Kerlingarfjöll is one of the most precious natural attractions in Iceland. It is located on the Central Highlands and is part of an active volcanic system which features one of Iceland's most captivating geothermal areas. Kerlingarfjöll is popular for hiking in the summer and snowmobiling or snowshoeing in the winter. Read our complete guide to find out more about its thrilling natural attractions, hot springs, hiking trails and facilities.
Situated in the Icelandic Highlands, the multicolored Kerlingarfjöll Mountain Range is a haven for solitude-seekers and adventurous spirits alike. Here, below color-changing rhyolite mountains, awestruck visitors walk among hot springs, steam plumes, and boiling mud puddles. This mist-shrouded area is like a dream, a fantasy world, as if it came from the mind of a divine artist.
Endlessly beguiling, Kerlingarfjöll make up a young mountain range that is tucked away in the central Highlands. Once a famous summer skiing resort with a ski school operating in the area. However, by the year 2000, global warming swallowed the famed snows and the school was closed down. Today the place is mainly popular with hikers wooed by its raw, untamed nature.
Kerlingarfjöll is a part of a large volcano system, with one of the most active geothermal areas in the land of fire and ice. It would be no exaggeration to say that the mountainous area is sinking into an ethereal sea of steam. There you’ll find a plethora of marked and unmarked hiking trails to immerse yourself in this dreamy world.
The multiple hues of the mountains topped with micro glaciers only add to the feel of being right out of the pages of a fairy tale. Depending on the weather and lighting, Kerlingarfjöll transform themselves into another creature, which reveals different shades. The fleeting beauty of Kerlingarfjöll never fail to disappoint and will give you a profound perspective on the majesty of nature.
The Highlands of Iceland is an uninhabited plateau that covers most of the interior of the country. It is considered to be one of the most remote areas in Iceland and even figures among the largest uninhabited wilderness regions of all of Europe.
The 40,000-square-kilometer region is characterized by unearthly landscapes and magical serenity that attracts hikers and photographers from all over the world. Because it is considered quite remote and harsh to explore, most of the tourist crowds stay away from the Highlands. Ultimate silence and nature at its rawest await visitors here.
The area called Kerlingarfjöll differs sharply from the surrounding environment. It is a 10,000-year-old mountain range situated in the shadow of Hofsjokull Glacier in the Central Highlands. The mountain range is part of a large, 100 km2 (39 square mile) volcanic system whose highest peak is 1,477 meters (4,846 feet) tall.
Kerlingarfjöll is famous for its picturesque rhyolite mountains topped with small glaciers where the snow and ice meet rising towers of steam. Minerals that have emerged from the hot springs color the ground red, yellow, and green. The hills constantly change color in the passing light, creating an enchanting atmosphere and an unforgettable landscape.
These features make Kerlingarfjöll one of the most precious natural attractions in Iceland. In 2017, the 367-square-kilometre Kerlingarfjöll area was declared a protected nature reserve. Today, this extraordinary site is popular for hiking in the summer and snowmobiling or snowshoeing in the winter.
Kerlingarfjöll is part of an active volcanic system and features three large geothermal areas. Hveradalir, the “valley of hot springs,” is the most well-known of them and is located within the mountain range. It is one of the largest and most captivating geothermal areas in Iceland.
Hveradalir is found some 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) from the Highland resort in Ásgarður Valley. In summer, you can either hike there from the hotel or drive to a parking lot near the geothermal area.
The variety of colors and the landscape are breathtaking. The site features odd tuff stone pillars and plenty of stunning marks from volcanic activity. Steaming vents, clay geysers, and bubbling hot springs can be found all over the valley which, in turn, is surrounded by yellow and red rhyolite mountains, smooth valleys, and snowy mountain ridges.
The area is somewhat reminiscent of Landmannalaugar, another geothermal oasis in South Iceland. Out of the two spots, Landmannalaugar much more well-known and, therefore, more frequently visited while Hveradalir remains a remote hidden gem.
There is a hot spring in Kerlingarfjöll that is suitable for bathing. It is located in a small valley, approximately 1.5 kilometers (0.9 miles) from the hotel. The path is marked and follows a small river. Originally, it was a test drill to find out if there was hot enough water to heat the houses. The geothermal pool is made of stones and fits 10 to 15 people. The water is rich in iron and has a temperature of around 34-37°C (93-38°F) with the warmest spots being found in the middle.
There are no changing facilities so it is a good idea to take a drybag with you to keep your clothes dry while bathing. After using the pool, please make sure not to leave any waste, swimsuits, or underwear behind.
