The highlands compose Iceland’s rugged, untouched, uninhabited interior, which can only be visited in the summer. Even then, you’ll need a specially equipped car to get in, and road conditions can be treacherous. If you aren’t up for driving in the Highlands, there are many tours you can join, departing from Reykjavik, Akureyri, Husavik and Vik.
The Highlands are composed of a uninhabitable volcanic desert. Water is absorbed so quickly into the ground that plant growth is nearly impossible, so the land is generally grey, black, or brown dirt, ash, or hardened lava. Many of Iceland’s glaciers and volcanoes are found in this area, along with alien-looking valleys and mountainous regions. Because of the little plant life in the area, there’s also not much wildlife to be found here either. People come mostly to see the unusual landscapes, the glaciers and volcanoes, to hike, and to feel utterly alone.
There are four main routes through the Highlands, each of which is only open from June through August. The longest is Sprengisandur Highland road, which is 200 km long and begins near the volcano Hekla in the south. Kjölur is the second longest, and takes about five hours to cover. It begins in the south, behind the Gullfoss waterfall, and ends in the north near Blönduós, passing between two glaciers, Langjökull and Hofsjökull. The most popular is Kjölur, which does not require a four-wheel drive. Kaldidalsvegur is the shortest route and is often called the “Highlands for beginners” route. It starts just north of Thingvellir and runs between two glaciers as it heads north to Hvammstangi at the Miðfjörður.
Accommodation in the Highlands
Aside from a few farmstays located on the outskirts of the Highlands, your choices for accommodation in the region will be limited to campsites and mountain huts. The good news is that these are cheap; the bad news is that they are quite basic and you’ll need to bring your own sleeping bag and pillows, plus food and drink. Another option is to travel via camper van.
Things to see and do in the Highlands
Hiking, glacier walking, and climbing are the main activities in the Highlands, though even if you aren’t looking for any physical exertion, you can still see quite a bit of the area from the comfort of your car.
The Landmannalaugar valley features multi-colored mountains of pink, green, yellow, brown, green and more. It is one of the most popular hiking destinations in Iceland and a major attraction in the Highlands. It can be visited from June through late September (otherwise the road is closed), and offers one hotel, an old mountain lodge near a geothermal hot spring, though most people come for a day trip. If you’re interested in a more intensive visit, you can do the 4-day hike, called Laugavegur,which ends in Þórsmörk. To get there, from the Ring Road, take road 26 to F208.
Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Iceland is located in the Highlands, as is Langjökull, the second largest. You can come for a look at either on our own, but if you want to get up close and do some glacier walking, it’s best to come with a guide. In the north of the Highlands, the main attraction is Askja, a complex of nested calderas, which was used as the training ground to prepare Apollo astronauts for their moon missions. Near Askja there is a campsite and two mountain huts, which are about 100km from the Ring Road, and accessible only with a 4-wheel drive vehicle. Askja can only be visited from June to early October, and going with a guide is recommended.
Tips for visiting the Highlands
Roads that require 4-wheel drive vehicles are clearly marked. Do not attempt to take an unqualified car on one of these roads – there are still fines for doing so and you will be held responsible for the inevitable damage that results. Be sure to fuel up before you enter the Highlands (there are no gas stations in the area) and check the weather reports and road conditions before you go. Watch out for glacier runs (unexpected flooding, which can wash out roads) and always test the depth and force of a river before you attempt to cross it.
Day tours into the Highlands
Iceland Rovers, Jeep Tours Iceland, Nature Explorer, High North, Grayline, Glacier Jeeps, Extreme Iceland, Myvatn Tours, and Reykjavik Excursions all offer day tours into the Highlands. Tours range from 8-12 hours and cost 29,000 to 35,000 ISK per person (about $240-$260 each).