Iceland’s Highlands: Taking a Break from Van Life

Aside from the near-perfect weather which I was fortunate enough to enjoy over 90% of my time in Iceland, another reason to visit during the summer season is to travel to the Highlands. This central region of the country located in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve is home to Hvannadalshnúkur, Iceland’s tallest mountain at 6,919 ft, located just beneath Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull. It’s considered to be one of the most scenic wilderness regions of Iceland, and a hiker’s paradise.

But there are no paved roads in the Highlands. Just gravel, pot-holed, washboard “F-Roads.” These roads running throughout the Highlands are closed for most of the year due to weather conditions. It’s only mid-June to mid-September that these roads are opened for access.

This territory across the middle of the country is mountainous, rugged, wild, and reckless. To reach the main area for hiking, Landmannalaugar, one must cross three rivers. So even if I had sprung for the extra cost of a 4WD camper van, to ford a river violates all but the most liberal of rental contracts. So though I was in Iceland at peak season, I had no way of getting there on my own four wheels. So…..enter Reykjavik Excursions.

Reykjavik Excursions is the most economical way to reach the hiking areas of
Landmannalaugar and the Þórsmörk region.

The beauty of the drive into the Highlands as next to impossible to capture through a rainy bus window.

We would ford three rivers on the way to Landmannalaugar.

Most 4WD autos make it across okay, but it would be good to watch someone else cross first!

A hikers bridge photographed through the bus window, (ergo the reflection.)

This is just one of several options for traveling to the Highlands. There are also “super Jeep” tours. But Reykjavik Excursions offers the most economical bus transport straight to Landmannalaugar from both Reykjavik as well as Hella, a small town along the Ring Road. These buses are often used as shuttle service for hikers doing the long distance four-day hut-to-hut hiking trail called Laugavegur, so you can either take the bus one way as a shuttle, or there and back as a day trip.

The bus stop in Hella leaves from the Kjarval grocery store parking lot where there is long term parking for free. It takes 2.5 hours to reach Landmannalaugar, departing at 8:45am returning at 3:15pm, leaving about four hours to explore the area. The cost about $80 USD, worth it to see this remote area. Plus, it was just nice to be able to get out from behind the wheel for a change, my nose plastered to the window so as to completely soak in the scenery without constantly scanning the road for pot holes, sheep, one lane bridges, or speed cameras. 😉

There is quite a large SAR (Search and Rescue) station at Landmannalaugar, which is a comfort.

This is considered “base camp” of Landmannalaugar. There are a few huts, an Information Kiosk, and the Mountain Mall.

Base Camp at Landmannalaugar is also home to the “Mountain Mall.” What first started out as an old Mercedes used to sell fresh fish from the mountain lakes evolved into a group of converted buses known as the “Mountain Mall.” It’s the only place in Landmannalaugar to purchase any type of supplies.

The variety of items they sell inside this bus is impressive. Everything from washing detergent to woolen socks. The adjacent bus is a cafe selling hotdogs and hot beverages.

The kiosk at the Mountain Mall reads,”Opens in June when the snow has melted and closes just before the farmers collect their sheep from the mountains in September.”

Unfortunately, my day trip to Landmannalaugar fell on one of the days where I wasn’t so lucky with weather. It was pleasant when we departed Hella, but by the time we reached the Highlands, it was gray skies, blowing a gale, and raining horizontally. All I could think about were the gloves, wool hat, and wool buff that were neatly packed in my suitcase back in the camper van parked in Hella. I did bring rain gear, but my warm weather streak had caused me to grow complacent with the cold. So again, nothing else to do but zip it up and carry on. I wasn’t going to miss this hike through these rhyolite mountains that were so unique to the rest of the volcanic scenery I had been seeing.

In the center of Landmannalaugar “base camp” is the Mountain Mall, a pair of old converted school buses selling everything from hotdogs to wool socks. But the most compelling attraction of Landmannalaugar was their hot springs, also called the “People’s Pool.”

Had it not been for the sign warning of “skin itch,” I might never have made it to the hiking trail.

This would have felt so good after a long, cold hike!

If you are wondering why a “hot springs nut” like me didn’t choose a shorter route to allow a little time to soak in the hot springs, well, I did bring my swimsuit just in case. But upon arrival, there was a large sign warning that the water composition in this natural hot springs was not monitored, and there had been known cases of “skin itch.” If there is one thing I didn’t want in the confining quarters of a camper van, it was skin itch!

I stopped by the Tourist Information desk which was little more than a portable desk with a ranger in rain gear standing out in the weather, answering all our questions. I told her my time constraints, and she recommended the “Orange Route” and a section of the “Blue Route,” leaving me just enough time to have a hot chocolate to warm up before heading back to Hella.

Hikes are well marked using a color-coded system.

