I can’t think of a better long weekend than trekking in remote wilderness areas with a group of good friends. In that vein, I recently went trekking in the Kerlingarfjöll Mountain Range, right in the middle of the Icelandic Highlands. What a weekend.
If you are looking to get completely off the beaten path and venture into an area of unspoiled natural wonders far away from the crowds (tourists and locals alike), Kerlingarfjöll is an excellent choice. After leaving the rustic visitor center at Asgardur (old ski-resort which serves as a visitor center and lodging), we only met two people during the entire hike - otherwise, we were completely alone with the nature.
According to a recommendation by a local ranger, we decided to do the clockwise circular route nick-named “the Circular Challenge”. It is approximately 30 mile (47km) trek with elevation change over 5000ft (1750m) and is usually completed in three days. On the route there are two very basic mountain huts which we opted to stay in. Here you can find some additional information on the route (except I recommend doing it clockwise).
The route takes you around the whole mountain range, covering a wide range of natural landscape variations. We encountered everything from deep canyons, desoloated ash-covered sands and incredibly colorful geothermal areas contrasted by snow-covered mountain tops.
It truly felt like we were walking through a new planet every day of the trip.
Photo by Þórlindur Kjartansson
The first day is by far the easiest day hike. It’s a relatively short easy day hike with little elevation gain and only a couple of small streams to cross. We were very glad this turned out to be a short one as we got the worst weather this day, a classic day of Icelandic rain and storm - which you better be ready for if you are trekking in the highlands! Luckily for us, the weather kept getting better as we progressed over the next few days and on our last day we were greated with a beautiful sunny day (or “bongó blíða” as we would say in Icelandic).
At the end of our first day, we came to the cabin in Kisubotnar which was as rudimentary as a cabin can get - basically a tight-knit containter with bunker beds. However, it was cozy and quickly got warm which was all we needed after a rainy day.
On our second day, we started seeing the landscape change dramatically. We encountered a massive canyon with sheer cliffs several hundred feet down to the bottom. Magnificent landscape that seemingly came out of nowhere during our hike.
Photo by Þórlindur Kjartansson
As we were getting closer to our next mountain hut at Klakkur, the visibility was becoming better and better and a couple of us in the group took on an extra detour and hiked up to one of the nearby mountains (called Eystri Rauðkollur if I’m not mistaken) to encounter stunning 360 views of the highlands. From the top we were able to see all three largest glaciers in Iceland at the same time - Vatnajokull, Langjökull and Hofsjökull.
The cabin at Klakkur was a little bigger and had better facilities than the previous one which we much appreciated.
Photo by Þórlindur Kjartansson
This was our longest and hardest day by far - but just as rewarding as it was challenging. It would be an accurate statement to say that in every sense of the words, the hike had been building up to this day.
Not only was this the longest day in miles but also the one with by far the most elevation gain (over 3000 ft). An hour into the hike we hit our first obstacle, a fairly deep canyon which we had to climb down into to through a steep trail to cross a freezing cold river at the bottom - before climbing back up on the other side. It was a refreshing start of the day!
Throughout the day we hiked through three mountain passes - each one more beautiful than the next one. While we had to hike several hours in snow (in July!), conditions were overall fine and no climbing gear was needed at this time. It was an easy snow walk.
As we made our way closer back to Ásbyrgi, we entered a stunning geothermal area. Every color imaginable painted a picture of the stark opposites of geothermal hot springs and snowy mountains. We even found a luke-warm stream to rest our legs in during a break.
It is worth noting that there are a couple of different route options this day. The longest one goas all around the mountain range while the one we opted for is slightly shorter but adds more elevation gain. We cut through a couple of the mountain to hike through Hveradalur Valley which is a geothermal valley I would highly recommend visiting.
After a long and difficult day, we all got very pleasently surprised towards the end. As we were getting closer to home base and had about an hour long hike remaining, the husband of one of us in the group hiked up towards us as we were coming down the final stretch and brought cold beers for everyone - the rest was easy! We celebrated finishing the circular trek by grilling Icelandic lamb fillet and singing classic folklore songs, a combination well fitted to the occasion.
There is sleeping bag accommodation available both in Ásgarður (the main visitor area) and the other two mountain cabins on the trail. Make sure to book Ásgarður in advance as it gets popular during the summer time. The other mountain cabins probably have avilability most of the time (not a single other person stayed there during our trip) but you still need to book and get the key-code access to the cabins as there is nobody working there. Please also remember to take good care of the cabins and leave no trail. You can book the huts and get more info from the local operators of Kerlingarfjöll.
Please note that this area is in remote wilderness and there are no marked trails during most of the hike. There are markers to guide you the right way but in certain areas they are far apart and can be tricky to spot if the clouds come over. You absolutely need to have a GPS and map/compass to navigate the trail in this area. If you need the gps tracks for the trail, the local ranger should be able to help you out.
It takes about 4 hours to drive to Kerlingarfjöll from Reykjavik during summer (road is closed in winter). The last couple of hours you will drive the mountain road Kjölur (F35) and then a short stretch on F347 towards the Kerlingarfjöll Mountain Resort at Ásbyrgi. The drive itself is fairly easy to drive gravel road, accessible on all SUVs and 4WD during summer and there are no unbridged rivers to cross.
Enjoy the highlands!