Note: Driving in Highlands requires advance research on everything from suitable car types to weather, road conditions, prohibited practises, and river crossings. Visit safetravel.is and road.is for further guidance.
The engine judders to a halt, and we step out of the van into a plume of swirling dust. It’s approaching noon, and the shadows of fast-moving clouds dapple the panorama of bouldered dirt that’s spread out before us. To the west, the jagged icescape of the Langjökull glacier glitters in the distance, sending silt-grey rivers gushing across the boulder-strewn plains; to the east, a black, snow-streaked mountain range rears up ominously in the background. Ahead, the rough, potholed dirt track of the Kjölur road passes between ash-blackened crags and milky lakes as it makes its way northward across the expanse of Europe’s biggest desert: the Icelandic Highlands.
We’re standing at the gateway to a region that many Icelanders consider a forbidden zone. Situated in the lands 500-600m above sea level on the island’s large central plateau, the Highlands cover around 40,000 km, and hold ten glaciers, 20 active volcanoes and 16 geothermal areas within a vast barren desert. Few roads cross the area—there are a handful of serviced routes that are nevertheless potholed and heavy-going, and an obscure network of all-but impassable F-roads beset by shifting, treacherous, fast-moving glacial rivers.
The known unknown
Despite this formidably inhospitable setting, thousands of people visit the Highlands each year. Between June and August—the exact dates are, like everything in the Highlands, strictly weather permitting—tall all-terrain buses trundle up to various campsites and cabin villages. Rangers, wardens, service staff and rescue workers relocate to work in the area each summer to offer help and information to travellers.
However, as we stand taking in the first stretch of this five day road trip, there isn’t another soul to be seen. Our sturdy 4×4 camper van will circle the towering Hofsjökull glacier, taking us up the Kjölur trail, and then down through the Sprengisandur plains. On the northwards leg, we’ll stop at the campsites of Kerlingarfjöll and Hveravellir; after looping back southwards, we’ll spend the night at either Dreki or Nýidalur and then, finally, at the famously picturesque Landmannalaugar.
The journey starts fortuitously, under a blue sky with a few small skidding clouds. A few kilometres past Gullfoss the tarmac ends, and the van bounces along the potholed road on mercifully soft suspension. As we cross a single lane bridge over the milky Sandá river, it feels like the safe familiarity of the south is already far behind us.
We take a spontaneous turn onto road F335 towards Hagavatn, where the meltwater from Langjökull pools into a lake, forming the river’s origin. The map tells us to expect our first river crossing, but as we cruise up small ridges and down into shallow valleys, we pass through several dry, rocky riverbeds. The mountains that had been distant black shadows come into focus as we draw closer—they’re actually covered in brightly coloured moss and lupins growing in clay-coloured dirt. As we reach the mountains we pass through an unexpected grassy meadow next to a burbling river that swells as we approach Hagavatn. Eventually the river curves across the road, blocking the path ahead. Our first river crossing has arrived.
We pull over and survey the river. The surface is rhythmically dappled, suggesting that it’s shallow, flowing over small rocks below. Where the surface is still, the river is deeper. We choose the shallowest, narrowest point, and ease into the water gently, going with the current at a steady 5kmph. The water sprays the windows, but it’s shallower than we thought, and as we make it across we’re buoyed by the capabilities of our sturdy van.
A few minutes later, the road peters out at a high, steep bank. We set out for the summit on foot, determined to see Hagavatn. It’s worth it—across its still white surface, we can see the point where the glacier hits the water. We can see the water being born into the glacier lake, pouring through into a torrent down a multi-level waterfall before looping gently away across the gleaming, pebble-studded plain. As we survey the scene, the nature is deafeningly quiet and intensely pure.
We rejoin the main road and head north. An hour later, the Kerlingarfjöll Mountain Resort comes into view. The campsite sits on a riverbank beneath a dramatic, sculptural cliffside, with quaint green and red A-frame cabins dotting the valley. We check in as night falls and eat a welcome hot meal of steaming hot plokkfiskur before falling into our beds and a deep sleep.
Old women mountains
The next day, in spitting rain, we embark on a hike up to Hveradalir, a geothermal valley nestled deep inside the Kerlingafjöll (“Old Women Mountains”) mountains. The trail starts at the campsite, zigging up a steep hillside to the top of a long, jet-black expanse. Before long, the cabins are out of view and once again my senses tingle keenly, awakening to the feeling of amplified nature in the vast empty space.
The hike ascends steadily through fields of glistening pebbles and, as we trek higher, bands of snow. After a couple of hours, the wind brings us the distinctive smell of sulphur, and the ground changes from firm dirt to an orange clay that clings to our boots heavily. We arrive, panting, at a viewpoint overlooking a deep chasm with several plumes of steam jetting emphatically into the air.
