Getting to Mt. Maelifell: My Most Beautiful and Adventurous Drive to Date

Getting to Mt. Maelifell: My Most Beautiful and Adventurous Drive to Date

Picture this…

An almost perfectly conical volcano covered in bright green moss stands alone in a black sand desert streaked with light streams of water. A bright blue sky sets the tone and tells you the passage of time as spreads of clouds fly quickly over the sun.

An imposing glacier stands in the distance, with its white shine contrasting the dark volcanic soil. Opposite to the glacier, a series of undulating green mountains sprinkled with patches of snow, serve as the backdrop of this scenery.

Sounds like a surreal setting or something from another world, but this place exists, and it’s here on earth – in Iceland. It’s called Maelifellsandur, and its crowning jewel is Mount Maelifell – the iconic green volcano.

It’s been a few months since I did this drive, yet I still dream about it and look back at it with joy and respect. I loved and cherished every second of this drive, but I don’t think I’d do it again the way I did it. It was that scary and stressful.

Still, my love for it makes me want to drive it 100 times again if I could.

From the Ring Road to the Interior of Iceland

It was near the end of my trip, and I had already driven most of the Ring Road of Iceland. For two weeks, I had hopped between waterfalls and glaciers, mountains and seascapes, valleys and fjords, and everything in between.

One thing I hadn’t done was to go inland – to the rugged, unspoiled landscapes full of beauty and mystery.

Mount Maelifell, Iceland

I wanted to go, but there was one problem. I had rented a small car, but for the interior roads, you need a 4×4. For a while, I considered doing it with my small car. How bad can the roads be? Turns out; there are no proper roads in most of the interior of Iceland.

To reach Mt. Maelifell, I would need to drive over dirt roads, volcanic deserts, and do a few river crossings.

Great, a Volkswagen Polo is no match for this adventure.

My search then shifted to doing it as a tour, but only one company in Iceland goes there, they do it sporadically, and the tour is expensive. To top that, no one else was doing it, so I had to pay four times the price to cover the minimum of four passengers to do the tour. That would have cost me over $1000. Hell no!

So, option three, rent a last-minute 4×4? I searched for a bit, found a few; their prices were a bit high, but it was my best option so far. Done!

Planning My Way To Mount Maelifell

Once I rented the 4×4 for a day, I went into planning mode. What can I see in one day? Which roads can I take?

Well, the only “road” that takes you to Mt. Maelifell is the F210. In Iceland, roads are classified with numbers (i.e. 210) or with an F and a number (i.e. F210). Number roads are “everyday roads” and can be driven by anyone. F roads, on the other hand, are only suitable for four-wheel drives.

Mount Maelifell, Iceland

Ok, my plan of attack was to reach Mt. Maelifell through the south, via road F210, then turn north via F233 and return through Landmannalaugar via F208.

“I’m fine! I have a 4×4!”

Well, not so fast, Norbert. As I kept researching, I came across this one site that said:

“The longer northern route via Landmannalaugar (F208) which takes four to five hours might be passable in smaller SUVs as long as they have four-wheel drive, while the shorter southern route (F210) is only suitable for specially-equipped vehicles…”

Fuck. -_-

Mount Maelifell, Iceland

Norbert being Norbert, I still carried on. I knew I would have to cross a few rivers and face some rough roads, but I had done the Mongol Rally already, which presented me with similar situations. There’s one big difference this time: I was all alone. What if I got stuck or drowned the 4×4 crossing a river?

I hoped for the best but prepared for the worst. Even though this was going to be a day trip, I took extra-warm clothes and food in case I had to spend the night stranded in the middle of nowhere.

The Stressful Drive

Around 8 am I picked my four-wheel drive and quickly left Reykjavik. Summer days are extremely long in Iceland, and my drive was going to be just as long.

The first hour and a half were smooth and uneventful, but once I reached the small village of Hella, the adventure started. There I turned left and jumped from a number road to an F road. A warning sign with a 4×4 crossing a river was my welcome to the F210. Great…

Mount Maelifell, Iceland
Welcome to the F road warning.

Mount Maelifell, Iceland

Even though the bad roads started here, the great views that came with them were more than well-received. I’m not exaggerating when I say I stopped every five minutes to take a pic.

Oooo, look at that mountain. So pretty!

Oooo, sheep!!! Cute!

Oooo, look at that green valley!! I’m going to fly my drone there!

Oooo, snowcapped mountains! I need to photograph those for sure!

