Fimmvörðuháls: A Comprehensive Hiking Guide

A group of people by Skógafoss.

If you’re planning on a hike in the Highland while you’re in Iceland, Fimmvörðuháls is a great option. It’s one of the most popular day hikes in Iceland and for a good reason. Taking you past more than 20 waterfalls, through barren landscape, between two glaciers, and down into the lush natural paradise of Þórsmörk, it’s one of the most diverse routes you can take in the Icelandic wilderness within a day. This guide to hiking Fimmvörðuháls will tell you everything you need to know about how to get there, what to expect on the way, whether it’s suitable for children, and much more.

When can you make the Fimmvörðuháls hike?

Technically, Fimmvörðuháls is open all year round, but mid-June to the end of August is the ideal time, especially if you’re going without a guide. It’s the time you’ll be most likely to get decent weather and good trail conditions, which will make your journey both more enjoyable and safe. During the off-season, conditions can be difficult due to storms and heavy snow on the ground, and planning transportation to and from the trail will be hard. You should only hike Fimmvörðuháls during the off-season if you’re an experienced hiker or with a guide. The video below will give you an idea of what the conditions are like during the hiking season.

Guided or unguided

During the hiking season, the Fimmvörðuháls hike can be done on your own. This might be the better option for photographers wanting to capture the unique Icelandic landscape or those who just want to take some extra time to enjoy the Highland, as it allows you complete freedom of speed. If you choose to go unguided, make sure to familiarize yourself with the trail beforehand and bring a GPS device and/or a map and a compass.

For less experienced hikers, those who don’t feel confident making the trip on their own, or social butterflies who want to hike with a larger group, there are plenty of guided tours available from May to September.

What to wear on your hike

Don’t underestimate the weather. Even if the forecast is great for Skógar and Þórsmörk, your starting and ending points, the conditions can be completely different and rapidly changing once you’re higher up.

To maximize your safety and comfort, it’s recommended to wear three layers on your journey:

  • A base layer of wool or synthetic thermal underwear.
  • A middle layer for insulation, wool or synthetics.
  • A wind and water-resistant, but breathable, outer layer.

Leave your cotton clothes at home. They won’t keep you warm when they get moist from sweat or wet from snow and rain. If you tend to get easily cold, or if the forecast is particularly grim, an extra sweater in the backpack is a good idea.

Additionally, you should have thermal gloves and headwear, socks made from wool or synthetics, and waterproof hiking boots, such as those on the image below. These are crucial, as there will be snow on the way. If you don’t have the proper equipment or space in your luggage to bring it, you can make use of a hiking and camping equipment rental.

Sturdy hiking boots.
Photo: Matti Blume, Wikimedia. Sturdy hiking boots.

What to bring – and what to leave on the bus

Although Iceland is known for its many rivers, there are none for a good deal of the Fimmvörðuháls trail. This means that you’ll have to bring water for the whole day in your backpack. It’s also a good idea to have hot water, hot chocolate, coffee or tea.

Assuming you’ve already had breakfast, you should bring lunch, dinner and plenty of snacks. An example of food for the day would be as follows:

  • Snacks – a pack of biscuits, a bag of nuts, raisins and chocolate, a granola bar, an apple, and a package of Icelandic fish jerky.
  • Lunch – a sandwich or two with hummus and vegetables or ham and cheese, a package of instant soup, and a snack.
  • Dinner – pasta with cream sauce or a package of freeze-dried food, a hot drink, and a snack.

Other than food, you should bring:

  • A first-aid kit
  • Sunscreen
  • Lip balm
  • Sunglasses
  • An extra pair of socks
  • Blister plasters or tape
  • A GPS and/or map and compass.

Those planning to stay the night in Þórsmörk do not have to carry additional things with them on the hike. You can leave your tents, sleeping bags and anything else you won’t need during the day on the bus, and the driver will drop them off at your accommodations. To do this, you’ll just have to make sure that the bus you choose is actually going there, have your things clearly labelled, and let the driver know.

Which direction to hike in

Since the hike is a point-to-point, there are, of course, two ways to do it. The most popular way is to start from Skógar and make your way into Þórsmörk. That means you’ll be facing the 20-plus waterfalls of the hike on the way up, have a slow but long inclination and the beautiful sight of Þórsmörk coming down. However, it’s entirely possible to do it the other way around. Many mountain runners prefer that, for example, as starting from Þórsmörk gives you a steeper but shorter inclination.

A group of people by Skógafoss waterfall in Skógar.
A group of people by Skógafoss waterfall in Skógar.

What to expect on the hike

While the hike is not the most difficult you can take, it is challenging and not suitable for those with poor physical health. Be sure to get some training in if you’re not used to hiking.

The trail itself is 24 km [15 miles] from Skógar to Básar (or the other way around) and has about 1000 metres [0.6 miles] ascent. On average, it takes eight to ten hours to complete. However, this is highly dependent on your physical form, how often and long you stop to admire the surrounding nature, and whether you struggle with heights. Some people take less than seven hours, while others take 14. Where you’re going to sleep once you get down to Þórsmörk is also a factor, but we’ll get to that further down in the guide.

There are several places where you’ll need to swallow your fear of heights if you have it. There are a couple of steep hills to climb up and down and some places where the path gets very narrow. For a few meters, you’ll have to hold on to a rope to get across a ledge.

There will be snow – maybe even a lot – and the importance of wearing proper hiking boots cannot be stressed enough. Don’t head off wearing sandals or trainers. You’ll end up with wet shoes, cold feet, and a far less enjoyable journey.

Fimmvörðuháls during summer, covered in snow.
Photo: Erik Pomrenke. Fimmvörðuháls during summer, covered in snow.

