Exploring the Highlands of Iceland

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The highlands of Iceland are more remote than many of the other places that tourists visit in this amazing country. They are located in the central area of the country. The only access is on gravel tracks and a 4WD vehicle is almost essential for any adventure into the Highlands. There are no facilities, no towns and barely any villages, just miles and miles of mountains, glaciers and lava.

Quick Facts About the Iceland highlands

  • The highlands are above approximately 400 metres and cover 40,000 square kilometres in the central area of Iceland
  • They can only be accessed in summer months by foot or 4WD
  • It is mainly volcanic desert with ash, lava and bare earth in every shade of brown and orange
  • Plant life struggles to flourish in this environment
  • There are oasis such as Herðubreiðarlindir near Askja fed by the glacial rivers
  • Vatnajökull, Langjökull and Hofsjökull glaciers are all found in the highlands
  • The area has ongoing volcanic activity
  • Highlands Highlights
    • Askja – an active volcano with a large caldera
    • Þórsmörk – black sand and white rivers and the start of the Laugavegur trail
    • Landmannalaugar – an area of hot springs and rivers

The Icelandic Highlands

This area is wild and remote. Home to glaciers and active volcanoes it is a place to be respected and planned. The landscape is full of high mountains, their slopes coloured by the rhyolite. There are a number of geothermal spots, their presence given away by the steam rising in the cold air although some are subglacial. The area is full of activity with over 20 active volcanoes causing ongoing tremors.

35% of the area is protected as a National Park or Nature Reserve. The largest one is Vatnajökull National Park, but other large Nature Reserves include Þjórsárver, Guðlaugstungur and Fjallabak.

Three large rivers criss-cross the landscape, cutting into the black sand banks as well as lots of tributaries and hundreds of waterfalls. These rivers are fed by the 10 glaciers that are located in the region as well as the hundreds of lakes and gorges and canyons.

When is the best time of year to visit the Central Highlands of iceland?

It is possible to explore the Highlands in the summer months. From June to September the roads are open an passable but the weather can change rapidly. Even in summer there can be snowfall and the visibility can drop suddenly as a squall moves through or the cloud base drops. The roads are rough and should not be attempted without a 4WD vehicle or as part of a tour. There are more than enough stories and videos of what can happen on these notorious ‘F’ roads to make you respect them for what they are. Once you make it into the highlands, the rewards are worth every blind corner, laval field and river crossing with a wilderness that is unique and stunning.

Photography spots in the Icelandic highlands

The list below is a just some of the highlights of the Highlands of Iceland. Included are some of the more accessible locations that are just a short distance from Ring Road 1 giving an easier introduction to the remote Highlands. To see more photographs if the Highlands in Iceland visit my Iceland gallery.

Landmannalaugar (“The People’s Pools”)

Landmannalaugar (“The People’s Pools”) is the place that most people associate with the highlands and is located in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve. It is a geothermal area with numerous hot springs and pools for bathing. The area is backed by the rhyolite mountains that are iconic of the highlands and is one of the best places in Iceland for hiking. The Laugavegur Trail includes Landmannalaugar, an epic 55km hike from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk.
This area can be reached on the F225 or F208

Photography notes: This area has unique geology and landforms. The high acidity of the magma from Torfajökull caldera has resulted in the colourful red, purple and cream rhyolite mountains which are a photographers dream. There are also geothermal locations and rivers that with a guide can be explored and photographed.

Þórsmörk – Thorsmork

The green valley of Thorsmork in Iceland with a river against black sand
Image from The Danish Nomads who photographed the Icelandic Highlands while hiking

Þórsmörk is a secluded valley with its own ecosystem between Tindfjallajökull and Eyjafjallajökull glaciers. Known as ‘Thor’s Forest’ it is one of the few areas that trees and ferns grow happily in Iceland. The 2010 eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull resulted in Þórsmörk being coated in a dense layer of ash, but over time the area has healed and returned to its original beauty.
This area is reached on the Road 249/F249 from Vík.

Photography notes: Thorsmork is a treat for nature and wildlife photographers. Arctic foxes can be seen in this remote area, one of the few places in Iceland. This area has magical valleys and moss covered peaks that have a magical feel to them even when the weather conditions are less than ideal.

