A Guide to Hiking Iceland’s Mountain Trails
There are many adjectives one could use to describe Iceland’s rugged, verdant, diverse topographic terrain. Flat is not one of them. More than half of the island is situated above 400 meters, and its rolling surface is as colourful and undulating as its subterranean interior. Depending on which mountain range or hilly peak you take on as a visiting hiker, you might run across a bubbling hot pool, pockets of lush yellow wildflowers, a rushing waterfall, or even a cozy mountain hut all in one sloping stretch.Further to that, Iceland is one of the few places you can catch a rare glimpse of Earth’s interior tectonic activity, given that the island is situated right on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Iceland is essentially a mountainous, volcanic island that is continuously formed by dynamic geothermal activity in the rift zone. This means that it is home to some legendary sightseeing options…as well as dream-come-true adventure opportunities for hikers and mountain climbers.
Here we will guide you through a few of Iceland’s numerous and varied mountain treks and hiking hot spots, both well known and slightly more obscure. Now, Iceland Buddy prioritizes safety first, so before we get into the fun stuff, take a look at the mountain safety tips we’ve provided below. Iceland’s topography and weather patterns are unique and unpredictable and we want to make sure you’re ready and equipped to withstand any surprises on your hike.
- Wear the appropriate hiking gear. This goes without saying, but it holds especially true in Iceland. Generally, it’s not a good idea to go hiking anywhere on the island in just jeans and a T-shirt. Weather here can be very unpredictable and you don’t want to be at the mercy of Mother Nature without the right attire to protect your skin and keep you warm. Make sure you’re wearing sturdy hiking boots, as there is lots of loose gravel and uneven ground on hiking trails in Iceland. Turning an ankle or even just getting a blister can ruin the most exciting of mountainadventures!
- Have a compass, a map, or a GPS device handy. Iceland’s landscape is often described as one of alien beauty, and it can indeed feel quite extraterrestrial when you’re wandering among its many glaciers, boulders, waterfalls, and hot pools. Though your trail might be well-marked, you definitely ought to bring navigation devices to keep you on track in case you end up deviating from your path. You definitely don’t want to end your trekking adventure with an emergency rescue call. In the event that you are stranded on the top of a glacier, though, ICE-SAR, or the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue, is ready to help! www.icesar.com/
- Check the weather. Even though weather conditions in Iceland are constantly changing, you can keep a watchful eye on the climate with Vegagerdin: www.road.is
- Know what gear you need. If you’re going heavy-duty mountaineering, you may need walking crampons or an ice axe. Essentially, crampons provide traction to keep you steady on trails coated with ice and snow, whereas ice axes can help you ascend slopes without slipping. Even if you’re not a hard-core hiker, explore your options and consider carefully what you think you might need. You may want a flashlight, a walking pole, safety ropes, something to eat, or even just an extra pair of socks.
Assuming you’re feeling confident and well-equipped enough to embark on one of Iceland’s breathtaking nature hikes, we can now start to explore your options. The sheer amount of unspoiled wilderness just begging for hikers to explore may seem a bit overwhelming even to the most seasoned trekker, and there is an impressive and intimidating abundance of trails for you to choose from. That being said, they’re all quite different in ways large and small, and one may suit your preferences more than those of another adventurous traveler. We’ll start off with the trail with arguably the broadest appeal, as it is by far the most popular choice for Iceland’s visiting trekkers.
The Laugavegur Trek
- 1 The Laugavegur Trek
- 2 Climbing Mt. Esja
- 3 The Trail to Glymur
- 4 Hiking in Hveragerði
- 5 Hornstrandir: The Wild Peninsula
- 6 Borgarfjörður Eystri: Land of the Elves
- 7 Seljavallalaug: The Trail to One of Iceland’s Oldest Swimming Pools
- 8 The New Trail Through Kerlingarfjöll
- 9 The Red Mountains of Lónsöræfi
- 10 Ascending the Summit at Hvannadalshnúkur
Length: 77 Kilometers
Difficulty Level: Intermediate (the trek is only moderately difficult, but it takes a long time to complete)
Duration: 4-5 Days
The Laugavegur trail is located in Landmannalaugar, which is situated at the edge of the sleek black Laugahraun lava field in the Southern Highlands of Iceland. Landmannalaugar is often touted as a “geothermal paradise” in itself, with its towering rhyolite mountain ranges, steaming hot springs, and crystalline glacial rivers. The geothermal field’s popular hiking trail offers travelers the opportunity to experience all the enchanting scenery Landmannalaugar has to offer with stunning panoramic views.