GPS 64°38'17.3"N 19°17'23.3"W
Kerlingarfjöll is located in Iceland’s Highlands, between the Langjökull and Hofsjökull Glaciers, near the Kjölur (or Kjalvegur) highland road. The mountain range is not far from Iceland’s famous Golden Circle sightseeing route, about 34 mi (55 km) north of Gullfoss Waterfall.
It takes about 3 hours and 30 minutes to reach the mountain range from Reykjavik and about 5 hours and 30 minutes from Akureyri, also known as “Capital of the North.”
The Highland roads open any time between mid and late June and usually close around the beginning of September. This depends on the actual weather and road conditions, though. When the roads are open, Kerlingarfjöll is accessible via road F-35, also called the Kjölur Route or Kjalvegur, from both North and South Iceland.
For those who prefer to take a self-drive tour, it takes approximately 3,5 hours from Reykjavík without stopping. Take the road 36 towards the Golden Circle and follow it to Thingvellir. After driving around the Thingvallavatn lake, take the road 365 and which will become road 37 after a few kilometers. Following the road 37 then 35, you will pass the Geysir Geothermal area and Gullfoss waterfall. From Gullfoss, the road will become an F-road. The first part of the road is quite nice, but after a few kilometers, it becomes unpaved and rough.
The road leads across the Central Highlands, between the two glaciers, Langjökull and Hofsjökull. Road signs will warn you when you will need to leave F-35 and take F-347. Before reaching the valley, there are two unbridged streams to cross, one shallow and one deeper.
From Akureyri in North of Iceland, the journey takes slightly longer. Follow the Ring Road (road 1) towards Reykjavík 118 kilometers. From here, take the road F-35 to the south and then change to F-347 until you reach the highland resort.
Due to the river crossings and the generally challenging road conditions, this trip is only doable for larger 4X4 vehicles. When renting a car, make sure that you go over your travel plans with your rental car provider. Not all cars are suitable for driving Highland roads or for crossing rivers.
Renting a car is a great way to discover the remote Highlands alone but requires a lot of preparation and precaution. It is crucial to keep yourself informed about the weather forecast and road conditions as road closures can occur even in summer.
In summer, those who do not want to drive themselves can take the Highland bus from Reykjavík, the capital city, or Akureyri, in North Iceland. This is a specialized all-terrain bus with large wheels. It stops at several places in South Iceland before reaching the Highlands, including a stop at the mountain resort in Kerlingarfjöll. The Highland buses run daily between late June and the end of August.
The terrain is so wild in winter that visiting Kerlingarfjöll between October and May is only possible via a guided tour. There is no rental car that could make this journey and rental companies would not allow you to drive it even if the conditions were perfect. The weather in the Highlands is extremely unstable in winter and meters of snow can fall overnight.
Fortunately, there are some amazing multi-day tours which go to Kerlingarfjöll. One such tour includes a guided tour around Iceland’s famous Golden Circle, an adventurous Superjeep ride to the Highlands driven by specially skilled local experts, includes all meals and hotel accommodation, guided hikes, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and several baths in natural hot springs. Offering a very good chance of seeing the Aurora from the most remote place in the middle of Iceland, a winter trip to Kerlingarfjöll can just as exciting as a summer hike.
Here is an interactive map of the Central Highlands area. The map shows you the Kjölur Route (F-35) and the road to the Ásgarður Valley (F-347). You can also find the Highland resort, a hot spring, the Hveradalir and Hverabotn Geothermal Areas, three of the highest peaks, and two glaciers.
Unexplored until the 19th century, Kerlingarfjöll has always been wrapped in mystery and were believed to be the abode of notorious outlaws and trolls. Little wonder that the name of these mountains means ‘Old Lady Mountains’ or ‘Troll Lady Mountains’ a name that finds its roots in Icelandic folk tales.
Trolls are said to live in the mountains and caves within the Icelandic Highlands. They travel at night because legend has it that they turn into stone if caught out in sunlight. To be more precise, the name Kerlingarfjöll is drawn from an 82 ft (25 m) high volcanic tuff tower, which used to be an old troll woman. The columnar rock sits on the slopes of Mt Tindur.
While Kerlingarfjöll remained under the radar for a long time, the situation changed when the bridge over the mighty Hvítá River was built in 1933. Three years later, the first vehicles reached the green Ásgarður Valley, where you’ll now find the Kerlingarfjöll Mountain Resort.
Nowadays, Kerlingarfjöll is renowned for striking, colourful landscapes and geothermal wonders. In 2017, the precious area was declared a nature reserve. Its remote hiking trails rival those of the busier Landmannalaugar.
The name Kerlingarfjöll, which translates to “Old Lady Mountain,” comes from a folk tale. It is about an old, ugly female troll who wandered around the area until the daylight caught her and turned her into stone. More precisely, it is a 25-meter (82 feet) tuff tower which remains to decorate the valley today.
