The 4-day Laugavegur Trek from Landmannalaugur to Þórsmörk is often listed among the world’s classic treks, so naturally it was on our must-do list for Iceland. We intentionally saved this premier attraction for the end of our trip. We did this for two reasons: first and foremost, we needed to get in shape for this intense backpacking adventure through the Highlands; second, it is recommended that trekkers wait until mid-July to attempt the hike, when the weather might be milder and the trails more likely free of snow.
We took a Reykjavík Excursions bus from the BSÍ terminal in Reykjavik to the northern starting point at Landmannalaugur. As with so many aspects of travel here, bus transportation has been designed to make it easy and convenient for trekkers to arrive at the starting point. We tried to make a reservation the day before our intended departure, but the kind agent said there was no need to be concerned; simply show up 20 minutes ahead of the scheduled departure, buy a ticket and go.
Because this is the high season for this trek, we were worried that the bus might be full and that we wouldn’t get a space. Every seat on our bus actually was taken, but Reykjavík Excursions simply brought out another bus so that all passengers wanting to leave that day could be accommodated.
In fact, traveling by bus in Iceland couldn’t be easier. The network of bus lines has been designed for convenient transfer points at petrol stations and major points of interest all over the country, so it is easy to string together bus routes to take you within shooting distance of most places of interest.
The bus journey to Landmannalaugur takes about five hours and travels along some bumpy, gravel F-roads where 2-wheel drive cars are not allowed, often fording glacial run-off rivers better than 4-wheel drive SUVs. Along the way, the eager trekker is treated to a visual feast of Highlands scenery: mountain lakes, glacial streams, black volcanic wastelands dotted with flowers, mossy green mountains jutting up from the plains with waterfalls tumbling off them, and views of the two glaciers that form the southern end of the trek: Eyjafjallajökull and Myrdalsjökull. The drive alone was magnificent.
The Laugavegur Trek can be done in either direction, but we were advised to hike from north to south as you end up doing most of the climbing on the first day and spend the remaining 3 days on a gradual descent toward Þórsmörk. We knew that the trek was popular, but we were still a bit taken aback when we arrived at the tent city known as Landmannalaugur. This is a popular stop for many group trekking tours as well as day hikers who don’t plan to tackle the entire trek, so the scene was a bit overwhelming. Picture a rocky flat expanse butting up to the beginning of an ancient lava field, populated by a tent city in a rainbow of colors sprawling for acres and acres. It wasn’t exactly the remote wilderness location that we were expecting.
The busy campground had a large WC/shower facility with flush toilets and a sheltered cooking area with picnic tables and kitchen sinks for cleaning. It even featured the Mountain Mall, an old green school bus that has been converted into a kaffihus/convenience store selling simple provisions, coffee and candy alongside a second bus functioning as a shelter with chairs, a table and tourist literature for reading.
After setting up our tent and anchoring it with lava rocks to keep it from blowing away, we sought out the warden for advice on a good day hike. We hit the Mountain Mall for a soul-warming coffee and hot chocolate before setting out on the suggested 5.7 kilometer Bláhnúkur/Grænagil hike.
This spectacular hike takes you across a flat glacial terrain, crosses a runoff river and then ascends the steep ridge of Bláhnúkur, one of the highest peaks in the area. The summit provided a near-360 degree panoramic view of the entire area including the campground, its surrounding valley and the lava field rising above it; we couldn’t take our eyes off the surrounding rhyolite mountains which were painted in shades of teal blue, rust orange and beige. Steam from geothermal vents rose up like smoke signals adding a sense of mystery.
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After taking in the view, we descended down into the Grænagil valley and walked back alongside a small stream and over the lava fields, a great preview of the 4-day trek we were about to begin.
After dinner, we joined the crowd in the natural stream-fed hot pot for a late evening warm up. A curious mix of hot and cold water, the challenge of this hot pot was to find a pocket where the temperature was warm enough without scalding us. Every now and then, you would have to move because a cold current would come through and destroy the balance. It was funny to watch the looks on other bathers’ faces as they found and lost their perfect pools.
Day One: Landmannalaugur to Hrafntinnusker
The next morning we set off on day one of the Laugavegur, a 12 kilometer stretch that would take us up a 500 meter ascent across a lava field and to a first plateau. As soon as we began, a slight drizzle started up; this became par for the course over the next several days. It seemed that as soon as we put on our rain pants and windbreaker, the rain would stop. If we dared take them off and pull out a camera, the rain would start right back up again. We quickly learned to just keep the rain gear on and roll with the weather.
As we strolled along the plateau, the trail passed through a geothermal field with steaming sulfurous vents and fields of shiny black obsidian. Near the end of the day’s climb we crossed several snowfields just as a heavy rain and fog set in, obscuring our view of the surrounding mountains.
