The Highlands of Iceland, characterised by some of Iceland's most awe-inspiring, beautiful and "otherworldly" landscapes, cover much of the uninhabited interior, the upland plateau of Iceland.
High mountains with huge craters, majestic glaciers, stark rocky deserts, volcanoes, mountain lakes, immense lava fields, black volcanic sands, moraines and unbridged rivers dominate this region. But, hidden in the Highlands, you can also find lush green oases in remote valleys, as well as geothermal hot springs areas.
A paradise for nature lovers, hikers, photographers, geologists, volcanologists and all travellers seeking authentic adventures, the Highlands are fully accessible only by 4x4 drive vehicles during the summer months (June – August). Organised tours run regularly across the hinterlands interior, including Super Jeep tours, which can take you to otherwise inaccessible terrains. Of all the various tracks, only two routes traverse the whole way between north and south: Sprengisandur (F26) and Kjölur (F35).
Some of the most fascinating parts of the Icelandic Highlands include Þórsmörk (Thorsmork), Landmannalaugar, Kerlingarfjöll (Kerlingarfjoll) and Kverkfjöll (Kverkfjoll) mountains, the area around Askja volcano and Herðubreið (Herdubreid) table mountain.
Þórsmörk - "Thor's wood", named after Þór (Thor) the Norse god of thunder, is a verdant valley, nestled between 3 glaciers: Eyjafjallajökull (Eyjafjallajokull), Mýrdalsjökull (Myrdalsjokull) and Tindfjallajökull (Tindfjallajokull), in the southern part of Iceland.
Iceland's most popular hiking trail, the famed Laugavegurinn, or Laugavegur, hiking trail (55 km) connects the nature reserves Þórsmörk (Thorsmork) and Landmannalaugar. Most hikers traverse the route from north to south – from Landmannalaugar to Thorsmork, but you can also take a shorter hike to Thorsmork, starting from the magnificent, 62 m high, Skógafoss (Skogafoss) waterfall in the vicinity of the town of Skógar (Skogar) on Iceland's south shore. The trail crosses Fimmvörðuháls (Fimmvorduhals) Pass, a 1100 m high mountain pass to Thorsmork, winding along Skógá (Skoga) River and its many waterfalls and up between the Eyjafjallajokull and Myrdalsjokull glaciers. Hikers can see the recently formed lava and the new craters (named Magni and Móði, after the sons of Thor) created as a result of the Fimmvorduhals eruption on March 10, 2010.
A new path leads from the craters down into the Thorsmork glacier valley, over the lava still steaming under the surface. Thorsmork is a favourite with hikers, who use it as a base camp for exploring the surrounding mountains. It's an Icelandic tradition to hike Fimmvorduhals Pass on the summer solstice.
If you are driving along Iceland's Ring Road, on the road leading in to Thorsmork from Skogar, the Ring Road runs along the foot of Myrdalsjokull glacier, across sandy southern plains and over glacial rivers. Must-see attractions which lie very close to the main road, at the base of the Eyjafjallajokull glacier, are the 64 m high Seljalandsfoss waterfall and its lesser known neighbour Gljúfrabúi (Gljufrabui) waterfall, 40 m high and partially concealed by its own canyon. Gljufrabui is a protected natural monument.
The spectacular geothermal area of Landmannalaugar is located in a valley between the colourful mountains at the edge of a rhyolite lava field, where hot and cold natural springs combine to create a warm stream, or pool, ideal for visitors to relax in. The rich, contrasting colours of the surrounding mountains and the hot pools at Landmannalaugar are one of many manifestations of geothermal activity in the region, which has also caused alterations to the minerals in the rocks, producing the beautiful colour variations from red, ochre and yellow to blue, green and black.
Landmannalaugar is the usual starting point for the epic Laugavegur hiking trail, chosen by National Geographic as one of the world's 20 best hikes; a "holy grail of trails". Hikers typically cover the 55 km distance in four days, staying overnight in mountain huts.
Landmannalaugar is also the official starting point for the ever more popular Laugavegur Ultra Marathon, a 55 km long ultra-marathon race through the Highlands, held in July each year. Although the terrains are extremely challenging - snow, ice, rivers and brooks, gravel and sand, the ultra-marathon runners usually cover the 55 km long distance in 5-8 hours.