Maps are also available for 300KR (about $2.30.) Or you can take a photo. 😉

The hike was just stunning through ancient lava fields, up and over geothermal oases, along the canyon ridge and then dropping down along the river. The ochre, yellow, rust and emerald green colors of the rock were all I had hoped to see even on a rainy day. Can you imagine how they must look in the sunshine?

Here are my favorite photos of the “orange loop.”

Heading up and away from Base Camp on the Graenagil, or orange loop.

The trail climbs up and over the the Laugahraun lava field.

The colors here are so vibrant on a rainy day that I would love to see them in the sunshine.

This section is also the start of the longer, multi-day hikes, so there are hikers carrying large packs along the trail.

Note this crystalline blue pool. It must be cold, otherwise it would be occupied!

The trail skirts around the eastern base of Mt. Brennisteinsalda, also known as the “Sulfur Wave” due to its coloration from the yellow sulfur and red iron.

Up ahead are the steaming sulfur vents from a small geothermal area along the loop.

Streaming vents and bubbling pools along the trail amidst clouds of sulfur-smelling steam.

Note glacial patches in upper right.

Looking down into the Graenagil Canyon.

The section through the canyon is the most beautiful part of the loop.

This entire rock outcropping in the center of the photo is a beautiful emerald green.

It’s easier to see the green a little closer up, but “in real life,” it was stunning.

The area is beautiful in its desolation.

I found this trail signage amusing along the apparent “blue route.”

The orange loop was just under 2 hours. I attempted a part of the blue route, but I was bucking a forceful headwind, so gave up sooner than I would have otherwise liked.

But alas, there would be no sunshine for the entire day. Only bone-chilling blustery wind pelting me with horizontal rain that laughed in the face of all but the best of REI’s top line of rain gear. Even the steaming hot chocolate on the Mountain Mall couldn’t warm me up. I was chilled to the bone.

All the way back on the bus, all I could think about was a good hot soak. So on the way back to Hella, I googled the nearest hot spring, Secret Lagoon, and booked the last available slot for the evening. If I jumped straight off the bus and into the camper van, I could just make it there for an hour of heated bliss..just long enough to warm my weary bones.

The Secret Lagoon, purported to be the oldest swimming pool in Iceland, is one of the few hot springs that remain in its original state. Its origins date back to 1891, so its stone walls and gravel bottom make it a bit mossier than the newer pools. Swimming was taught here in 1908.

Of course, these “zen-like” photos were taken at closing time just after the announcement “Everybody out of the pool!”

If the question ever comes up, “Would you go back to Iceland?” I would answer yes for two reasons. One, I’d like to see it in the throes of winter. But the other reason would be to explore more of this “other worldly” volcanic desert wilderness.

Camping along this section: Gaddstaðaflatir Campground

11 thoughts on “Iceland’s Highlands: Taking a Break from Van Life

  1. WOWZERS! So glad you post these gorgeous photos! This has been quite the experience for you. Your “true grit” when it comes to hiking is amazing!

    Virtual hugs,


  2. You are the absolute definition of an “intrepid traveler”! Since I hate cold weather, I could only imagine if I had been there that I probably would have stayed on the bus. Ha!

  3. Oh crap! so you missed getting in the Secret Lagoon!? My sister and I also experienced “bone-chilling blustery wind pelting us with horizontal rain” almost every other day and we had each other to laugh about it 🙂 We missed the Landmannalaugar area, so this post and your photos are much appreciated. Such a strange wonderful country eh?

    • Hi, Terri,

      No I didn’t miss the Secret Lagoon. I had about an hour and 15 minutes of blissful soaking there. I just didn’t bring out the camera until closing time.

      Thanks for following along!

  4. Whoa! What a cool trek through the center of Iceland! Love the route map (an avid cartophile, I am) and trail markers…and the scenery is stupendously gorgeous! That you got to have a hot soak afterwards? Tant Mieux! But, I couldn’t help it…I also noticed this with the Mountain Mall:

    Everyone Else: Wow! Socks and detergent and first aid kits!
    Me: Wow! Oreos!


  5. Just stunning rocks. The only time I have seen those colors, they were in bands of rocks near Lander Wyoming. Green, purple, reddish-orange, but they were not this vivid, probably being older (?) or somehow more worn. What a wonderful trip you had. Glad you thawed out. Thanks for taking others along on this adventure.

  6. I found myself shivering looking at your photos and reading about the rain. Brrrr!! What a great adventure! Such a unique spot and so beautiful even with the clouds and rain. You definitely deserved a hot soak.

  7. Oh my gosh, I have checked out of the blog world for a few years (a few reasons) but looked you up today as I do think of you once in awhile. You have been busy. You are a true inspiration. I’m Mazatlan now, I moved to the city last year to be closer to the art culture, If you are ever by this way look me up.

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