If you’re starting from Skógar, you’ll head into the barren landscape after you pass the last stretch of the waterfalls and river. This part can feel rather tedious compared to the first, but we promise it will all be well and truly worth it. The views coming down into Þórsmörk in the last leg of the journey are beyond this world.

Should you spend the night in Þórsmörk?

Many people drive out, do the hike, and head back on the same day, but if you have time, Þórsmörk is an amazing place to spend it in. You should also keep in mind that you’re most likely dependent on the highland bus to get out of Þórsmörk. This means that if you don’t spend the night, the bus schedule will restrict your time for things going wrong on the way or exploring the area once you’re down. The last bus usually leaves at 8 PM, and assuming you took the bus to Skógar, you will have started the hike around 11 AM, giving you just about nine hours to complete it. Having sleeping arrangements allows you to take your time on the hike without having to worry about missing the bus.

You can book a sleeping space in a cabin in Básar, Langidalur or Húsadalur, or you could bring a tent. For those wanting a bit of luxury or romance after a long and tiring day, there’s also glamping available, but beware that this is located in Húsadalur. Of the three places you can sleep in, Húsadalur is the furthest away from the end of the hiking trail and getting there will add about 2-3 hours to your journey. Básar is the nearest and, thus, the most popular amongst hikers. Langidalur lies in between the two, adding two kilometres [1.2 miles] to your trip. These all have their unique characteristics, and should you want to experience all of them, you can always plan to stay a few days. Keep in mind that there are limited sleeping spaces, so book yours in advance!

The view from Valahnúkur mountain in Þórsmörk, a popular hike amongst those staying there.
Photo: Erik Pomrenke. The view from Valahnúkur mountain in Þórsmörk, a popular hike amongst those staying there.

If 24 km [15 miles] in a day is not your jam, you can make the hike into a two-day trip and stay a night in either Fimmvörðuskáli or Baldvinsskáli. They are conveniently situated about midway through. You can also choose to hike the trail for a few kilometres and turn back the same way, making it a round-trip of any length you desire. From either end of it, you’ll have epic scenery along the way: the long trail of waterfalls alongside the path from Skógar or the breathtaking view of Þórsmörk below as you hike up the trail and back down again. You could even bring a blanket and some food and set up a picnic along the way. Lastly, there’s the option of seeing Fimmvörðuháls from above on a helecopter tour, in case you’re not able to or don’t want to hike.

Is Fimmvörðuháls suitable for children?

It depends on their hiking experience, physical capability, and enthusiasm. Most companies offering guided tours require a minimum age of 12 or 13 years. This is also a good guideline for families going on their own, but of course, you know your child/children best and will be able to assess their ability based on previous experiences. If you’ve never hiked with them before, doing a test hike is a good idea, and keep in mind that Fimmvörðuháls will probably be a bit more challenging. If you’re worried about it being too hard for them, the suggestions above, making it a two-day hike or only doing part of it, are excellent options.

On the last stretch of the waterfall part of Fimmvörðuháls.
Photo: Erik Pomrenke. On the last stretch of the waterfall part of Fimmvörðuháls.

Getting to and from Fimmvörðuháls

Since the Fimmvörðuháls trail is a point-to-point hike, not a circle, and because of how the highland buses are scheduled, this will probably be the trickiest part of your planning. The fact that you need a 4×4 and experience with river crossing to get in and out of Þórsmörk also restricts your options somewhat. There are several ways you can do this.

  • The most hassle-free option is to book a guided tour that includes transportation. You will need to make no other arrangements than getting to the meeting point. This might be particularly enticing for families with children, but it is also one of the more expensive ways.
  • If you don’t want a guided tour, the next best option would be to have a designated driver who drops you off at the starting point and picks you up at the end. This is a great solution if only part of the group you’re travelling with is doing the hike, and it’s by far the cheapest one. You’ll only need to buy a ticket to or from Þórsmörk to Brú Base Camp, Seljalandsfoss, or Hvolsvöllur, depending on the bus company.
  • A similar situation can be worked out if you have two cars. This will allow you to leave one car at Skógar and one at whichever bus stop you choose to get on/off the bus to or from Þórsmörk. This means that you can drive all the way to Skógar in the morning, hike to Þórsmörk, take the bus to a chosen bus stop and drive back to Skógar to pick up the second car (or the other way around).
  • A fourth option is to get a ticket with one of the highland buses from Reykjavík: A one-way ticket to your starting point, Skógar or Básar (if you’re starting in Þórsmörk, don’t choose Langidalur or Húsadalur!), and a one-way ticket back to Reykjavík from your ending point. Make sure that if your ending point is Þórsmörk, you pick the correct hut for pick-up: Básar, Langidalur or Húsadalur. Each bus company only goes to one or two of the three. If your ticket just says ‘Þórsmörk’, check with the company you bought it from. Those staying the night in Þórsmörk don’t have to worry too much about the timetable, but if you’re planning a one-day trip, make sure that a) you book your ticket back from Básar and b) you know the time you have to be down by.
  • Similarly, if you’re already on the South Coast and got there by car, you can hop on the bus somewhere along the way between Reykjavík and your starting point. This could be in Selfoss, Hella, or Hvolsvöllur, but the stops will be slightly different between bus companies. Just make sure that the bus you take on your way back stops at the same place you left your car. Note that there is no bus that runs from Þórsmörk to Skógar, so leaving your car there at the start of your hike is not a great option. If you do this, you’ll have to take a taxi once you’re out of Þórsmörk to get back to it, which will be very expensive.

Below is the trail on Google Maps with some of its waterfalls and landmarks marked in. The estimated travel time is quite optimistic, so don’t use it as a benchmark!

