Backpack Iceland’s Remote Colorful Volcanic and Glacial Highlands

Iceland's central and southeastern highlands offer a myriad of stunning backpacking and trekking options. The Laugavegur trail and trails around the spa of Landmannalaugar provide well appointed huts and easy trekking among the crowds, but options also exist to get off the tourist track and explore the multi-colored active volcanic terrain and vast glaciers between basic huts without another soul around.

The Icelandic Highlands cover the majority of the country and many of Iceland’s impressive natural attractions can be found here. Away from crowds, noise and bustle, the Highlands offer silence, serenity, peace and extreme natural beauty.

Mostly formed during the last ice age, the southern highlands are the youngest part of this central and southeastern zone; and they encompass many of Iceland's most interesting and popular nature reserves and adventure attractions, all of which are accessible by bus or car from the island's capitol Reykjavik.  Each year the roads open in late June or early July, and stay open until September. 


Hidden in between three glaciers—Eyjafjallajökull, Mýrdalsjökull, and Tindafjallajökull—is the Þórsmörk (Thor's forest) natural reserve.  Rushing frothy rivers run through black desert sands in stark contrast with dapples of bright green moss, fern, and birch.  This is indeed one of Iceland's most popular hiking destinations.    Surrounding Þórsmörk are striking mountain ridges whose ice-capped peaks are almost always cloaked in cloud and mist influenced by  the vast glaciers around it.    These mountains are a hiker’s paradise. 

The 30 km Fimmvorduhals trail takes you into the steep hills beneath the towering Eyjafjallajökull glacier volcano, over the Fimmvörðuháls mountain ridge and to the steaming volcanic craters that were formed in the last volcanic eruption of 2010.    Iceland's most famous hiking route, the 55 km Laugavegur trail, takes you from Þórsmörk and into the hypnotizing spa area of Landmannalaugar.   


This amazing (and very popular)  geothermal area is set beside the Laugahraun lava field, and surrounded by rhyolite mountains whose vivid colors reflect a mix of volcanic origins and green plant life.   Short to long hikes can take you from the  Ljótipollur explosion crater lake, the colorful Brennisteinsalda (Sulfur Wave) volcano of steaming vents and sulfur deposits, and up to a sweeping view of five glaciers and the entire Landmannalaugar area from the top of the Bláhnúkur  volcano.    A rewarding day of hiking can also be capped off with a dip in the warm streams of Landmannalaugar's natural pools.

Hekla volcano

Situated 30 km west of Landmannalugar is Hekla, one of the planet's most active volcanoes which has exploded into live more than twenty times since Iceland's original settlement.    Hekla's earliest recorded eruption took place in 1104, after which extraordinary stories quickly spread throughout Europe, linking Hekla with the black arts and finally hell and the devil himself.  The popular belief that Hekla contained the gates to hell persisted until the late 19th century, but today the volcano's stunning surroundings attract visitors from across the world.

You can get to hekla via busses from Landmannaaugar, and climb to the summit of Hekla in  3 to 4 hours.


In summertime, any four-wheel drive can take you from Landmannalaugar, over the harsh terrain of the Kjölur desert mountain pass and into Kerlingarfjöll, a mountain range which is home to some of the strangest and most surreal landscapes on earth.   Located between the Hofsjökull and Langjökull glaciers, Kerlingarfjöll (Troll Woman's Mountains) and the surrounding area encompass a variety of oddly fantastic landscapes composed of extreme volcanic formations, mini glaciers, highly energetic geothermal spots, rhyolite domes, and ancient calderas.   For centuries, Kerlingarfjoll was considered too remote and harsh to explore, but bythe mid 20th century the area was developed into a summer ski resort where Icelanders skied on retreating glaciers and leftover winter snow.    Though little snow is left today, the Kerlingarfjöll Highland Resort still offers accommodation food and services.  


Within 5 kilometres from the Kerlingarfjöll Resort is the geothermal area of Hveradalir, a hot spring valley containing various marked and unmarked hiking routes which travellers could spend days traversing, but trekking the route from Kerlingarfjöll's highland resort to Hveradalir and back again is but a convenient one day hike.   Hveradalir is one of Iceland's largest geothermal areas. A hike into Hveradalir is a journey into a powerful realm where natural hot springs and arctic vegetation compete with retreating mini glaciers to offer travelers an ever-changing and fascinating landscape.


The Iceland Touring Association (FÍ) runs 40 mountain huts all around Iceland. The huts along the most popular hiking trails are in high demand and thus it is essential for hikers to book their accommodation beforehand.    

When staying in an Icelandic hut, you have to bring your own sleeping bag as neither sleeping bags nor blankets are provided. The huts are warm, so the sleeping bag does not have to be of arctic quality.  In the bigger huts you can expect both running water and water toilets but in some of the smaller ones, you will have to fetch water to a nearby stream and use an outhouse.  It is not possible to buy hot, ready-made meals in most of the Icelandic huts, so you will need to bring and carry your own food when hiking in Iceland with the exception of the Laugavegur hiking trail where all the huts sell some supplies, such as backpacking dried food, soda and candy bars as well as stoves and gas.   In all but the biggest huts, you can not leave any trash or garbage behind but have to carry it with you back to the lowlands.

You can camp close to the huts for a camping fee but camping guests have to bring their own stove and utensils as they can not use the kitchen facilities in the huts.  Day-guests, i.e. those guests who only visit for a part of the day and are not staying in the huts or camping nearby, will have to pay facility fee when using the hut's facilities, such as lunch shelter, toilet or outdoor grill.

  • Difficulty: Moderate, Strenuous, Very Strenuous
  • 3,000 ft
  • Land Manager: Land Manager Varies
  • Parking Permit Required: see Land Manager
  • Recommended Party Size: 12
  • Maximum Party Size: 16
  • Maximum Route/Place Capacity: 16

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  • Backpack the Remote Volcanic Highlands of Iceland

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