Moonscape Trekking in the Icelandic Highlands

Trekking Iceland highlands canyon

In 2010, Iceland’s impossible-to-pronounce Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted. The resulting plume of ash shut down air traffic in Europe, and all eyes were suddenly on Iceland. “Hey, what IS that place?” asked people around the world. “I thought Iceland was just a big, boring glacier?”

Nope! Turns out Iceland is green (and Greenland icy) and features spectacular scenery. Especially in the middle of the country, where hut-to-hut treks weave through a surreal landscape of volcanoes, glaciers, and hissing sulfurous vents.

We crossed dozens of streams and hissing steam vents along our route.

After 2.5 great weeks in our camper van, we laced up our hiking shoes and headed out for five days and 55 miles of hut-to-hut trekking in the highlands. It was hands-down one of the coolest hiking experiences I’ve had.

For the first three days, there were no trails. Our destination was a GPS point over distant mountains and we simply hiked over whatever lay between us and shelter. Switchbacks? Pfffft. Just get to the top any possible way. My kinda hike! (We did have a guide to show us the way.)

Trekking Iceland highlands

Chelsea and I travel a lot, but we rarely plan ahead. This creates issues when there are, say, limited sleeping berths in huts. Luckily, her mom is a genius planner and we joined her parents for the trek. Hey, at least we aren’t living at home with them! As usual, C’s folks were tough as hell and hiked 10-15 miles a day on uneven, tricky terrain. (Linda, thanks for handling everything.)

We tromped up volcanic slopes and waded glacial-melt rivers. At lunch we’d sit in thick green moss with views of expansive valleys. Smoking fumaroles belched sulfur and steam, waterfalls poured off cliffs, and we even rambled through short, gnarled birch forests. Our final day was a stunning climb up to the location of the 2010 eruption, a pass between Eyjafjallajökull and the sleeping giant Katla.

Ground zero for the 2010 eruption at Fimmvörduháls.

Ground zero for the 2010 eruption at Fimmvörduháls.

Sleeping in Style

Iceland’s highlands are sprinkled with sleeping huts, remnants of the sheep herding days of yore. Instead of drunk shepherds, these huts now frequently house trekkers exploring the middle of the country.

We stayed in four different huts, each with a different feel. All featured a kitchen with (cold) running water, a propane stove, and flush toilets. A giant pot of water was kept hot on the stove to fuel hikers with tea and coffee.

10 steps from our hut on day 1, this is a panorama view of a river valley we hiked through, fording through coooold water a few times...

10 steps from our hut on day 1, this is a panorama view of a river valley we hiked through, fording through coooold water a few times…

The one similarity: nightly snoring contests a chainsaw festival would envy. To fight the rippling snorts of tired hikers, bring good ear plugs or your life will suck! I’m a light sleeper, but with ear plugs was able to zonk out every night. (Chelsea’s pro tip: not all earplugs are the same. Look at the rating on the package before you buy and test them out before the trip to make sure they fit your ears and get the job done. She obviously didn’t sleep as well as I did.)

Trekking Iceland highlands colorful hills

How’s The Weather, Wally?

We hiked in early August, but the Arctic Circle ain’t famous for sunny, warm weather. Most days we donned rain jackets to ward off a stinging-cold shower for at least part of the day. Expect to hike at least part of the time in gusting wind and rain. At least the clouds add to the moody mystique and keep noses from getting sunburned.

Still, inclement weather simply added extra zest, and thanks to many warnings, we were prepared. Remember, it’s not bad weather if you have the right gear. (Or have lived in the rainy Pacific NW.)

Moody, gray skies and a striking landscape.

Moody, gray skies and a striking landscape.

Bright green moss along a stream fed by a snow field.

Bright green moss along a stream fed by a snow field.

Choosing a Route

There are tons of potential highland trekking routes. However, Nat Geo’s “Ultimate Adventure” article about the Laugavegurinn (also called Laugavegur) trail means that just about everyone starts at Landmannalaugar and ends at Skógar.

Thanks to Linda’s travel planning genius, we spent the first three days on a different, less-traveled route to the west that dovetailed with the main trek. We literally didn’t see a single other hiker those days, just open vistas.

Chelsea and Linda contemplating this mountain's lack of switchbacks.

Chelsea and Linda contemplating this mountain’s lack of switchbacks. No, the background is not CGI…

After hiking with just our group through empty landscapes, it was a shock on the 3rd night to arrive at a hut jam-packed with people and drying rain gear and see 75 tents pitched outside on any flat surface. It felt like a mountain favela, or perhaps like Everest base camp in busy season.

To avoid that, I highly recommend getting off the main trek. Any guide company (we used Fjallback) can set you up with a quieter, less-trafficked path. If you’re going with a group of friends, it will be even easier to select a remote trip. Even if you’re self-supported, the extra effort is totally worth it to reap the benefits of solitude in nature. Here’s a list and map of all the huts.

A moonscape of moss and lava.

A moonscape of moss and lava.

Add It To the Bucket List

To see the remote, beautiful landscapes of Iceland, for my money there’s no better way than a trek in the highlands. The peaceful, lengthy communion with nature that I felt hiking for long hours left me tired, happy, and dreaming of visiting again. Don’t let the snoring in the huts or the inclement weather dissuade you – exploring the center of Iceland on foot is not to be missed.

Trekking Iceland highlands ridge