White Sahara

kerlingarfjöll cross-country skiing

Cold reception

The west-facing windows of our superjeep – or, more correctly, supervan – have turned to ice, blasted by the sharp winds coming off the highland. Inside, it’s warm, and the loud mechanical whirring of pneumatic pistons mingles with the sound of ice crunching under our vehicle’s heavy, well-studded wheels. It is -12°C [10°F] outside, and the visibility is decreasing quickly.

“So, who here has already been to Kerlingarfjöll?” our guide Brynhildur asks. Nearly all present raise their hands. “And who here has been here in the winter?” Brynhildur asks. Again, nearly all hands go up. I’m starting to get an uneasy feeling in my stomach.

highland base camp kerlingarfjöll

The journey is long. Even with the considerable horsepower of our van, the wheels lose their grip here and there, and we free ourselves either by rocking back and forth or by a tow line from another member of our convoy. During one particularly arduous stretch, we cover just 500 m [0.3 mi] in one hour. The powerful pneumatic system located a short distance behind my skull empties and fills our tyres on demand. Anyone who’s seen a polar bear hunt in a nature documentary will know the principles at play here: to avoid breaking through a thin crust of ice, the bear flattens itself out, spreading its weight. Our supervan struggles on, inching up steep slopes and ploughing through metres-deep snow drifts. Finally, as the sun sets over the highland, we crest a final hill and look down at the warm lights of the Highland Base – a new hotel and one of the largest-ever developments in the highland. It is a welcome sight, and we are among the first travellers to see it.

kerlingarfjöll highland base
kerlingarfjöll highland base winter

One step at a time

It’s 9:00 in the morning, and I’m still wiping the sleep from my eyes as we stand next to our skis, limbering up. We’re standing in the hotel hallway in full gear, practising the basics: adjusting our poles, clipping and unclipping from our skis, and recovering from a fall without disrupting the skiers behind. In a moisture-wicking base layer, thick socks, fleece, and windproof shell, I begin to sweat. I’m eager to get outside.

kerlingarfjöll highland base

“It’s just like learning to dance,” our ski instructor Brynhildur cheerfully informs us as we shuffle outside. This is advice that has generally not boded well for me. 

But as we get into it, I see that the dancing bit is not entirely inaccurate. It is not the poles, after all, that generate the forward momentum. It is one’s legs. One can, in fact, cross-country ski without poles, though I wouldn’t recommend it. The trick is finding a rhythm between pushing off with your legs and letting yourself glide. Sounds easy enough, but finding the rhythm in between hard patches of ice, wind gusts, and generally uncoordinated limbs can prove difficult.

kerlingarfjöll highland base
Our cross-country ski instructor, Brynhildur.

Still, sure enough, after some laps around our practice track, I get into the swing of things. Next, we move on to proper pole usage. The poles are never to be out in front at an angle, I’m told. The trick is to keep them vertical and then fully extend them behind. Those who quickly mastered handling their poles then graduate to an advanced gait, which involves a rhythmic cycle of gliding, shuffling, and kicking. I regret to report that I was not nominated to graduate to the advanced gait, but I was soon enough confidently punting my way around the practice track.

To round off the day, we begin learning the basic techniques of cross-country skiing downhill. When braking, for example, one is never to hold the poles out in front. Brynhildur mimics being impaled. Noted.

Après ski

In fine alpine fashion, we conclude the day of skiing with champagne in the loft of the Kerlingarfjöll hotel. The Icelanders discuss an upcoming winter expedition across the Fimmvörðuháls pass, a trail connecting the popular Laugavegur hiking trail with the South Coast, while a German and an Australian wax poetic about the surroundings. It’s hard to blame them; the panoramic view of the winter highland is all the better after a day of hard work on the slopes.

kerlngarfjöll highland base
kerlingarföll highland base

After a dinner of fillet mignon and sorbet, we relax in the natural hot springs and stargaze. Cross-country skiing is fun and all, but I’d be perfectly content if the trip consisted of nothing more than this. Later in the evening, we join a traditional kvöldvaka, an evening of drinking and song. Such nocturnal revelries have their roots in the early days of the ski school here, when Kerlingarfjöll was a much humbler place. Young people would cram into the loft of the old lodges here, strum guitars, and drink schnapps late into the night. Tonight, our accommodations are considerably more sumptuous than those of a generation or two ago, but something of that spirit is clearly in the room as we raise our glasses and voices into the cold, clear night.

kerlingarfjöll highland base

A brief history of Kerlingarfjöll

The highland area known as Kerlingarfjöll is located between the glaciers Hofsjökull and Langjökull, some 50 km [31 mi] northeast of Gullfoss waterfall, as the crow flies. This proximity to Gullfoss waterfall, with its cafés and gift shops, may make it sound relatively accessible, a quick stop on a day tour of the Golden Circle. But even in the summer, the rough track can be difficult to navigate; in the winter, nothing but the largest, most powerful superjeep will do. 

kerlingarfjöll highland base

To the traveller approaching Kerlingarfjöll, the mountain range appears as nothing so much as a highland fortress. From the banks of the Hvítá river, a long plateau gently rises to the north. Atop this motte sits a bailey of jagged peaks, including Fannborg, Hverahnúkar, Snækollur, Snót, and Loðmundur. All of them are among the hundred highest in Iceland.

This complex of peaks is a mature volcano, characterised by diverse eruption patterns, geothermal springs, two prominent craters, and striking rhyolite colours. During the summer, the rhyolite gives the area a distinctive and vibrant colour, much admired by the hikers, mountain bikers, and social media influencers who come here in droves. The oldest rock formations at Kerlingarfjöll are about 336,000 years old, with volcanic activity prominent during the last glacial and interglacial periods. Minimal seismic and volcanic activity has been recorded here in recent years, making the area about as calm as it gets on a volcanic island. 