Oooo, a river! Oh shit, I need to cross that.

It didn’t take long before I reached my first river crossing. That warning sign was not lying, but at least, it was an easy and very shallow river. Just a 4×4 dipping its toes in a small stream. Giggles!

Now, looking back at it, I believe the more beautiful the landscape got, the bigger and more challenging the river crossings got.

Slowly the “specially-equipped vehicles” warning for the F210 became more and more apparent. I clearly did not have a specially-equipped vehicle with car-destroying big wheels, a waterproof engine, and all that yadda-yadda.

Then came a big river. And what that means? A serious river crossing. How did I know it was serious? Unlike the five or six rivers I had crossed until now, this was the first one with a river crossing warning sign. Hmmm…

Mount Maelifell, Iceland
Serious river crossing warning!

I got off the car to read it carefully… (and to assess my situation)

“Crossing Requires Caution” (Noted.)
“Where is the crossing?- Rivers change” (I guess right in front?)
“Tire tracks do not tell the entire story.” (I see a few tire tracks, I suppose I’ll take the one most traveled)
“Has your engine been waterproofed?” (Nope!)
“Is somebody watching while you cross?” (Nope. There’s not a soul for miles.)
“Probe the crossing yourself.” (Are you kidding? I’m not dipping my feet in that freezing water!)
“Use a safety line.” (Don’t have one.)
“Wear warm clothing in bright colours.” (Yay! Got one right at least!)

The river was quite wide –about 30 to 40 feet wide– and the current looked strong enough to worry me. I was not willing to wet my feet in freezing water, so I estimated it to be deep enough to require substantial maneuvering while crossing, but not that deep to prevent me from passing. And off I went.

I put the vehicle in its four-wheel-drive mode and charged towards the river. The more I got into it, the deeper it got, and the slower the car went through it. I could feel the water hitting and dragging it slowly, which made me hit the gas harder to power through it.

It was a success! An adventure measured by my heartbeat rate, which was through the roof!

The next three hours were spent with a mix of stunning views and challenging crossings. At one point the river crossing was not just a crossing; the river was the road! It was so confusing.

I could see the tracks leading towards the river, but I couldn’t see a way out on the other side. Still, with a cloud of WTFs in my mind, I went into that river and followed the current. It wasn’t deep enough to worry me, but the drive was long enough to make me think I was crazy for driving ON a river.

I admit that one was fun!

As I got deeper inland, I noticed how the landscape changed from lush green moss mountains to a flat black sand desert. I was almost there.

Mount Maelifell, Iceland
At Maelifellsandur
Mount Maelifell, Iceland
See the “road” crossing the river? That’s the last one before reaching Mount Maelifell, and that one wasn’t bad.

The Mountain

The landscape was surreal but more surreal for me was the fact that I was there, all alone. In the distance, I could see the mountain –Mount Maelifell– my goal.

Mount Maelifell, Iceland

Once there, I turned off the engine, got off, and sat on the ground to look at it. All I could hear was wind. No birds, no river sounds, nothing. Just wind.

I think I had never felt so alone and content at the same time. I accomplished my mission, and I was awarded such a beautiful mountain. I looked at every detail of my surroundings. The squishy moss, the coarse volcanic sand, the glacier in the distance, the moving clouds – everything.

Mount Maelifell, Iceland

I spent an hour sitting and walking around the mountain. I hoped to see humans at some point, but no. It was just me. This was my domain. My surreal paradise, even if temporary.

I wanted to stay longer, but Iceland being Iceland, a dust storm came my way. It was time to go.

Getting Out

All the joy of being alone in nature faded away about five minutes after I left the mountain. I came across the worst river crossing so far – warning and everything.

I repeated my assessment, but this time I feared it more than all the previous ones. This one looked deep. Very deep.

Like before, I went in; I felt the drag, and I powered through. Only this time I could feel the vehicle getting deeper, and deeper, and deeper, to the point where the water reached the top of the hood.

Fear of flooding the engine rushed to me just like the water rushed onto that hood, so I pressed the gas even further to leave that river as quick as possible.

The vehicle sped up slightly. I could feel the rocks right under me with every bump, bang, and scratch in the undercarriage. I hit several rocks. I felt like I was crashing my rental intentionally.

But then, after that fear and chaos, I slowly crept up the other shore. I stopped for a few minutes to let the engine drain all the water (luckily it didn’t drown) and to check the car all around to make sure it was all peachy. My heart wasn’t peachy, though. I did not want to do that again!