We finally arrived at the first hut/campground Hrafntinnusker, eager to find shelter from the weather.
Unlike the rest of Iceland, you are asked not to “wild camp” along this trail but to use designated campgrounds or sleep in huts in order to keep the environment as clean and undisturbed as possible. At each of the five designated stops on the trail, there are huts maintained and operated by FÍ, an Icelandic hiking club. They offer dorm-style beds, a small kitchenette and a common room, and hut space can be reserved well in advance if you like. If there is availability when you arrive, you can purchase a space for 5000 krónur (about $40 US). In the event of dangerous weather, you are informed that campers may join you in the already crowded hut to seek shelter for the night.
As campers, we were surprised to discover that the hut was not available for our use at all and headed back out into the elements. We set up our tent inside a circular shelter of low, volcanic stones that offered some protection from the wind but none from the rain. Lacking alternative shelter, we napped in our tent before making dinner huddled around the one sink available to campers. After dinner, with a break in the rain, we walked around a bit to keep warm before turning in for the evening, happy to have a dry tent.
Day Two: Hrafntinnusker to Hvannagil
We awoke the next day to high overcast skies but fortunately no rain. After a breakfast of biscuits and gravy (courtesy of Backpacker’s Pantry), we hit the trail for Hvannagil, 16 kilometers away. Day 2 of the Laugavegur was a visual feast from start to finish. After traversing a few glacial snowfields, we soon left the black stone fields peppered with shiny obsidian and passed into a region dominated by colorful rhyolite peaks, reminiscent of the Altiplano in Bolivia. We passed steam vents and small hot pools, smelling faintly of sulfur, and marveled at the blue-green algae that were growing in them.
After ascending to a ridge, we were stunned by what we saw. It was as if somebody had just flipped a page in a magical picture book as we suddenly had an entirely new landscape before us. In place of the rounded rhyolite hills, there was a phenomenal verdant valley below. The scene was surreal, resembling the illustrated 3D topographic overview of the hike rather than real mountains.
We felt as if we had been instantly transported to Hawaii. The isolated ridges and peaks looked like islands from Lost, carpeted in lush green velvet and floating above a black sand sea. As we descended into the valley, we gradually passed these mountain islands, appreciating their height and grandeur from “sea level.” The way these mountains jutted up abruptly from the flat, black plain was truly striking. One of the great joys of trekking is the opportunity to see features at a distance and then see how they change as you approach and move past them. The segment to and through these green islands kept us in awe the whole time.
And it kept our mind off our first river crossing. We approached with trepidation, knowing that we would have to ford this icy cold river carrying our packs and wearing nothing but Crocs for protection from the freezing temperatures. At first, the crossing point was not obvious, and other hikers seemed just as apprehensive as us as we contemplated traversing the rushing river filled with boulders. Finally, we picked our point, shuffled our way through the knee-deep water and made it across, feet numb, but with body and gear intact. Hallelujah!
Twelve kilometers into the day’s hike we arrived at Àlfavatn, the first of two possible stops. Àlfavatn has a fairly new hut, showers and a sizeable campground situated near the shore of a large mountain lake. We stopped to take in the view over a late lunch before pushing on to the next camp at Hvannagil.
In addition to wanting to get another 4 kilometers down the trail and a second river crossing behind us, Hvannagil has a much smaller campground. Camping there would free us from some of the larger trekking groups that we were sharing the trail with and would make for a more serene evening. We forded the next river with ease, knowing now what to expect, and set our tent up amid the protection of lava formations that looked like something out of Lord of the Rings.
Despite the beautiful golden sunset that lit up the valley and surrounding mountains, we were informed that severe weather was expected the next day. The forecast warned of dangerously high winds and the possibility of heavy rain. People in Reykjavík, apparently, were being warned to stay indoors to avoid harm. Rosá and Pali, two Icelandic guides for the hiking club FÍ, offered to reserve us space in a hut at Emstrur for the following evening. Although reluctant to forego the comfort of our trusty tent, we accepted the offer and headed to bed relieved to know that we would have shelter from the storm for the next evening.
Day Three: Hvannagil to Emstrur
We awoke early on Day 3 of the trek and started hiking by 8 a.m. The trail for Day 3 was described as flat and fairly desolate. As it turned out, we found the landscape to be quite striking. We traversed a plain of black sand with tufts of sea campion and pockets of arctic river beauty scattered as far as the eye could see. Lush green mountains provided a dramatic backdrop.
