The green, cone-shaped mountain of Maelifell is one of the most impressive sights in Iceland, yet it remains relatively under-visited. Here’s how to enjoy an adventurous excursion into one of Iceland’s more remote wilderness areas.
In a remote corner of the highlands, the Maelifell volcano stands as one of Iceland’s most iconic sights. A conical moss-covered shape in luminescent green, it rises above an expanse of black sands known as Maelifellsandur, which are cut by the curving swathes of the Hólmsa River.
This dramatic location has been used in Noah and Game of Thrones with production crews lured by the beautiful isolation and bold contrast of colours.
Although Maelifell is just over an hour from the Ring Road, getting here requires travelling on an F-road which can only be done in a 4×4 vehicle. F-roads come in all shapes and sizes and often require tricky river crossings, but fortunately, there are ways to get to Maelifell that are not that difficult.
Here’s all you need to know about getting to Maelifell either by driving yourself or joining a tour. We have included a map, information about road conditions and river crossing, as well as some suggestions on where to stay. We have also included the details of an exhilarating hike with breathtaking views that you shouldn’t miss.
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WHERE IS MAELIFELL?
Maelifell Volcano is in the Iceland Highlands, just northeast of the massive Mýrdalsjökull Glacier Park. The 791-metre-high cone of Maelifell was once covered by the glacier, but the mountain was revealed as the ice retreated at the end of the last Ice Age.
Maelifell means measuring hill in Icelandic and in earlier times locals used these distinctive-looking mountains to help navigate around the country. There are 9 mountains named Maelifell in Iceland but the one in Mýrdalsjökull Glacier Park is the most striking.
HOW TO GET TO MAELIFELL
To get to Maelifell you will need to take a mountain road, also known as the F-roads in Iceland. F-roads are unpaved tracks that come in all shapes and sizes and require a 4×4. 2WD vehicles are not permitted on the F-Roads. Some are relatively easy gravel tracks; however, others involve driving through sand, navigating very rocky tracks, and crossing rivers.
Our guide to the F-roads in Iceland covers important information you need to know before driving on these roads.
There are three different ways to get to Maelifell.
1 / F210 FROM THE WEST – TOURS RECOMMENDED
The F210 from the west is the hardest route to get to Maelifell. It involves driving a long rough road with multiple tricky river crossings. In normal conditions, it is advised to have a large 4×4 vehicle with an experienced driver to cross the deep rivers. We hired a medium-sized 4×4, so this route was never going to be an option for us, however, it’s a great option for a super jeep tour.
MAELIFELL VOLCANO TOUR
South Coast Adventures has just started running a Private Guided tour in a super jeep (modified vehicle with massive wheels, very high clearance and a snorkel to protect the engine) for up to 4 people. It heads through some of the most dramatic scenery in the highlands and takes away the stress of having to cross those big rivers or slippery sands. It can also get to sights you would never be able to reach on your own such as the top of Hekla volcano. The tour leaves from Brú Base Camp near Thórsmörk and lasts 8 hours.
2 / F210 FROM THE EAST – SELF-DRIVE POSSIBLE
The F210 from the east is a much easier option to drive yourself. It starts on F208 near the church in Grafarkirkja and the road is not too long or too rough. It steadily climbs up and down hills offering wonderful views over green mountains and glacial rivers. There are a couple of (usually) small river crossings to negotiate but nothing too tricky.
However, there is a difficult crossing at the Hólmsa River after about 1 hour. The river is wide and deep and in normal conditions requires a large 4×4 with an experienced driver. If you know what you are doing and have the right vehicle, you can attempt the crossing. After this crossing, you can make your way over the black sands of Maelifellsandur to the base of Maelifell.
The good news is that you don’t need to cross the Hólmsa River to get great views of Maelifell. Instead, as you reach the river turn right, follow the tracks along the eastern bank, and cross over a small tributary (rather than the main Hólmsa River). The road then rises up a hill to a turning circle where you can park.
From the parking spot, it’s a 5-minute walk to amazing views of Maelifell. Continue for another 45 minutes to the summit of Rauðibotn crater from where you can take in 360-degree views of the entire area surrounding Maelifell.
The drive to the parking spot (on the turning circle) from the F208 junction takes about 1 hour 15 minutes each way and (in normal conditions) can be done in any size 4WD.
Top Tip | Axlafoss Detour – On the way to Maelifell, take the short detour down a side track to Axlafoss, a lovely waterfall that’s well worth stopping off for. The exact location is marked on the map below.
Combine the drive and the waterfall with the hike to the colourful Rauðibotn crater and it’s an excellent semi-adventurous day out in Iceland.
Allow about 5 to 6 hours for the whole adventure. Details of the Rauðibotn hike are at the bottom of this guide.
3 / F232 FROM THE SOUTH – EASIEST SELF-DRIVE ROUTE
The easiest way to get to the base of Maelifell is on the F232. It leaves the 209 near Hrífunes and heads up the west side of the glacial valley of the Hólmsa River. Looking at a map it appears a forbidding prospect. Winding its way under the tongues of Mýrdalsjökull glacier and back and forth across the valley floor, there are numerous rivers to cross and sands to negotiate. But it’s much easier than it looks.