The Laugavegur Trek is seventy-seven kilometers, making it the longest hiking trail on the island. Fortunately, it is logistically quite easy to navigate, given that its steady stream of hikers has necessitated frequent wooden signposts. Furthermore, if you don’t feel confident enough to tackle the trail on your own, many tour operators offer guided excursions along the well-tread path lasting approximately four to five days.
You might be asking yourself, “how on Earth can someone hike for five days?” Well, many of Iceland’s hiking trails offer these wonderful little accommodations for intrepid travelers at incremental stops. The Laugavegur Trek has several mountain huts, which are equipped with insular heating and warm water. They are comprised of cabin dormitories with single and twin beds. A mattress and a warm shower will probably look quite enticing after a full day of hiking in the midst of Iceland’s unpredictable weather! Lodgings generally cost about 4,500 ISK (which roughly equivocates to around 40 USD, 30 GBP, or 40 Euros. Unless you’re part of a guided excursion, you’ll definitely want to call and book ahead before embarking on your mountain trek.
The first hut, which is the largest at a seventy-five-person capacity, is located in Landmannalaugar. As you migrate onward, the initial ascent up the slopes is relatively gentle and steady. You will pass the often green and verdant region surrounding the hot spring Stórihver, and then meander into a series of small ravines where snow remains on the ground well into the summer months. This area can be tricky to navigate, but if you feel comfortable walking all the way up to the top of the mountain Háskerðingur, you will be rewarded with some incomparably beautiful views. After you’ve got your fill, you can rest for a bit on the idyllic banks of the river Grashagakvísi or take advantage of the two huts by lake Álftavatn.
Beyond the two huts, you will have to cross the lake’s outlet. There are planks available for hiker use – we do not recommend you take this bit on as a swimming excursion. However, if you do slip or get your socks a little too damp for comfort, there are two huts available in the nearby Hvanngil ravine where you can dry off or change. Interestingly, one of these huts was actually built for sheepherders a few decades ago; the other was created for tourists in the mid-nineties. Shortly beyond the huts is another river, called Kaldaklofskvísi…but fortunately this one has a bridge! After you cross the bridge, your trail will actually branch. You can either head eastward to Mælifellssandur, or south to Emstrur. If you choose south, you will eventually end up descending into Þórsmörk, where you will find the hut Langidalur. Here you will encounter a striking change in landscape – the arctic “desert” suddenly transforms into a scene lush with birchwood and all manner of floral vegetation.
Next comes the part many look forward to the most. The path from Þórsmörk to the Skóga River is actually relatively short, but its pass lies right in between the infamous Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull. There is one hut here, accessible by a kilometer-long trail just above the glacier pass. By the end of the trek, you’ll have reached the magnificent Skógafoss waterfall, which rivals only Gulfoss in cascading beauty. Gulfoss is arguably Iceland’s most famous, but Skógafoss is one of its biggest, with an astounding drop of sixty meters and a width of twenty-five.
There is a lot to explore via the Laugavegur trail, so we definitely recommend that you pack well and start off well-rested so you can take your time and take it all in.
Climbing Mt. Esja
Length: Approximately 7 Kilometers
Difficulty Level: Beginner to Intermediate
Duration: 2-3 Hours
Mt. Esja is often referred to as the “city mountain” given its close proximity to the northern edge of Reykjavík. It is actually more of a range than a single towering mountain; in fact, it essentially dominates the skyline when you look to the north from the central city. The mountain chain was formed towards the end of the Pleistocene and the beginning of the First Ice Age, when volcanic lava flow piled up upon volcanic zone stratums and solidified. The western half of Mt. Esja is approximately 3.2 million years old, and the eastern part is about 1.8 million years old.