The captain

Daði is known informally as the captain of Kerlingarfjöll, and though it’s partly a tongue-in-cheek title, it’s not entirely. The day-to-day of managing a highland-base-camp-cum-luxury-hotel, after all, requires Daði to be equal parts mountain guide, receptionist, and all-around handyman. “An average day here is nothing like the ordinary,” Daði tells me. “There’s always something you have to figure out. I need to take care of the whole area, and it’s like a small village. In the summer, a typical day begins with me waking up early and setting up the breakfast buffet. Then, around 10:00 or so, I might have to fix a tyre. I’m always fixing tyres,” he adds ruefully. “Then in the afternoon, I might need to fix a window and take care of our customers until dinner. So it’s always something.” He tells me that working here in the winter is much the same, except that the snowmobiles also need looking after.

kerlingarfjöll highland base

Daði also explains that simply getting visitors to Kerlingarfjöll is its own challenge. “We’re always sure about how many people we’re expecting, and if they don’t arrive, then we need to go out and find them. Sometimes, a jeep might get stuck, and then it’s up to us to assist them.” Incidentally, this is a duty of Daði’s with which I’m already familiar. Despite the horsepower of our supervan, we stranded briefly on the rough highland track. It was Daði in his superjeep, Emma, that ultimately guided us to the warmth and comfort of our lodgings.

kerlingarfjöll highland base

Such difficulties remind one that despite the luxurious lodgings and elegant atmosphere at Kerlingarfjöll one is, indeed, in the middle of nowhere. I can think of no better illustration of this tension than our fellow guests for the weekend – a corporate group holding a private party that seemed to have much more to do with the clubs of downtown Reykjavík than the Icelandic highland. It is a curious dynamic that leads me to wonder: who, exactly, is Kerlingarfjöll for these days? 

“I think the highland has been quite accessible for many years now,” Daði goes on. There have of course been superjeep enthusiasts and international mountaineers who have frequented the area for some time, but the area is undeniably gaining in popularity among a new kind of traveller who doesn’t necessarily have the same kind of experience or gear as these other types. “We see a lot of people who want a real adventure,” Daði says. “They come here to see the mountains, to experience the weather in a way that you just can’t on television or social media. You can actually feel it on the skin. You can come here, and you can stay in the hotel – you don’t even need to leave the hotel if you don’t want to. Some people just want to experience the dark nights and see the aurora, for instance.” 

kerlingarfjöll highland base

The beauty of the new Highland Base at Kerlingarfjöll seems to be that travellers no longer have to choose between extreme outdoor adventure and the comfortable luxury of hot springs, saunas, and champagne. As more and more people find out about this hidden jewel of the highland, it’s inevitable that this area will see quantities and kinds of visitors previously unheard of in this region. As Daði says, “I think there is so much at Kerlingarfjöll for everybody, and I think it’s only going to grow in the years to come. But it’s also important to take care of the nature here. And maybe the best way to do this is to educate the people who come. That’s really important to us. We always have guides on the premises to talk to everybody, to teach them how to best view the surroundings. Maybe that’s the best way to take care of what we have here.” 

Destination: Kerlingarfjöll

It is only relatively recently that Kerlingarfjöll has become known as an outdoor destination. Prior to the 21st century, local farmers had little reason to explore the highland area, and most thought it the haunt of outlaws and trolls. Indeed, the name Kerlingarfjöll might be best translated as the Hag Mountains, a reference to the traditional connection between uninhabited places and the supernatural. Many peaks, glaciers, and valleys here had no names until recently.

The first human construction in these mountains was a small hut raised by Ferðafélag Íslands (The Icelandic Touring Association) in 1937. In 1961, a ski school was founded in Kerlingarfjöll that operated during the summers until the turn of the century, when the area stopped receiving consistent snowfall in the summer.

kerlingarfjöll highland base

With the growing popularity of the region, Kerlingarfjöll also saw a rising demand for services. Original plans for the Highland Base detailed some 120 double rooms, but after calls by concerned environmentalists, the hotel was scaled down and redesigned to better blend in with the landscape. At a total cost of ISK 2-3 billion [approximately $20 million, €17 million], the Highland Base at Kerlingarfjöll is the largest-ever investment in the Icelandic highland, with the exception of hydropower plants.

The scale of the project also sparked the political will to formally protect this area of the highland. In 2020, 344 km² [133mi²] were designated a conservation area, in what many, including then-Minister for Environment and Natural Resources Svandís Svavarsdóttir, celebrated as a win for the environment. 

Ásgarðsheiði

Early next morning, we are treated to a generous breakfast buffet that was rather inexplicably – to me at least – paired with the sound of Taylor Swift. The pineapple in the fruit salad seems somehow fresher than the stuff I buy in town, and heaps of sliced cheeses, deli meats, scrambled eggs, and pain au chocolat greet the browsing skier. Some shot glasses are arranged on an elegant tray next to the canisters of water and orange juice. It seems a bit early for that kind of thing, but as I later see, the shot glasses are intended for the doctor’s recommended intake of lýsi – cod liver oil. I see our guide, Brynhildur, doing a bottoms-up with the other guides. Health-wise, they might be on to something, but I can’t help but stifle a reflexive retch from childhood memories of the stuff.

kerlingarfjöll highland base

Not long after, we clamber into Daði’s superjeep, Emma. As we soon learn, Emma is a minor celebrity among offroad vehicles. Along with her driver, Daði, she was the first vehicle to cross Greenland from East to West and then back again. It took some three to four weeks each way, Daði tells me. With 120,000 km [75,000 mi] on her odometer, Emma has also driven on every major glacier in Iceland. Outfitted with 44-inch wheels, she sits atop three separate fuel tanks, carrying a total of 240 litres [63 gallons] of diesel when fully topped off. The pressure of each tyre is individually controlled through an app on a smartphone mounted to the dash.

