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.
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. 😉
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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