Kerlingarfjöll – Steaming valleys and surreal landscapes

Kerlingarfjöll – Steaming valleys and surreal landscapes

For centuries, the Kerlingarfjöll mountain range was known as the Bad Weather Mountains. And that’s exactly what they looked like when I arrived, at the end of June. At the start of summer, it was a mere 2 degrees. There had been a snowstorm the night before, and low-hanging clouds gloomily covered the horizon. I was greeted by some nasty gusts of wind and icy rain, and wondered what on earth I was doing here…

Located in the remote interior of Iceland along the Kjölur road, Kerlingarfjöll  was once considered a hiding place where only trolls and outlaws would venture.

That all doesn’t sound too inviting – yet it’s absolutely worth a visit. You won’t regret a trip into the otherworldly steaming valley of Hveradalir, no matter what the weather conditions are. Besides warm and wind- & rainproof clothes, a swimsuit is another essential item to take to Kerlingarfjöll 😉 And fortunately the weather would improve – if only slightly – to reveal the true beauty of this incredible landscape.

Various geological and volcanic features

Kerlingarfjöll is nestled beneath the shadow of Hofsjökull, at the intersection where the Eastern and Western Volcanic Riftzones merge before they continue north as one. This creates a mad combination of terrain with geothermal activity colliding in spectacular displays with packs of snow and ice and glaciers. A huge massif of colourful rhyolite mountains, intersected by steaming gullies and valleys, where the earth is fuming, hissing, bubbling and gurgling from several nooks and crannies. The whole mountain range is basicly one big caldera, created by eruptions from underneath at a time when there were still glaciers on top of it.

River and bridge

It’s like Landmannalaugar on steroids!

Glacier river

Thick packs of ice dropping down into hot streams.

Steaming valleyBizarre rock formations and steaming fumaroles.

There is a variety of places to stay at the Kerlingarfjöll mountain hut & cabins. The cabins are nestled in the Ásgarður river valley beside the F-347 mountain road, about 10 kilometres from the main F-35 Kjölur road. Once you’ve made it this far into the wilderness, plan to stay at least 2 or 3 nights. You’ll want to have enough time to explore the scenery (and some margin in case of really bad weather 😉 )

The hot pool river

From the cabins you can follow a path beside the river, leading into a progressively spectacular gorge to a welcoming hot pool. It takes about 30 minutes to get there.

In spite of the not-so-inviting weather on the day I arrived, I wanted to make the most of it and wandered off towards it. Once you’re in the pool, you drift away in pure bliss and you’re warmed up from the inside out, like the geothermal valley itself. The hardest part is getting out of it again! But by then you’ve regenerated enough warmth to brave the slippery (and sometimes snowfield-covered) path back to the hut.

It lacks a proper shelter to keep your clothes dry in case of rain & drizzle, but a plastic bag or backpack cover will do the trick.

Hveradalir geothermal valley

The major attraction in Kerlingarfjöll is the Hveradalir geothermal valley, about 5 kilometres from the cabins. It’s one of the largest geothermal areas in Iceland, and it really is spectacularly beautiful.

The walking track starts right across the Ásgarðsá river, at the bottom of the hill behind the Kerlingarfjöll campsite.

You can do a circuit and return via the jeep track from the Neðri-Hveradalir parking area above the valley on the other side. Inside the valley there’s a 3 kilometre loop with several side tracks.

You will at least need 5 to 6 hours to go there & back, have enough time to bumble around in the valley, and a much needed picnic lunch & Wilderness Coffee along the way. And take photo’s – you just can’t help it. The valley is extremely photogenic. There are beautiful compositions everywhere you look. You can easily spend hours in this fascinating area.

If you have a (4WD) car, you can also drive up the hill behind the cabins to the Neðri-Hveradalir parking area at the top of Hveradalir. From there it’s a short walk into the geothermal valley. But you miss the spectacular sights you’ll encounter along the walking track from the Kerlingarfjöll cabins!

Hveradalir circuit

As you walk up the hill, spectacular views into the gorgeous Ásgarðsgljúfur gorge unfold on the left, and towards the snow-covered mountains Hveradalahnúkur and Mænir looming in front. Even more tops peek out behind them, if they’re not hiding in the clouds.

It’s about 1½ hours of uphill ploughing over up windy ridges and across exposed stonefields. Depending on the time of year, there are several snowfields of varying depth and intensity to cross.

