Kerlingarfjöll – Steaming valleys and surreal landscapes

Kerlingarfjöll – Steaming valleys and surreal landscapes

The hot spring valley of Hveradalir in the Kerlingarfjöll mountains is something out of this world. Breathtaking views unfold into a steaming geothermal valley padded with snowfields 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 bad weather mountains

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

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, the start of summer, it was still 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…

Hveradalir valley ridges, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland.
Hveradalir valley ridges.

Hveradalir geothermal valley, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland.

Kerlingarfjöll hot spring valley

This all doesn’t sound very inviting, but don’t be discouraged! Kerlingarfjöll and the hot springs in the Icelandic highlands are 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, wind- & rainproof clothes, another essential item to take to Kerlingarfjöll is a swimsuit. 😉

And fortunately the weather was about to improve – if only slightly – to reveal the true beauty of this incredible geothermal landscape.

Hveradalir geothermal valley, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland.
Surreal landscapes and steaming rivers in Hveradalir.

Steaming river, Hveradalir hot spring valley, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland.

Various volcanic and geological features

Kerlingarfjöll is nestled beneath the shadow of Hofsjökull glacier. It sits 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.

It’s like Landmannalaugar on steroids!

Ice dropping into the river, Hveradalir geothermal valley, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland.
Thick packs of ice dropping down into hot streams.

Bizarre rocks and fumaroles, Hveradalir geothermal valley, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland.
Bizarre rock formations and steaming fumaroles.

Where to stay in Kerlingarfjöll

There is a variety of places to stay at the Kerlingarfjöll Highland Base. The mountain hut and cabins have been thorougly renovated and extended with fancy hotel room options. The new resort opened in July 2023.

The resort and cabins are nestled in the Ásgarður 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…)

Kerlingarfjöll mountain hut & cabins, Kjölur road, Iceland.
The old Kerlingarfjöll mountain hut & cabins before the renovation.

Ásgarðsá river gorge and hot pool

From the Highland Base a path beside the river leads into a progressively spectacular gorge to a welcoming hot pool. It takes about 30 minutes to get there. Unfortunately the hot pool area 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.

Ásgarðsá river and hot pool, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland.
The hot pool and Ásgarðsá river near Kerlingarfjöll Highland Base.

The blissful hot pool of Kerlingarfjöll

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 the hot pool river. Once you’re in the pool, you drift away in pure bliss. 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 cabins.

Ásgarðsgljúfur river gorge, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland.
Ásgarðsá river gorge.

Hveradalir geothermal valley

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

Geologists and photographers will have a field day here! 😀

Steaming rivers, Hveradalir hot spring valley, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland.
Kerlingarfjöll hot spring valley and steaming rivers.

Walking track to Hveradalir geothermal valley, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland.
The Hveradalir track goes over the hills towards the snowy pass between the two mountains in the background…

Kerlingarfjöll hike to Hveradalir

The walking track to Hveradalir starts right across from the Ásgarðsá river, at the bottom of the hill behind the Kerlingarfjöll campsite. You can do a circuit and return via the jeep road (F-347) from the Neðri-Hveradalir parking area above the other side of the valley. Inside Hveradalir there’s a 4-kilometre loop with several side tracks.

How much time do you need?

You will need at least 5 to 6 hours to hike to Hveradalir and back, have enough time to bumble around in the valley, and a much needed picnic lunch & Wilderness Coffee along the way. And to take photos – 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.

View from Neðri-Hveradalir into the geothermal valley, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland.
View into Hveradalir from the carpark.

Valley loop from the Neðri-Hveradalir carpark

If you have a (4WD) car, you can also drive up the hill behind the Kerlingarfjöll Highland Base to the Neðri-Hveradalir parking area on the F-347 road. From there it’s a short walk into the geothermal valley itself.

But then you will miss the spectacular sights along the hiking track from the campsite!

Hveradalir valley hiking route, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland.
Hveradalir valley hiking routes.

Hiking route from Kerlingarfjöll Highland Base

As you walk up the hill behind the campsite, 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 peaks peek out behind them, if they’re not hiding in the clouds.

It takes about 1,5 hours of uphill ploughing over windy ridges and across exposed stonefields to reach the Hveradalir valley. Depending on the time of year, there are several snowfields of varying depth and intensity to cross.