Herðubreið Mountain

Herðubreið mountain in the Highlands of Iceland surrounded by lava fields

This mountain was voted Iceland’s ‘National Mountain’ in 2002. Herðubreið means ‘shoulder wide’ in Icelandic and is a table-top mountain which rises 1682 metres about the surrounding Ódáðahraun lava fields. It dominates the landscape on the drive in to Askja and Dreki. It can be reached by hiking from the F88, buth this road is a technical off-road drive.
It can also be seen from the F905 and F910 across the lava fields.

Photography notes: This mountain is massive and is best photographed from a distance across the lava fields. This gives a true impression of its scale and the way it rises from the landscape.

Askja and Askja Víti

Blue crater pool of Askja Viti in the highlands of Iceland

Askja is a large caldera located in the north east Highlands. It has a smaller blast crater called Askja Víti which has blue geothermal waters which in the right conditions can be used for swimming. There is a short trek across the caldera to the lake and Askja Víti which is part of the longer trail 90km Askja trail from Herðubreiðarlindir to Svartárkot.
Askja is located on the F894 from Dreki.

Photography notes: Askja is a large area to photograph and is best approached with a panorama. Even Askja Víti is best captured using a number of images. Once in the caldera remember to look at the rocks as the colours and patterns are amazing.

Háifoss

Haifoss waterfall in the highlands of Iceland with green cliffs surrounding the waterfall

Háifoss is one of the highest waterfalls in the whole of Iceland at 122 metres. It is located in the lava fields near Hekla along a rough road and it is then a short walk to the falls. There are two falls, the main Háifoss and its neighbour Granni which is slightly smaller but equally impressive. Háifoss is located on Road 332.

Photography notes: This waterfall is viewed from above from across the canyon. It is possible to include Granni using a wide angle lens. Take care with your footing as it is a long drop to the base of the canyon. There are also stunning views down the valley towards Stöng and beyond.

Stuðlagil

Stuðlagil in Iceland with basalt columns and a blue glacial river

Stuðlagil canyon is located in the north east highlands of Iceland. It is easy to reach from Ring Road 1 and has some of the tallest and most impressive basalt columns in Iceland. In May and June pink-footed geese nest in the gorge and it is essential that walkers stay on the marked paths.
Stuðlagil Canyon is off Road 923

Photography notes: the canyon can be photographed from either side. From the east side the opportunities are easier to reach with parking a short distance from the canyon. On the west side it is a longer walk but the photographs from this side show the sheer scale of the basalt columns.

Gjáin

Gjain in Iceland a lush green valley with waterfalls and a grey sky

Gjáin is a photographers dream. This small valley is found along a rough track between Hjálparfoss and Háifoss and has a number of waterfalls, basalt columns and lava caves. It was one of the quietest and most spectacular little valleys we found. It is surrounded by barren lava fields but as your peer over the edge of the valley a lush green oasis appears.
Gjáin is off Road 327 on a small road that loops round to the valley

Photography notes: this small valley has everything for photographers and it is easy to lose yourself for a day quite easily. The waterfalls are beautiful and the rock formation add interest. There are also options for macro photography with the number of flowers present.

Dreki and Nautagil

Dreki in the north east highlands of Iceland with a campsite in lava fields

Dreki and Nautagil are two deep canyons in the north east Highlands of Iceland. There are close to the Askja volcano and caldera on F910. The area was used by NASA training astronauts before the moon landing and today in the summer months NASA scientists are based at the mountain huts and campsite.
Follow F905 and F910 to reach Dreki and Nautagil

Photography notes: Big wide landscapes and small high canyons are the photography options at Dreki and Nautagil. the landscape is barren with volcanic peaks dotted across the horizon. As with other places it is worth looking at the smaller details in this area to tell the story of the place.

Hjálparfoss

Hjalparfoss in Iceland with two waterfalls flowing into one plunge pool

This waterfall is a little unusual with its double falls joining into one large plunge pool. It is also surrounded by some seriously impressive basalt columns including the main one that splits the flow of water over the falls. Hjálparfoss is a little off the main Golden Circle and is tucked away in the lava fields near Hekla.
Found down a short gravel road from Road 32.

Photography notes: This small waterfall is unusual with its double falls. Getting to water level provides the best perspective although any of the viewing platforms are worth stopping at. Also take time to explore the basalt columns that surround the entire area and the river as it flows away from the falls.

Hekla

Hekla volcano in Iceland with a bank of cloud over the peak

Hekla is an active volcano on the south west corner of the Highlands. It is dominant over the landscape and is the start of a number of treks and adventures into the Highlands.
It last erupted in 2000 and continues to be a silent threat having erupted over 20 times in the last 1200 years.
Hekla is often covered in a blanket of cloud, her snowy peaks hidden from view.
She can be seen from miles around but the main roads are Road 26 and the rough gravel Road 268.

