Iceland’s uninhabited interior is home to an otherworldly landscape that must be seen to be believed. It’s full of dramatic and wild scenery, cut by endless wind and vast expanses of ice and desert, the most unique and unforgiving landscape on the island, complete with lava and volcanoes. Venturing into Iceland’s Highlands is an adventure, whether you’re striking out on your own or joining a guided tour; if you are heading out alone, however, ensure your travel preparations go far beyond simply what you want to see and how you’ll get there.

If you want a peek at the interior, take a day tour to see glaciers, volcanoes, and the landscape.The country’s largest glaciers (Vatnajökull, Langjökull, and Hofsjökull) are the backdrop to the region, and the isolation seems romantic to some, especially travelers who seek to explore a region relatively free of fellow tourists. But the highlands are not for tourists seeking easy hiking trails with lush greenery and gorgeous fjords in the background. The region is largely devoid of plant life because it’s pretty dry throughout the year—the highlands are essentially a desert. That said, if you are an avid hiker and looking to explore something different in Iceland, the highlands may be for you.

Visitors walk along a grassy ridge in Iceland's Highlands.

The Highlands. Photo © Bjorn Ludviksson.

Planning Your Time in the Iceland Highlands

Planning a trip to the highlands depends very much on what you want to do. If you want a peek at the interior, take a day tour to see glaciers, volcanoes, and the landscape. Most of the companies offering tours to the highlands are based in Reykjavík. Others like to plan five-day hikes throughout the interior. If you are keen on a lengthy hike, be sure to plan thoroughly, bring adequate supplies, and take proper safety precautions.

Travelers have fewer choices for accommodations (mainly huts) and food, and they must stay abreast of the weather forecast. Be prepared for anything in the highlands, and make sure to book your accommodation or campsite ahead of time.

Highlights

  • Ódáðahraun: The largest lava field in Iceland is actually considered an Arctic desert. See unusual lava and sand formations shaped by eruptions.
  • Laugafell: This popular geothermal hot spot is a desert oasis in an isolated stretch of the highlands.
  • Hiking Mount Askja: Hiking the rim of this volcano offers sensational views—and a can’t-miss adventure.
  • Langjökull Glacier: Iceland’s second-largest glacier, this mammoth ice cap beckons hikers and glacier walkers, but the crevasses and unpredictable weather should keep you on alert at all times.

Safety

Navigating the highlands should not be taken lightly. The roads are rough, the wind punishing, and the weather can be unpredictable—it can snow any day of the year. Pay close attention to road closures, and if a road calls for a super jeep to traverse, don’t attempt the ride in a smaller car. You will likely damage your car. (A super jeep is a huge jeep with gigantic tires outfitted to handle rough terrain.) The best plan is to discuss your itinerary with the rental company and see if a super jeep is necessary for your plan. Do not guess; a mistake will be costly. Also, be mindful of filling up your car with gas, because gas stations are few and far between in the highlands.

If you are planning a hike, be sure to wear appropriate windproof clothing, bring an adequate amount of water and food, and alert people of your trip itinerary. Bring maps and a compass, and know where all the emergency huts are located on your route. Be prepared for anything, and don’t underestimate Iceland’s weather. If you find yourself in an emergency, dial the emergency number 112.

Getting Around the Iceland Highlands

The highlands are a seasonal destination, and that season is short. Snow could fall at any time of year. If you are planning a trip in the summer, there still might be road closures due to a late snowfall or possible volcanic activity. Roads to the interior are typically open June-August, but check for closures before you head out. For up-to-date conditions, visit the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration website at www.vegagerdin.is.

When it comes to car rentals, if you are planning to drive to the highlands don’t skimp. It’s best to drive a four-wheel-drive vehicle in the highlands, but if you want to go off the Kjölur route, a super jeep is necessary, because there are river crossings and harsh terrain. A lot of different insurance options are offered on car rentals, and be mindful that Reykjavík driving is very different from driving in the highlands. There can be sandstorms and wind damage, so pick the right insurance for the region you plan to travel to. Fill up with gas before you leave and take gas cans.

Travel map of Iceland's Highlands

The Highlands

Tours

If you don’t want to worry about renting a car and navigating the highlands on your own, tour companies offer everything from day trips to several-day tours. These companies are recommended.

Reykjavik Excursions (tel. 354/580-5400) offers a 12-hour day tour through Landmannalaugar in the highlands, and also includes sights such as Mount Hekla and Þjórsárdalur in the south. Tours run from July to September and are 17,900ISK per person. Guests are picked up in Reykjavík.

Extreme Iceland (tel. 354/588-1300) is a Reykjavík-based company that operates a two-day tour where you start off exploring the Golden Circle (Þingvellir National Park, Geysir, and Gullfoss) and continue to the geothermal area of Hveravellir in the Kjölur highlands. The tour (60,000ISK) includes hiking, sightseeing, and bathing in geothermal pools. Guests are picked up in Reykjavík. Extreme Iceland also offers a three-day trip (150,000ISK) that includes a super jeep ride to the Bárðarbunga eruption site. The price includes accommodations. Day 1 explores Landmannalaugur, day 2 the eruption site, and the last day takes guests to the Golden Circle.

Icelandic Mountain Guides (tel. 354/587-9999) runs a 12-day tour that hits all the hot spots in the highlands. Super jeeps will take you through the Kjölur and Sprengisandur routes, where you will see the Vatnajökull glacier, the Askja volcano, and the geothermal mountains of Kerlingarfjöll and Landmannalaugar. The package will run you 415,000ISK. Guests are picked up in Reykjavík.


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Iceland.