You might be surprised to learn that even though the highlands of Iceland cover a large proportion of the country, many foreign visitors don’t get to see their dramatic scenery except perhaps from their plane window. But this part of the country, with its mountain ridges and lava fields, rewards the intrepid traveler with a memorable experience they won’t forget.
Iceland Highlands - A rugged and wild landscape
The highlands of Iceland are characterized by rugged terrain and a tough environment for people to make a living. Located in general over 400 meters above sea level, this volcanic plateau absorbs moisture from the rain and snow more quickly than it can fall again. Such water permeates through the thin soil before plant life would be able to take advantage of it, leaving a desert-like landscape formed from ash and lava. Oases are few and far between, located close to rivers.
That said, while you wouldn’t want to permanently settle in such an inhospitable place, it’s another thing altogether when it comes to tourism. Lots of visitors every year hire a four-wheel-drive vehicle in Iceland, like our Suzuki Jimny or our Land Rover Defender available for rent in Reykjavik, or book a tour on a super jeep to go exploring these breathtaking landscapes. Now, before you set off into the Iceland highlands on your self-drive excursion, there are a few things you ought to know.
What are the highlands in Iceland?
While in other parts of the world we might refer to upland areas simply as somewhere far above sea level, Icelanders make an important distinction. This, of course, is the country that has over forty different words for snow, so you perhaps wouldn’t expect their definition of highland to be as straightforward as elsewhere in Europe, would you? Broadly speaking there are two main categories:
Háls means a wide mountain ridge between valleysHeiði means the real highlands
Both are accessible, so long as you have the right vehicle and the right type of clothing. They’re popular hiking areas too, whether for a day hike or longer excursions. Getting there can often involve traversing one of the country’s F roads.
What are the highland F roads in Iceland?
Iceland's F roads are known as gravel roads, sometimes rough and littered with potholes, which provide seasonal access into the mountainous interior. Often a highland road doesn’t open until mid to late June, and most are closed before September’s finished. In winter, the heavy snowfalls and uneven surfaces make them too dangerous to use. No wonder, then, that few people make their home in the interior. You don’t have these problems if you live near the ring road or in Reykjavik!
Why should you visit?
Some of the most dramatic landscapes of the north and south of the country are actually away from the coast. Follow the hiking trails that criss-cross the central highlands region and you unlock a remote and unspoiled beauty. The peaks of mountains and active volcanoes protrude from glaciers. Such a glacier volcano is one of nature’s ticking time bombs, but for the most part, visible from snowmobiles or super jeeps, can be seen without jeopardizing your safety.
You could be forgiven for wondering why, if this area is so inhospitable, we are even bothering to tell you about it. But the scenery in this part of Iceland is incredible, and more than worth the effort that it takes to get up there. Iceland’s most famous glaciers, such as Vatnajökull, Langjökull and Hofsjökull, can be found in the highlands within some of the most impressive National Parks of Iceland. Areas known for their volcanic activity, such as Landmannalaugar and the area around Askja and Herðubreið are also up in the highlands.
An Iceland highlands self-drive
Nature reserves protect geothermal areas characterized by hot springs and volcanic origins. Landmannalaugar, for instance, the so-called People’s Pools, hides a plethora of hot springs among its colorful hillsides and chasms. It’s one of Iceland’s most picturesque geothermal areas and the continuation of geothermal activity in this part of the country will ensure those hot springs that give Landmannalaugar its name continue to draw visitors in years to come.
In the Askja area, the Víti caldera is a flooded lake that fills an ancient explosion crater that in turn occupies a collapsed magma chamber. Its water, heated naturally by geothermal energy, maintains a temperature of about 25°C, making it a popular choice for passing travelers to have a swim. Reaching it affords one of those truly special “wow!” moments that make you glad you chose Iceland for your vacation.
Be sure to seek out at least one of these extraordinary places!
Herðubreið is a delight. This tabletop mountain, similar in many ways to that which overlooks Cape Town in South Africa, dominates the landscape which surrounds it. Some people refer to it as the “Queen of Icelandic Mountains” and it’s certainly a contender for a place in a top ten list of Icelandic natural sights. Standing over 5500ft tall, it appears even taller thanks to the flatness of the Ódáðahraun lava fields which encircle it.
One of the top South Icelandic spots in the highlands is Laki. You might also see it written as Lakagigar, meaning the craters of Laki. It’s probably the most well known of South Iceland’s volcanic fissures, located close to the stunning Eldgjá canyon and is surrounded by flat green and black plains.
It’s this sheer variety of landscapes – dramatic canyons, glacier volcanoes, plunging waterfalls and raw lava fields – that makes the highlands of Iceland such a worthy tourist destination. While to reach them you’ll begin your journey on smooth tarmac, it’s important to prepare carefully, choosing a vehicle that can handle the unpredictable surfaces of those F roads to be able to safely enjoy some of the country’s finest scenery.