Photography notes: As with other places on this list Hekla is best photographed in the landscape showing her true scale. A wide angle lens will help to show all of the volcano and the landscape.

Other Places to Explore in the Central Highlands

  • Stöng – A Viking settlement now ruined but protected from the elements in its own hut
  • Blahylur & Ljotipollur – Stunning blue crater lakes
  • Veiðivötn – An area in the south west Highlands with over 50 crater lakes
  • Holaskjol and Huldufoss – A small waterfall in a stunning location on the way to Eldgja
  • Eldgja Canyon – The largest volcanic crater in the world
  • Ófærufoss – A 2 step waterfall in the Eldgja crater
  • Aldeyjarfoss Waterfall – One of the most beautiful waterfalls in the highlands
  • Lakagigar or Laki Craters – A volcanic fissure with a series of craters created from 1783 to 1784
  • Fagrifoss – A small ‘veil’ waterfall on the road towards Laki
  • Kerlingarfjoll – A colourful mountain range home to the Hveradalir geothermal area
  • Hveravellir – A true wilderness with one of the largest geothermal areas in the whole of Iceland
  • Langisjór Lake – One of the most beautiful lakes in Iceland but also the hardest to reach
  • Bárðarbunga – A 2009 metre high, active subglacial stratovolcano under the ice cap of Vatnajökull glacier
  • Holuhraun Lava Field – A laval field located just north of Vatnajökull glacier in the highlands, created during the 1797 eruption of Askja
  • Sigöldugljúfur – A beautiful canyon filled with waterfalls

Map of Places to Visit and Photograph in the Highlands of Iceland

Map of iceland waterfalls

This map provides some of the places to visit, but there will be many more not listed. Make sure you research the route and road conditions before setting out each day. Conditions can change rapidly so it is worth having a plan B at all times. Click on the map or follow the link to see the map of places to visit in the Highlands of Iceland.


Driving and Touring The Highlands of Iceland

Car Hire to Explore the Highlands of Iceland

Getting to the highlands in Iceland is possible with a hire car and plan a self drive route. You should ensure that you have a 4WD vehicle and are confident with off road driving including river crossings. These roads do not forgive mistakes and the road conditions should be checked before setting out and during the day to ensure the weather and road conditions are safe. Check out the conditions on Vegagerðin

Have a look at car hire options and book..

In the winter months all of the roads into the Highlands are closed and should not be attempted even with 4WD. Whether you are on a tour or driving yourself, have a look at my Iceland Road Trip Planning Guide or Read more about driving the F905/F910..

Places to Stay in the Highlands

The highlands of Iceland have very limited options for accomodation. There are a number of mountain huts run by the Touring Club of Akureyri in the north east Highlands, a campsite and huts at Landmannalaugar run by the Iceland Touring Association and a number of volcano huts at Þórsmörk.

View the volcano huts here and book..

There are also some cabins in Hólaskjól on the way to the waterfall and Eldgja.

View the cabins here and book..

If you want a brief introduction to the Highlands from Vík then the quiet campsite at Þakgil will give you the experience of what this area is like. It is 30 minutes drive from Vík but the weather conditions can make it a difficult drive even in the summer months. This small campsite has a campsite and cabins in a small moss covered canyon.

Tours in the Highlands of Iceland

Given the terrain and potential weather conditions, a tour of the Highlands is the easiest and safest way to visit this area of Iceland. There are a huge range of tours, from super-jeep to threking and camping with a guide. It really is down to your fitness level, what you want to see and the amount of time you have available to the exact tour that you choose. They will all give an amazing experience to this volatile but remote corner of the country.

Browse the tours of the Highlands and book here..

Photography Tours to Landmannalaugar

This is one of the most iconic regions in the Icelandic Highlands but also one of the most remote. It has only been possible to visit in the last few decades. The photography options are massive and to get the most from the region a guide will be a good investment. If you want to experience the isolation of the area then a private photography tour is worth considering.

Explore this Private tour of Landmannalaugar and BOOK..

General Photography Tours of the Highlands

If you are looking for the real experience then a week of camping and photographing the Highlands may be a consideration! This will take you away from the usual and allow you to experience the area in all of its summer glory, using the best conditions and light through the endless days of summer.

Have a look at this tour and book – you know you want to!


More about Exploring the Highlands Area of Iceland

Read the Complete Guide to Exploring and Photographing Iceland