We are driving across a mountain plateau known as Ásgarðsheiði, the Asgard heath. It is an area that feels mythological, and Daði tells me that two crows are known to live here. He has named them Huginn and Muninn. Thought and Memory – Odin’s ravens.  

kerlingarfjöll highland base
kerlingarfjöll highland base
kerlingarfjöll highland base snowmobile

Our mission today is to catch a glimpse of the Hveradalir geothermal valley and then rendezvous with our ski group. In the summer, Hveradalir is known for the vibrant colours of its rhyolite cliffs and mineral deposits from the geothermal springs. Now, in the middle of winter, it’s a white Sahara. White cliffs against a white sky loom over us; white snow drifts snake across the white ground; even the sun, in its blinding clarity, appears white.

We stop on a ridge that overlooks the valley. The river that flows through it is some of the only water in this region that remains unfrozen in the winter, heated by the many geothermal vents and springs that dot the valley. It is a spectacular sight, but the wind is picking up, and we re-embark into Emma.

Switchbacks

The ski group comes into view as we descend Ásgarðsheiði, brightly coloured Gore-Tex shells standing out in sharp relief to the blasted white surroundings. As we disembark from Emma, I sense a charge in the air. Walkie-talkies crackle and click in the wind. We are surrounded by expert guides and experienced skiers, but this windswept heath is not a place anyone wants to linger. 

The wind is picking up as we strap on our skis. Before us, at the northeast edge of Kerlingarfjöll, stands Loðmundur mountain, the so-called King of Kerlingarfjöll. At 1,432 metres [4,698 ft], it is not the tallest peak here, but its distinctive shape has earned it a place in the hearts of mountaineers. It is also the most technical peak to summit in this range, skirted by steep slopes on its sides, its top ringed by near-vertical cliffs.

loðmundur mountain kerlingarfjöll
Loðmundur, the king of Kerlingarfjöll.

“Everybody warm? Good to go?” Brynhildur yells atop the wind. We can’t afford to stop at length; cross-country skiing in this environment is a delicate balance. Stay still for too long, and you cool down; overheat, and you sweat through your layers – a potentially dangerous situation in extreme temperatures. The current temperature is -15°C [5°F] with wind gusts up to 30 m/s [67 mph].

A long, broad slope extends before us. A switchback trail cuts zigzags through the snow, and the more advanced skiers have already pushed off. With little time to lose, I begin my descent.

There is an art to cross-country skiing downhill. While downhill skiers can simply form a “pizza” shape with their skis to slow down, it’s important for cross-country skiers to remain in the ruts that have been cut in the ice-crusted snow by their fellow travellers. This means that conventional braking methods are out the window, and I must instead time my descent such that I lose momentum where the switchback turns, dragging my poles in the snow if need be. Once stopped, I cut my slope-facing foot into the side of the hill and with the other, I take a conspicuously large goose-step and turn my foot in the other direction. Once secure, I repeat the procedure with the other foot and then it’s downhill again. Through the constant rebalancing and readjusting, I discover muscles in my feet previously unknown to me.

kerlingarfjöll

It is a relief when we reach the bottom, where we resume our shuffling and kicking. After a brief respite, we head out again across the flats of the plateau. Loðmundur is at our back, and a sharp wind picks up from the northwest. 

The wind is unrelenting, but, fortunately, there are times when it’s at our backs, catching our shells in the wind like sails. The temperature is dropping, and we have several kilometres to go before we return to base camp. The group sinks into the silence of grim determination, pushing on through ice patches, snow drifts, and uphill slopes. During particularly sharp blasts of wind, a burst of mad laughter picks up along the column. It’s infectious, and I join in, howling at the wind. By the time we return to base, I can honestly say this trip has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done; it also happens to be one of the best days spent outdoors in my life.

Another world

As I sit in the supervan bound for civilisation, I think about distance and time. From Gullfoss, the nearest outpost of civilisation, it is only some 50 or 60 km [some 35 mi] to the Highland Base at Kerlingarfjöll. But on the icy highland tracks, it takes five or six hours to traverse these kilometres, making this corner of the highland just as far removed from Reykjavík as London or Paris. A traveller may well wonder – why come to Kerlingarfjöll at all? The answer, it seems to me, is simple. On any other weekend, I could have visited another city, another country. But out here, I’ve visited another world.

kerlingarfjöll highland base

How to Book a Mountain Cabin

A person sitting in the snow outside a mountain hut in Kerlingafjöll.

The Icelandic Highland is the place to go if you’re looking for an escape from reality. With no paved roads or lampposts, serene wilderness that goes on forever, and dramatic scenery that will give you the feel of a movie-worthy adventure, it’s perfect for leaving the outside world behind for a bit. While truly magical, the Highlands are no exception to the typical Icelandic weather conditions, so if you’re spending the night there, you might want to opt for a mountain cabin rather than a tent.

Finding and booking mountain cabins

You can book guided tours in the Highland where cabin accommodations are included, but they’re also fairly easy to book on your own. The highland cabins are run by several companies, each with its own website. On ferdalag.is, you can find a comprehensive list of nearly all available cabins. You can browse through the list or use their map to view them by location. By clicking on each cabin, you’ll get some practical information and images, as well as contact details and a link to the service provider’s official website or Facebook page. 