The Hveradalir geothermal area turns out to bigger than I could have imagined. The onward path leads gradually down the spine of a long ridge into the valley over an entire kilometre. Steps have been hammered into the sticky earth like stitches in the ground, which changes colour through a spectrum of bright yellow, earthy red, mouldy powder blue and vivid emerald green. Steam pours skywards from the countless hotspots, melting the lingering snow into stunning organic sculptures.
Various paths intersect at the base of the steamy valley, splitting off in various directions. A long procession of hikers in brightly coloured raincoats stride purposefully past us, heading up the hill with bulging backpacks that hint at their multi-day route. A family of German tourists disrobe and jump into the warm, burbling stream for a soak. Through walls of steam, I fleetingly glimpse figures wandering the pathways, taking in the otherworldly scene.
We wander around the surreal maze for an hour before looping up the other side of the valley through the mossy landscape. Back at the summit, we take a final look back, reluctant to leave this fantastical, sensually overwhelming place.
Hot spring fields
Aching from the six-hour hike, we hit the road as the evening approaches. Our next destination is Hveravellir, a steaming geothermal oasis with a homely hotel and campsite.
We’re welcomed by Sölvi Pétursson, the son of the owner, who’s tells us about his life in the Highlands. “I’ve been working up here for two summers,” he says. “We work six days a week, with one day off. On that day, we do what we can do up here—we go to the hot spring, or on a hike, or just enjoy the nature.”
Sölvi doesn’t miss the city life, and has grown accustomed to bringing all he needs with him each year. In fact, he likes even more remote places out on the hiking trails. “It takes a while to get used to it, but when do you really, really like it,” he says. “There are challenges you need to work with—we have bus travel up here every day from the beginning of June until the end of August, so they help us with shipping things.”
Sölvi’s favourite hiking route is the multi-day Kjalvegur trail. “It’s somewhere between 40 and 50 kilometres,” he continues. “There are three huts on the way, much more isolated than here. One time, I arrived at the first one late. It was full and there was no place to sleep, so we decided to keep going and walked to the next hut. There’s no guard, and a trust box to pay. I’m attracted to these things, and it makes it easier to work here.”
Sölvi recalls some Highland adventures from his youth that gave him an early taste for this wild environment. “For me, it’s a matter of reconnecting to it,” he says. “I used to come up here with my dad as a kid. He has a big truck, and is into mountain driving. Once we had to stay in the car for 19 hours because there was a snowstorm. It was so crazy, we couldn’t get anywhere. I remember not being able to leave the cabin because you couldn’t see a metre in front of you, things like that. I want to stay up here for a few months in the winter, and see what it’s like.”
In the morning, after a dip in Hveravellir’s blissful riverside hot pot, we meander around the pathways surrounding the area, wandering through crags of broken lava and steaming fields rich with Arctic thyme. The visit is short, and as we continue on our way it’s hard not to envy Sölvi’s slow-paced Highland life.
An hour north of Hveravellir, the gravel road reverts to asphalt, passing a series of lakes that have been harnessed to create hydroelectric power. We speed past the dangling power lines, eager to round the short stretch of Route One that marks the northernmost point of our trip.
After a brief gas stop in the village of Varmahlið, we plunge back into the Highlands. The road soon turns to gravel once again and we buzz over cattle grids and through farm gates before crunching slowly up a steep zig-zagging slope.
At the top, a black desert stretches off to the horizon. After dodging civilisation as quickly as possible, we’ve re-entered the northern edge of the Highlands, and I breathe a sigh of relief to be back in the wilderness.
High and wild
The trail progresses across a strikingly barren stretch of land. Road F752 is unserviced, crossing a pebbled plain that undulates gently into the distance like a black ocean. Up close, however, there’s nothing gentle about it. The road is heavily potholed and the car bounces, labours and shakes as we climb sudden hills and round wide, pale pools.
We cross several rivers along the way, including the deepest crossing yet. Each time, we pause at length to survey the water. Once, an unexpected boulder on the river bottom makes the car judder suddenly: a stray splash of water goes into the engine, turning into steam—a reminder of the need to stay constantly alert.
Sometimes there’s a smooth, sandy stretch. We accelerate across the plains with the stereo blasting. At these moments, speeding through the wilderness is a joyful, liberating, almost euphoric experience.
The next campsite is Laugarfell, located in a shallow, featureless basin in the lunar landscape. After a brief soak in the neatly paved geothermal pool, we decide to press on, but reaching Dreki feels like a step too far. Instead, we head south, stopping briefly for a barbecued dinner in a river valley full of purple wildflowers.
The Nýidalur campsite seems within reach as the daylight wanes. Clouds creep over the sky as the night draws in. It’s close to midnight by the time we reach the gushing river that lies between us and Nýidalur. Deciding not to risk it, we backtrack, pulling over in a layby that overlooks the western edge of Vatnajökull to spend a night sleeping in the camper, with the heater running.
In the morning, we cross the wide river and meet Inga Martel, one of Nýidalur’s two wardens. She seems suspicious of us arriving so early, and as we try to explain our thought process, she chastises us for not reaching Nýidalur the night before. Wild camping, as it turns out, is illegal when within reach of a formal campsite, and there are designated areas to sleep if the river is too high to cross. However, thinking back to the tumultuous river at midnight, I remain certain that our decision was the safest one.
