The Ultimate Guide to the Iceland Highlands
Updated: May 16
Iceland is famous far and wide for its breathtaking, and sometimes, outlandish nature. And the Iceland Highlands just happen to be the epitome of this scenery. This vast and untouched area of Iceland exists to preserve the unique Icelandic nature with all its attractions, and nothing else.
Due to the Iceland Highlands weather, traveling to the area is only going to be possible for a limited time of the year. Luckily, we have info on when, where, and how to travel the Iceland Highlands to get the most out of your holiday. Read on to find out!
The Weather and Climate in the Highlands
The Iceland Highlands cover a shy 40 thousand square kilometers in the middle of the nation. That means that the weather will vary depending on where you are. The climate is the same as in the rest of the country, even though the weather will differ slightly.
Overall, the rule of thumb is that the further north you go, the colder it will be, and the higher up any mountain or hill you go, the windier it will be. Some valleys will be neatly protected from a small portion of the wind, and you will be able to find plenty of hot springs to keep you warm if you get too cold. You might also experience a slight increase in rain, so make sure to wear water and windproof gear.
When is the Best Time to Visit the Highlands?
The Iceland Highlands are basically impossible to travel for most of the year. The only really safe time of year to hike in the Highlands will be from late spring to early fall. However, you should still try to keep your hiking to the summer months.
Apart from that, the F-roads in Iceland will not be open until the later part of the summer. This means that any trips you make into the Iceland Highlands will be on foot during the time the Highlands are closed to cars.
In the summer in Iceland (between May and August), the weather is fine, and mostly so in the southern parts of the Iceland Highlands. Late July will be the time of year when the Iceland Highlands weather will be the most pleasant and inviting for a nice couple of hiking days.
If you’re looking for a special hiking experience, the early autumn will be a good time to see the mountain flora change into a wide variety of different colors. The Iceland Highlands in September will give you the best experience, since it’s often right before the massive rains and winds take over autumn.
Getting to the Highlands
Now that you know when to go to the Iceland Highlands, it’s time to dive into how to get there. Even though this is an area that is seemingly difficult to travel across, the Icelanders have made it easy for visitors to get to the popular spots.
Where are the Highlands in Iceland?
As previously said, the area is a huge piece of land covering pretty much 40 thousand square kilometers. When you’re looking at an Iceland Highlands map, you’ll see that it sits in the middle of the country – at the very heart of the nation. Moving through this area will get you through a vast, wild, untamed, and incredibly harsh landscape.
The entire area is a patchwork of lava fields from different periods. That makes this a completely outlandish landscape to travel through. You will come across both active and inactive volcanoes. Some areas are filled with craters of various sizes, making it look like a darker back side of the moon.
Means of transport
The Iceland Highlands have many strategically placed roads that allow visitors to easily get to the beginnings and ends of amazing hiking trails. You can choose between five main means of transport:
Rent a 4WD car and explore the F-roads yourself.
Rent a mountain bike and use it for what it was built for: exploring the mountains.
Ride into the mountains on one of the many Icelandic horse riding tours.
Take the bus! In the summertime, some buses will drop you off and pick you up at the different trails.
Walk up the mountains as the Vikings did a thousand years ago when they first arrived!
The F-roads are the easiest ways to get in and out of the untamed Highlands. The central Highlands in Iceland have multiple roads going across key areas that will allow you to explore the entire park (if you have the time).
If you want to take a bike or horse in the Iceland Highlands, it’s always suggested to keep to the tracks and routes that the renters recommend to you. Remember that even bikes leave an imprint on nature, despite them being much smaller in size than cars.
For those planning a hike, there are two options: drive to one of the park's entry points with a rented car or take one of the F-road buses. These buses will drop you off near your desired hiking route. An added option is to opt for an Iceland Highlands tour with a good guide that makes sure you keep to the right paths and areas.
Where to Stay in the Highlands
Approximately 35% of the Iceland Highlands are within national parks. If you want to sleep close to those areas, your only option will be to pitch a tent or sleep in your 4WD camper. Any accommodation with a fixed roof, electric plug, or any sign of civilization is likely to be on the outskirts of the Icelandic national parks and quite far from any of the attractions.
There are a few lodges, guest houses, and farmhouses that you can book to have as a base for your excursions. Doing that will be the perfect setup for that Iceland Highlands day tour plan that doesn’t demand that you walk for days in the Icelandic wilderness.
If you’re not a fan of arranging your right to pitch a tent with various landowners around the Iceland Highlands, you should stick to the designated camping grounds. It’s going to be your best bet when planning your trip, especially if you are doing an Iceland Highlands self-drive along the F-roads.
We strongly advise you to camp in designated areas or on any private land that you have permission to camp on. Anyone caught camping anywhere outside of these areas will be fined, and those fines are no joking matter.
What to see in the Highlands
With this stunning Icelandic nature, there are far too many things to see in this part of the nation. When you are planning your Iceland Highlands itinerary, you should consider looking into some of these attractions:
This is one of the larger, active volcanos in the Iceland Highlands and had its most recent eruption in 1961. Bit by bit, Askja has emptied magma chambers close by and created deep calderas and craters that make the landscape look like a meteor shower struck down in the area.
Some of these craters and holes are filled with bright blue water that might reach up to 30 degrees Celsius if you’re lucky. Still, swimming in these waters is regulated, so make sure to check the rules with a guide or information center before you cannonball the waters.
Askja remains one of the most popular attractions in the Iceland Highlands. And since the volcano hasn’t given off any signs of erupting in the last couple of decades, it is considered a safe area to travel in.
A very cold, but impressive, part of the Iceland Highlands is Landmannalaugar. This area is almost completely sealed off for up to 10 months of the year and is therefore considered to be untouched wilderness. Landmannalaugar can be found in the southern part of the Iceland Highlands and is fairly easy to get to at the right time of the year.
