All About the Incredible Iceland Highlands
Updated: Feb 10
The highlands of Iceland are without doubt one of the last true wildernesses left in Europe. They stretch out across much of central Iceland offering a vast and beautiful array of natural phenomenon to encounter. In this wild landscape adventurers will discover volcanoes and glaciers, lively geothermal activity and swathes of stark volcanic desert. This is an elemental landscape left almost untouched by human activity.
There are no towns or gas stations and no tarmacked roads here. Instead, you will find gravel roads and landscapes shaped by immense volcanic activity. There are explosion craters, volcano glaciers and Iceland’s highest peak Hvannadalshnúkur standing tall at 2110 meters. Travelling in the Iceland Highlands is most certainly an adventure and not one to be taken lightly. You will want to come well prepared to tackle it. But the rewards for the intrepid will likely be like nothing you have experienced before.
What exactly are the Highlands in Iceland?
This vast uninhabited landscape covers some 40,000 square kilometres and lies between 400-500 meters above sea level. As you can imagine travelling here takes some planning. Traversing the highlands is only really possible during the summer months of June, July and August. Outside of this time the weather pretty much closes it off to human access. For much of the year, the land is left entirely to nature and the ravages of Arctic storms and blizzards.
There are a few places on the perimeters of the highlands where you can visit outside of the summer months. However, this is usually only possible by joining a guided super jeep tour or something similar. If venturing here during winter you will want to be with an expert guide who knows the lay of the land. The weather in Iceland is unpredictable and you need to know how to respond and when to steer clear entirely.
At present only certain parts of the highlands are designated as nature reserves or national parks. In total it is about 35% of the area with the largest being the expansive Vatnajökull National Park. This is the park that contains Europe’s biggest ice cap the mighty Vatnajökull Glacier. Understandably there is a movement seeking to make the entire highland area into a protected park. This unique and singular location is truly one to be cherished and preserved.
What are the Highland F Roads in Iceland?
Parts of the central highlands are crisscrossed by a sparse network of rough gravel roads. These are known as the F Roads in Iceland and can only be driven by four-wheel-drive vehicles. These remote roads are only navigable in high summer when the midnight sun shines and the snows have melted away.
They will usually open at some point in June although sometimes it can be as late as July. They will then close again come late August or early September when the weather turns and winter reclaims the land. This short window of opportunity is when you’ll need to plan your trip if you want to experience them.
Iceland Highlands self-drive trips
If you are in the mood for adventure then a self-drive road trip through the highlands could be for you. You will need to be a confident driver though and should plan your trip well. You will need to hire a 4 x 4 camper van or jeep to take on these rough roads.
You should also choose your insurance policy wisely with a little help from our article About Camper and Car Insurance in Iceland. Gravel and sand damage is very likely so you will want to be covered. Another potential hazard when driving in the Iceland Highlands are the river crossings. There are a couple of un-bridged rivers crossing certain gravel road routes. No insurance policy will cover you for this so you will need to make a careful judgment call on whether to cross. Alternatively you could simply avoid them completely. Probably the prudent choice!
One of the most frequented highland routes crosses Iceland directly north to south or visa versa. The Kjölur F road leads roughly between the Gullfoss Waterfall and the central north. This highland road cuts through some incredible almost otherworldly scenery and takes about three hours to drive. Factoring in stops to explore the Hveravellir Geothermal Area and immense lava field views it could take you all day.
Things to do in the Iceland Highlands
Driving thorough the highlands is an amazing experience but there are also many popular hiking routes to discover. Exploring on foot offers another take on the epic landscapes here. You will be able to visit active volcanoes following hiking trails across mountain ridges and stretches of black sand. Seeing the landscapes at a slower pace allows you to really soak in the atmosphere of the place. You will be able to contemplate the immense forces that shaped the land and marvel at the power of nature.
There is one particularly popular part of the south Icelandic highlands that can be visited relatively easily. Landmannalaugar known as the People’s Baths is an area of hot spring rivers and pools. It makes for a stunning day hike through some incredibly colourful rhyolite mountains. The hiking trails in this area are beautiful and very accessible for a daytrip if you are camping in the south. Many other parts of the highlands remain almost completely inaccessible to most people. And in fact this is probably just as it should be. It is good to know that there are still come wild places in this world where people are not meant to tread.