What is the Icelandic Highland? Often mistakenly called Highlands
Updated: Apr 8
The Icelandic Highland (not to be confused with the Scottish Highlands) is a vast uninhabited backland area in Iceland, covering most of the center of the island and in some areas stretching to places near the shore. There has always been ONE Highland in Iceland, and in all the literature from the times of settlement, there is no example of any use of the plural term Highlands. So when you see someone writing or talking about the Highlands but not the Highland, it usually indicates the writer's limited knowledge about Iceland, lack of research about the highland in Iceland, and culturally disrespectful.
How to understand the Highland
Guðmundur Páll Ólafsson (b. 1941 – d. 2012) was an Icelandic natural scientist, teacher, writer, photographer, and conservationist. In his lifetime, he published several books about Iceland and Icelandic nature. Among his most outstanding achievement was his book “Hálendið í náttúru Ísland” (The Highland in Icelandic Nature), which is a monumental achievement rather than just a book. In his book, he defined the Highland and explained what it is about. It was written with the specific aim of introducing the Highland to future generations. Therefore, the book is a masterpiece of text and photography and a guideline for understanding the Highland in Iceland. In line with our tradition and culture, Guðmundur Páll never talks about the Highlands, only the Highland.
The Icelandic way of talking about the Highland
Likewise, before the avalanche of misleading articles on the internet from writers with limited knowledge about the Highland, Icelanders never used the word Highlands when referring to the Highland. This is clear when we look at the Iceland Road Guide that has been published for decades. It can be seen when the name was given to the hotel Highland Center at Hrauneyjar decades ago and also the Highland Base at Kerlingarfjöll that was established before this insult was forced up on us by too many lazy and bad writers.
It has simply never been called Highlands in Iceland
There are hundreds of articles in Icelandic newspapers and magazines throughout centuries that talk about and refer to the Highland. Never is there any talk about Highlands. There is no argument within the Icelandic literature or culture to rename our precious Highland as Highlands. It is an insulting fabrication of inadequately informed people writing about Iceland.
The Highland and how it is defined
In size, it constitutes around 40% of the island and is often referred to as Europe's last great area of wilderness. The entire Highland is loaded with natural wonders and offers spectacular hiking trails and dirt roads leading to many interesting places. It has one of the most fascinating geology on the planet, regularly displaying ice, fire, and everything in between. In the Highland, you will find glaciers of different shapes and sizes, spectacular mountains, canyons, lava fields, geothermal pools, geothermal activity, rivers, waterfalls, lakes, active volcanos, and much more. It is characterized and defined by its altitude, as the term Highland implies, and is mostly 350 to 400 meters, around 1000 feet, above sea level, thus usually rather cold and seldom specifically warm also because Iceland is located close to the Arctic Circle. The highest peak, Öræfajökull glacier, is 2.110 meters, around 7000 feet, and is the highest mountain and point in Iceland. The Highland is extremely sensitive and impossible to cultivate because of the extreme weather differences between seasons, and is uninhabitable. Therefore, one needs to prepare, research, study, and seek guidance to visit it.
Winter in the Highland
The soil, lava, moss, vegetation, dirt roads, and hiking trails remain under a thick layer of snow for months during winter, and you only have a few weeks during summer to explore and enjoy this spectacular part of Iceland. In the summer, the Highland reveals all its wonders and starts blooming, exposing its vegetation, crystal clear creeks, and mountains of beautiful forms and colors. It is also a landscape of extremes: in large areas, the Highland consists of vast stretches of black sand, dark lava, suspiciously shaped rocks, and mighty muddy rivers flooding from under glaciers towards an endless horizon. Across its expanse, it displays the colors of neon green vegetation, purple and pink rhyolite mountains, blue lakes, and turquoise green rivers. It is a landscape of extensive variation, unlike any other place you will find on the planet.
Visiting the Highland
On any scale, as an area of wilderness in Europe, the Highland is huge, covering 42 thousand km². Visiting the Highland requires preparation, and you need to pick and choose areas to visit in advance. In recent decades, a few places have become more popular than others due to their ease of access and unique landscapes. Places like Landmannalaugar, Sigöldugljúfur, Lakagígar, Hveradalir, Hveravellir, Þórsmörk and Eldgjá to name a few. The roads to all of these places open in late June and remain open until the middle of September. Most of the roads are F roads and require good 4X4 vehicles as an F road means that you need to cross a river, which is serious business. You can also hike through the Highland, and one of the most popular hiking trails is Laugavegur, the 54-kilometer hiking trail from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk. Another popular hiking trail is Fimmvörðuháls from Þórsmörk to Skógafoss waterfall. Both hiking trails take you through some of the most spectacular landscapes you will find in Iceland.
A place of fear and home of outlaws
From the time of settlement in Iceland and throughout the centuries that followed, people seldom entered the Highland. For a long time, it was a widely spread belief that in between the mountains, there existed communities of outlaws living in oases in prosperity. It was a source of many folkloric tales and fed our imagination for centuries. Some areas were used to travel between the north and the south in summer, like Kjalveggur and Sprengisandur. In the south of Fjallabak, north of Mýrdalsjökull glacier, there was also a road often used to travel between the east and the west of Iceland, which ran north of the glaciers to avoid strong rivers.
Protection and conservation
It sounds like a paradox, but our harsh and rocky landscape is extremely sensitive and fragile. It is not unlike many Icelanders: it looks tough, but under the surface is a very sensitive soul. It is a place where people need to drive carefully in a capable 4X4 (see video below) vehicle with good preparation and on marked tracks only. If possible, you should also stick to marked hiking trails when walking through any terrain in the Highland and adhere to the rules and regulations. Anyone trying to drive the Highland in a vehicle not fit for the task is irresponsible, possibly putting passengers in danger, and compromising a wonderful experience, especially if they need to cross rivers. Getting stuck in a river or mud with a rental car can exceed the cost of your whole trip to Iceland by thousands of dollars or euros. Driving off-road outside marked tracks is a very serious crime in Iceland. If you decide to travel to the Icelandic Highland, please take care and appreciate the sensitivity of the whole area, remembering that most of the Highland is only open from the beginning of July until the end of September. If you wish to visit the Highland in winter or outside these months, you should always contact professional tour companies specializing in those types of tours.