Iceland’s mountains may not be big but they definitely have personality. Being a fairly new land mass, and one built up by the spewing forth of lava from a huge fissure in the Atlantic ocean floor, Iceland’s topography is more a study in lateral spread than in height. That said, its mountains, topped by gleaming glaciers or not, are beautiful to behold.
Iceland’s highest peak tops out at just over 2000 meters, less than a quarter the height of Everest, and ranking as Europe’s 25th tallest mountain. Many of its mountains were born as magma under massive ancient glaciers, and so were stunted into mesa-type shapes. Others are the remnants of ages-old weather-worn cone volcanoes that today are stunning reminders of the powerful forces that created the very alive and always-expanding island of Iceland.
Snæfell (Snow Montain) is a perfect example of a classic cone volcano, shaped like a pyramid and capped by a glacier that makes it easily seen from Reykjavik across the greater Faxaflói bay. Mystics say it’s a global energy spot and it certainly looks the part, sitting at the very tip of a long peninsula overlooking the North Atlantic. It takes about three hours to get to it from the Capital, and once there you can either enjoy the amazing landscape at its feet or go up to the very top with snowmobile or snowcat tours.
It’s a fairly young mountain, around 700,000 years old, but it carries the magic of the ages with it, and because of that was chosen by writer Jules Verne 150 years ago to be the access point to the very center of the Earth. It’s also the centerpiece of Snæfellsjökull National Park, and much beloved.
Herðubreið is another iconic mountain on the Icelandic landscape. It’s situated just north of Vatnajökull glacier and though lacking a glacier, is an unmistakable feature of the landscape on the northern leg of Highway 1. Across the vast and empty highlands plain it rises stolidly, and in the summer if still capped by winter snow looks remarkably like a giant cake, though its name translates as a more imposing ‘Wide Shoulders.’ Artists have painted it, photographers have captured it, and some say it’s a contender for the most beautiful volcano in the world.
As of 2014, it was showing rumbling signs of waking up. Included in another of Iceland’s three national parks, Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður National Park, it is climbable, but only for very experienced climbers due to weather shifts in this area of the high inland deserts.
Also inland is the Kerlingafjöll mountain range, named after a tall volcanic pillar that’s said to be a troll woman who was turned to stone by the rising sun. Located just east of the Kjölur road which cuts north-south across interior of the country, it’s not only been a landmark since the time of Settlement, but until recently hosted a ski lodge and lifts that offered summertime skiing on its glacial flanks (the summer snow cover had melted away for good by 2000.)
Still, the area around the mountain is considered some of the most beautiful in the highlands, and during summer is accessible by all types of cars, unlike most of Iceland’s interior. The drive is slow, over gravel roads, but at Kerlingafjöll you’ll find food, easy (and hard!) hiking trails, hot bathing springs, cabins for rent and a campsite to make it worth the trip.
Easily one of the most majestic and photographed of Iceland’s many mountains is Kirkjufell, on the north side of the Snæfellsnes peninsula. The name means Church Mountain, and it’s an apt one. Standing alone like a beacon to the gods at the very edge of the sea, its symmetry is remarkable, and its colors change from brown to green to snowy white throughout the seasons give it a timeless beauty. It’s not an exceptionally tall mountain, at just over 460 meters, but what it lacks in size it makes up for with what could be called attitude.
It is climbable, though very steep and not for the unsure of foot or vertigo-inclined. But just as satisfying is to experience it from below, in the small town of Grundafjörður at its base or in the surrounding countryside, and watch it change color as the sun moves through the sky.
Esja is another master of change and disguises, looming as it does over Reykjavik from across the bay. It seems to alter color and dimension almost daily, and has been a marker of sorts for the capital’s residents of how well, or not, the seasons are turning: when the first dusting of snow shows on its long flat top, eveyone knows that winter is really coming, and when the snows finally melt away, summer has arrived. Hiking up to the top is popular with the locals, and you can even get to it by bus from the Reykjavik city center.
It’s a fairly easy though steep walk, but as always in Iceland, hikers should be aware that sudden weather changes can and do happen. Enjoy Iceland’s mountains best by letting someone know where you’re going at all times, and be sure to dress warmly and take good provisions!
For those who love superlatives, this mountain is a must: it’s the highest in Iceland. It perches like a sentinal at the southernmost side of Vatnajökull glacier, on the very edge of the island itself. Though not an Everest, it’s not something the average hiker can climb because of its permanent ice cover, but kitted-out day trips with guides are popular with both locals and visitors.
The main highway runs at its base only miles away, so it’s easy to miss unless you take the time to stop west of it, find it on the skyline, and admire.
Baula is another near-perfect pyramidical cone on the Icelandic landscape, one that rises so dramatically from its surroundings that it’s almost a hazard! Many a driver has found him- or herself stunned by the beauty of Baula, which seems to appear suddenly alongside the main highway, as if by magic, nearly impossible to not notice or admire. In different lights, at different times of year, it can seem to glow red or orange or even a strange silvery-gold, and with the shadows of clouds playing over it, it can be mesmerizing. Along with its smaller sister, Litla-Baula, these mountains typify what as children we always thought a volcano should look like.
It’s possible to climb Baula, though its steep with loose rock, and so potentially dangerous. There’s a guestbook at the summit, but this may just be one of those mountains best appreciated from a still viewing spot a perfect distance away.
The name means “cone” and that’s exactly what Keilir is: a great and almost perfect cone easily seen from miles away as one of the major landmark features on the Reykjanes peninsula. It’s actually close to the world-famous Blue Lagoon, and some people enjoy taking a nice day hike up to its top, then trundling back down for a nice long soak in lagoon’s weird and wonderful white-blue waters. The 8km hike takes about 3 to 4 hours and offers a spectacular view at the top.
Keilir has always been used as a guide for ships approaching Iceland, and for the residents of Reykjavik this natural pyramid is almost like a mascot, eternally marking the way south toward the summer sun and lands beyond.