Nothing you might see elsewhere in Iceland prepares you for the stark, desolate, raw beauty of the barren upland plateau (500–900m) that is the Interior (known in Icelandic as hálendið or “highlands”), Europe’s last true wilderness. The strength and unpredictability of the elements here means that Iceland’s heart is a desolate and uninhabited place, with no towns or villages, just cinematic vistas of seemingly infinite grey gravel plains, glacial rivers and lavafields punctuated only by ice caps, volcanoes and jagged mountains. Sheep are virtually the only living things that manage to survive here, but pasture and vegetation, where they do exist, comprise only scattered clumps of ragged grass, and it’s a daunting task for the farmers who venture out into this no-man’s-land to round up their livestock every autumn.
Historically, routes through the Interior were forged in Viking times as a shortcut for those making the journey on horseback to the annual law-making sessions at Þingvellir, though the region later provided refuge – if you can call it that – for outlaws, who are said to have been pardoned in the unlikely event that they managed to survive here for twenty years. Today, with the advent of the Ringroad and internal flights, the need to traverse this area has long gone, and there are no sealed roads, just tracks marked by stakes, and hardly any bridges across the rivers, causing some hairy moments when they are forded.
The Interior’s weather is Iceland at its most elemental. Not only can fierce winds whip up the surface layer of loose grit in a matter of seconds, turning a beautiful sunny spell into a blinding haze of sand and dirt, but snowstorms are common even in July and August. The summer here is very short indeed, barely a matter of weeks, the winter long and severe, when the tracks are blocked by deep snowdrifts and closed to traffic.
The mainstay of accommodation in the Interior is the network of huts, or sæluhús, run by Iceland’s hiking associations. The better ones have self-catering facilities and running water, though all sleeping space is in dorms and you’ll need to bring your own sleeping bag. The huts are very busy during summer, and it’s essential to book in advance; see accounts for contact details. If you’re camping, you need a high-quality tent with enough pegs to anchor it down in the ferocious winds that can howl uninterrupted across the Interior.
Of all the various tracks, only two routes across the Interior actually traverse the whole way between north and south Iceland. The most dramatically barren of these is Sprengisandur (Route F26), which crosses between the Hekla area in the south and Lake Mývatn in the north. The alternative is Kjölur (Route 35), from Gullfoss to near Blönduós, which has less dramatic scenery but is the only route on which you might be able to use normal cars.
Other routes lead into the Interior but don’t offer a complete traverse. The western Kaldidalur route (Route 550) runs between Borgafjörður and Þingvellir; east of Lake Mývatn; the F88 follows the course of the mighty Jökulsá á Fjöllum south to the Askja caldera, from near where the F902 continues towards Kverkfjöll; heading inland from Egilsstaðir, Route 910 heads towards Snæfell (en route to Karahnjúkar), before becoming the F910 and kinking northwest to join the F88, while the Fjallabak route (F208) runs behind the south coast’s ice caps.