Some huts have a booking system you can book through, but others require sending an email inquiry or call. In some cases, it’s possible to arrive without a booking, but we strongly recommend avoiding that unless you have a tent with you as a backup. You never know how many people will be in the area. 

What to expect

Much like in a hostel, what you’ll usually get when staying in a mountain cabin is a bed in a shared sleeping space and access to a kitchen and bathroom. However, facilities will be different in each hut. For instance, they don’t all have running water throughout the year, and sometimes, you’ll have to bring your own toilet paper. Details about this will be available on the service provider’s official webpage. The types of sleeping arrangements vary between locations as well. There are cabins with regular single bunk beds or freestanding beds, and there are cabins with large mattresses where you’ll be sleeping beside others. Usually, you’ll need to bring your own sleeping bag. 

Exploring the Unique Geography of Iceland

Northern lights by a waterfall in Þingvellir, Iceland

Iceland lies on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet. The land formed due to volcanic eruptions along the ridge of the North Atlantic Ocean. Due to volcanic activity, deglaciation, and earthquakes, the land is constantly evolving. Iceland is located between latitudes 63-68°N and longitudes 25-13°W in Northern Europe, making it an ideal place to see the northern lights in the wintertime. Its eight geographical regions are the South, the Southern Peninsula, the Northeast, the Northwest, the West, the Westfjords, the East, and the Capital Region. The Highland of Iceland, a 42,000 km² [16,000 mi²] area of lava fields and mountains, takes up about 40% of the land. Approximately 25% of the country is under official protection, mainly as national parks. Vatnajökull National Park, Þingvellir National Park, and Surtsey island are designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Population distribution in Iceland

Due to the Highland being uninhabitable, Iceland’s population of over 399,000 primarily lives along the coasts and surrounding islands. The capital, Reykjavik, and its suburbs host 64% of the population or about 255,000 people. Other large cities include Reykjanesbær, with a population of 23,000 and Akureyri, in the north of the island, with a population of 20,000. The rest live in smaller towns and rural communities. In addition, Iceland has over 30 islands, six of which are inhabited: Grímsey island, Hrísey island, Heimaey island, Flatey island, Vigur island, and Æðey island.

Gunnuhver, geothermal hot spring in Iceland
Photo: Golli. Gunnuhver hot spring.

Iceland’s energy and water

Iceland has an extensive amount of unpolluted freshwater resources. The tap water is fresh and ready to drink, and geothermal water is used to heat 85% of houses. Iceland is known for being the world’s largest green energy and electricity producer per capita. Iceland’s renewable energy provides almost 100% of its electricity production from hydropower and geothermal power.

The climate in Iceland

Iceland’s climate is classified as subarctic, with short, cool to mild summers and cold winters. In the capital region, the average temperatures in the summer are 10°C [52°F] and in the winter 0°C [32°F].

Lakes and waterfalls in Iceland

Iceland has over 60 lakes that exceed 2.5 km² [one mi²] in size. The largest is Þingvallavatn, with an area of 84 km² [32 mi²] and at its deepest point, 114 m [374 ft]. Out of thousands of mountains, the highest peak is Hvannadalshnjúkur, with its highest point at 2,110 m [6,920 ft]. Due to the many mountains and hills, you can find over 10,000 waterfalls in Iceland, the tallest being Morsárfoss in Vatnajökull National Park, towering at 240 m [787 ft].

The Icelandic Horse, Iceland
Photo: Golli.

The flora and fauna of Iceland

The only native wild mammal in Iceland is the Arctic Fox. Some of the more prominent animals include the Icelandic horse, the Icelandic sheep, the Icelandic sheepdog, cattle, goats, and 75 species of birds, including Atlantic puffins, skuas, and ptarmigans. Iceland has a rich marine life in its lakes, rivers, and oceans: over 270 species of fish, whales, dolphins, and seals. Fish is one of the country’s main exports, making it crucial to its economy.

Iceland’s greenery consists primarily of moss, downy birch, aspens, and flowers such as the Mountain Aven, Alaskan Lupine, and Marigolds. Despite the cold climate, geothermal energy makes it possible to grow vegetables and fruit outside, including potatoes, carrots, beets, rhubarb, cauliflower, and broccoli. Fruit grown outside includes wild berries like blueberries, crowberries, and redcurrants. Using geothermal energy, tomatoes, cucumbers, leafy greens, and herbs are grown in greenhouses.

Volcanic Eruption in Reykjanes Iceland, 2023
Photo: Volcanic Eruption in Reykjanes Peninsula, 2023.

Iceland: The land of fire and ice

Iceland has 269 glaciers, including Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull. This massive glacier is 8,100 km² [3,100 mi²] but sadly continues to decrease in size due to climate change.

In Iceland’s geothermal areas, there are hot springs and geysers. Forty-one volcanic systems are believed to be active in Iceland, the largest being the Bárðabunga system, responsible for most of the country’s largest lava fields. Some of Iceland’s most active volcanoes are Hekla, Katla and Grímsvötn. The volcanic systems on Reykjanes peninsula have had the most activity recently, erupting every year since 2021 after laying dormant for eight centuries. Its eruption on January 14th, 2024, caused lava to flow into the town of Grindavík. Three houses burned, but the town had been evacuated two nights prior. This was the first time lava entered an inhabited area since the eruption in Vestmannaeyjar islands in 1973.

 

Season Guide: Travelling and Driving in Iceland During Summer

A car driving in the Icelandic countryside.

Whether you‘ll be cycling, driving, or using public transport, travelling in Iceland, even during summertime, might differ from what you‘re used to. Road conditions, hilly landscape, unpredictable weather, and a limited public transport schedule are all part of that. To help you out, here is our summer guide to travelling and driving in Iceland.

