The region of the Highlands is the most remote in Iceland. It even figures among the largest uninhabited areas in all Europe. This central region covers the majority of Iceland’s territory and features many breathtaking natural attractions away from the tourist crowds. The Highlands are characterized by its altitude as it is mostly located above 900 meters.
The diverse landscape and magical serenity of this 40,000 square kilometer area attracts a lot of locals who love spending their weekend in the untouched nature, far away from the agitation of the famous spots. The Highlands definitely are one of the favorite location for hikers and photographers in Iceland.
Being in the middle of nowhere and discovering an incredible scenery are the reasons why the Highlands are so unique. There, the silence is omnipresent and human life is quite uncommon. Nature is still at its rawest and offers a wide range of sights such as majestic glaciers, black sand deserts, steaming hot springs, threatening volcanoes and so much more.
The environment is so wild that visiting the Highlands on a guided tour is preferable. The Highlands are not as much visited by foreign people as the other regions of Iceland. The reason is that going there alone requires many precautions and planning. During most of the year, about 9 months, the whole region is covered by snow. It is better to go to the Highlands during the summertime, from June to September, to see this area reveals its colors.
Renting a car can be a solution to discover the remote Highlands alone, but this requires a lot of beforehand preparation as well as specialized equipment. In addition to keep informed of the weather forecasts and the road conditions with the official Icelandic websites, it is imperative to drive an adequate vehicle. A four-wheel drive vehicle is highly recommended as many Highlands roads are prohibited to regular cars. Note that some roads are even only authorized for Super Jeeps as many of them imply glacier rivers crossing. Each year, the roads open for the tourists around late June and close in September.
Among the particular gear that is needed when visiting the Highlands are warm and waterproof clothes. The weather in Iceland is unpredictable and the fact that the Highlands are uninhabited makes it harder to find a shelter in case of a really bad weather. Taking extra clothing is always a good idea as well as dressing in layers. On most parts of the Highlands, there is no cellular network, other means of radio communication will be needed to be able to reach someone in case of danger.
To avoid getting lost, it is necessary to have a current road map or a trustworthy GPS, other than just Google Maps on a smartphone. For safety reasons, it is important to inform other people of your planned route and destinations of your trip. The tracks are usually well-marked and following them is the best way to stay safe.
Guided tours are the best option for those who are scared of traveling alone in this unsafe environment. There are many choices such as day tours to incredible locations or multi day tours up to a full week for those who are spending more time in Iceland. Most of the guided tours are available during the summertime, however, some of them offer the possibility to discover the Highlands in winter. The Highlands are one of the best spots in the country to see the Northern Lights thanks to its remoteness and lack of light pollution.
The Icelandic Highlands have so much to offer! From incredible hiking trails to amazing places to visit, the Highlands definitely are the place to be for those who enjoy being in the raw nature. Dotted with a wide variety of landscapes, the Highlands have it all: geothermal areas, waterfalls, lava fields, mountain ridges and so on.
As the region is huge, it can be difficult to decide where exactly to go. The major attractions in the Highlands of Iceland include Mount Askja, where it is possible to bathe in the crater lake Viti, as well as Kverkfjoll, a geothermal field with ever changing ice caves.
The Central Highlands are home to numerous mountains including the tallest one in Iceland: Hvannadalshnúkur. The 2,109 meter tall mountain (6,919 feet) is located beneath Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier volcano. The three largest glaciers in the country (Vatnajökull, Langjökull and Hofsjökull) are also located in the Central Highlands.
In the Eastern part of the Highlands reside some wild reindeers. This is the only place where it is possible to see those animals who were originally imported for farming. As this industry never really took out, the animals were released and are wandering freely in this region since then.
Some of the country’s most active volcanoes such as Hekla, Katla and the famous Eyjafjallajökull are located in the South Icelandic Highlands.
Two of the biggest attractions in the Highlands are Thorsmork Nature Reserve and the geothermally active area of Landmannalaugar.
Þórsmörk, which can literally be translated to “the Valley of Thor”, is one of Iceland’s most famous hiking destinations and a great place for nature lovers. It is composed of a wide black desert with many glacier rivers and lush oases. The valley is dotted with moss, birchwood and fern, as well as mountain ridges and ice-capped volcanoes. Thorsmork is named after Thor, the Norse God of Thunder.
There is a short but challenging hike from Thorsmork up to Mount Útigönguhöfði, perfect for some amazing sights. Thorsmork has a lot to offer regarding hiking trails. It is the finish point of the Laugavegur trek and the starting point of the Fimmvörðuháls route, the two most popular hiking trails in Iceland. From Thorsmork, it is possible to join day hikes but also multi day trekkings.