Mt. Esja is also home to a very popular and particularly convenient hiking trail in Iceland. If you’re keen to start hiking but you’re a bit anxious about venturing out into the more remote areas of the island, Mt. Esja is close enough to Reykjavík that you’ll feel like you have an urban home base to fall back on.
Mt. Esja’s starting point is easily accessible via public transport. If you don’t have your own wheels, feel free to use Bus 5 from Hlemmur main station towards Artun. It’s only a ten-minute ride. There is a large parking lot and a restaurant at the mountain range’s base, so you can fill up a bit before you start adventuring if you’re feeling peckish.
Navigation is relatively easy on this particular trail, as it is quite clearly paved and marked. The only issue you may run into is the unavoidable fluctuation of weather on this island. You’ll definitely want to check out the ever-reliable Vegagerdin for road conditions and snowfall levels, because if Mt. Esja is cloaked in an icy white sheet, you’ll probably need crampons and/or an ice axe so you don’t lose your footing.
After about a kilometer uphill past the parking lot, the Mt. Esja trail will split. The branch to the left is significantly steeper, so you will require solid footwear and possibly crampons. Fortunately, in some more challenging areas there are steel cables installed, which you can use for additional stability.
The highest peak in Mt. Esja is called Habunga at a whopping 914 meters high. You can shuffle along all the way up if you’re feeling bold, but many hikers stop at Tverfellshorn, the top of the paved mountain path. Whether you stop here or keep going up, you will most definitely enjoy some spectacular views of both Reykjavík and Iceland’s wilder interior from Mt. Esja’s soaring heights. Oh, and at some point on the way up you will run across The Stein, or stone, which has a guestbook you can sign to prove you conquered Mt. Esja!
For the more extreme and athletic among you readers, you might consider participating in the Mt. Esja Ultra Run, which is offered annually in the summer months (usually June). Since 2015, Mt. Esja Ultra has also added a 42.2-kilometer marathon course, which is limited to 100 participants. Visit http://mtesjaultra.is/english/ for more information on rules, registration, and safety related to both events. And don’t forget to get a good look at some of the spectacular photos they have taken of participating runners amidst Mt. Esja’s idyllic purple wildflowers and vibrant vegetation. If you’re a runner, you’ll definitely be tempted!
The Trail to Glymur
Length: Approximately 5 Kilometers
Difficulty Level: Advanced
Duration: 3-4 Hours
We’ve talked about Glymur before: the lofty waterfall with a name that sounds like a rare precious gem. Located in Botnsdalur valley, near the Hvalfjörður Fjord, Glymur is Iceland’s second-tallest waterfall (surpassed only by a brand new waterfall near Morsárjökull that formed in 2011). It is associated with a fascinating little folk tale with tells about a mythical whale that actually swam up the waterfall into the lake that resides at the top (this story arose from the fact that, strangely enough, whale bones were once found at the top). Glymur is also complemented by an astoundingly beautiful hiking trail.
With its 198-meter drop, Glymur’s stunning trails are not-unexpectedly steep and rather intimidating. Though your courage will be rewarded with indescribably beautiful views of the gorge and a series of colourful, mysterious caves and smaller cascades, this hike will definitely test your fear of heights. You’ll also have to put a bit of thought into the whole process; Glymur’s hiking trails are not quite as self-evident as Laugavegur’s or Mt. Esja’s sign-posted treks. To get yourself onto the correct path, keep an eye out for a series of rocks painted with little yellow dots on them. You’ll have to concentrate for a bit, as it is quite easy to go astray on Glymur.
Eventually the trail will lead you through a series of naturally-formed tunnels. From under the rugged, volcanic arches you will emerge upon a series of misty slopes cloaked with lush mosses and wildflowers in the summertime – the interior of Glymur’s gorge truly constitutes a scene like no other place on earth! As you descend towards the river Botnsá and back up again towards the falls, you can expect even more striking views of Glymur, so don’t give up and head back halfway!