Ferðafélag Íslands, the Iceland Touring Association, operates 6 huts along the Laugavegur hiking trail: Landmannalaugar, Hrafntinnusker, Alftavatn, Hvanngil, Emstrur/Botnar and Langidalur in Thorsmork. The huts are open from late June to beginning or mid-September. If you wish to stay in the huts, it is highly recommended to book several months in advance.
There are many sightseeing highlights on the way to Landmannalaugar, accessible by 'Super Jeep', such as Hekla volcano, Hjálparfoss (Hjalparfoss) waterfall, Ljótipollur (Ljotipollur) crater lake, the blue-green crater lake Hnausapollur and Gjáin (Gjain) - a small valley with waterfalls, ponds, and volcanic formations.
Landmannalaugar area is a part of Fjallabak Nature Reserve (446 km2) which lies at the boundary of two different volcanic zones. This area has been protected since 1979, due to its exceptional beauty and unique geological features. The landscape is remarkably diverse, formed by a combination of volcanic, geothermal and glacial processes and mighty glacial rivers carving deep ravines and gullies. Rhyolitic formations created during volcano-ice interactions are abundant and whole area is dazzlingly colourful in hues of yellow, green, red, brown, pink, black, blue and caramel colours.
The Torfajökull (Torfajokull) glacier and volcano area is the largest and most powerful high-temperature geothermal area in Iceland, featuring diverse geothermal activity and rare geothermal phenomena. These include hot springs, fumaroles and solfataras, mud pots and mud pools, steam vents, so-called "boiling pans" and carbonated springs.
Kerlingarfjoll mountains are immensely popular with hikers, and are one of Iceland's incomparable inland resorts. There you can find many marked and unmarked hiking routes, as well as enjoy the Hveradalir area, one of Iceland's biggest geothermal regions. Due to the exceptional colours and shapes of the Kerlingarfjoll mountains, they are also a favourite with photographers.
Hveravellir, "Hot spring plains", is one of the best known geothermal areas in Iceland, located between Langjökull (Langjokull) and Hofsjökull (Hofsjokull) glaciers in Iceland's central Highlands, with fantastic views and a great variety of colourful hot springs. This area is only accessible with a 4x4 vehicle.
Situated between Landmannalaugar and Kirkjubæjarklaustur, Eldgjá, "Fire canyon", is the largest volcanic canyon in the world, 270 m deep and 600 m wide at its greatest. Eldgjá area is only accessible with a 4x4 vehicle.
Laki craters, are regarded as a globally unique phenomenon: a row of volcanic craters formed during one of the world's largest eruptions in recorded history, from a fissure stretching 25 km. The craters are a protected natural monument.
Kverkfjoll mountains are at the northern rim of the Vatnajokull glacier, characterized by austere, solemn beauty. Massive glacier tongues extend from the ice cap on both sides of the mountains. Additionally, the Kverkfjoll volcanic system is hidden beneath the ice cap, and there is much geothermal activity. Kverkfjoll region is a great example of the fire and ice phenomena in Iceland and the interaction between volcanic activity and ice. There is a large, very hot magma chamber under the mountains and the hot springs rising beneath the ice cap have sculpted impressive ice caves at the edge of the glacier.
Askja is a sunken crater, located in in the Dyngjufjöll (Dyngjufjoll) Mountains, north of Vatnajokull glacier. It was formed as a result of volcanic activity when a magma chamber beneath Askja volcano emptied back into the earth during successive eruptions, causing the floor of the crater to sink. The landscapes around Askja consist of lava, wilderness and tall mountains. Lake Öskjuvatn, Lake Askja, at 220 m deep, is the second deepest lake in Iceland, after Jökulsárlón (Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon). Crater Víti (Viti) on its north east shore, around 150 m in diameter, formed in the eruption of 1875, is an opaque, turquoise blue geothermal lake containing mineral-rich, sulphurous, warm water.
Herdubreid, "Broad-shouldered", table mountain is thought to have been formed beneath the ice sheet that covered Iceland during the last glacial period. Near the mountain lies an oasis with a camping ground and hiking trails, called Herðubreiðarlindir (Herdubreidarlindir).
Icelandic folk tales mention that in former times, outlaws lived at the oasis, including the most famous Icelandic outlaw, Fjalla-Eyvindur - "Eyvindur of the Mountains" (1714–1783). With his wife Halla, Eyvindur is said to have fled into the Highlands of Iceland and lived in different locations in the wilderness for twenty years, often around hot springs, such as Hveravellir. Various locations on the map of Iceland bear Eyvindur's name.