For a less treacherous route to the highlands, Route F35–also known as the Kjölur route–is your best bet. The majority of the route is flat and can be accessible up until October (depending on the weather, of course). This is a part of the interior where four-wheel drive is highly recommended but not absolutely necessary, as there are bridges and river crossings that are not an issue. However, be safe, monitor weather conditions, and follow road conditions.
Sights along the Kjölur Route
At 952 square kilometers, Langjökull (Long Glacier) is the second largest ice cap in Iceland after Vatnajökull. Its volume is 195 cubic kilometers and the ice is quite thick, up to 580 meters deep. The highest point of the ice cap is about 1,450 meters above sea level. The rocky terrain and snowy patches are vast and haunting. Route F35 runs along the east side of Langjökull, between it and Hofsjökull. From Reykjavík, you head east on Route 1. Before you reach the town of Selfoss, you take a left turn on F35 and continue past Gullfoss for about 37 kilometers.
Situated in the western highlands, the Hveravellir Nature Reserve (Route F35, tel. 354/452-4200) is one of the last great wilderness spots in Europe. It’s about 90 kilometers north of Gullfoss on Route F35. Hveravellir is a natural geothermal hot spot with smoking fumaroles and bubbling water holes, and it is a special experience to have a look around and see geothermal energy at work. There are private rooms (9,500ISK pp), dormitories (6,000ISK pp), a campsite (1,200ISK pp), and mountain huts (6,000ISK pp) available within the reserve. One bathable pool is situated close to the mountain huts. It’s waist-deep and safe to take a dip.
The mountain range Kerlingarfjöll (Women’s Mountains) shows all the characteristics of a matured caldera, including volcanic formations and geothermal spots. In short, this is a geology buff’s dream. The towering mountains were created by eruptions from a large caldera lying under the mountains; while the caldera is still considered active, it has been silent for tens of thousands of years. Visitors will see steep slopes and pointy peaks dotted with ice, leading into a hotbed of geothermal activity. It’s quiet and desolate with the earth steaming below. Kerlingarfjöll (tel. 354/664-7000) has a campsite for tents (1,500ISK) as well as 10 cabins (50,000ISK). To get to Kerlingarfjöll from Gullfoss, drive north on F35. For 15 kilometers the road is asphalt, and the remaining 38-kilometer secton is a gravel road. The GPS coordinates are N 64.6834, W 19.2999.
Hofsjökull (Temple Glacier) is the third largest glacier in Iceland after Vatnajökull and Langjökull. It is situated in the western highlands, north of the mountain range Kerlingarfjöll. The glacier covers an area of 925 square kilometers, reaching 1,765 meters at the top. It’s vast and can be quite windy. Also, visitors will have to be careful of huge crevasses in the ice. The GPS coordinates are N 64.8167, W 18.8167.
Hiking Iceland’s Highlands
Hikers have many choices for roaming the interior. These popular options vary in scenery and degree of difficulty.
Hiking the geothermal area Hveradalir (Hot Springs Valley) is wildly popular and for good reason. The valley offers views of mountains, vast expanses of desert-like earth with steam erupting throughout the region (reminding visitors that the land is very much alive), and hot springs. Hveradalir is accessible off Route 1. The GPS coordinates are N 64.6453, W 19.2825.
A moderate hike begins at the car park by Neðri-Hveradalir (Lower Hveradalir) and takes you through the geothermal area Hveradalir, where ice and fire meet. The route is a three-kilometer loop and takes about three hours. Hikers will view the stark white glacial landscape and see the steam rise out of the ground near the numerous hot springs.
For a longer, more demanding hike (11.2 kilometers), start at the car park called Keis, toward the bottom of Hveradalir, where you follow the Ásgarðsá River for 4.5 kilometers. The hike is an 11.2-kilometer loop. Being so close to the river, you will see plant vegetation, which is a rare sight in much of the highlands. During the hike, there will be points where you have to cross water, so dress accordingly. Hikers will pass hills and geothermal hot spots as the river twists and turns. Overall, it’s a five-hour hike and moderately difficult.
For a more difficult walk, start at the car park called Kastali and continue to Mount Lodmundur (1,432 meters), then to the highest peak of Kerlingarfjöll, Mount Snaekollur (1,460 meters). The trail is rocky and there are quite a few slopes, but the payoff is the gorgeous views of the barren landscape below and mountains in the distance. It’s one of the best overviews of the highlands. This is a seven-kilometer hike, in a loop, which takes about six hours.
Getting To and Around the Kjölur Route
The 200-kilometer Kjölur route (Route F35) begins near the picturesque waterfall Gullfoss in the south and reaches to Blönduós in the northwest. This route is not a year-round destination: The road typically opens the middle of June, but it could be later if the winter was harsh. The road closes in September, but how early in September depends on the weather. It’s best to have a four-wheel-drive vehicle for the journey. Be sure to gas up before you head to the highlands, as there are no gas stations in the region. Depending on the duration of your trip, it might be necessary to bring gas cans.
SBA (tel. 354/550-0700) operates summer buses between Akureyri in the north and Reykjavík along the Kjölur route. The 10-hour, one-way trip, which is only available late June through early September, costs 14,000ISK. You can purchase a bus pass that allows you to make stops along the route. Be sure to have a copy of the most recent bus schedule. They tend to change.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Iceland.