It should take you about four hours to complete the hike. We most definitely recommend that you hike at a slow and steady pace and concentrate on your immediate surroundings as you move along. There are some pretty sheer drop-offs and stark canyon edges, so make sure you wear sturdy hiking boots that provide plenty of traction. You also may benefit from some hiking poles.
This hike is perhaps one of the more vigorous on the island, but if you have the stomach for its soaring heights, the Glymur trail is one of Iceland’s best and most beautiful.
Hiking in Hveragerði
Length: 17 Kilometers
Difficulty Level: Beginner
Duration: 2 Hours
It’s no secret that we here at Iceland Buddy are fans of Hveragerði, South Iceland’s geothermal “Blossoming Town.” Built entirely on an active geothermal plain, the town’s environmentally-generated heating and lush, healthy surrounding pastures create an environment pure enough to produce veritable oceans of colourful flowers. The residents of this town are proud of their town’s florid reputation and work hard to keep its flowers, vegetables, and fruits in full bloom year-round. Gardening is a “local sport” of sorts, and everyone is welcome to participate in the world-famous flower show that happens each June.
Being situated on a vibrant geothermal plain, Hveragerði is similarly well-known for its abundance of hot springs. It is home to one of Iceland’s largest naturally occurring pools, called Laugaskarð, and it comes equipped with whirlpool pots, sunlamps, and a steam bath for visitors. If you venture a little bit out of Hveragerði, you’ll find that the town is also surrounded by hot springs of the wilder variety, most of which are actually too hot to indulge in. Instead of toasting your toes off in a boiling hot pot in the middle of an open field, we recommend that you take the River Trail from Hveragerði and take a dip in Reykjadalur Valley’s pleasantly warm and beautiful “hot river.”
If you have your own set of wheels or someone who can chauffeur you, you can drive from Hveragerði directly to the commencement point of the hot river’s hiking trail. You will pass a rather stunning golf course, a charming little café, and a small parking lot, and then you can continue on to your destination by foot. The trail itself is a relatively easy one, pleasant and relaxing for the seasoned hiker and not too technically demanding for those who are newer to the activity. That being said, you will want to wear solid hiking boots, as there are a handful of steep drop-offs along the trail. If you’re traversing the trek in the winter months, you may indeed need crampons and/or an ice axe for these areas as well.
As you shuffle along to the hot river, you’re likely to come across some rather tempting small pools omitting undulating ribbons of soothing white steam. We do not recommend that you slip out of your boots and soak your feet in these hot pots; many of them are above 80° Celsius. Fortunately, the trail is postmarked with signs warning of potential danger by boiling water lest you forget. Also mind the signs by the mud pools; many of them are far too hot for human touch as well.
Eventually you will stumble upon a heavenly blue river that touts an unearthly cerulean blue hue (similar to the Blue Lagoon’s) as a result of healthful silica minerals and geothermal sulphur in the waters. The river is surrounded by alarmingly green marshes and tufts of wild grasses and flowers that seem to be in Technicolour. You will also witness the same hypnotizing ribbons of steam emerging from the calm waters and the crevices in its surrounding earth as you saw in Hveragerði.
Be mindful that, the further you move up the valley, the hotter the river will become. Just move around a little, find your perfect spot, and relax your sore muscles in Iceland’s gentle waters. Many visitors end up spending a couple hours soaking here, taking in the sights and absorbing all the restorative minerals in the hot river.
This hike is easily accessible to all levels of hikers, plus you get the two-in-one experience of an exhilarating nature trek and a soothing all-natural hot spring spa day.
Hornstrandir: The Wild Peninsula
Length: 580 square kilometers
Difficulty Level: Intermediate to Advanced
Duration: Anywhere from a few hours to four days
Though they have been varied in location and level of strenuousness, all the hikes we have covered thus far have been relatively “civilized,” for lack of a better term. In other words, they’ve all had the benefit of guiding signposts, danger warnings if necessary, and fairly well-trodden terrain. Now we’re going to head to the rugged, idyllic Westfjords for something a bit wilder.
