Almost a third of Iceland is consumed by highland plateaus blanketed with volcanic gravel, and punctuated only by glacial rivers, scattered mountains and lakes, smatterings of vegetation, and perhaps a stray boulder. Amid this pristine desert wasteland, travelers often pose for pictures next to directional signs at road junctions. The signs seem to point nowhere, and, in the photo, the traveler invariably grins at the absurdity -- and otherworldly beauty -- of the scene. The Apollo astronauts came to Iceland's interior to train, and until tourism reaches the moon, this place may be the closest substitute.

The interior is often described as Europe's last great untouched wilderness. This is somewhat misleading, as much of the land was vegetated before settlers and their voracious sheep first arrived. (In efforts to reseed the desert, Icelandic scientists are experimenting with dropping bombs full of fertilizer from a WWII-era DC-3 plane.) Early settlers often traversed the interior for parliamentary meetings at Þingvellir, but many routes were closed off when temperatures cooled in the 13th century. In popular mythology, the interior became a refuge for outlaws and outcasts, much like the Wild West in the American imagination.

The two main south-to-north routes through the interior are Kjölur, in the western half of the country, and Sprengisandur, in the dead center. The Kjölur Route is relatively hospitable, and can be crossed easily in a 4WD vehicle. The Sprengisandur Route passes through Iceland's most fantastically bleak territory, with more hazardous road conditions. Further east is Askja caldera, a dramatic ring of mountains formed largely in the aftermath of a catastrophic 1875 eruption. South of Askja is Kverkfjöll, where intense geothermal activity and Vatnajökull glacier surreally converge. Some interior highland destinations fall elsewhere in this book, notably Landmannalaugar and Þórsmörk in the south, Snæfell in the east, and the Kaldidalur Route in the west.

Traveling season is generally restricted to mid-summer. In July the sparse plant life heroically blooms, but August is generally prettier, since more snow has lifted. River crossings are often more difficult in July, because of higher water levels. July can also be buggier.

High winds and severe temperature fluctuations are endemic to the highlands. Volcanic sands are lightweight and swirl easily in the wind, so eye and face protection can be crucial. Driving in the interior presents serious challenges.