The issue resolved, we sit down for a chat. Inga has been a warden for six years. “There have been two of us working here for a few years. It was possible to work alone before, when there were 100 guests a day, but now we have 400 or more passing through in the high season.”
Inga enjoys greeting the guests and experiencing their outlooks, adventures and stories. “I like to welcome people here when they’ve been out for days and haven’t spoken to anyone,” she says. “I’ve hiked and camped for months up here, and you get very lonely. When you get back to the city you can barely even speak to anyone. But it’s such a different experience to drive through here, when you’re always looking through the window—you don’t feel the wind and the rain in your skin. When you have been throughout in the wilds for months, you come out of here reborn.”
It’s at this moment that we’re joined by Ingibjörg “Ibe” Eiriksdóttir, a ranger working in the area. A practical, no-nonsense character, she’s been working seasonally as a ranger since 2011. “It’s usually been a seasonal job, starting in June,” she says, “but for the last years we have such a lot of tourism that there’s a need for rangers for the whole year. Earlier this year, from February, I worked down in the lowlands at Breiðamerkursandur. The duties are different down there—you can’t compare it to what we’re doing up here. Here, we give information and advice to travellers, watch the river levels, and put in sticks where it’s safest to cross. We look after the infrastructure and the hiking trails, take trash, and take care of the nature, birds and wildlife.”
Ibe grew up in an outdoorsy family and drifted naturally towards the job of ranger. “I wait for this time through all the other months, that’s just how it is,” she says. “I like the space, the freedom, the interesting people travelling around. It’s beautiful to see the vegetation and birds surviving so far up here, in this really rough environment.”
“The geology is also quite amazing,” she continues. “We get researcher groups finding cracks and sinkholes, measuring earthquakes and the movement of the earth and so forth. The earth produces new land—life is starting up here. It’s so different from one day to the next—it’s so alive. When people call asking about the rivers, I can say how they were yesterday, or how they are now, or what is likely according to the forecast, but really, I can’t say what they’ll be like tomorrow, or even in an hour.”
The back of the mountains
From Nýidalur the Sprengisandur road gradually descends towards the south coast, passing between Hofsjökull to the west and the vast, snowy bulge of Vatnajökull to the east. Hofsjökull seems to have been almost ever-present throughout the past four days, and as it vanishes into the rear-view mirror, I get a pang of sadness that the journey is nearing its end.
Our final night will be spent at the Landmannalaugar campsite in the Friðland að Fjallabaki nature reserve. We trundle down towards Fjallabak, peering through the windscreen at the odd, knobbly mountains at its edge. Despite my tired limbs and heavy eyelids, the approach to Landmannalaugar is invigorating. We spend the next hour taking in a succession of stunning purple-green mountains, steep lava flows, and a deep caldera lake with viscerally hewn seams of earth banded around the near-vertical cliffside shoreline.
At the campsite, we hit a sudden line of traffic. A glacial outpour on the southwest tip of Vatnajökull, in the Skaftafell region, means that all the campsites in the area have been evacuated—and everyone has flocked to Landmannalaugar.
After an hour long hike through the lava maze that overlooks the campsite to the famously colourful mountains of Landmannalaugar, and a long soak in the nearby geothermally hot river, we encounter Páll Ágúst. He’s a search and rescue worker who took part in the evacuation.
“It was a big operation,” he says. “We’ve been closing roads, and making sure they stay closed. There were groups out hiking without vehicles, so we had to locate them, pick them up and transport them to Hólaskjól, south of the closed area. But then we had to evacuate that place too, because of hydrogen sulphide pollution from the river.”
Landmannalaugar is one of three search and rescue bases in the area. “There’s here, then one in Nýidalur and one in Dreki. Each team spends one week up here. Most people use their summer vacation to do this.”
The search and rescue teams carry out a range of duties. “Apart from directions and information, we mostly handle people with small wounds or stuck vehicles,” says Páll. “People often drive too fast into the river, and drown their car. Twenty minutes ago we got a call from the police about a car stuck north of Mýrdalsjökull. It’s a bit far for us, so the guys from Hvolsvöllur are gonna go. Those kind of incidents happen a lot.”
Páll especially enjoys going on patrol. “Quite often, people don’t call for help, but rather we find them,” he smiles. “Every day we go for a long drive of four to eight hours and observe the rivers. Quite often we find someone in a bit of trouble and we help them out of it.”
The next morning, as we finally trundle westwards out of Fjallabak towards Route One, we pass through a plain dotted with strange standing rock formations. My tired eyes catch them in my peripheral vision, imagining them as the figures of static guardians looking on silently as we leave. At the outset of our journey, five days seemed like a luxuriously long trip, but after this intense barrage of magical sights, unforgettable places and interesting people, I feel keenly aware that I haven’t even begun to fully understand these wild and magical Highlands.