Just north of the Snæfjallaströnd coast, a virtually untouched, peninsular strip of land just narrowly attaches itself to Iceland’s Westfjords. The area called Hornstrandir boasts some of Iceland’s most magnificent coastline views, and that is definitely saying something. It also represents the island’s last remaining uninhabitable region; human habitation was apparently attempted for a brief period in the 19th century, but any remaining settlements were abandoned by the 1950s due to inhospitable weather and hazardous cliffs. The few homes on the narrow stretch of land are abandoned, and only a couple farmsteads that serve as summer lodgings for a few intrepid souls remain.
There are no roads or power lines on Hornstrandir. There are only miles and miles of wild herbs, snow-capped mountain ranges, pebbled beaches, and towering cliffs peppered with innumerable birds’ nests. There are approximately 260 different species of flowering plants – some rare even for the Westfjords area, such as the delicate pink sea pea – and the region’s grasses have been totally protected from grazing for many, many years. For that reason, Hornstrandir is home to some of Iceland’s happiest foxes and field mice. There is also a veritable goldmine of unique bird species for the ornithology enthusiast to appreciate, such as fulmars, guillemots, kittiwakes, puffins, and razorbills.
Basically, Hornstrandir is deserted, and its isolation makes it one of the most beautiful places in all of Iceland. It is considered a protected Nature Reserve under the supervision of The Nature and Food Agency of Iceland, but respectful hikers are still welcome to explore the region’s wild beauty. If you want to take on Hornstrandir’s rugged terrain, you’ll have to take the ferry in from Ísafjörður. The boat only runs during the warmer months and its trips are relatively infrequent, so you’ll have to become very familiar with the boat schedule in order to get there and back on time.
You can hike the peninsula without supervision, but many hikers elect to hire a guide. Like we’ve said, Hornstrandir is unmarked and essentially completely wild. Hiking with an expert can also be quite fun, as guides are typically familiar with some of Horstrandir’s old ghost stories and folklore. If you do elect to hike by yourself, we recommend that you register with the tourist office just so the rescue team knows you’re there in case of an emergency. Also bear in mind that there are emergency huts in a few parts of Hornstrandir, equipped with radios in case you need to ask for help from the mainland. A GPS is good to have on hand before you begin your hike, and we also suggest a compass, just in case. If you’re feeling especially adventurous and want to stay on the peninsula overnight, you must bring your own tent (and waterproof clothing).
We’d spend a few paragraphs loosely describing Horstrandir’s trail pathway, but, well, there isn’t one. The peninsula is just one long, dizzying stretch of sleek black sands sloping into chilly, pure seawater, crystalline glaciers, lush fields of mosses, untamed grasses, and vibrant wildflowers in hues of bright yellow, fuschia, and royal blue, tranquil pools of still rainwater connected by bubbling streams, and sheer, magnificent cliffs full of incredible bird colonies. When you take on Hornstrandir, you’re taking on Iceland’s elements in their purest forms. The excursion might sound intimidating, and it must be well-planned to ensure your safety, but you will be rewarded with a hiking experience like none other in the world should you choose to ferry over to the Westfjords’ most magnificent abandoned peninsula.
Borgarfjörður Eystri: Land of the Elves
Length: Approximately 20 kilometers per trail
Difficulty Level: Beginner (the trek is relatively mild, but it takes a long time to complete)
Duration: Anywhere from a few hours to a week, depending on how much you want to see
The Borgarfjörður Eystri region of the East of Iceland is known primarily for three things: elves, puffins, and extraordinary hiking trails. In fact, there are about twenty-seven of them. In 1996, the local district authorities mapped out a set of trails for ornithologists, folklorists, and travelers, collectively known as Víknasóðir, which would come to be known as some of the most immaculately-planned pathways ever mapped on the island. This goes without saying, but there is tremendous variety in trekking options on this peninsula for hikers of all levels.