This part of the Iceland Highlands is incredibly popular, partly because of the many Icelandic hot springs that can be found here, and partly because of the incredibly stunning scenery.
The area looks like it is painted on canvas, with the rhyolite-rich mountain providing an incredibly colorful element framed by the black lava fields surrounding the mountain. Also, the mountains literally look like they are shifting colors right before your very eyes as the sun moves over the sky.
It's important to bring a bathing suit and a towel when you visit this part of the Iceland Highlands if you want to get the most out of your hike.
In the Iceland Highlands, you can pay a visit to Thor’s valley (Thorsmork) if you want to get closer to the old legends. This area has a unique feature that makes you wonder if there really is something divine about it: It’s slightly warmer than the rest of the country.
Sitting in between three huge glaciers (Eyjafjallajökull, Mýrdalsjökull, and Tindfjallajökull), this entire area is sheltered from the harsh weather whilst it’s heated up by the geothermal forces in the mountains surrounding it. This is great news for all the mountain vegetation that enjoys a slightly warmer climate for a longer time of the year.
This area was heavily affected by the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, from which you can still see the impact, more than a decade later! Even though the Iceland Highlands volcano had a massive eruption in 2010, the area is now considered safe to travel. There are available hiking routes to take along the outlines of the volcano.
Thorsmork is a tricky area to get to, so it’s recommended that beginners get help from a guide or go with the F-road buses instead of trying to navigate the tough terrain themselves.
Hveravellir Nature Reserve
There are hot springs and then there are hot springs. The latter is the type of hot spring in the Iceland Highlands that you don’t want to get into unless you have the desire to be boiled like a potato. Hveravellir Nature Reserve is one large area of geothermal energy that offers pools that you can take a steamy dip in, as well as pools that you definitely do not want to get too close to.
Hveravellir Nature Reserve sits between Hofsjökull and Langjökull in the western part of the Highlands and is one of the few spots that offers accommodation right next to the reserve.
If you want to see both bubbling pools of water and mud, Haukadalur is the specific spot to get to. Here you can find blue, red, and green hot springs that all come with their unique, pungent aroma.
When you’re done smelling deathly pool farts, you can head over to the hot pools next to the visitor’s center (the pools you can actually take a dip in). Just don’t sit too close to the inlet pipe. It’s piping hot (we couldn’t resist).
If you’d like to visit the largest volcanic canyon in the world, head on over to where F208 and F235 meet each other and head east by foot. Even though the sheer scale of this canyon is enough to impress, it kind of begins and ends with that. It’s a great spot to put on your Iceland Highlands itinerary if you enjoy geological marvels.
How about the largest glacier in Europe? The Iceland Highlands is home to some pretty impressive stuff, including Vatnajökull – the largest glacier in Europe! It sits neatly in the southeastern part of the Icelandic Highlands and is the crown jewel of Iceland’s largest national park with the same name.
On the north-western side of the glacier, you can visit one of the most recently erupted volcanoes: Bardarbunga. With a 6-month-long eruption, this is one of the youngest lava fields in Iceland, which allows you to get a unique look into the process that built the lava fields of the Iceland Highlands.
Iceland’s second-largest glacier also sits in the Iceland Highlands, just waiting for someone to pay it a visit. This is an incredibly popular area to do various glacier hikes, and one of the few areas of the Highlands that you can access (with a guide) in the winter months if you are looking for some wintertime thrills.
Iceland Highlands Self-drive
Being at the helm of your own adventure is always a popular choice, which is why we decided to sum up some of the F-roads that are worth knowing about when you plan out your Iceland Highlands self-drive plan.
This is by far the longest single road to drive in the Iceland Highlands and is one of only 2 roads that connects the northern and southern parts of Iceland through the Highlands. This bit of rocky road is 220 kilometers long and goes through the true wilderness of Iceland. You will be completely on your own, as this road lacks any campsites or gas stations, and barely contains any cell phone signal.
This road often confuses travelers, as there is a section that is just a regular #35 road. But once you leave Gullfoss waterfall behind, it becomes an F-Road. Therefore, a 4x4 vehicle is required. This is the second-longest road in the Highlands, with 165 kilometers between Gullfoss in the south and Svínvetningarbraut in the north. Along this road, you will get close to Hveravellir Nature Reserve among other attractions.
This is one of the most driven roads after F26 and F35. This one connects Ring Road 1 in the southeast to the southern part of F26 in the central Iceland Highlands. This is the road you will travel when you visit Landmannalaugar and Eldgjá.
This is a hidden gem for those who want to take the scenic route amongst the scenic routes. F232 connects with Ring Road 1 close to the same spot that F208 does, but instead of going to F26, this one connects to F210 instead. This particular road is perfect for those who want to go through plenty of streams, which is why this road is not recommended if there has just been some heavy rainfall.
Along this route, you will get some stunning sceneries from the southern part of the Iceland Highlands, but there are unfortunately no specific attractions along the way except for the scenic waterfall, Bláfjallafors.
In the eastern part of the Iceland Highlands, the F910 will take you between Nyidalur and Askja through a landscape that might as well have been on the moon. This road connects the central Highlands in Iceland with the eastern parts, just north of Vatnajökull glacier.
Close to this route, you can stay at the Dreki Mountain Huts if you want to spend a day or two hiking the Iceland Highlands around the Askja area.
Exploring the Iceland Highlands
If you want to explore the raw and unfiltered wilderness of Iceland, there is no doubt that you should see what the Iceland Highlands has to offer. The best way to do this is to rent a campervan in Iceland and get on the F-roads as soon as the mountain rangers allow you to!