Snowfields on the Hveradalir hiking route, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland.
Snowfields and the mountain pass on the way to Hveradalir.

Hveradalahnúkur mountain pass, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland.

Fuming fumaroles

The hiking track winds between the mountains Hveradalahnúkur and Hveradalaklif, and across another stony plateau to the right. As you walk toward Mænir, you are 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.

Snorrahver fumarole, Hveradalir, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland.
Snorrahver fumarole.

Signpost above Hveradalir valley, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland.
Signposts on the stony plateau.

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 snowfields 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.

Surreal view into Hveradalir hot spring valley, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland.
The surreal view into Hveradalir valley from the top of the plateau.

Hot springs and geothermal terraces

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.

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

Boiling springs, Hveradalir hot spring valley, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland.
Various bubbling hot springs.

Geothermal mini-terraces, Hveradalir hot spring valley, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland.
Cute mini-terraces.

Steaming fumarole, Hveradalir geothermal valley, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland.
Steaming fumarole jets.

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.

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…

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!

Muddy ridges, Hveradalir hot spring valley, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland.
The muddy ridges of Hveradalir valley.

Steaming river, Hveradalir hot spring valley, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland.
Surreal steaming mountainsides.

Picnic place in Hveradalir valley, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland.
Picnic place by the river.

Hveradalir valley and Mount Mænir, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland.
Mount Mænir looming high above Hveradalir valley.

Kerlingarfjöll hiking routes

The Mountain Peak Route

There’s also a 9 kilometre semi-circuit around the eastern mountain peaks of Fannborg, Snækollur and Loðmundur. It takes 6 hours and promises incredible views for miles across the highlands. I would have liked to do this hike, but there was still too much snow covering the tracks. The mountains constantly produced their own low-hanging clouds and fog, and were regularly obscured from view. And there was this unrelenting icy wind blasting from the peaks, which makes everything so much less enjoyable…

Unfortunately this route wasn’t really an option this early in the season.

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

Surreal snowfields, Hveradalir valley, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland.
Surreal painted snowfields.

Hringbrautin Circle Route

If you are looking for a muli-day trek, you 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 Highland Base 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 a great alternative for the popular, but very busy Laugavegur trek between Landmannalaugar and Thórsmörk. Because of the remoteness, altitude and amount of snowfields it’s also a more difficult route than the Laugavegur.

Ásgarðsgljúfur canyon and walls of snow, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland.
Walls of snow along the road back down from Neðri-Hveradalir, and a great view into the Ásgarðsgljúfur canyon.

Kerlingarfjöll weather and hiking conditions

If you consider going on a hike in Kerlingarfjöll, always check the weather and track conditions before you set off. 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.

Muddy shoes, Hveradalir geothermal valley, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland.
This is what your shoes look like after a walk around Hveradalir!

Hveradalir hike summary

Distance: 14 kilometres return from Kerlingarfjöll Highland Base.
Time: About 5 to 6 hours.
Altitude: 700 metres above sea level at the start & finish.
Highest point: Hveradalahnjúkur plateau near Snorrahver at 1080 metres.
Difficulty: Challenging. Snowfields and muddy ridges that can be very slippery.

Kerlingarfjöll map

This handy interactive map shows the hiking route I took from the Highland Base to Hveradalir valley, and back via the Neðri-Hveradalir F-347 mountain road. You can also zoom in for more details, and click on the icons to reveal pictures of stunning views.

@ This is one of the top-5 reader’s favourites of 2018.

Kjölur highland road, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland.
Kjölur highland road.

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. Accessibility is subject to when the road is declared open by Vegagerðin.

Unfortunately the Kjölur bus service between Reykjavík and Akureyri was cancelled in 2020, and hasn’t been reactivated yet. The only option to go there is by renting a 4WD car, or by private transfer.

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

Obsolete petrol station, Kerlingarfjöll, Kjölur road, Iceland.

@ If you have any questions, let me know in the comment section below. I’d love to hear from you! Your questions, comments and suggestions can also be helpful for other readers. Thank you for sharing.

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View over Hveradalir valley, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland.

More to explore & discover

The fabled valley of Thórsmörk – A hiking paradise

Dalalæða – Spectacular waterfalls of fog

Reykjanes – Hidden treasures beyond the barren landscape

Haleakala – The House of the Rising Sun

Kruiend ijs – Drifting ice in The Netherlands

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First published: 10 July 2018

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