Landmannalaugar is a geological and hiking treasure. Featuring colorful rhyolite mountains, hot springs, lava fields and steam coming up from the Earth, Landmannalaugar offers diverse landscapes. It is located in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve, which is about 47,000 hectares large and based above 500 m (1,640 ft) of the sea level. From there, hikers can choose between moderate day hikes or trekking for several days. Landmannalaugar is the starting point of the famous Laugavegur trail which goes all the way down to Thorsmork. This trail can even be extended South to the beautiful Skogafoss waterfall.
Landmannalaugar is called the People’s Pool because of its natural hot springs, in which it is possible to take a dip. The geothermal baths were historically known. For centuries, Landmannalaugar served as an area of shelter and respite for weary travelers. At the time, settlers crossing the barren Highlands used the soothing hot springs to relax after their tiring excursions but nowadays, tourists are the ones who are enjoying the baths after a good hike.
As you may have gathered by now, the Highlands are an important place for hiking. From short day hikes to full week treks, many options are possible there. Two of the most famous hiking trails in Iceland are located in the Highlands and attract every year many experienced hikers as well as beginners.
The Laugavegur Trail is a 55 kilometer long path (34 miles) which takes the hikers from Landmannalaugar geothermal area to Thorsmork Nature Reserve. Hiking the Laugavegur trail is the ultimate experience for nature lovers and trekking enthusiasts. Laugavegur is known worldwide as National Geographic listed it as one of the 20 most beautiful trails in the world thanks to its unique landscapes.
On this magical journey, you will walk through black volcanic deserts, glacial rivers, steaming geothermal springs and deep valleys with huge ravines. Add to that the colorful rhyolite mountains, clear blue lakes and lush forests. The landscape is so varied that it is hard to imagine that it is all on a same single trail.
Once the trail is accomplished, it is strongly recommended to spend some more time in Thorsmork, as many day hikes depart from there. Thorsmork offers a lot more to see and represents the perfect finish point for a multi day trail. Many people also chose to continue hiking after passing Thorsmork to join the beautiful Fimmvörðuháls Trek.
Fimmvorduhals is a 30 kilometer trek (19 miles) known for its wide diversity of sights. With a total of 26 waterfalls, Fimmvorduhals is also known as the “Waterfall Way” and is one of the most popular hiking trails in Iceland. It can be done in only one day, for a 12 to 14 hour hike from Thorsmork to the wonderful Skogafoss waterfall. The route lies between two glaciers: Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull.
Fimmvorduhals is home to some of the world’s most recent volcanic activity with Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption in 2010, which stopped all air traffic in Europe. The trek leads to a maximum elevation of 1,068 meters (3,504 feet) and can be quite challenging with the ever changing weather which is peculiar to the Highlands.
On the way, two volcanic craters can be found: Magni and Móði, named after the sons of Thor. It is possible to hike up to their peaks to have a panoramic view if the weather permits. The craters were created during the eruption in 2010. Another volcano on the way is Katla, one of Iceland’s largest and most active volcanoes. The trail will end at Skogafoss, a famous photogenic waterfall on the South Coast.
Please keep in mind that the natural environment of the Highlands is fragile. Going off road or off the marked paths is strictly forbidden and can be punishable by heavy fines. The smallest damage done can cause erosion and irreversible landscapes wounds that can easily spread over larger areas. For example, the moss is extremely delicate and no one should walk on it or try to remove it. People who are visiting the Highlands should at any moment respect the environment and show a responsible travel etiquette.
The Highlands offer many options in terms of outdoor activities. In addition to the several hiking and trekking possibilities, this region is really close to the Golden Circle, the most famous sightseeing route with a lot of wonderful attractions. The Golden Circle has it all: powerful erupting geysers, picturesque waterfalls, a historical National Park and a volcanic crater filled with deep blue water.
Near from the Golden Circle lies Langjökull, the second largest glacier in Iceland. From Gullfoss Café on the Golden Circle route, it is possible to join a snowmobiling tour on Langjökull and even discover some beautiful ice caves. Zooming in the middle of nowhere, on top of a glacier, surrounded by just snow, is a truly magical experience.
As said before, the Highlands are the perfect place to observe the Northern Lights. Those natural wonders are only visible when there is no light pollution (caused by street lights present in cities), no or few cloud coverage and solar activity. As there is no city or town in the Central Highlands, there is complete darkness, which is ideal to see the lights. Imagine bathing in the hot springs of Landmannalaugar with auroras dancing up in the sky. There are good chances to see the lights from late August to late April.
When talking about the Highlands, it is hard to not mention the Super Jeeps. Those monster cars are the ideal way to travel across the Highlands regions in a comfortable manner. River crossing becomes easy and it is possible to enjoy the view without worrying about which roads are forbidden to regular cars and which ones are authorized. An expert driver guide will take everyone through the beautiful scenery of the Highlands and everything that is left to do is to take pictures.