Mount Maelifell, Iceland
That intersection between F210 and F233 in the middle of nowhere.

Following the plan, I left the F210 and turned left to the F233 to reach Landmannalaugar, but quickly, an even stronger crossing came by.

Why? Whyyyy?!

I stopped. After a few minutes debating it, I decided it was too risky.

“Ah, fuck this… I’m getting out of here.”

I couldn’t risk this one. My gut told me I would get stuck in that river. The weather was deteriorating, and I didn’t know how many hours it would take for someone to discover my stranded self. A day or two? I hadn’t seen a single human being since I entered the F road. There was no phone signal either.

I decided to play it safe, scrap the plans to see Landmannalaugar, and leave through the shorter (still F and full of river crossings) road down south. Luckily, that played well as the way south towards Vik was mostly “smooth” compared to everything else.

Mount Maelifell, Iceland
The beautiful landscapes as I left the interior.

Almost at the end of my F ordeal, I stopped for a few minutes to marvel at the landscape. I couldn’t believe I went through all those mountains on my own. And not only that; but that I witnessed nature in its rawest state with not a single human in my distant radar.

This is a day I’ll never forget.

As for the F road… they got my share of fucks… that F should stand for that.

Mount Maelifell, Iceland

Essential Information

If you survived this long read, then you know how adventurous this drive is. Even though I made several not-so-smart choices along the way, here I’ll share with you some tips to help you plan for this.

  • Put gas/petrol in Hella just before entering the F road. Naturally, there are no petrol stations on the F road.
  • Upload your Google Maps app with the map of the area, or have a physical map, to know of potential backup plans and roads should river crossings become impassable.
  • Take enough food with you to survive one or two days, in case the worst happens, and you have to wait for the next car to come. Take some lunch to have while at Mt. Maelifell.
  • Take warm clothes. The interior is cold, and I imagine nights must be freezing.
  • Only do it on a 4×4 and preferably not alone. I had a Ford Kuga, and it managed well. Of course, the more powerful your vehicle, the better. I rented it at Guide To Iceland as it was the cheapest I found at the time.
  • Car rentals do not cover water damage or dust storm damage. Do your best to not kill your car in a river!
  • Get the gravel impact insurance – just in case.
  • Only do this F road during the day and only during summer. Start early as it takes at least 12 hours roundtrip from Reykjavik.
  • Check the weather before heading in. Rainy conditions could make rivers impassable and the driving experience quite dangerous. I wouldn’t recommend it unless it was with good weather. Here’s their local weather site.

Getting to Mt. Maelifell: My Most Beautiful and Adventurous Drive to Date

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37 thoughts on “Getting to Mt. Maelifell: My Most Beautiful and Adventurous Drive to Date”

  1. I admire you for doing this!! I would have been like you, lots of “F’s” and lots of pics!! Stunning landscapes. Thanks for posting!

  2. Hi Norbert,

    Different landscape always fascinates me.
    I am from India and was always desirous of visiting Switzerland, but after checking your pictures, I have now made up my mind to have a blast here in near future for sure.

    I must say that I envy you.

  3. Wow, Norbert! You have shared us a wonderful trip of yours and a memorable one. We will always thank you for sharing this. Keep striving friend!

  4. Hello Nobert!
    Congratulation… it is such a best-rewarding adventure. Really love to see the landscape. I love trekking too.

  5. Hey Norbert, I was going to attempt this drive and I’m so glad I found your page! Looks pretty intense. I was thinking about attacking it from the east. Which road did you take back to Vik? F232 or the F210? Would this better an easier route? Thanks for all the tips! Love your site!

    1. Hi Bobby – Thanks! Well, it can be pretty intense at points, but it’s so worth it! I took the F210 towards Vik. I haven’t drive the F232, but the portion of the F233 that I took towards Landmannalaugar had a serious river crossing that I decided not to cross given that I was alone and thought I would probably drown the 4×4. But as you know, the river condition changes on a daily basis and even by the hour, so all you can do is check the weather before you leave, get out there if the condition is good enough, and assess every single river crossing before doing it.

      Personally, I think the F210 portion from Vik towards the interior wasn’t as bad. If heading to Mt. Maelifell, there will (or might) be one tough river crossing relatively close to the mountain. Like 10 minutes away from it.

