 3-hour drive through the most desolate and barren scenery in the Iceland highlands. The journey involves fording rivers, sliding through sand, and zig-zagging across jagged lava fields. For all the information, see our detailed Askja guide.

READ NEXT / HOW TO SELF-DRIVE TO ASKJA

4 – COLOURFUL MOUNTAINS OF LANDMANNALAUGAR

Landmannalaugar is in the Fjallabak National Reserve on the southwest edge of Iceland’s highlands. It is the most varied of the highland landscapes with coloured mountains, winding rivers, lava fields, crater lakes and 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.

Landmannalaugar is one of the easier highland destinations to get to. While the F-road from the south is tricky, the roads from the north and west are much easier to navigate.

We’ve covered getting to Landmannalaugar and hiking around this beautiful area in two additional guides.

GETTING TO LANDMANNALAUGAR // HIKING IN LANDMANNALAUGAR

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.

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 barren rocky surroundings while mountains frame the remarkable scene.

Sigöldugljúfur Canyon is a 45-minute drive north of Landmannalaugar on the F-208. From the parking space, it’s just a 5-10 minute walk along a gravel track to the canyon. It’s not well signed so not many people make the small detour, but it’s well worth it. All the information is in our Landmannalaugar guide.

Iceland highlands Sigöldugljúfur

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. The landscape has created a micro-climate allowing lush woodlands to flourish amongst the barren topography.

In 2 hours you can hike up to breathtaking panoramas of the Thórsmörk valley and in 4 hours you can complete a loop of highlights. The hardiest of hikers brave the challenging 25-kilometre Fimmvörduháls trail.

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) and a number of regular 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 passes the entrance and needs to be crossed in a 4×4. However, to make things a bit easier, it’s possible to park at Básar Hut, then walk over one of the footbridges to Thórsmörk.

HOW TO VISIT THE ICELAND 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 80 kilometres per hour, others will have you fording rivers or rising up steep rocky inclines.

There are three ways to get to the Iceland Highlands, but all of them require a 4×4 vehicle. Please be aware that it’s illegal to travel on the f-roads in a 2WD vehicle.

SELF-DRIVE TO THE ICELAND HIGHLANDS

Self-driving to the Iceland Highlands is an experience in itself, and it allows you to see what you want to see in the most efficient time.

If you are tempted to drive yourself, read our guide to the F-roads in Iceland. This has all the information you need to know for hiring a 4×4 and taking off into the highlands.

PUBLIC TRANSPORT TO THE ICELAND HIGHLANDS

Unfortunately, the public transport options to the Highlands are limited and infrequent, however, it is possible if you are not keen on driving yourself.

A bus service runs from Reykjavik to Landmannalagar over the summer months and takes around 4 hours. The details are all in our guide to getting to Landmannalaugar.

There is a scheduled bus that runs to Kerlingarfjöll which allows you to spend a short time at the site, but not long enough to do any hiking. All the details are in our Kerlingarfjöll guide.

There is no bus service to Askja Caldera but tours generally run from late June to early September.

ORGANISED TOURS

If you want to experience some of the fantastic scenery in the highlands but you don’t want to drive a 4X4, here are organised tours you can take. Like most things in Iceland, they’re not cheap but the sights are definitely rewarding.

ICELAND HIGHLANDS TOURS


Landmannalaugar
HIKING EXPERIENCE
Kerlingarfjöll
DAY TOUR
Askja Caldera
SUPER JEEP EXPERIENCE
Langjökull Glacier
ICE CAVE TOUR
Langjökull Glacier
SNOWMOBILE TOUR

WHEN TO GO TO ICELAND’S 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.

Whenever you go to Iceland, the conditions can be unpredictable so it’s good to make sure you’re prepared. This list of what to wear in Iceland has some advice on that.

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PLANNING YOUR ICELAND TRIP

Iceland is an excellent destination for semi-adventurous travellers who like to get off-the-beaten-track and immerse themselves in stunning scenery. Here’s some more reading from us to help plan your journey to the land of fire and ice.

If you found this guide useful, we’d love it if you could follow us on Instagram.

TRAVEL TIPS
15 USEFUL TRAVEL TIPS FOR VISITING ICELAND
IMPORTANT TIPS FOR YOUR FIRST TIME DRIVING IN ICELAND
DRIVING ON THE F-ROADS IN ICELAND – ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW
HIGHLANDS
ENJOY BREATH-TAKING SCENERY ON THESE 6 INCREDIBLE LANDMANNALAUGAR HIKES
TIPS AND INSTRUCTIONS FOR SELF-DRIVING TO ASKJA CALDERA
GUIDE TO HIKING IN KERLINGARFJÖLL AND HVERADALIR, ICELAND

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