Cycling in Iceland 

If you want to cycle in Iceland, summer offers the best conditions in terms of both weather and road conditions. Within cities and towns, people bike on sidewalks or bike lanes. Icelandic roads are not made with bicycles in mind, which means that when travelling outside towns and cities, you‘ll mostly have to cycle on the side of the road alongside driving cars. If this is your chosen way of travelling across the country, you must be highly aware of your surroundings. Cycling off-road/off-track is strictly prohibited. 

Plan ahead when opting for public transport

Public transport tends to run smoothly in Iceland during the summer, as weather and bad road conditions are far less likely to cause delays or cancellations. The main cause of delays during the summer is traffic, which is at its peak on Fridays and Sundays. Many public transport routes run less frequently during the summer, so make sure to check the schedule.

Driving around Iceland: Cities, towns and the countryside

There are three main types of roads in Iceland: asphalt, gravel, and mountain roads. During summer, a regular car with summer tires will do fine on both asphalt and most gravel roads. The main thing to remember is to slow down when going from asphalt to gravel so as not to lose control of the car. When meeting cars from the opposite direction, take it slow and stay as far to the right as possible, as gravel roads are often narrow. On all roads, beware that rapidly changing weather can quickly change driving conditions, and watch out for sheep crossing the road. 

Driving in the Highland 

Should you venture into the Highland or other mountain roads, you‘ll need a 4×4 jeep. Campervans and regular cars are NOT equipped for these roads. Be mindful that some mountain roads don‘t open until late in the summer. Vegagerðin has a live map of general road conditions, which roads require mountain vehicles, and which roads are open/closed.

Icelandic driving regulations

Driving regulations in Iceland might be different to what you‘re used to. For your own safety and that of others, please familiarise yourself with them. Here are the top rules to remember:

  • In Iceland, cars drive on the right side of the road and priority is given to the right. 
  • In double roundabouts, the traffic on the inner lane has priority over the outer lane.
  • The general speed limit is 30-50 km/hour in populated areas, 80 or 90 km/hour on rural paved areas, and 80 km/hour on rural gravel roads. Some roads may not be suitable for the legal maximum speed, in which case you might spot a sign like this, with a suggestive maximum speed:
  • All passengers must wear seatbelts, and children must have appropriate safety equipment. Car seats for children can usually be added when renting a car. 
  • Headlights are required to be on day and night.
  • Driving off road is strictly forbidden and can result in a very high fine.
  • It‘s illegal to drive after consuming ANY AMOUNT of alcohol or drugs.

For a comprehensive list of road signs, check out this guide.

No Changes in Geothermal Activity at Askja Volcano

Michelle Parks / Veðurstofan. Dr Melissa Anne Pfeffer taking gas measurements at Askja.

There are no changes to geothermal activity at Askja volcano, according to preliminary results from a recent research trip conducted by the Icelandic Met Office. The land at Askja has risen 70 cm over the past two years, indicating that some 20 million cubic metres of magma are collecting under the volcano’s surface. An uncertainty phase has been in effect at the site of the remote highland volcano since September 2021.

Eruption on the way?

Volcanologists in Iceland have been predicting that Askja is preparing for an eruption in the near future. While uplift (land rise) has been occurring at the site for around two years, this summer local rangers reported that the temperature of the site’s geothermal lake Víti had risen. A plume of steam was also reportedly sighted at Askja this summer.

Plume of steam was likely dust

A group of scientists from the Icelandic Met Association led by Dr. Melissa Anne Pfeffer and Dr. Michelle Parks made a trip to Askja recently to collect data at the site, including gas and water samples. The preliminary results show no changes in gas or water from previous years, though the samples are being analysed futher at this time. There are no visible changes in the landscape and measurements of temperature and acidity do not indicate chanes in the geothermal activity around Askja and Víti geothermal lake. The report of a plume of steam seen at the site on August 12 has been interpreted as dust from a rock fall on the steep slopes of the caldera.

Askja is a volcano situated in Iceland’s central highland region. Its last eruption occurred in 1961 and gave clear warning in the form of strong earthquakes and a significant rise in geothermal temperatures. No such signs have yet occurred at the site. Tourism operators have nevertheless called for improved telecommunications at the site in case of an eruption.

Askja Slowly Preparing for Eruption

Askja, Viti, Öskjuvatn, volcano

The land at Askja has risen 70 cm over the past two years, indicating that some 20 million cubic metres of magma are collecting under the volcano’s surface. Measurements show that the temperature of the site’s geothermal lake Víti has risen this summer. There are no signs of an imminent eruption at the remote highland volcano, however, and if and when one occurs, experts say it is unlikely to affect inhabited areas or air traffic.

Askja’s last eruption occurred in 1961 and gave clear warning in the form of strong earthquakes and a significant rise in geothermal temperatures. No such signs have yet occurred at the site despite the uplift and higher lake temperature, Kristín Jónsdóttir, head of the Icelandic Met Office’s Volcanos, Earthquakes, and Deformation Department, told RÚV.

Uplift also occurring at Torfajökull

While eruptions at Askja can produce ash like the Eyjafjallajökull eruption of 2010 that disrupted air traffic, Kristín says an effusive eruption is the more probable outcome and would most likely not impact inhabited areas or air traffic. An uncertainty phase is in effect for the area and authorities have discouraged travellers from bathing in Víti geothermal lake or hiking around Askja lake.

The Icelandic Met Office reported yesterday that uplift is also occurring at Torfajökull, a small glacier also in the Highland region. The uplift indicates that magma is collecting below the surface but no increased earthquake activity has been measured at the site. The last eruption at Torfajökull occurred in 1477.

