The beauty of Iceland stretches beyond Reykjavik and the popular Golden Circle areas that most visitors focus on. And if you are the adventurous and outdoorsy type, then you will love spending a few days hiking the country’s diverse Volcanic Trails. Located in the country's southern Highlands, this network of trails passes through endless fields of lava, rivers, and moss-covered valleys. The Volcanic Trails will take you to remote spots where few have set foot, so get ready to admire some of Iceland’s most stunning landscapes in true peace and quiet.
In the span of a few days, you'll climb mountains, dip in hot springs, see mysterious lakes and glaciers, and discover a whole new side of Iceland—one that few get to experience. The trails will take you from Sveinstindur mountain, which on a clear day offers one of the best views in the country, to Landmannalaugar in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve, made up of colorful rhyolite mountains. The whole route is a whopping 80-miles and takes 9 days to complete - but it can easily be divided into three shorter itineraries that range from 3-5 days in duration.
Know Before You Go
Since you'll be spending most of your time out in the open, weather is an important factor. The best time of the year to hike the Volcanic Trails are July and August. Since sandstorms and strong winds happen often here (yes, even in the summer) make sure your camera and sunglasses are built to withstand those conditions.
And speaking of gear, you'll be crossing rivers of varying depths and current strength, so water shoes and warm neoprene socks are a must. Pack an extra change of clothes in your backpack as well as a few essential accessories like a hat and gloves (there is snow year-round in some parts of the Highlands).
You will likely be staying overnight in one of the mountain huts that are available to hikers. These require advance reservations - and bear in mind that you may be sharing a room as well as a bunk with other travelers. All huts have running water, but not all of them have showers, so it's a good idea to check the available facilities before you book anything.
Finally, it's not a good idea to hike the Volcanic Trails without a professional guide, as there are no markings or signs along the trails and you may end up getting lost. Be sure to bring a power bank and some extra cash - you'll need to pay for most additional services in the huts (like showers and phone-charging outlets) and credit cards are not accepted.
Trekking Option #1: Sveinstindur to the Eldgjá Volcanic Fissure
Start your journey at the top of Mount Sveinstindur, which reveals a breathtaking panorama — to the north, the colossal Vatnajökull and the vast Lake Langisjór; to the south, the Laki Lava Fields covered in eerie green moss. Continue on along the shores of the 71 mile long Skaftá River, fed by the waters of the nearby Vatnajökull glacier and Lake Langasjór. Reach the Uxatindar Peaks and marvel at the wondrous lava formations and black volcanic landscape that opens before your eyes. Your last stop on this three-day journey will be Eldgjá, also known as Fire Canyon, which forms one volcano system together with the Katla volcano. As the largest volcanic fissure in the world, Eldgjá is truly a sight to behold—all 24 miles of it.
Overnight accommodation is possible in several mountain huts at Sveinstindur, Skælingar, and Hólaskjól.
Distance: 26 miles (42 km)
Duration: 4 days, 3 nights
Trekking Option #2: The Torfajökull Rhyolite Massif
The Fjallabak Nature Reserve is the largest rhyolite area in Iceland and the third biggest geothermal region, which means you will see plenty of steaming natural pools and colorful landscapes on this leg of the Volcanic Trails. The trek will take you to the Álftavötn Lakes and the Syðri Ófæra River that originates in the Torfajökull glacier volcano - which is still considered active even though the last eruption took place in 1477. Because the average temperatures in the reserve are low (around 33 degrees Fahrenheit) with strong winds and frequent sandstorms, vegetation is scarce. This makes for quite the landscape: jet black soil with patches of green that only increase as you approach the rivers or the lakes.
Fortunately, if you do feel cold, you can always take a break from hiking and reward yourself with a dip in the blissful Strútslaug natural pool, located between the Torfajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers. Continue your adventure through the Mýrdalssandur volcanic plain until you reach the small Hvanngil Valley, part of the popular Laugavegur hiking trail. Finally, walk along the shores of Kaldaklofskvísl River with the Stórasúla mountain towering over it, and take in the eerie scenery of the highlands.
Stay overnight in mountain huts in Álftavötn, Strútur, and Hvanngil.
Distance: 36 miles (58 km)
Duration: 5 days, 4 nights
Trekking Option #3: Fjallabak and Landmannalaugar
At about 24 miles, this itinerary - the shortest of the three - will take you to Álftavatn Lake (Swan Lake) which, like many places in Iceland, has a good story behind it. It is believed that a farmer once drowned in the lake, only being found after his wife dreamt about the exact location. Beautiful mountains surround the serene lake which, in the summer, is relatively busy with fellow hikers. Head east on the Laugavegur Trail towards the colorful Ljósártungur area, home to endless gullies, ridges, and hot springs. You can even find some ice caves in the winter - with an experienced guide and proper equipment of course. Even in the summer, you can spot areas still covered in snow, a beautiful sight together with the orange mountains and bright blue sky.
You will be crossing rivers and streams until you reach Landmannalaugar, the crown-jewel of the southern Highlands with its stunning rhyolite mountains that seem to change their color as the sun peeks through the clouds. Head towards the neighboring Laugahraun Lava Field, a mysterious plain of dried magma formed over 500 years ago - and the perfect spot to finish your Volcanic Trails trip.
Stay overnight at huts in Álftavatn and Dalakofinn.
Distance: 24 miles (39 km)
Duration: 3 days, 2 nights