The three largest rivers (Leira, Jökullvisl, and Bláfellsá) have all been bridged and the road (when we took it) was in pretty good condition. There are a number of small tributaries to cross but in normal conditions, they should not present any issues. There are only two challenges to overcome.
After about 1 hour and 15 minutes, the F232 crosses Bláfjallakvisl River, presenting the first challenge. Perched on top of Bláfjallafoss waterfall, it is an exciting river crossing with the cascade dropping away on your left-hand side. In normal conditions, it is a medium-difficult river crossing and you should be able to cross in a medium-sized 4×4. Follow the tips for river crossings on our F-roads in Iceland guide.
From the river crossing it’s another 15 minutes on the F232 before it joins the F210 (on the west side of the difficult Hólmsa river crossing). Turn left and drive for 10 minutes over the black sands of the Maelifellsandur to Maelifell. This section presents the 2nd challenge: in wet conditions the sand can get boggy so only go as far as you feel comfortable. If you need to turn around, you will still have had an amazing experience in Iceland getting this far.
We completed this journey on a relatively dry day in just over 3 hours and 30 minutes and did not have a problem in our medium-sized 4×4 (Suzuki Vitara).
If you have a large 4×4 and experience crossing larger rivers, you could complete a loop of the F210 and the F232 crossing the Hólmsa River in between.
WHICH IS BETTER – F210 or F232?
Even though the F232 can get you closer to Maelifell, we preferred the F210 from the east. The views from the road were better, the drive more interesting and the walk to Rauðibotn crater was excellent. It was one of our favourite experiences in Iceland.
But there’s no need to choose, if you set off early you can get both done in one day. Start with the F210 from the east to get the best views from Rauðibotn as early as possible while the light is good. Return the way you came, then complete the F232 from the south in time for soft early evening light.
Important note – There is no fuel on either of these routes, so make sure you start with a full tank of gas. The closest N1 Fuel Station to this drive is at Kirkjubæjarklaustur.
MAP – HOW TO GET TO MAELIFELL
The below map shows the two routes we took to get to Maelifell. The F210 from the east is in purple and the F232 is in brown. The parking for the hike to Rauðibotn, and the hike itself, are both marked in red.
There are no gas stations on either of the roads. The nearest gas stations are on the Ring Road in the towns of Vik and Kirkjubæjarklaustur. Be sure to fill up at either of these before you head into the highlands. There is enough to think about without worrying you might run out of gas.
There are also no shops or supplies on either road. Take everything you need with you including food, water, and warm clothes. Be sure to read our F-roads in Iceland post before setting off.
SEE MAELIFELL FROM THE STUNNING RAUÐIBOTN HIKE
If you take the F210 from the east you have the option of hiking to the summit of Rauðibotn. This colourful volcano is not only attractive in its own right; it also offers great views across the black sands to Maelifell. Backed by Mýrdalsjökull glacier, and surrounded by glacial rivers cutting a swathe between the green mountains, it is one of the best places to visit in Iceland’s Highlands.
The hike to the summit of the crater takes about 50 minutes and ascends about 200 metres. A couple of tyre tracks leave the parking spot at the turning circle and head over a low hill. You can follow these, but there is a better path to follow – although quite indistinct – that contours around the edge of the hill and provides better views.
A rough guide to the route is included on the map above, but for a more exact path download the Maps.me app and save Iceland to your offline maps. The trail is shown on the map and you can track your progress as you hike. Just make sure you download the app and the Iceland country map while you have data before you leave in the morning.
After contouring the hill, the trail drops to the east bank of a small river, before climbing up and then around Rauðibotn crater. The deep red colours of the crater contrast with the azure blue lake at the bottom and the views from its 619-metre summit are excellent.
Head back the way you came or spend more time exploring the area by walking into the crater and following another track up to Hólmsárfossar Lake – which might require leaping over a couple of gushing streams.
WHERE TO STAY NEAR MAELIFELL
Taking a 4×4 to explore Iceland’s Highlands is a great adventure, but these are remote and desolate places so you need to book accommodation well in advance. Here are a couple of places we highly recommend.
Perfectly located right by the entrance to the F232 and only a short distance from the F210, this is one of the friendliest and best places we have stayed in Iceland. The rooms are spacious and well decorated; each one with a patio overlooking the Mýrdalsjökull glacier. They do an excellent home-cooked buffet dinner on communal tables in their lovely home.
Hrífunes Guesthouse is another great option for visiting Maelifell. It’s right next to the Glacier View Guesthouse, so it’s equally as good for starting this adventure. Packed with interesting collectible items, the rooms are spacious, yet cozy and traditional Icelandic food is served at breakfast and dinner.
PLANNING YOUR ICELAND TRIP
Iceland is an excellent destination for semi-adventurous travellers who like to get off the beaten track and immerse themselves in stunning scenery. Here’s some more reading from us to help plan your journey to the land of fire and ice.
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GENERAL TRAVEL TIPS
EXPLORING THE HIGHLANDS
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