I’ve been in Iceland for three years, and spent over two of them as a tour guide; still, however, I am yet to visit the magnificent Highlands. As a lover of nature, it is a little shameful to admit, but I have fallen into the trap of only exploring the country from the Ringroad, without actually getting into the middle of it.
My main excuse is that the highlands can seem a little inaccessible for a homebody like me. The trips I have been invited on were all multi-day hikes and camping excursions, and I have just not felt adventurous enough to put myself that far from my creature comforts.
I will be the first to admit that this is a pretty pathetic excuse. There are day trips from Reykjavik to Landmannalaugar, and to other parts of the Highlands from different towns across the country. There are even Jeep tours in which you can stay warm and comfortable while still getting to absorb the incredible natural beauty.
In 2015, however, my excuses became even more baseless, as this was the year that the Wilderness Centre opened to guests.
Known locally as Óbyggðasetrið, the Wilderness Center is an excellent base from which to explore this awe-inspiring region. It is a place where Icelandic history, nature and hospitality all meet, and from what I have heard and seen, the result is a magical, timeless experience.
The Center is located about halfway between the largest glacier in Europe, Vatnajökull, and the lake Lagarfljót, where the legendary Lagarfljót worm is said to reside. This puts it right on the edge of the vast Icelandic highlands. The location is pretty remote; it’s about an hour’s drive from the nearest settlement, the town of Egilsstaðir. This, however, is part of its appeal. With no nearby buildings outside of those hosted by the Center, visitors get an authentic experience of the desolate, dramatic, untouched beauty of this incredible land.
While the natural beauty of the Highlands is usually the main draw for visitors, the Wilderness Center makes an extra effort to ensure the experience is as culturally Icelandic as possible. Its mission has been to capture the spirit of the past, and thus the accommodation is styled to reflect historical Icelandic living conditions; if you stay overnight, you will literally be sleeping in a museum. There are a variety of sleeping options, from private rooms to dormitories, which are fully furnished to marry a 19th Century aesthetic with 21st Century comforts.
Photo Credit: Óbyggðasetrið Íslands, wilderness.is
The menu also exudes Icelandic tradition. Made from fresh, local ingredients and prepared in front of the guests, there are many national favourites on offer: home-baked rye bread, a huge variety of cakes, lamb soup, fish, and traditional blood sausage, as well as vegetarian dishes for those of us who don’t eat meat. There is also coffee, hot chocolate, tea and a few stronger options to help warm up after a full day of adventuring.
The Icelandic cultural experience, however, does not end with the accommodation and food. Opened in 2016, the Wilderness Center also features an exhibition that covers 3 kilometres, whereby guests walk up a valley and into old farm buildings to learn all about life in the highlands. With a variety of 19th and 20th Century tools, writings and artwork on display, guests can completely immerse themselves in the past.
Source: Wikimedia, creative commons, photo by Debivort
As a history buff, this really appeals to me. I think it’s incredible how Icelanders managed to endure over a millennium on this barren, inhospitable island before the industrial revolution, and would love to learn more about how they survived in its most barren and inhospitable region.
The historic ambience of the Wilderness Center is one thing that draws me, but of course, the landscape is another. The Center is perfectly positioned to allow its guests to engross themselves in the natural beauty of the Highlands while having a warm bed to return to at night. There are a variety of hiking paths from the Center, but the guided tours on offer ensure you won’t miss any of the best spots. Taking part in these also gets you access to some special bonuses, such as the chance to bathe in hot springs that are otherwise restricted, and the opportunity to hear local tales about the region's folklore.
The Waterfall Trail speaks to me the most. I think that you could have an entirely pleasant holiday in Iceland over several weeks just going from waterfall to waterfall; each one is utterly magnificent in its own right, and each time I travel to one I haven’t seen, it becomes my new favourite. That honour currently belongs to Dynjandi in the West Fjords, but it seems that this trail could change my mind once again. The hike goes along Jökulsá river, which has more waterfalls than any other in Iceland, with fifteen of all different sizes.
I also find the Riding Adventure and Waterfalls tour very appealing, as it begins at Hengifoss, one of Iceland’s tallest falls, which I am very keen to visit. This trip, as its name suggests, also incorporates a horseback riding section. It is almost an essential Icelandic experience for travellers to have a go on the back of one of these sweet, intelligent creatures; and there is no better place to do it than in the magnificent Highlands.
Those with more time on their hands can take several multi-day experiences, ranging from two to five days. Many of these start in more accessible locations, such as Akureyri and Egilsstaðir, and are tailored to different times of the year. For example, in October and November, guests can experience the ‘Days of Darkness’ tour, to gain insight in how Icelanders survived their country's dark and dangerous winters; in May, the ‘Birth of Spring’ tour is available, which allows you to watch the countryside leap back into life. Unlike many other multi-day adventures, however, you always return to the accommodation for a good night’s rest. If you are anything like me and fear camping outdoors in Iceland's unpredictable weather, you can put those worries to bed.
What’s more, the helpful owners are happy to create an adventure specific to your interests. I emailed them with a hypothetical situation, and they swiftly replied with a tailor-made tour, just for me. From my experience talking to them, from what I’ve heard from friends who have been to the Center, and from what I have read online, the staff and owners are incredibly helpful and eager to make everyone’s stay as personable and enjoyable as possible.
The more that I’ve researched Óbyggðasetrið for this blog, the more eager I am to go. Of course, the summer seems to be the optimum time to visit the Highlands, as more tours are running, and the landscape is much more accessible. The Center, however, is open all year round and would be a marvellous place to watch the Northern Lights in a true winter wonderland. For those seeking to maximise this experience, they could even take part in the ‘Nostalgia of Christmas’ tour to get into the festive spirit.
From what I have heard, and from what I can clearly see, no matter when you visit or for how long, the Wilderness Center will be an experience that will stay with you for a lifetime. It makes seeing the Highlands accessible and informative as well as awe-inspiring; so I guess, for me at least, it is time to stop making excuses, and to go and see it.