Laugavegurinn - Laugavegur Hiking Trail
Need to know:
A daily bus service from Reykjavik gets you to Landmannalaugar in 41/2 hours in a bumpy but scenic ride. Daily buses to/from ϸórsmörk and take about 3 hours from/to Reykjavik
The main huts and trails are managed by the IcelandicTouring Association (Ferðafélag Íslands or FÍ). The Icelandic travel association Útivist also offers accommodation in a couple of huts in the area.
Huts along the trail must be booked, often months in advance if you go during peak season (summer). Camping spots can't be pre-booked. It is considerably cheaper to camp, however, you are not permitted to use hut facilities, i.e. kitchen or drying your clothes/boots. Generally, the huts (skáli) have a resident hut warden, bunk rooms, kitchen with basic equipment and gas stoves, water, toilets (pit or flush) and sometimes even showers (5x IKR100). You must carry your own sleeping bag and food.
The track can be traversed in either direction, however most hikers tackle it from north (starting at Landmannalaugar) to south (ϸórsmörk), mainly because of the net altitude loss and facilities at ϸórsmörk.
Most hikers, including us, opt to walk the trail in four days. If you are strapped for time or see this as a fitness challenge, it can also be done in 3 and even 2 days. However, if you want to enjoy the landscape to the fullest, explore the area and do some side treks then take your time.
Avoid asking questions that can be answered by a Yes or No (as this is all you'll get). Ask open questions and engage with the locals and you'll be rewarded with the Icelandic folks sharing their local knowledge and wonderful stories.
Icelandic Touring Association Ferðafélag Íslands: www.fi.is
Útivist Travel Association: www.utivist.is
Official Iceland Tourism site: www.visiticeland.com
Iceland is home to one of the largest single ice caps in Europe, floating icebergs, unique horses, puffins, geothermal pools, and active volcanoes whose plumes of ashes can cause havoc across Europe stopping air travel for weeks.
It is also where the Laugvegur hiking trail (or Laugavegurinn) between Landmannalaugar and ϸórsmörk (pronounced something like Thorshmjoerk with a lot of tongue rolling) attracts an increasing number of hikers from all over the world. A hiker’s playground and photographer's heaven. My husband Pete and I walk the Laugavegurinn in early July, at the start of the high season, and are accompanied by our friend Jo from Sweden. We opt for walking it from north (Landmannalaugar) to south (ϸórsmörk) and booking a bed in a hut each night rather than camping.
Icelandic summer means long days, in fact it never really gets dark, and temperatures typically get up to the low twenties. Icelanders tell you that “the weather forecast is 50% right”. You are likely to experience all four seasons in one day, twice. And we experienced just that.
A painter's colour palette
(Day 1: Landmannalaugar – Hrafntinnusker)
We spend our first night at the FÍ hut in Landmannalaugar in the southern end of the Icelandic Highlands. It’s a beautiful valley nestled amongst colourful ryolite mountains at the edge of a geothermal area. It's natural hot springs are usually busy with day trippers and hikers soothing sore bones (or getting prepared for them). There is also a small “shop” located in two converted army trucks, which sells coffee and tea and stocks some essential items and beer at premium rates.
The weather forecast for the next day isn't good and includes words like three degrees Celsius, gale force winds and rain. We set off at around 10.30am. The first day is the shortest in actual distance, however, due to the vertical rise of about 500m it is quite challenging for most. The walk starts off with a short steep climb behind the hut to the black and rough lava field of Laugahraun. From here and in reasonably good weather there is a beautiful view over the surrounding mountains including Brennisteinsalda, notably one of the most colourful mountains showing off pastel tints of pink, red, yellow, grey and brown. The well-formed track leads up steadily and steeply past a number of hissing and steaming vents, which sometimes make it difficult to see what’s in front of you. There is also that unmistakable smell of sulphur, which will accompany us every now and then for the next 4 days.
Hot spring at Landmannalaugar View of Brennisteinsalda from Laugahraun
At the start of a plateau we talk to a group of French hikers who advise us of the adverse weather conditions lying just ahead of us. They aren't wrong. We cross the plateau in gale force winds and side-ways rain, sleet, hail and snow for what seems a very long time. According to the Laugavegurinn Hiking Trail booklet I had purchased in Reyjkavik a couple of days earlier and which took with us, in good weather conditions you would enjoy a 360 degree view over a landscape full of contrasts: yellow rhyolite mountains, snow and mossy patches in-between. We see only each step in front of us, carefully avoiding any snow-covered ravines - deep, narrow steep-sided gullies formed by running water - and keeping to the track. Once we get off the plateau, we pass some more steaming vents and the wind and rain subside a little. A steep slope then leads into the Hrafntinnusker area. Walking between the Hrafntinnusker mountain on the right and the Sodull mountain on the left, the Höskuldsskáli, named after one of the former presidents of the FÍ, comes briefly into view at the bottom of the hill before it totally disappears again into fog and rain. Soon the rain turns into snow flurries and visibility is very limited , any potential side trips from the hut are put on hold until the next day and out come the deck of cards.