  6. I think you were lucky accessing Maelifellsandur from F210 which has river crossings up to 70cm depth normally. A Ford Kuga has a wading depth of 45cm unless it has been altered. The southern road F261 is an easier road to the area as it only has rivers of around 50cm depth. The traverse to Landmannalaugar is also listed in Trackbook Iceland as having up to 70cm crossings, better take F232 South and from there F208 towards Landmannalaugar. But it’s too much for one day.
    Thanks for sharing your itinerary though. We are going to visit the area next month in a capable 4×4. It looks magic.

  7. Hi Norbert,

    i will be in Iceland mid September this year. I want to attempt this adventure awell if the weather conditions are ok. My question: Do you have any knowledge how difficult the way via 1 – 208 – 210 – F210 -> approaching the volcano from South-East is?

    Greetings,
    Tomas

    1. Google ‘Trackbook Iceland’ it’s the perfect guide that explains it all and lists the obstacles you will encounter, depth of the rivers, required clearance etc.

    2. Hi Thomas –

      That’s basically the route I did, but backward. You will have a few demanding river crossings along the way, but other than that, the road condition is ok. I recommend checking the “Condition and Opening of Mountain Roads” map on road.is as that is the official site that tells you if the road is passable or not. The map also shows how many challenging river crossings (with a “V”) are along the way. Last month, when I was in Iceland, the road was completely off limits (closed) due to thawing conditions. At the moment, it is open, but September is quite late already and most F roads are closed mid-month.

      I recommend renting a mid-size to large 4×4, not a small Suzuki Jimny or similar. It’s better to pay a bit more for a stronger/better clearance 4×4 than to get stuck and end up with a hefty bill (as no car rental insurance covers river crossings).

      Regarding the “Trackbook Iceland” recommendation, I can’t say anything about it as it seems to be a book you must purchase on amazon or wherever. But if it gives a detailed account on potential obstacles found on specific F roads, it could be worth getting if you’re interested in doing a lot of F road driving. Otherwise, just follow the road.is condition notice and get a strong 4×4 if the weather condition is appropriate.

  8. The pictures are stunning and the experience you had must have been even more stunning being there all by yourself. I’d really love to go there on this trip but I fear we don’t have the time to truly enjoy it even if we did have the right car to go ourselves or do a guided tour. Next time i suppose!

  9. We attempted to go see Maelifell today from the South-east as we were staying outside of Vik the night before.

    From the ring road (road 1) we drove north on 208, then 201 to the last village (Snaebyli). That is where the unpaved road (F210) starts. The first 5 min is a fairly steep climp and then It’s flat all the way to Maelifell. From the ring road it takes about 1h30 to reach Maelifell.
    The views are stunning.

    The F210 to the crossing with F233 has about 10 small river crossings that can be done with a small 4×4 (we had a KIA Sportage). Some are a bit scary but it went fine.

    Our hopes were still high untill we reached the last river crossing (I believe the name of this river is Holmsarlon) the river that you crossed just after Maelifell since you toured the other way, the one that got you very scared. Unlike you we didn’t attemp the crossing, like you said the river it about 30-50 feet wide and we had no way of judging the depth in the center, but the current looked pretty strong.

    At that point we were disappointed, we turned around and decided to take F233 north to catch up with F208 to go see Landmannalaugar (just as you planned it).

    At the crossing between F210 and F233 was a farmer on a tractor waiting for the sheep round-up. I asked him about F233 with our car (Kia Sportage 4×4) and he said “no way”, so unlike you we didn’t even try this option, instead we back tracked all the way south to road 208 and eventually drove north through F208 and Landmannalaugar.

    The southern portion of F208 is the most spectacular but also much more demanding (at least 15 river crossings and millions of very large pot holes), the northern portion just looks like Martian flat sands with no river crossing and few pot holes.

    We are planning to rent a bigger car and attemp the driver again. It’s too bad we had to back tracked as the weather today was perfect.

    To attemp this you need a car that is very high (like a high Jeep kind) if you don’t, you’ll sweat at every river crossing. As said before, no insurrance will cover water damage if you get stuck in a river, if the engine swallows water the repair will be multiple thousand $.

  10. We did it this summer, F210 from Hvolsvollur then on to Oldufell and F232 back to the ring road. That crossing just after Maelifell that you mentioned was not so extreme, at least not when we where there. But we had a VW California with a raised air intake up to 100cm, which can easily pass 50-60cm rivers. I think we never went through deeper than 50cm though. We took a fishermans suit, to be able to wade through the rivers on foot. Sometimes it was hard not be washed away but it does give extra confidence knowing the depth of the river before you cross it, and also to know whether or not there are large stones below the water. They don’t hurt superjeeps, but you can get stuck with smaller tyres like on a SUV or VAN.
    One of our crossings, filmed with a drone https://www.instagram.com/p/BXYpB0JBPtd/

  11. Thanks for sharing the story! Really interesting. I was going to go there in winter, but thanks to your story I know this probably would have been the last trip of my life! Interesting read though!!