If you’re particularly interested in the unique folklore of this region, we highly recommend you consider the guided hike “In the Footsteps of Elves,” offered by popular regional guesthouse and local travel agency Álfheimar. It is an eight-day journey from the inlets of the Borgarfjörður Eystri region to lake Myvatn and the capital of the North, Akureyri. On this guided adventure you will be treated to pristine fjords, remarkably colourful rhyolite mountain ranges, verdant greenery, and magnificent, sheer black cliffs peppered with puffin eggs. You will also witness the enigmatic Stórurð, or Boulder Hollow, one of East Iceland’s more mysterious attractions. Stórurð somewhat resembles a miniature Icelandic Stonehenge set within a basin of silicon-laden turquoise waters; its rock formations are ostensibly natural but appear to form a very deliberate arrangement.
Of course, we can’t speak of Borgarfjörður Eystri without addressing its regional folklore. Its fjord actually derives its title from Álfaborg, or Elf Hill, which constitutes the residency for Iceland’s elf queen. Further to that, Borgarfjörður Eystri is home to a gargantuan rock formation that looks loosely like a narrow, towering building, known as Kækjudalur, the Church of Elves. It is said that the elfin bishop lives nearby. If you’re a superstitious sort, you needn’t be concerned about the elves; they don’t mind visitors as long as you are respectful of their territory. In fact, the Hidden Folk, as they are described in Icelandic mythology, often help out humans in need.
Though elves are believed to live here in abundance, you’re much more likely to see a few Atlantic puffins on your hike than the reclusive Hidden Folk. With their striking orange beaks, stately white-and-black plumage, and endearing little staccato waddle, puffins are some of Iceland’s most lovable avian residents. Nearly ten thousand of them nest around Borgarfjörður Eystri every summer, along with the fulmar and the kittiwake. As you traverse the fjords and inlets of Borgarfjörður Eystri, you can get as close as two meters to these charming birds. They are a friendly sort and appear to enjoy modeling for ornithological photographers, so make sure you have your camera handy.
The hiking pathways nestled amidst the Borgarfjörður Eystri fjords have been counted among the twenty-five most beautiful treks on Earth by National Geographic Adventure.For a thorough experience, you must commit to a rather lengthy trek… but we promise you it’s worth it! Not many hikers can say they’ve traveled through the Elf Queen’s abode.
Seljavallalaug: The Trail to One of Iceland’s Oldest Swimming Pools
Length: Approximately 2 kilometers
Difficulty Level: Beginner
Duration: About twenty minutes with no detours
We’ve talked about Seljavallalaug before – it’s one of Iceland’s oldest naturally occurring (and manually refined) swimming pools. Developed in 1923 for the purpose of public swimming instruction, Seljavallalaug is essentially located at the base of the infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcanic glacier. The pool is considered to be something of a hidden gem despite its century-long presence. This is likely because the twenty-five meter long, ten meter wide structure is a little bit of a challenge to find! Its seclusion is something of a blessing in disguise for both bathers and hikers. Seljavallalaug is meticulously and personally cared for by a group of dedicated volunteers, and it exudes a soothing aura of Old World tranquility and wildness. Its surrounding volcanic terrain is – of course – majestically beautiful, providing for a unique and exceptional hiking experience.
Even if you’re not an avid hiker, you’ll certainly need sturdy shoes to make it to the pool. You’ll actually have to wade through a shallow little river to make it there.But other than that, this hike is brief and really quite easy to manage. The trek from just off of Iceland’s Ring Road to the pool should only take about twenty minutes if you take the straight path (you’re welcome to explore the volcanic area and take detours as you wish, of course). As you trek along to the pool, you’ll witness frosty peaks, sleek black mountains covered with patches of spongy, olive-coloured mosses and lichens, a series of shimmering creeks and small rivers, and absolutely massive volcanic rock formations.
Once you reach Seljavallalaug, you’ll just see the quiet, beautiful little rectangular geothermal pool, a nondescript white building containing changing facilities (there is no entry fee, by the way), and mountains for miles and miles and miles. You’ll be able to hike and bathe in near-perfect seclusion, surrounded by hallmarks of Iceland’s recent and far-gone history (remember that the Eyjafjallajökull eruption only just occurred in 2010).
