The Herðubreið Volcano

Date 20 March 2022

The Herðubreið Volcano

The Herðubreið Volcano

Herðubreið is located in the highlands of Iceland between Askja in the south and Myvatn in the north. It is a huge mountain that dominates the region from its 1682 meters.

Locally known as “Queen of the Icelandic Mountains”, Herðubreið reigns over the Ódádahraun Desert between Brædrafell Mountain, the Herðubreiðarlindir oasis and the Herðubreiðartötgl volcano.

The Ódádahraun Desert's name also has an interesting origin story, literally the “desert of crimes”, because it was here that criminals rejected by society took refuge.

The formation of the Herðubreið volcano


The Herðubreið volcano seen from the F910

The Herdubreid mountain, literally “broad shoulders,” dates back to the ice age. A tuya is a type of mountain of volcanic origin formed by subglacial eruptions. These mountains have a plateau at the summit and very steep slopes.

The region's first volcanic events began some 120,000 years ago with the formation of the Herdubreidartögl volcano. Herdubreid mountain didn't appear until 20,000 years ago, growing from the bottom of a glacial lake surrounded by an immense ice cap. The base of the volcano is composed of layers of lava that were long covered by ice until about 10,200 years ago. Eruptions tunnelled up through the ice for nearly 200 years to deposit layers of lava as it flowed from this fountain to create the plateau that we see today.

Although seismic activity remains significant, volcanic activity ceased a long time ago and the ice has disappeared from the region.

Around Herðubreið stretches the immense 6000 km² Ódádahraun desert which is literally a lunar landscape where NASA astronauts sometimes come to train. The Ódádahraun Desert exists due to the drying of the air that passes over the immense Vatnajokull.

How to get there

Herðubreið is in the middle of nowhere, and this nowhere is called Ódádahraun and there is only one road to get there: the F88. Known to be difficult, the F88 is reserved for 4x4 vehicles and exclusively in summer, and the road obviously goes two ways:

  • The F88 from the north (Myvatn)
  • The F88 from the south (Askja)

Access from the north is direct but can be a bit technical, and in some weather conditions impossible. Indeed, the F88 includes one of the fords that tourists fear the most: crossing the Lindaá. The Lindaá can get very deep (60 to 80 cm), so it is best to attempt a crossing in the morning  when it is most shallow, but always check the ford conditions beforehand.

It takes 1 hour and 50 minutes to travel the 80 km from when you exit Road number 1 until you reach Herðubreið. Approximately 15 kilometers after the Thorsteinsskáli hut, you'll see a trail on the right leading to the western foothills of Herðubreið.

Access from the south is less technical, but you have to get to Askja first. It takes just 55 minutes to drive the 32 kilometers from the Askja car park to Herðubreið. So you'll need to take the superb F910 trail for 20 kilometers before turning north on the F88 towards Herðubreið. This portion of the trail poses no particular difficulties before you connect with the Oskjuleið trail which leads directly to the foot of Herðubreið.

The Herðubreið hiking trail


The Herðubreið volcano seen from road number 1

There is a hiking trail departure, a little hut, at the foot of Herðubreið on the western flank. This hike, the ascent of the volcano, is no easy feat, the slopes are steep and very slippery in places. But it remains a grand classic here and offers an unimaginable 360° panorama over the entire region on a clear day.

You need a robust physical fitness to climb Herðubreið because while the distance from the hut to the summit is a mere 3.5 km, the elevation is 1000 meters. The start is very steep, so count about 3 hours to complete this ascent.

The return is obviously faster but being so steep, even downhill is technical so be careful as some portions are slippery. You'll need to obtain up-to-date information on weather and visibility before starting, just speak to the rangers present at the hut. The weather can turn on you quickly and since it takes about 5 hours to complete the return trip, that's plenty of time to go from a beautiful blue sky to a stormy one.

Despite this difficulty, we recommend the hike. This summit remains one of the most legendary peaks to ascend in Iceland since it was first climbed in 1908.