Hornstrandir Peninsula, Westfjords
The Hornstrandir Peninsula is Iceland’s northernmost peninsula and covers 220 square miles of mountainous cliffs hugging narrow fjords. There’s no year-round permanent settlement here—the main inhabitants are the arctic fox, along with millions of puffins, arctic terns, and other birds that populate the dramatic cliffs—and at times you can truly feel like you’ve left civilization behind. Of course, that seclusion brings some challenges.
There are no roads in the peninsula, so getting here requires coordination and advance planning. Ferries arrive from Ísafjörður or Bolungarvík from June to August so you’ll need to time your trip around the ferry schedule. Guided hikes range from three days to a week-long traverse of the peninsula. Hiking on your own requires a detailed map, available from the Westfjords tourism office, and a GPS or compass.
Þórsmörk, Southern Iceland
A mountain ridge named after the Norse god Thor (Þór), Þórsmörk is set between two glaciers: Tindfjallajökull to the south and the infamous Eyjafjallajökull (from underneath which a volcano exploded and halted European air traffic in 2010) to the north. The landscape in the area is strikingly diverse, with volcanoes, river valleys, waterfalls, canyons, birch forests, and verdant green mountains.
You can join a guided tour or go on your own on single or multi-day treks and there are both campsites and mountain huts in the area. Buses run from Reykjavik to Þórsmörk in the summer months. If you drive yourself you’ll need a 4WD vehicle as the area is only accessible via a rough highland road.
Skaftafell, South Iceland
Skaftafell is an undeveloped wilderness area inside the Vatnajökull National Park on the south coast of Iceland. Home to massive glaciers and the much-photographed basalt columns of the Svartifoss waterfall, it’s a popular stop on a road trip around the Ring Road that encircles the country.
There are several day hikes that are doable most of the year and range from 2.5 to 18 miles, and it’s one end of the five-day Nupstaðaskogar to Skaftafell trek. The number of hikers around you will decrease the farther you go from the visitor’s center, so if an empty trail is your goal, plan on a full-day or overnight hike at the minimum.
The remote East Fjords area is overlooked by the majority of Iceland’s visitors, which adds to its attraction as one of the best regions in the country for trekking. Among the highlights: walking alongside the crystal clear water of the Borgarfjordur fjord, taking in mountain views while soaking in the Selárlaug swimming pool, admiring the colorful Norwegian-style houses of Seydisfjordur, or learning about 19th-century history of Faskrúdsfjordur, a former French fishing town.
From Borgarfjörður Eystri you can choose among more than a dozen day hikes on 86 miles (140 kms) of well-marked trails or set out to cover all or part of the ten-day trek on the scenic Víknaslóðir, "The trails of the inlets."
The Snaefellsnes Peninsula
Often called “Iceland in miniature” because it packs so many of the country’s varied landscapes into a 50-mile-long strip of land, the Snaefellsnes Peninsula is dotted with waterfalls, black sand beaches, glaciers, caves, volcanoes, and basalt cliffs. Its geological diversity and abundance of hiking trails also make it a great place for trekking.
One of the most popular spots to hike on the peninsula is the Snaefellsjokull National Park, which offers dozens of hikes of various lengths, including hiking along the Snaefellsjokull glacier with a guide. Ambitious hikers can tackle the 20-mile hike along the peninsula’s southern coast from the Djúpalónssandur pebbled beach to Hotel Budir, while those short on time can walk a smaller section from the town of Arnarstapi to the Hellnar fishing village though the Hellnahraun lava field in about an hour.
The Snaefellsnes Peninsula is located about two hours northwest of Reykjavik. Campsites are limited so plan your route in advance.
Hiking near Reykjavik
Even in the capital region, the population gets sparser and the open space more prevalent as soon as you leave the city center. If you’re short on time or reliant on public transportation, you can still get out in the Icelandic nature for a while. Mount Esja, the snow-capped mountain just across the bay from downtown Reykjavik, can be reached in less than 30 minutes by bus and the climb only takes about two hours. Helgafell, or “Holy Mountain,” is located near the town of Hafnarfjörður, about six miles from Reykjavik and offers views of the Reykjanes peninsula. The 3,000-foot-tall mountain of Úlfarsfel, located just three miles from the city center, offers a two-hour round-trip hike with views of Mt. Esja, Faxafloi Bay, and Reykjavik in the distance.
With a bit more time, head for the Reykjadalur valley near the town of Hveragerði, about 40 minutes from Reykjavik by car. The hike through this hot spring valley is only about two miles round trip, but you’ll want to plan for extra time to enjoy the main attraction: a scalding spring that meets a cold river, forming a hot pool that’s the perfect temperature for a soak.
A note on Safety
Trekking in Iceland—even on a short day hike—should never be done without sufficient preparation. This means checking the weather forecast, bringing adequate food and water, letting someone know where you’ll be and when you’ll return, carrying a map or compass if needed, and dressing in warm, waterproof layers. The Icelandic weather is notoriously fickle and can change without notice. Dress for a range of conditions and take extra care near cliff edges and when crossing rivers.