Speaking of Eyjafjallajökull (insofar as you can pronounce it), you can, in fact, hike Iceland’s most infamous volcano. This trek, however, will require significantly more gear than the hike to Seljavallalaug at its base, and of course there’s a bit more risk involved (though the volcano has been quiet since its explosion seven years past). You’ll definitely require crampons, ice axes, and possibly hiking poles to take on the four-mile trail up the glacier. If you’re interested in the more challenging hike, we recommend that you take that one on separate to your excursion to Seljavallalaug.
The New Trail Through Kerlingarfjöll
Length: Approximately 45 kilometers
Difficulty Level: Intermediate
Duration: Three days
The Kerlingarfjöll mountain range, settled between the glaciers Hofsjökull and Langjökull, is one of Iceland’s most beautiful rhyolite wonders. The rugged cluster of mountains that comprises the territory is known for its hardiness; these formations are ancient, and tough enough to withstand the inevitable forces of time and erosion. The plains surrounding the mountains’ towering magnificence are fascinating and highly varied – you’ll see lush vegetation, glacial masses, slopes of obsidian rock, and Arctic “desert” areas all in one long stretch. The region is considered to be something of a hidden pearl in Iceland’s geology, but by 2010 interest in Kerlingarfjöll was significant enough that local officials authorized a new hiking trail through the mountain massif for visiting hikers.
Like the trails through Landmannalaugar, Kerlingarfjöll now offers two huts that are available for overnight stay: the Klakkur hut in the southeastern part of the mountain range, and Kisubotnar in the northeast. There are also various places along the trail where hikers can enjoy bathing in some soothing, tepid hot springs.
This hike takes about three days if completed in full, so you’ll definitely want to book your spots at the mountain huts in advance. Starting from the highland hills west of the Ásgarður canyon, hikers will pass through a small Arctic valley and then ascend the trail to Kjölur, where the true trail unfolds, so to speak. You will be met with an assembly of pristinely formed ice caves, and we recommend that you take in their beauty fully, as it is anticipated that these particular formations will recede in the next several years. After you’ve explored the cavernous terrain, you will travel along a ridge leading to one of Asgarður’s warm pools, where you can take a breather and soothe your muscles if you like. Later you will cross a river by bridge, navigate through the Langafonn “mini-glacier,” and finally emerge in Hverabotn, the site of the highest measured surface temperature in Iceland. After you pass through this uniquely beautiful and tepid geothermal region, you will enjoy some fairly smooth terrain up until you reach the first hut in Klakkur.
The second day stretch typically runs through Klakkur to Kisubotnar, which is a relatively mild trek. You will, however, be treated to some striking mountain ridges and canyons between Draugafell and the Rauðkollur hills. The massive rocky crevices in this region tend to cut through the earth in fascinating and unusual patterns. Finally, on day three, you will depart the hut from Kisubotnar and move along the western bank of the river Kisa. From the watershed, you will follow the trail through the lively Illahraun lavafield, up through the Hofsjökull glacier and then back around to Asgarður, where the route comes full circle.
Now bear in mind that this is just the most recently marked hiking trail through the Kerlingarfjöll massif. There are about twenty routes available to hikers here, each of them thoroughly marked, and ranging from one kilometer to fifty kilometers in length. At the foot of the mountain range, you can visit the travellers’ service center and get all the information and guidance you need if you are interested in exploring other routes. Whatever you decide, you really can’t go wrong on Kerlingarfjöll.
The Red Mountains of Lónsöræfi
Length: Approximately 70 kilometers
Difficulty Level: Advanced
Duration: Four to seven days
Now we head to the Eastern border of the Vatnajökull Glacier, to the lush hills, rushing rivers, cascading waterfalls, and snow-capped peaks of Lónsöræfi. This territory has been designated as a protected Nature Reserve of Iceland’s southeast, and its unique topography is largely the result of vibrant activity from the Kollumúlaeldstöðvar volcano. This volcanic formation laid the foundation for Lónsöræfi’s surface area about five million years ago!
