Featuring the most desolate terrain found in Iceland, Sprengisandur is the bleak highland desert east between Hofsjökull – the rounded icecap marking Iceland’s geographical centre – and Vatnajökull’s northwestern front.
In earlier times, when people were more superstitious than they are nowadays and believed in ghosts, giants, elves and outlaws, the few who dared use this route rode as fast as possible through and sometimes exhausted their horses. The word for to exhaust in Icelandic is “sprengja”, hence the name of the area.
Although providing something of a corridor in Viking times between Iceland’s northeastern settlements and the summer parliament at Þingvellir, crossing Sprengisandur was always a tough journey, the desert flooded in spring with melting snow and ice, yet too dry in summer to provide any grazing for horses. Indeed, most travellers preferred to take much longer coastal roads, and Sprengisandur was eventually abandoned as a route during the thirteenth century.
Traversed today by the F26, which begins northeast of Hekla and runs some 244km to the Ringroad at Goðafoss, the Sprengisandur route remains a challenging one, whose unbridged rivers and stark scenery provide an insight into medieval Iceland’s harsh living conditions. Sprengisandur’s southern gateway is marked by Hekla, north of which is the desolate, icy plateau between Hofsjökull and Vatnajökull.
The enduring image here is of nothingness: the glaciers and mountains that fringe the horizon seem a long way off, and the space in between is filled with mile after mile of grey sand, stones and rocks that have lain untouched for thousands of years.
PLANNING A TRIP
Exploring the Area
Hrauneyjar Highland Center, a year-round highland oasis at the southern terminus of the Sprengisandur Route, has two hotels and restaurants, an information desk, and the last gas station for the next 240km (149 miles). A trail map of the surrounding area is available at reception.
As a base, Hrauneyjar is best for travelers with their own 4WD transport. The Highland Center organizes tours only for groups, and the best local destinations — such as Veiðivötn lakes, or the lovely Dynkur, a waterfall on the Þjórsá river — are inaccessible to regular cars.
Fishing permits (2,000kr/day/$32/£16) and sleeping-bag accommodation (2,500kr/$40/£20 per person) in four bunk-style cottages are handled by Landmannahellir (tel. 893-8407; www.landmannahellir.is).
Nýidalur. An overnight stay at this remote desert outpost, combined with a day hike east to Vonarskarð pass, makes for a memorable episode along the Sprengisandur Route. Nýidalur is right on Route F26, about 100km (62 miles) from Hrauneyjar and 20km (12 miles) from the northwest corner of Vatnajökull.
Vonarskarð forms a dramatic saddle between Vatnajökull and the small glacier Tungnafellsjökull, and the hiking route skirts some restless geothermal fields. Sudden releases of glacial meltwater can make stream crossings difficult, so speak to the warden before setting out. Those just passing through Nýidalur can still take the short easy hike east to a nearby hill with panoramic views.
With its rough surfaces and hazardous river fords, Route F26 is only for rugged 4WD vehicles with good clearance. The road’s opening date varies, but usually falls at the end of June. The Public Roads Administration (tel. 354-1777; www.vegag.is; May-Oct 8am-4pm; Nov-Apr 8am-5pm) continually monitors road conditions.
It is the longest stretch between the South and the North and is only passable by 4wd vehicles during summer. The obstacles enroute are rivers, which have to be forded and the water can be up to 1 meter or more (specially it’s the 1 river crossing 5 km before you reach Nýidalur). For a person that is not an experienced off-road driver, anything smaller than Land Rover/Toyota Land Cruiser is not recommended at all.
They swell when it is warm, the glacial meltwater increases and when it also rains they become dangerous. The scenic beauty makes this route unforgettable.
Warning: Gas is not available on Route F26, and the gas stations at Hrauneyjar and Goðafoss are 240km (149 miles) apart (Unprepared drivers are often seen begging for fuel at Nýidalur).
This part of the Interior offers a great variety of possibilities for short or long hikes. In most cases it depends on the individual traveller to decide which hillock or mountain is the best vantage point, or how far to go into the wilderness.
Long hikes require good planning, preparations, and physical fitness. The psychology has to be considered as well.
Sometimes the vast, barren landscapes, and the solitude overwhelme hikers, who are travelling alone and do not meet a soul for days on end.
Reykjavík Excursions (tel. 562-1011; www.re.is) connects Landmannalaugar and lake Mývatn via the Sprengisandur Route from July 1 to August 24.
Departures from Mývatn are Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 8:30am, and departures from Landmannalaugar are Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday, also at 8:30am.
The full one-way trip lasts 10 hours and costs 8,000kr ($128/£64), with stops at Hrauneyjar, Nýidalur, and Skútustaðir, plus sightseeing breaks at the Aldeyjarfoss and Goðafoss waterfalls.
Sprengisandur – Where to sleep
– Hotel Highland (Rte. 26, Hrauneyjar, In the area). Tel. +354 487-7750.
Walking into this high-end hotel and restaurant is a surreal transition from the wild and remote landscape outside. The Highland was a farm accommodation as recently as 2005, and some rooms are still transitioning design-wise, but you won’t suffer for sheets with an insufficient thread count.
– Hrauneyjar Highland Center (Rte. 26, Hrauneyjar, In the area). Tel. +354 487-7782.
This hotel is adjoined to Hrauneyjar’s gas station and information desk, and the Reykjavík Excursions bus through Sprengisandur stops here. The rooms are spartan but comfortable, and, if you’ve just come through the desert interior, the whole place is Shangri-La. Confusingly, 17 of the rooms — which share a guest kitchen — and the four apartments are located next to Hotel Highland but classified with the Highland Center.
The Hrauneyjar Highland Center (tel. 487-7782; www.hrauneyjar.is) is a useful resource, and the warden at Nýidalur (tel. 854-1194; July-Aug) — while not responsible for helping non-guests — is usually happy to answer questions.
Johanna & Sindri, Iceland24