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A summer holiday in Iceland: welcome to the Highlands

Covering an area of nearly 50,000km2, half of Iceland‘s land area, the Icelandic Highlands are one of the most raw, wild and exciting destinations on the planet.

But that’s the reason why, after many years working as guides in Iceland, we spend as much time as possible in the Highlands. No matter where you are – close to a waterfall, inside a dwarf birch forest, crossing a lava field, walking on a black-sand beach or just looking at a glacier in the distance – you always feel such an incredible energy. Every sight has its own character and atmosphere, each as remarkable and palpable as the next. 

But this is not an easy place to explore. The Highlands are open only from mid-July until mid-September because, in winter, the area becomes very difficult for travel due to the strong snowstorms and hurricane-force winds that occur. 

The colourful Rauðibötn crater © Amarok Adventures

In the summer, however, it is a real luxury to be able to enjoy this incredible landscape full of surprises and indelible beauty. During these months we run a 12-day ‘Hidden Trails’ hiking trip in the most isolated and remote areas of the Highlands in combination with some stages of the famous Laugavegur Trail, recognised by National Geographic as one of the most beautiful treks in the world. The journey explores some 130km on foot from hut to hut through spectacular scenery, in which sometimes there is no marked path. In fact, on foggy days and bad weather it is mandatory to enter these areas with a GPS to be able to navigate the challenging terrain.

Along the way, we find cozy and comfortable mountain huts where to stay overnight, cook for ourselves and enjoy the welcoming midnight sun. We visit beautiful waterfalls, precious lakes, dramatic canyons, natural thermal pools, vast valleys fenced in by green mountains, black deserts, bubbling volcanoes and glacial rivers. The days are longer and longer in this season, giving you more time to discover this remarkable – and at times, brutal – region. Nature is alive and kicking here. 

The following destinations are just a few of our favourite highlights we cover en route, but this is not a comprehensive list – each new trip brings an undiscovered wonder. We have explored these lands for many years, but there is always so much more to see. 

Landmannalaugar

This geothermal valley in the heart of the Highlands is one of Iceland’s most famous destinations – and for good reason. The wonderful Rhyolite Mountains are a kaleidoscope of infinite colors, huge lava fields that flowed thousands of years ago and were petrified on the shores of Lake Frostastaðavatn. The beautiful meadows serve as pasture for sheep during the summer months, full of wild cotton, marshes and colourful wildflowers that become the habitat of the graceful swans that inhabit the Highlands. 

Landmannalaugar Iceland Highlands Amarok Adventures
Landmannalaugar’s unique landscape has become a poster child of the Highlands © Amarok Adventures

We usually spend two nights here in a cosy mountain hut, spending the evenings relaxing in a geothermal pool just 100m away. It is an unforgettable experience to take a hot bath after walking for hours around the valley, feeling the thermal waters eliminate the stresses and tiredness of your muscles as you soak up the scenery around. 

Langisjór

Situated in the west of Vatnajökull National Park, this glacial lake is a place not covered on many of the main tourist routes. Meaning ‘the long sea’, it is one of the longest lakes in Iceland with waters flowing down from Vatnajökull glacier, and the contrast between the black sand of the desert, the intense green of the centenary mosses and the blue of the sparkling waters will leave you wondering if the scene before you is real or not. 

Langisjor Iceland Highlands Amarok Adventures
Langisjór is not often covered on tourist itineraries © Amarok Adventures

The atmosphere is overwhelming – most visitors aren’t used to experiencing complete silence and seeing so much beauty all at once. 

Eldgjá

This is the largest volcanic canyon on the planet, its rusty red lavas and black sands polished by the ice. Walking among its lava fields, in some sections our boots can become stuck in the mud making it difficult to walk, while in others, the moss completely covers the wet ground, forcing us to take off our boots and continue barefoot, enjoying the soft carpet under our feet. This might not sound like everyone’s cup of tea, but it really is a very pleasant sensation to feel your bare feet on the soft and spongy moss – true therapy for the feet and for the soul. 

The canyon is home to a number of stunning waterfalls © Amarok Adventures

There are also several beautiful waterfalls in the area that make the landscape even more magical. We like to imagine that elves still live within these waters, as legend tells, and on some visits we’re sure that we’ve felt their presence.

Álftavatn 

One of the most beautiful and charming places in the Highlands, this incredible glacial lake is located between the geothermal valleys of Landmannalaugar and the vast black desert. It’s a place of true beauty – somewhere to meditate and contemplate, with the lake acting as your master and guiding your inner peace.

Alftavatn Iceland Highlands Amarok Adventures
En route to Álftavatn, close to Stórasúla peak © Amarok Adventures

This is a place for mesmerising sunsets, with vibrant blues and oranges, as well as remarkable early morning dawns, full of golden lights and rainbows. 

Thórsmörk Valley

It takes two days to reach this oasis from Álftavatn. Two days of walking through deserts of black lava that the glaciers left in their slow and chaotic retreat. It sounds like bleak terrain, but in the summer the lava becomes speckled with pink-and-white Silene flowers. We like to think of this as the garden of Thór, the God of Thunder – it is his homeland after all. 

Thórsmörk Valley Iceland Highlands Amarok Adventures
On top of the world in Thórsmörk Valley © Amarok Adventures

After passing the Emstrur Canyon, another highlight of the Highlands, it’s only 17km to the valley. It is easy to distinguish it in the distance because, as you approach, the iconic emerald mountains come into view. As you get closer, the landscape changes – jet-black lava is replaced by verdant bushes, then different species of grasses appear and finally the vast native forests of dwarf birch and dwarf willows.

From the bottom of the valley and from the top of Valahnúkur, there’s an incredible view of the Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers, which surround and protect this natural treasure that in winter remains under a blanket of ice, snow and hurricane winds. It is the perfect place to end a journey and reflect on the experiences lived in these remote and isolated areas. The Highlands will leave their mark on your body and mind – you will never forget the energy and strength of nature in its purest state.

More information

Amarok Adventures’ ‘Hidden Trails‘ tour runs from July to September; prices are from €2,550 per person. For more details of their other guided tours to Iceland, visit their website. And for comprehensive detail on travelling Iceland, check out the Bradt guide.