Considering the number of people staying at the hut in Landmannalaugar there are noticeably few hikers staying at Hrafntinnusker. Only the next day we find out that hikers at Landmannalaugar were told not to leave from around 11am due to adverse and dangerous weather conditions.
A world of stark contrasts
(Day 2: Hrafntinnusker – Álftavatn)
Waking up to beautiful sunshine and mist in the valley, we are keen to walk to the ice caves, which according to the booklet was only 1-2 hours walk return. "Do you know which way it is to the ice caves?" we ask the friendly hut warden. "Yes." Our anticipation is met with a stare and pause. "Which way do we need to go?" we press on. "The ice caves?" the hut warden asks. Yes, the booklet refers to them as "not to be missed". "They are gone. Collapsed a few years ago." Deepest disappointment on our part. It dawns on us that the 80's looking people in the photos in the booklet should've been a clear give-away as to how old its content is.
Hence, after exploring the area around Hrafntinnusker with our cameras, we set off relatively early (i.e. before 12noon) to the FÍ hut at Álftavatn. There are a lot more snow patches covering the mountains and the track. The booklet warns us again to be aware of snow-covered ravines found in this area and we agree to heed this advice regardless of its trustworthiness and tread carefully. A couple of times I sink in knee-deep as I walk over a thin layer of
Note that times include stops for food, photos etc
Day 1: Landmannalaugar (Ferðafélag Íslands (FÍ) Skáli / Icelandic Touring Association Hut) - Hrafntinnusker (Höskuldsskáli)
Estimated time: 4-5 hours
Day 2: Hrafntinnusker - Álftavatn (FÍ Skáli)
Estimated time: 4-5 hours
Day 3: Álftavatn - Emstrur (Botnarskáli)
Estimated time: 6-7 hours
Day 4: Emstrur - ϸórsmörk (Skagfjördsskáli)
Estimated time: 5-6 hours
Mál og menning Island Sérkort 4: Landmannalaugar ϸórsmörk Fjallabak, 1:100,000, 1:50,000
The Laugevegur Hiking Trail, Leifur ϸorsteinsson & Gudjón Ó. Magsnússon, Ferðafélag Íslands booklet detailing each day and containing day by day/overall maps. Although this is a handy booklet for general information about the hike, it is outdated and some information contained was found to be no longer current by the writer.
The above maps and information about the track are available at the Visitor Information Centre in Reykjavik.
snow. After a steep climb we are again rewarded with a 360 degree view of
pastel coloured mountains as well as some wonderful views of ice caves
(ice caves!) and huge snow walls. The contrast between the rocky track, snow
patches, barren, colourful ryolite mountains, light green clumps of moss and red
and yellow bubbling hot fissures is stark and nothing short of beautiful.
Signpost at Höskuldsskáli
Höskuldsskáli and hissing vent just behind it
Walking across steaming fissures
Soon we cross the river Grashagakvísl before steeply ascending the Jökultungur mountain, which turns into a very sticky encounter with wet clay that leaves our boots covered and our soles clogged up in same. Within 2 minutes the weather changes from a lovely sunny summer's day to horizontal rain/sleet, strong winds and a significant drop in temperature. Soon we cross the river Grashagakvísl before steeply ascending the Jökultungur mountain, which turns into a very sticky encounter with wet clay that leaves our boots covered and our soles clogged up in same. Within 2 minutes the weather changes from a lovely sunny summer's day to horizontal rain/sleet, strong winds and a significant drop in temperature. Just as quickly it settles to constant rain for the rest of the day. for the rest of the day.
The landscape drastically changes, too. From Jökultungur hikers can enjoy a mesmerising view of what lies ahead of them, the stunning green mossy mountains around the valley at Álftavatn, the lake itself and impressive glacier tongues to the east. Another steep track leads down to the foot of Jökultungur where the track continues practically level to our stop for the night at Álftavatn.
When we get there we unexpectedly find a new hut with comfortable sleeping quarters and a well-equipped kitchen next to the old hut (featured as the hut at Álftavatn in the booklet). There are a couple of 4WDs parked at the front and we have a suspicion that the hikers in hut 1 just got their heavy packs, dinner and breakfast delivered. Seriously, where is the reward at the end of the day when you don’t have to lug around an 18kg pack, your camera gear and all of your food? There is probably a slab of beer in the boot, too, is there? Ppffft!