The route from Stafafell to Snæfell in this particular region has become a hiker favourite, though most travellers elect to surge past the initial part of the trek and utilize the jeep track to Múlaskáli. If you’re taking on Lónsöræfi, we highly recommend that you enjoy the first part of the hike, which will treat you to startling, brick-red rhyolite mountains and verdant thickets of mosses and unique greenery that smell heavenly.
If you elect to complete the trek in full, you will start at the farm at Stafafell, which serves as a campsite and hostel in the summer months and is located just off of the main road to Lónsöræfi. This is the only local accommodation facility available, though there are four smaller mountain huts along the actual trek. Lonoike Bay, or “Lagoon Bay” is situated close by; its basin is filled with the waters flowing in from Jökulsá ái Lonoie, or the icy river lagoon. Despite Lónsöræfi’s craggy, rugged terrain, the region is healthfully hydrated and its waters facilitate lush vegetation enjoyed by many local farmers’ livestock. Speaking of animals, herds of wild reindeer are known to graze and trot through the hills at Lónsöræfi – if you’re quiet, you may get close to some!
The trek from Snaefell to Lónsöræfi usually takes about five days, but it can easily be extended to seven. Note that part of the trail is, in fact, unmarked, and you will need to be prepared to wade through shallow rivers, ascend and descend deep passages, and possibly hike on ice. You will definitely benefit from the use of crampons, ice axes, and likely even hiking rope. For that reason, this hike is recommended for more experienced adventurers. Many of Iceland’s most avid outdoorsmen and women take on this trek, and The Icelandic Travelers Clubs organizes hiking trips to this region almost every summer.
Ascending the Summit at Hvannadalshnúkur
Length: Approximately 10 kilometers
Difficulty Level: Advanced
Duration: 10-15 hours
Let’s round out this guide to Iceland’s magnificent hikes and treks with a challenging one, also located in the Vatnajökull area (to be fair this is not particularly unusual, as Vatnajökull is the largest glacier in Europe and technically engulfs around eight percent of Iceland’s surface). The climb to Hvannadalshnúkur is a relatively popular one, and as far as technicality goes it’s not too complex. However, the significant quantity of topographical crevices and gorges weaving throughout the sea-level glacier makes the trek possibly dangerous for novice hikers. We definitely recommend that any climber who estimates him/herself as less than an expert take this trek on with a guide. Needless to say, you will inevitably need crampons, ice axes, and safety ropes for this one.
Hvannadalshnúkur is technically part of one of Oræfajökull’s craters. Oræfajökull, if you remember, is a massive post-glacial volcanic system. It may not measure up in the shadow of the titan Vatnajökull, but it is certainly impressive in its own right as one of the largest volcanoes on the European continent. This particular volcano, coming in second only to Italy’s Mount Etna in size, has only erupted twice in recorded history. The last time it displayed its awesome power was in 1727, and its tephra fall that year is estimated to be the greatest in Iceland thus far. This is no small feat, given that Iceland is constantly bubbling and seething with volcanic and geothermal activity. But fear not, for you’re highly unlikely to be blown off the mountaintop these days.
The climb to the summit of Hvannadalshnúkur is comprised of two main routes, both of which could conceivably be completed in a day. The Hryggjaleið route is only open during the summer months due to potential dangers associated with inclement winter weather, but the Sandfellsleið route is open most of the year. Either way, this hike is rife with challenging but extraordinarily beautiful terrain that requires appropriate equipment and likely an expert guide. If you choose to take it on, you will be rewarded with unbelievable panoramic views of frosty mountaintops, sweeping glacial plateaus, and magnificently massive ice caps that will make you feel just inches tall. This hike will challenge your stamina, and you are sure to feel fairly proud of yourself at the end of it!
To sum, Iceland is one long expanse of rugged paradise for hikers and mountaineers. Whether you are an eager novice or a seasoned climber, you’ll be able to find a trail that suits your fancy on this beautiful Arctic island.