We paused to watch a long train of horses crossing a river and then made our way through an elevated canyon. We crossed one fairly wide river that day that rose to just above our knees. A fellow hiker, already on the other side, told us to “Just breathe!” And we did, but just barely. A few hours into our hike, we were surprised to see the hut at Emstrur come into view nestled in a valley just below us. We had arrived at noon, having made great time. As it turns out, the threat of bad weather turns out to be a good motivator!
We checked into our hut and spent much of the afternoon enjoying four walls and a roof as the wind picked up and the temperature dropped. After four hours, cabin fever set in, so we took a short walk to view a nearby gorge. Just as we got there the skies opened up, and the wind started howling. We fought our way into the wind all the way back to the hut, grateful for a cup of hot tea when we arrived.
We shared the hut that evening with the two Icelandic guides and several of their countrymen, a Swedish couple, four French trekkers, and a honeymooning couple from Switzerland. It was fun to swap travel stories and share this cozy space with such an international crowd. Everyone took turns using the two-burner stove to make their dinner, and at 10 p.m. everyone, on cue, quietly made their way to bed, two to a bunk. There were 19 of us crammed into a 10×8 foot room…and only 3 snorers! Looking out at the tenters camped below and seeing how the wind was violently pushing the rain flies around, we were glad to be indoors this one evening.
Day Four: Emstrur to Þórsmörk
Having survived the wind storm, we set off on Day 4 for Þórsmörk, 15 kilometers away. The final day of the Laugavegur Trek began with sun and clouds and a descent into a stunning canyon with rust red, black and green rock strata. We had to do a short bit of rappelling with the aid of provided ropes before crossing a bridge over the rushing river below. Just as we did, a rainbow appeared over the canyon, an auspicious start to our last day.
The trail then took us to the confluence of two rivers with crazy views of the sculpted canyon walls and waterfalls tumbling down the opposite side of the canyon. As we crested the ridge near the halfway point of the day, we turned our back on Myrdalsjökull, the glacier dimly visible for much of the day, and looked down into the Þórsmörk valley. The sun came out and lit up the valley below which was dominated by a devil-horned mountain and cut by a river canyon extending off toward the horizon. As we descended, we passed though a sea of red grasses and the base of Eyjafallajökull, the volcano that erupted most recently in 2010, came into view, its peak shrouded in cloud.
Only one obstacle stood between us and our final destination—one final river crossing, and this one, we had been told, was the most challenging. So we followed the lead of hikers ahead of us, removing shoes, socks and pants (no shame here) in order to keep our bottom halves dry. This time the river was deeper and wider, and the current was much stronger than what we had encountered before.
So, with a fair bit of self-encouragement, we locked arms, pointed our toes upstream and shuffled sideways, taking care not to get disoriented by the rushing water at our thighs but focusing instead on the far shore. The force of the water and the noise were intense, but we made it across no worse for the wear and feeling energized for the last few kilometers. As we strolled down the lush green valley, we passed through a birch forest speckled with purple and yellow wildflowers more typical of warmer, lower elevations. With spirits high we strode into camp, having successfully completed the 54-kilometer Laugavegur Trek.
Here’s a fun, quick video summing up our four days on the trail:
There are three different places to stay at Þórsmörk. Two huts/campgrounds run by Icelandic hiking clubs are located in the valley. These are closer to the pass between Myrdallsjökull and Eyjafallajökull and are worth staying at if you intend to make the 25-kilometer hike over to Skógar. Though possible to do this hike in one long day (providing you are fit and the weather cooperates), it is recommended to break it up at the top of the pass where you can stay overnight at the Fimmvörduháls hut, explore the volcano and have time to enjoy the views at the top.
Because we had decided only to do the Laugavegur Trek, we chose to stay at Þórsmörk’s third campground. This site offered hot showers, a hot pot, a restaurant/bar and a cooking shelter for campers, which all sounded irresistible after so many days on the trail. It also happened to be closest to the end of our trail and very convenient for catching the bus back to Reykjavík. Although it started to rain (no surprise anymore), we attempted to warm up in the hot pot, described more accurately by a British teen trekker as a “warmish, slippery puddle.” She was right; we felt like frogs trapped in this algae-lined mini-pond. We had to practically lie down in order to cover our bodies in water barely warm enough to enjoy. We had to laugh as we clawed our way out and scampered to dry off.
We celebrated that evening in the bar with a cold Viking Classic (from a can) and a complimentary shot of Black Death, an Icelandic spirit made from potato and spiced with cumin. The following morning we caught the bus back to Reykjavík, satisfied by the constant visual feast that was the Laugavegur Trek.
An edited version of our adventure on the Laugavegur Trail appeared in the second issue of Sidewalk – a hiking and backpacking magazine. Check it out!