In old times, Kerlingarfjöll was considered a rather unfriendly place. People thought that the region was full of trolls or outlaws. Due to both this and the harsh road conditions, Kerlingarfjöll was not explored for centuries.
The first scientists visited the mountains in 1890. Later on, in the next century, the nearby Kjölur Road was constructed, connecting the north and the south of the country. This made it possible for the first vehicle to enter Ásgarður Valley in 1936, which is the site where the Kerlingarfjöll resort is located today.
In the 1960s, a group of local tourists explored the great features of the area and soon established a summer ski school in the mountains. It instantly became a popular recreational site. Over the following decades, new buildings were built, hot springs were discovered, boreholes were drilled, and a number of hiking trails were constructed.
Sadly, by the time the millennium rolled around, global warming destroyed the summer ski school. The snow layer became thinner year after year until it was no longer enough to maintain a summer ski facility. What emerged from under the snow, however, was a matchless beauty that features spectacular geographical curiosities.
Today, Kerlingarfjöll has blossomed into one of Iceland’s most precious “off the beaten path” travel destinations. It is one of the most highly valued spots in the Highlands for locals and foreign travelers alike.
A group of 1,100 to 1,500-meter tall peaks crowns the geothermal valley. The largest ones are Loðmundur (1,432 meters / 4,698 feet), Snækollur (the highest at 1,482 meters / 4,862 feet) and Fannborg (1,448 meters / 4,750 feet).
The area offers amazing options for day hikes. There are around 20 walking paths but only eight of them are marked. The length of the trails varies from 1 to 50 kilometers. The shorter trails lead around the geothermal area and the longest ones circumnavigate the entire mountain range.
Snækollur, the highest peak at 1,482 meters / 4,862 feet, is not a difficult climb. The elevation gain from the start of the trail is 640 meters (2,099 feet). However, the path is mostly on snow with melting glacial ice underneath, so precaution is needed! From mid to late summer, the very top of Snækollur is usually free from snow. The hike from the car park to the top and back is around 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) in length.
If the weather is good, the view from Snækollur is extraordinary. It is one of the best panoramic viewpoints in all of Iceland! One can enjoy a 360º view over almost half of the country to the south and the north!
There are three popular variations for exploring the geothermal valley. The two shorter ones are 1.5 kilometers (0.9 miles) and 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) long. They both pass many fascinating spots and hot springs quite up close.
The longer hike, called Hveradalahringur or the “Hveradalur Ring,” is 8 kilometers (4.97 miles) long with an elevation gain of 150 meters (492 feet). This trail is unmarked so make sure you have the right equipment to navigate it yourself. In good weather, navigating is not a problem but thick fog and poor visual conditions can kick in at any time.
There are plenty of other hikes in the area, both marked and unmarked. One could spend days traversing these surreal mountains and valleys. Detailed maps are available at the highland resort. If you are planning on hiking in the Icelandic Highlands, be sure to have a GPS device with you. Network coverage is unstable in the mountains so your mobile phone GPS may not be enough.
For those who would like to drive themselves or take the bus to Kerlingarfjöll to hike or camp in the area, the only available time period is between late June and early September. This is when the Highland roads are open and drivable.
The valley and the mountains reveal their beautiful colors in summer and the weather becomes friendlier. This is the most comfortable period of the year for hiking in the area. Most visitors arrive during the summer.
For about nine months per year, the whole region is covered in snow. The highland resort, however, does not close for winter. The hotel and the huts are heated and are available for booking all year round.
The area is no less spectacular in its winter coat and is an exceptionally good location for Northern Lights watching. Hot spring bathing, snowshoeing, and hiking are also possible with the proper precautions and with special equipment such as spikes or crampons. These are made available on site for tour guests.
Because the roads cannot be driven by rental cars in winter, the only option is to get there by booking a superjeep tour. Because of this, the number of visitors in winter is very low, making this place the ultimate paradise for those who like to escape the crowds and enjoy the peace of the endless tundra.
Hiking in the Icelandic Highlands requires good quality equipment. This includes:
Always remember that the natural environment is as delicate as it is enchanting. The slightest damage can cause irreversible erosion that can easily spread over a larger area. Therefore, driving off-road is illegal everywhere in Iceland and is punishable by heavy fines.
Walking off the hiking paths is also to be avoided, especially where there is moss or any vegetation around.
Always be sure you can navigate for yourself in the poorest visual conditions, even without network coverage. If you plan on going for a hike alone, always leave your travel plan behind.
Check the weather forecast, road conditions, and safety warnings before you hit the road. Get more tips on safetravel.is.