    1. It all depends on the current conditions. Overall, I think you should be fine as the 4Runner is pretty big and normally has a decent clearance, but you need to keep an eye on the current road reports to see if these F roads are open/closed, and their current condition base don weather. Should weather cooperate, and should you feel comfortable crossing rivers, you should be fine!

  12. Good to see that you made it there and back in one condition! We took a bus to Reykjavik to Landmannalauger and another from Porsmork to Reykjavik and those river crossings weren’t something we would have liked to have done ourselves!

  13. Thank you very much for your driving commentary. You have inspired my wife and I to try the same trip in July. The last picture you took with you and Maelifell in the background, where did you go to get that angle? Is that taken from the small hill northwest of Maelifell? Looks awesome and we want to copy it!

    1. Thanks, Matthew! That picture was taken from a small hill just next to Maelifell, but I believe it is more southwest of it. Once you get there, you’ll notice it. It’s the only hill near the mountain.

  14. You are a total badass. My heart started beating fast just reading this! I think I’ll have to wait on Maelifell for another trip – but boy does it look incredible. Thanks for sharing your fun journey with us!

  15. I’d like to visit Maelifell on a trip next week. If the roads up until the F233 aren’t that bad, do you think I could park there and walk the rest? Google maps suggests it’s 7km.

    Does this sound reasonable?

    1. I don’t think it would be a difficult hike, but you will have to cross the river somehow. Actually, just after that last river crossing (if coming on the F210 from the east), everything is flat and smooth.

      Not sure how feasible it is to cross it on foot, unless you are willing to get really wet and potentially swim a bit if the current is too strong.

  16. Awesome read, it’s so hard to find good details about this drive. I drive a lot of pretty crazy mountain roads in the U.S. and I always noticed when
    I travel roads people say are crazy and difficult end up being pretty easy. haha. But this one because of the conditions makes me want to know what I am getting into. I’m going to have a Land Cruiser with snorkel and 32 inch tires slightly lifted so I think I can handle most things. My question is what route would you take? I’ll be leaving Thorsmork area sunrise and I want to drive to Mt, Maelifell and then up to Landmannalaugar and out the northern section and I’m staying at the highland center on f26. any suggestions? I’m going mid september. thanks!

    1. Hi Tom –

      I think you should be fine with a Land Cruiser with a snorkel. Know that, though, that by mid-September it is possible that some of these roads might be closed, depending on the weather. I have no experience on the f26 and only have partial experience on the F233 that connects with the F210 after Maelifell and goes to the F208 that leads to Landmannalaugar. When I drove part of the F233, I found some of the rivers deep enough to not make me want to cross them without a snorkel – hence why I backtracked and exited via Vik. I highly recommend you check the road.is website as it tells you the current condition of each road. It might help you make a decision on which road to take.

  17. Hi guys!
    i’m very glad to find this page about Highlands!!
    By the way… i never been on Highlands before, but just help me a little bit with my schedule:

    05/09 F208 Heading to Landmannalaugar,
    haifoss, Hjalparfoss, Pjordasur valley, Bláhnukur ( blue peak for phots), Ljotipollur – and rest in that roof
    ( 2 days for do it)

    07/09
    – (3th day: Go to Mont Mælifell)
    and then go Oldfjell ( near).

    08/09 to 09/09
    4- ( 4th day)…
    Go to Kerlingarfjol and MY FAVORITE SITE: Valley of tears knowed by Valley of Sidögjlufur

    ( out of Highlands).
    5- (5th day) Going out of Highlands…
    Go to Jokla Canion ( Studlagil)… and then to HENGIFOSS.. in the end MJOIFJORDOUR canion.

    Pleae tell me guys if in this sequence is realistic ( after mount mælifell we should sleep in the car, right at least 2 nights)

    i really need some help to finish my programation.
    Thanks so much!

    1. Hi Filipe –

      Thanks! Well, to be honest, I can’t really comment on your plans because I haven’t done most of what you laid out here. What I’ll say, though, is that you’re doing this in September, so be aware of the weather and check if these F-roads will still be open by then, as many of them start closing around September when the snow starts accumulating. Best of luck!

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