Kjölur is a long, dusty trail that winds its way through the high plains of Iceland’s western highlands. It’s a swerving route that carves through vast swathes of rough, rolling desert. Just ten minutes after passing Gullfoss, civilisation already feels far away—a wide, chilly expanse of dirt stretches out in all directions, punctuated with jagged boulders, gnarled, jutting outcrops and patches of windblown shrubbery.
As the route slowly ascends into the highlands, mountains with irregular stripes of leftover snow flank the road. To our left, Langjökull (the “Long Glacier”) fills the horizon, surging gently northwards, with several wide glacier tongues spilling over from from its mountain cradle. They terminate in the lakes of Hagavatn and Hvítárvatn, resulting in rivers of grey-white meltwater that pour down across the barren plains.
The road is rough, even in a tall 4×4 bus. Soon, the traffic thins to nothing but the occasional jeep, each one signalled by a plume of approaching dust. We pull over to take in the view, by a wonky wooden sign that’s jammed into the ground. It has no markings on it at all—either the words were worn off by the elements, or they were simply never there. “Welcome to nowhere,” it seems to say.
Our destination is Hveravellir, a geothermal oasis in the desert where boiling water breaks through the surface, creating a column of steam that can be seen for miles around. Apparently, the famous Icelandic bandit Eyvindur and his wife Halla once spent the winter hiding here—the small cave they lived in sits nearby. Today, Hveravellir is a campsite with some lo-fi sleeping dorms and bedrooms, a cosy café, and a hot pot in which the boiling geothermal water is mixed with cool groundwater to create an idyllic natural bathing pool.
The café has a quiet, domestic atmosphere. It’s manned by seven staff who clean, cook, serve food, and field questions from campers: “Yes, sure, you can have some hot water for tea. Sure, we have a dorm bed available. No, there aren’t cooking facilities for campers, but you can use the big army tent if you have a stove. Yes, I can charge your phone. Yes, there’s a bus to Reykjavík—it leaves around midday.”
Many of the questions are about the three main hiking paths in the area. The first is a short 2.5km stroll around the geothermal area; the second a 12km round trip to a large crater named Strýtur. The third is one section of a multi-day hike that passes through Hveravellir.
The shortest route starts from a walkway over the geothermal area. There are several bright, almost luminous orange and green fumaroles that pour out steam—bubbling cauldrons of sapphire blue water that occasionally erupt and boil over like a knee-high geyser, or green ponds that leak steaming water down the slope, creating delicate, layered mineral sculptures that glitter in the sun. A white mineral stack called Öskurhóll vents with such force that it sounds like a jet engine. The steam has a pungent sulphurous smell. I stand downwind, and the warm steam envelops me completely. It feels like nothing so much as a cleansing ablution for atheists.
The onward path leads through colourful rocks and undulating green fields. I soon find a secluded field of purple thyme, flowering around a gently bubbling geothermal outlet. I sit down and take in the sweet scent. The sun breaks through the clouds, catching and illuminating the blue-white ice of Langjökull. The glacier looks dazzling—brighter than the sky itself. There isn’t a sound to be heard except the breeze and the buzzing flies. Blissfully alone, I take off my boots, lie back, and drift off to sleep.
The next morning, I pack a few snacks, pull on a raincoat, and head for Strýtur. This longer path covers a wide variety of terrain—one minute I’m striding through rich green pastures, the next walking a narrow, winding path across a pebble-studded wasteland, then picking carefully across the jagged, broken stones of the Kjalhraun lava field. Dramatic outcrops and boulders punctuate the desert, many of them split wide open over the centuries like a burst fruit, creating grassy nooks perfect for resting or picnicking.
As I walk, I contemplate the nature under my boots. It’s complete chaos—there are broken pebbles, gnarled vines, twisted roots, and bursts of plant life strewn everywhere. And yet, it’s all exactly as it should be. One rock shattered by the slow pressure of the ground has splintered and fanned out into a shape almost as geometric as an open book. At one point, a wide circle of grey sand appears, covered in round stones—a natural formation that could equally have been painstakingly laid out by a sculptor.
Strýtur appears suddenly, when the path drops away suddenly into the crater, a square kilometre filled with snow and surrounded by splintered stone towers and pinnacles. The view takes my breath away. I take the easy 200m climb to the lip of Strýtur and walk its perimeter. Mountains and glaciers embrace this bleak highland paradise on all sides. Taking deep lungfuls of the cool air, I find a high spot to sit and take in the view. It feels very far from the rest of the the human world. After lingering in a state of dizzy wonder for a while, I shake myself, and start the walk back, filled with a sense of deep calm, and relief, thinking: “It’s good to know escape is still possible.”