Kerlingarfjöll – Steaming valleys and surreal landscapes

Kerlingarfjöll – Steaming valleys and surreal landscapes

Last update: 6 February 2022

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 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.

Hveradalir hot spring valley, Kerlingarfjöll mountains, Iceland
Hveradalir geothermal valley and hot springs.

The bad weather mountains

For centuries, the Kerlingarfjöll mountain range in the Icelandic highlands 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…

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.

Hveradalir valley ridges, Kerlingarfjöll, Kjölur road, Iceland
Hveradalir valley ridges.

Kerlingarfjöll hot spring valley

This all doesn’t sound very inviting, but don’t be discouraged! Kerlingarfjöll and the Icelandic highlands hot springs 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.

River and bridge, Kerlingarfjöll mountains, Iceland
Steaming rivers in Hveradalir.

Mount Mænir, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland
Mount Mænir looming over the geothermal valley.

Various volcanic and geological features

Kerlingarfjöll is nestled beneath the shadow of Hofsjökull. 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!

Glacier river in Hveradalir valley, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland
Thick packs of ice dropping down into hot streams.

The steaming valley of Hveradalir, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland
Bizarre rock formations and steaming fumaroles.

Where to stay in Kerlingarfjöll

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 😉 )

Kerlingarfjöll cabins, Kjölur road, Iceland
Kerlingarfjöll mountain hut & cabins.

Kerlingarfjöll mountain hut & cabins, Kjölur road, Iceland
View to Kerlingarfjöll from the hiking track to Hveradalir.

Ásgarðsá hot pool river

From the cabins 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, Kjölur road, Iceland
The hot pool near the Kerlingarfjöll mountain hut.

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 hut.

Ásgarðsá river, Kerlingarfjöll, Kjölur road, Iceland
Ásgarðsá hot pool river gorge.

Ásgarðsá river gorge, Kerlingarfjöll, Kjölur road, Iceland

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! 😉

Hveradalir hiking track, Kerlingarfjöll mountains, Iceland
The Hveradalir track goes over the hills towards the snowy pass between the two mountains in the background…

Hiking route to Hveradalir valley

The walking track to Hveradalir 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.

How much time do you need?

You will need at least 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 to 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.

View into Hveradalir valley, Kerlingarfjöll mountains, 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 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!

Ásgarðsgljúfur river gorge, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland
Ásgarðsgljúfur river gorge.

Hiking from the Kerlingarfjöll mountain resort

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

Snowfields, Kerlingarfjöll, Kjölur road, Iceland
Snow fields and the mountain pass on the way to Hveradalir.

Mountain pass, Hveradalir geothermal valley, Kerlingarfjöll, Kjölur road, Iceland

Fuming fumaroles

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.

Snorrahver fumarole and Mount Mænir, Hveradalir, Kerlingarfjöll mountains, Iceland
Snorrahver and Mount Mænir in the distance.

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

Snorrahver fumarole, Hveradalir, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland

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.

Surreal valley view, 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 geothermal valley, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland
Various bubbling hot springs.

Mini-terraces, Hveradalir geothermal valley, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland
Cute mini-terraces.

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

Surreal snowfields, Hveradalir geothermal valley, Kerlingarfjöll, Kjölur road, Iceland
Surreal snowfields and steaming ridges.

Steaming river, Hveradalir geothermal valley, Kerlingarfjöll, Kjölur road, Iceland

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!

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

Steaming river, Hveradalir geothermal valley, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland
Surreal steaming mountainsides.

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

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

Kerlingarfjöll hiking routes

The Mountain Peak Route

There’s also a 7 kilometre semi-circuit around the eastern mountain peaks which I would have liked to do. It takes 6 hours and promises incredible views for miles across the highlands. 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 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
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 a great alternative for the popular, but very busy Laugavegur trek between Landmannalaugar and Þórsmörk.

Ice and steam, Hveradalir geothermal valley, Kerlingarfjöll, Kjölur road, Iceland

Kerlingarfjöll hiking map

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

Kerlingarfjöll weather and hiking conditions

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.

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

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 and Reykjavík Excursions. They go up and down the Kjölur road between Reykjavík and Akureyri from mid-June to the beginning of September, 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.

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

Gas station, Kerlingarfjöll, Kjölur road, Iceland
Petrol stations on the Kjölur road are not always guaranteed to be in working condition… 😉

View from the ridge, Hveradalir, Kerlingarfjöll mountains, Iceland

(c) Nancy Claus – Wilderness Coffee & Natural High

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Covid travel restrictions Iceland

In these uncertain times, things can change quickly. Procedures are constantly evaluated and updated. For the current situation regarding Covid-19 related travel advice and restrictions in Iceland, see Covid.is (in English).

Ice caves, Hveradalir geothermal valley, Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland

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More to explore & discover

Thórsmörk – The fabled valley

Dalalæða – Spectacular waterfalls of fog

Kruiend ijs – Drifting ice in The Netherlands

Haleakala – The House of the Rising Sun

Reykjanes – Hidden treasures beyond the barren landscape

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