The track winds between the mountains Hveradalahnúkur and Hveradalaklif, and across another stony plateau to the right. As you walk toward Mænir, you’re suddenly greeted by the invigorating smell of sulphur wafting from the distance. This is coming from the Snorrahver fumarole, furiously steaming from a ridge above the geothermal valley.

Surreal panoramic views

It can be painfully windy at this point. But when you look down into the gorge below, it makes you instantly forget the uncomfortable gusts of wind around your head. You can only stand in awe and admit that it is indeed exceptionally beautiful. Breathtaking views unfold into a steaming valley padded with snow fields clinging to the slopes, and shapes and colours so magnificient that you wonder if it’s even real. It’s like you’ve stepped into a surrealistic painting. The art created by nature is beyond human imagination sometimes.

Valley viewSurreal valley view.

Thick packs of ice are dropping down from the surrounding mountains and melted into bizarre shapes by the geothermal heat below. Hot and cold streams circle around a multitude of ridges, with angry jets of steam spouting from various cracks.

Mountain & riverHveradalir valley, with Mount Mænir looming in the background.

At the bottom of the valley there are vigorously boiling hot springs and bubbling mudpools. Even mini-terraces have formed in a quiet corner in one of the streams.

Mini-terraces and various bubbling hot springs.

Paths up muddy ridges

By the time you reach the valley, your shoes will have increased twice their size and weight due to the sticky geothermal mud that is nearly impossible to avoid along the track.

Paths up muddy ridges

The river and streams are crossed by small walking bridges. Several paths are going up the muddy ridges in different directions, accumulating even more mud on your shoes…

Picnic place

There’s a little picnic spot tucked away in a pretty corner by the river – a perfect place to enjoy a Wilderness Coffee surrounded by steaming ridges and streams!

View from ridge

This is what your shoes look like after a walk around Hveradalir… 😉

Walls of snow along the road back down to the Kerlingarfjöll cabins, and a great view into the Ásgarðsgljúfur canyon.

The mountain peak route

There’s also a 7 kilometre, 6 hour semi-circuit around the eastern mountain peaks which I would have liked to do. It promises incredible views for miles across the highlands. But there was still too much snow covering the tracks (with some more added by the recent snowstorm). The mountains constantly produced their own low-hanging clouds and fog, and were regularly obscured from view too. And there was this unrelenting icy wind blasting from the peaks, which makes everything so much less enjoyable… Unfortunately this walk wasn’t really an option this early in the season.

Fjallalæða – the mountain equivalent of a dalalæða 😉 Mount Loðmundur and Snækollur, producing their own low-hanging clouds.

Hringbrautin Circle Route

Those who want to do a muli-day trek can do a 3-day circuit around Kerlingarfjöll. This route was opened in 2010 and circles around pointy mountain tops, along gorges and rivers and into the geothermal valley. It’s 47 kilometres long and also starts from the Kerlingarfjöll cabins at Ásgarður. Along the route there are two huts where you can stay. The Klakkur hut is located 20 kilometres to the south of Ásgarður. From there it’s 10 kilometres to the Kisubotnar hut towards the east, and another 17 kilometres back up north towards Ásgarður. This is an excellent alternative for the popular, but very busy Laugavegur trek between Landmannalaugar and Þórsmörk.

If you consider doing these walks, always check the weather and track conditions before you go. You don’t want to find yourself blown off the mountain and disappearing into some bottomless snowfield down the slope. August is generally the best option, as there can still be a lot of snow at the end of June or early July!

You can find up-to-date conditions on Safe Travel Iceland and Vegagerðin (the Icelandic Road Administration), and their various social media outlets.

Gas stations on the Kjölur road are not always guaranteed to be in working condition…

How to get to Kerlingarfjöll

The F-35 Kjölur road and the F-347 turn-off to Kerlingarfjöll are only accessible during the summer months by sturdy 4WD vehicles. You will need to cross a few rivers, including one above a waterfall. You can also get there by bus with SBA-Norðurleið. They go up and down the Kjölur road between Reykjavík and Akureyri from mid-June to the end of August, subject to when the road is declared open by Vegagerðin. The buses arrive and depart at Kerlingarfjöll in the early afternoon from both directions, and make a 30 minute stop at Geysir and Gullfoss on the way.

(c) Nancy Claus – Wilderness Coffee & Natural High

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