Meanwhile, the Reykjanes peninsula’s third eruption in three years has officially ended.

Kerlingarfjöll Construction Project One of Largest Ever in Highlands

Kerlingarfjöll

The tourist facilities at Kerlingarfjöll in Iceland’s Highland are receiving an overhaul these days to the tune of ISK 2-3 billion [$14-21 million, €13-20 million], RÚV reports. The development includes a luxury hotel and renovations to the campsite. It’s possibly the largest single investment in the Highland region that is not a power station.

Kerlingarfjöll is a mountain range in Iceland’s Highland and one of the most popular tourist destinations within the region. It was operated as a summer ski resort in the 20th century which was dismantled in 2000 due to decreased snowfall. The site is known for the spectacular colours of its rhyolite mountains and hot springs. Kerlingarfjöll was declared a protected area in 2020 by the Icelandic government.

Hotel smaller than planned

The hotel has been downscaled from its original plan, which called for 120 double rooms. In 2016, the Icelandic Environment Association appealed the construction of the hotel to the Environmental and Natural Resources Appeals Committee as the first phase of construction had begun without an environmental assessment having been completed.

The luxury hotel will have space for 50 guests and hostel-like facilities for 30 campers. Along with renovations to the neighbouring campsite, a new restaurant will be opened at the site. The hotel buildings facades will be in dark, earthy colours in order to blend in with the landscape and the construction aims to limit vehicular traffic around the site to improve guests’ experience.

Highland an important breeding ground for birds

The Highland of Iceland is an uninhabited area that covers most of the centre of the country. It is only accessible to humans during the summer, as deep snow and wide rivers make its dirt roads impassable most of the year. The Highland is an important nesting area for many species of birds, with the Þjórsárdalur valley being the single most important breeding ground for pink-footed geese globally.

Why there are so many swans in Iceland?

Iceland is home to many migratory birds that breed here in the summer months and then winter abroad. In fact, Iceland’s birdlife is renowned for its diversity and many travellers come here for the sole purpose of seeing bird cliffs like Látrabjarg, Grímsey island, or the puffins of the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago. In fact, just one little corner of the highlands (Þjórsárver) is the single most important breeding ground for pink-footed geese in the entire world!

The same is true for swans, which have important breeding grounds in Iceland. The swan native to Iceland is known as the whooper swan in English, or simply Álft in Icelandic (recognizable in such place names as Álftanes, a peninsula near the capital region and Álftavatn, a lake along the popular hiking trail Laugavegur). Up until the 20th century, people would catch swans for eating during the season when they drop their feathers and can’t fly. The skins and feathers were sold and the feathers were used for writing. Not all feathers came from birds that had been caught, as they could also be picked in the grounds where the swans dropped their feathers. They have been protected since 1914, the same year as the white-tailed eagle received protected status. Iceland now counts around 30,000 birds, with 3-4000 breeding couples.

Icelandic whooper swans tend to summer mostly in England and Ireland, some in Scandinavia or mainland Europe, but around a tenth of them brave out the winter here in Iceland. Many swans and other waterfowl can be found around lake Mývatn in North Iceland.

Swans can often be found in and around the Reykjavík City Pond in the city centre. The entire birdlife of the pond was protected in 1919 but up until then, people would go there for hunting. In 1920, swans were brought to the pond to liven up the area. They would lay eggs there, but today, the swans on the pond are mostly non-breeding adults.

Despite their reputation as a wasteland, many parts of the highlands are buzzing with life during the summer and make a great place for water birds to breed and have their young before returning to warmer regions.

Whooper swan swimming on Reykjavík city pond
Ian Funk

Iceland’s Wilderness Mapped in More Detail than Ever

Hálendi Landmannalaugar Highland Iceland

Scientists have mapped Iceland’s uninhabited wilderness in more detail than ever before. A new report on the project, prepared by the Wildland Research Institute (WRi) on behalf of Icelandic initiative Óbyggð kortlagning provides information that can help policymakers and nature conservationists preserve these areas in their best possible form. Previous studies for the European Union Wilderness Register have shown that Iceland retains approximately 43% of Europe’s top one percent wildest areas.

Around half of Iceland’s Central Highland falls under the definition of uninhabited wilderness, and the report divides it into 17 distinct areas. One third of the uninhabited wilderness mapped in the project is privately owned, while the other two thirds are on public land. The areas were mapped and defined according to international standards.

Maps are essential for conservation efforts

WRi Director Dr. Steve Carver told RÚV it is important for Icelanders to be able to clearly distinguish between wilderness and other areas, and that as wild areas diminish globally, Iceland’s wilderness will become still more valuable.

“If we look at biodiversity goals after 2020, the top priority is protecting the remaining unspoilt areas,” Dr. Carver stated. “That’s why they need to be mapped. Once a line has been drawn on a map, it can be put into context legally, in Icelandic law on nature conservation, so it’s possible to make decisions about where to build, where power lines can be laid, and where hydropower plans can be built so as not to spoil this important resource.”

Iceland’s Nature Conservation Act No 60/2013 outlines the goal of mapping wilderness across the whole of Iceland by June 2023.

Planned power plants threaten wild areas

The report identifies four main historical threats to wilderness in Iceland: impacts from geothermal and hydropower infrastructure; tourism; recreational 4×4 driving; and off-road driving. “These have resulted in the steady attrition of wilderness areas over the last 80 years. Many of these threats are ongoing with further expansion of electrical power generation and associated transmission infrastructure,” the report states.

Proposals to expand hydropower, geothermal power, and wind power generation in the Central Highlands are “of particular concern,” according to the report’s authors, as they are “all capable of vastly impacting wilderness qualities.”

Interested readers can view the full report online.