Hiking Kerlingarfjöll Geothermal Area (Icelandic Highlands)

Deep within Iceland’s central highlands, Kerlingarfjöll is a group of small geothermically active and rust-colored mountains capped with snow. Here’s how to organize your own self-drive adventure.

Kerlingarfjöll is a lesser-known day-hiking experience not too far away from Iceland’s famous Golden Circle route. It was one of my favorite stops in Iceland!

If you want to get off the beaten path a bit and extend your Golden Circle trip with something more adventurous, this strange geothermal area is the perfect place to stop for a half-day hiking trip (and maybe spend the night).

Surrounded by rocky green peaks and Iceland’s Tuya volcano system, Kerlingarfjoll itself stands out with red & orange hues. Hiking these colorful rhyolite hills will expose you to hot springs, geysers, steam vents, and boiling mud pots.

Exploring Hveradalir Geothermal Area

Some of the summits in Kerlingarfjoll are covered in snow year-round, like Fannborg and Snækollur. In fact, at one time there was a ski-lift, but as global temperatures warmed they removed it due to lack of snow.

I spent about 4 hours hiking around and photographing the Hveradalir geothermal area of Kerlingarfjoll after camping out in their campground the night before.

Walking through thick steam clouds pouring from fumaroles, and hiking up its muddy orange slopes, I felt like an astronaut exploring another planet!

More visitors showed up later in the day, but I initially had it all to myself.

Kerlingarfjöll Hiking Trails

Kerlingarfjoll is crisscrossed with different marked and unmarked hiking trails. You can spend a few hours, or a few days trekking through this wild Icelandic landscape.

Hringbrautin Ring Route – This is a full 3-day trek that takes you to every nook & cranny of Kerlingarfjoll. With two mountain huts along the way, there’s no need to pack a tent.

Austurfjoll Peaks – A tough 5-6 hour hike over all the highest mountains in Kerlingarfjoll, including the highest called Snaekollur at 1,428m.

Hveradalir Walk – The standard 2-3 hour walk through the geothermal area of Hveradalir. Steam vents and hot springs, with optional hikes up a few mountains.

Myth Of The Troll Woman

The mountains of Kerlingarfjöll were once considered a refuge for outlaws and trolls. Icelanders are known for their belief in mystical creatures.

The weather in these mountains is notoriously bad — getting very cloudy and windy. The whole place is basically a big volcanic caldera, created by eruptions from a time when there were still glaciers of ice above it.

Icelandic legends tell the tale of Kerling, an old hag troll woman who was the daughter of the fire giant Surtur.

One day she didn’t make it home in time before the sunrise and was turned to stone by sunlight. If you look carefully, might spot her 30-meter tall stone pillar…

Getting To Kerlingarfjöll

Because it’s located in the highlands, Kerlingarfjoll can only be reached by driving on Iceland’s notorious “F-Roads”. The F-Roads are essentially rough jeep trails that weave through the remote center of the country.

These gravel tracks aren’t really maintained and close down for the winter in late September or early October (after the first snow) until June. So hiking Kerlingarfjoll is a summer adventure.

Some F-Roads are more hardcore than others, requiring you to drive through rivers with no bridges. Luckily F-35 Kjölur, the road to reach Kerlingarfjoll, isn’t too difficult.

A 4X4 vehicle is required for all mountain roads in Iceland though, 2WD rental cars are not insured here because conditions are extreme (snow, ice, mud, sand, rivers, etc.)

Golden Circle Extension

If you’re planning to self-drive Iceland’s famous Golden Circle, and you leave early enough in the morning, you can tack on Kerlingarfjöll to extend your trip.

From Gullfoss Waterfall the drive up F-35 to Kerlingarfjöll takes 2-3 hours, depending on how rugged your vehicle is. The road can get very rough in some spots. It’s also possible to get here from the town of Blönduós in the North.

Iceland’s highlands are no joke, and you need to be prepared with food, water, a full tank of gas, and warm clothing should you break down.

If you decide to add Kerlingarfjöll to the typical Golden Circle stops, you’ll need to spend the night there and drive back the next day. There’s no way you could do all of it and get back to Reykjavik the same day. Plus, you’ll want to save some time to see all the fun things to do in Reykjavik too.

Where To Stay At Kerlingarfjöll

Kerlingarfjoll has a small resort with 20 double rooms and 10 smaller individual cabins and A-frames that you can rent out for the night.

This back-country lodge has hot showers available, bathrooms, a small shop, and a restaurant. There’s also a campground here, which is what I did. It costs 2000 ISK ($16 USD) per person to camp with your own tent.

From the cabins, you can follow a path beside the river leading to a nice little hot spring pool that’s safe to swim in. It takes about 30 minutes to get there on foot.

There’s also a remote backpacker hostel further up F-35 called Gíslaskáli Kjölur.

Kerlingarfjoll Travel Tips

  • Icelandic names can be confusing. Kerlingarfjöll is the mountain range, while Hveradalir is the actual geothermal area.
  • To reach the red hills and steam vents of Hveradalir, you can either hike from Kerlingarfjöll Mountain Resort (1.5 hours), or if you have a 4X4 vehicle, drive up a steep dirt road to save time.
  • Fill your gas tank before entering the highlands. There’s one gas pump at Kerlingarfjöll but it isn’t always working.
  • There are a few public buses that stop out here, the 610 and 610a, but you’d need to spend the night and take another bus back the next day.
  • The hiking trails can be very muddy, or even covered in snow depending on the time of year. Proper hiking boots are recommended.
  • The area is very sensitive to foot-traffic, so please stay on marked trails to avoid destroying the delicate landscape.

While many people travel Iceland’s famous Golden Circle, far less venture up into the rugged highlands. But as you can see, there’s a good reason why it’s worth the effort involved! ★

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