Contrary to popular belief, not all of Iceland is made up of grassy meadows and glaciers. While volcanoes are a huge part of the country's geological makeup, they're also responsible for shaping Iceland's volcanic deserts, also known as the Highlands. The term 'desert' automatically conjures up thoughts of sand and dunes with the occasional cactus thrown in between but in reality, no two deserts look the same. Iceland's deserts are more akin to an otherworldly landscape, somewhere in between Antarctica's barren desert and the dry, remote landscapes in South America.
With that being said, they're also home to some of the country's most beautiful features. By definition, a desert is a place that receives less than average rainfall - by a significant amount - so, while there are no regular rainstorms, the landscape is beautiful in an unfamiliar way to most. It takes more than a day hike to get through any number of the Highlands trails, and this is what to know if it's your goal.
Venturing into Iceland's Highlands and taking on the volcanic trails that will lead one through this remote territory means experiencing the 'wilderness' as it's referred to. This might sound a bit strange considering that aside from Reykjavik, there aren't many large cities in the country that could constitute anything that's not remote. After starting any number of hikes in this region, though, it will become clear what's meant by the wilderness - there are no accommodations other than mountain huts, which can be booked through the Ferðafélag Íslands or Útivist websites. Aside from that, it's just you, your fellow hikers, and the campsite that you're responsible for setting up.
Since camping is done outdoors (obviously), it's important to pay attention to the weather conditions. The best months for hiking are during the summer months when the scenery is at its peak and the roads are open. The months of July and August are the best for this, although don't expect that to mean the temperatures will also be higher. Since the Highlands are higher in elevation, the temperature can differ drastically from that at sea level, so it's important to bring multiple layers and dress appropriately. The time of the year also doesn't exclude sandstorms or strong winds, with temperatures occasionally dropping below zero at night. Gloves and sunglasses are both good things to have in this case.
During the winter months, many of the Highlands trails are impassable - which is only one reason out of many as to why hiking this region shouldn't be attempted during the worst weather season of the year. With that being said, it's not recommended that hikers, no matter how experienced, attempt hiking through the Highlands without an experienced guide. With trips spanning up to nine days in order to complete only one of this stunning landscape's many routes, it's important to be with someone who knows the terrain, especially since the trails are not marked.
Popular Route Options
Eldgjá Volcanic Fissure
According to kimkim, there are three popular routes (there are others, but these are the most well-known) that many people choose from to start. The first starts at Mount Sveinstindur; rather than starting off with a black sand desert as is with the case of much of the Highlands, this region has a breathtaking view. Overlooking a landscape that's covered in Kelly green moss and dotted with various streams and Lake Langisjór, as well as the Skaftá River, the waterways in this area are fed by a nearby glacier.
At the peak of the route in this area, hikers will have their first aerial view of the volcanic desert landscape that the Highlands is known for, along with incredible lava formations. This route is one of the shortest, requiring a hike of only four days, and at the end of it, hikers will be able to admire Eldgjá, also known as Fire Canyon, which is the largest volcano fissure in the entire world.
Fjallabak and Landmannalaugar
This is the shortest hike, requiring only three days. Hikers will walk a total of 24 miles and along the way, they'll learn the story of Swan Lake, also known as Álftavatn Lake. This tragic story tells the tale of a farmer who drowned in the lake and was only found after his wife had a dream about his last location. There are often other hikers in this area which makes it feel a bit less isolated, coming from all over to explore the region's hot springs, gullies, and ridges.
In the winter, there are ice caves to explore (carefully, if you are experienced), and in the summer, the snow-capped mountain peaks are truly a sight to behold. The accumulation of all of this hiking leads to Landmannalaugar, which is famously known for its rhyolite mountain ranges. Past that is the Laugahraun Lava Field, which is home to 500-year old magma trails.