Guide to The Highlands of Iceland
Iceland can be separated into regions: South Iceland, East Iceland, North Iceland (often sub-divided into East and West), the Westfjords, West Iceland, Reykjanes, and Reykjavík capital area. They contain all of Iceland’s population and account for its entire land.
Yet there’s another area you’ll hear a lot about, and that’s the Highlands. This part of Iceland overlaps with several regions but has distinct characteristics of its own. Let’s find out a bit more about this interesting part of the country with our guide to the highlands of Iceland.
What area is considered the highlands of Iceland?
In its simplest terms, the highlands of Iceland are the country’s mountainous interior. Roughly speaking, it’s the land that exceeds 400 meters in height. Typically, it is characterized by lava fields, rocky hills, moraines, areas of sand, glaciers, rivers, and lakes.
Where sufficient water is present, some vegetation can grow, but much of it is a barren desert. This part of the country supports no permanent residents, though, in summer, people come to work here and visit the region.
Are the highlands of Iceland protected as a national park?
Iceland has three national parks: Vatnajökull, Thingvellir, and Snæfellsnes. Of these, only Vatnajökull – the largest – falls within the Icelandic highlands. Thingvellir National Park lies just outside, while Snæfellsnes is located further west.
In the past, there have been calls to designate more of the highlands of Iceland as a national park to protect its remarkable natural beauty. Still, as of yet, this hasn’t materialized.
What are the main sights within the Icelandic highlands?
For many, Landmannalaugar encapsulates the Highlands, though the latter covers a much greater area. This place, nicknamed the People’s Pools, is famous not only for its geothermal activity and hot springs but also for its kaleidoscopic rhyolite mountains. Numerous hiking trails lead up through this multicolored landscape. If you are considering an Iceland Highlands tour and only have time for one trip, make it to Landmannalaugar.
Þórsmörk, or Thor’s Valley, is an extraordinary nature reserve in the southern highlands. Its unusual microclimate means vegetation thrives here, and you’ll see birch trees and verdant ferns. If you head inland from Skógafoss, one of the south coast’s most popular waterfalls, you’ll leave the crowds behind and reach this beautiful place after a full day’s hiking. If you are wondering if you should hike in the highlands, this is the place to do so.
This mountain range divides Iceland’s second and third-largest glaciers, Langjökull and Hofsjökull. Snow settles on the mountaintop and remains there year-round. It’s also home to an area called Hveradalir, which is geothermally active, so expect steaming vents, solfataras, hot springs, and plopping mud pools against that wintry backdrop.
Askja and Viti
Askja is an active volcano system found in the Central Highlands. The Dyngjufjöll Mountains surround it, and you’ll also encounter Drekagil or Dragon’s Canyon nearby. Öskjuvatn Lake occupies the caldera; its depth is second in Iceland only to Jökulsárlón. Astronauts have come here to train because of its otherworldly lunar landscapes.
Waterfalls such as Aldeyjarfoss and Fagrifoss
This part of Iceland has some spectacular waterfalls. Most notable is Aldeyjarfoss, a remarkably beautiful waterfall flanked by basalt columns. You can most easily reach it from the ring road at Goðafoss, from where it’s less than an hour’s drive to the south. Across the country in the south, Fagrifoss is harder to reach but just as striking.
The Laki craters
Continue inland from Fagrifoss further into the southern highlands. It’s a challenging drive on rough F-roads involving river crossings, but hold your nerve, and you’ll eventually reach the Laki craters. They were created in 1783 and 1784 following a brief but devastating eruption and stretch for 25km.
What tours are offered by Amazing Tours in the highlands of Iceland?
Amazing Tours offers a number of great options if you’re keen to explore the highlands region with a guide. For example:
Amazing Tours’ Landmannalaugar Private Tour introduces you to one of Iceland’s most incredible landscapes. Jaw-dropping landscapes that include rhyolite mountains, geothermal pools, off-the-beaten-track waterfalls, and a jeep ride up Mount Hekla are just some of the highlights on this unmissable itinerary.
This exciting tour begins as you walk behind Seljalandsfoss waterfall, one of the gems of the south coast. After a pitstop at either Gljúfrabúi or Nauthúsagil, the guide will let some of the air out of the super jeep’s tires to reach Gígjökull, an outlet of the infamous Eyjafjallajökull (remember the 2010 ash cloud?) where you’ll enjoy fording glacial rivers. Lastly, you’ll reach Básar, one of the most breathtaking locales in Þórsmörk and known for its greenery.
A winter option is a thrilling snowmobile ride across Langjökull, which culminates in a visit to one of Iceland’s splendid ice caves. Don overalls, gloves, and helmets as you whizz across the dazzling white surface of the glacier. Dismount to admire the inside of a seasonal ice cave before zipping back across the ice to base camp.
When and how can you visit the highlands of Iceland?
When you’re able to visit, the highlands of Iceland depends a lot on how you plan to get there and what you want to do. Let’s take a look at some of the main options:
- If you are relying on driving yourself in a rental car, then you’ll need to do so during the summer when the F-roads open. These rough and challenging roads close seasonally as they are considered too dangerous to drive outside in the summer. A daily bus connects Reykjavik to Landmannalaugar from mid-June to mid-September, but apart from this, there is no public transport.
- So if you are hoping to get to the highlands of Iceland under your own steam, even in a high clearance 4×4, then you’re restricted, just as you would be if you went by bus, although obviously, you can drive at any time of day. Attempting the required river crossings can still be hazardous even within this period if there have been heavy or extended periods of rainfall, so check conditions before you set out and follow local advice.
- If you’re keen to visit the highlands of Iceland outside summer, then you’ll need to book a super jeep tour, such as those offered by Amazing Tours to Landmannalaugar or to Þórsmörk. These specially designed vehicles have higher clearance and bigger tires, giving them the ability to drive safely over uneven terrain, even after snowfalls or in icy conditions.
- If the main reason you wish to visit the highlands of Iceland is to set foot inside a natural ice cave, then you’ll need to visit during the colder months. The temperature needs to fall sufficiently for the ice cave to stabilize; meltwater can make it dangerous to be inside as there’s a risk it might collapse. By November, touring an ice cave is usually possible; the season typically ends by March or April. A few ice caves are accessible year-round. Regardless, go with a guide for your own safety.
Where can you stay in the highlands of Iceland?
While some visitors are content with a day trip, a region as captivating as the Highlands deserves at least an overnight stop. One of the most obvious places to stay is the hostel at Landmannalaugar. It’s one of a network of campsites and huts scattered across the interior of Iceland. This accommodation is open seasonally, from mid-June to mid-September, and cannot be accessed during the winter months.
Some sites are managed by travel associations such as the Touring Club of Fljótsdalshérað (the FFF) or Útivist, while others are privately owned and managed. In addition, there are a few highland hotels that can be booked throughout the year; these are accessible by roads such as Route 26, which don’t close when the F-roads do.
If our guide to the highlands has demonstrated anything, we hope it’s that this area is a must next time you’re in Iceland. Take a look at what’s on offer on the Amazing Tours website, and let us introduce you to this magical place.