I walk to the warden's hut to find out some information and struggle to climb up to the door. The stairs have either collapsed or have not yet been assembled, it's hard to tell which. Upon my question as to whether there was a reason why only one out of two showers and three out of six toilets were open (and resulting in lengthy queues) the hut warden firmly answers "Yes." Pause. I rephrase my question to one that can't be answered with a simple yes or no and am enlightened with "We're running low on gas and toilet paper, so only staff can use the other cubicles." Mmhh. Never mind, the 35 minute wait outside the hot shower is passed by exchanging track stories with fellow hikers and is so worth it.
Pete and I take a stroll around the area and nearby lake Álftavatn at the foot of a number of rich green and pointy mountains before it starts raining again and we retreat to the hut.
Lunch spot with a view
A group of hikers walking across Jökultungur
Pam capturing the scenery, a huge glacier in the background
View of Álftavatn from Jökultungur, rain closing in again
View of Álftavatn from Jökultungur, rain closing in again
Of green giants, black scree and no legs
(Day 3: Álftavatn – Emstrur)
Feeling refreshed we set off early again (i.e. before midday) after some careful consideration as to which track to take. From Álftavatn hikers are given the option of two tracks: the traditional route, which leads you in an easterly direction past the Hvanngil huts, involves walking partly on F (fjall or mountain) roads, is well marked but has a few river crossing; the other and less travelled route takes you over the western side of the mountain Brattháls, is more scenic, is not a track but a trail (no markers) and has one rather deep river to cross. “I recommend you take the Brattháls track with a guide only.” the warden says with a hint of a smile. Hvanngil it is.
A mere 200m from the hut we have to take our boots off: first river crossing. It’s more of a creek but it’s just deeper than my boot and too wide to jump over. The track ascends steadily over the eastern side of Brattháls for about a kilometre before our boots come off again to cross the river Bratthálskvisl. It’s not deep but, boy, it’s cold. Soon we reach the road and on a couple of occasions have to make way for a 4WD and a road grader. We pass the huts at Hvanngil, about 5km from Álftavatn, which were bought by the FÍ I a couple of decades ago and are another option for hikers to stay at.
The track continues over black volcanic rocks until we reach the river Kaldaklofskvisl. Apparently, one had to wade through this river before the current bridge was built and we are very grateful for it. To give it more stability, giant rocks were put on the beams on the ground on either side of the bridge. On the other side, we watch a bus crossing the river at the designated spot for car river crossings and our jaws drop. Very impressive.
Five hundred metres down the road and we encounter another river crossing. However, this river - the Bláfjallakvísl - appears to be much wider, deeper and definitely faster flowing. Is it really safe to wade through this? Surely there must be another bridge just a bit further down? We stand there for a while watching a number of cars, tour buses, a motor bike and, yes, people with backpacks on and pants off cross the river in very impressive fashion. Two 4WDs are parked across the river, their occupants quite obviously enjoying the going-on’s in their chairs during a particularly nice sunny break in the sky.
Boots off, pants off, Crocs on, cameras sealed in two separate sealable bags, “hold hands, don’t let go and keep walking slightly with the current”, Go! I can’t feel my legs. I can see them, clearly, but I can’t feel them.
Crossing the Bláfjallakvísl
After we get the feeling back in our legs, we briefly join the relaxing 4WD holiday makers, Icelandic as it turns out, for a quick chat before we continue our walk along the road. Albeit the road being rather boring to walk on, the scenery around us is stunning. To the right there are pointy mountains covered in that distinct light green moss, to our left black and barren mountains. After about 4km we reach yet another glacial river at Nyrđri-Emstuá. According to our booklet, which despite some let downs we still consult and refer to, a violent rush of water from a glacier some 2500 years ago carved a channel through this area and we should clearly see evidence of that. And, to our surprise, we can.
The road continues until a turn-off to a black sandy track which turns into scree every so often and meanders along towering fluorescent green pointy mountains on either side. The last section seems to take a
Walking across black scree
small eternity but I put it down to the day-3-fatigue syndrome. I'm struggling and there always seems to be yet another stretch after the hill you've just reached. As we climb the last hill we see Botnaskáli at Emstrur, beautifully located on a hill with a wonderful view of one of the glacial tongues of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier.
Facilities at Emstrur consist of three compact huts containing bunks, a rather small kitchen and eating area, showers and toilets (half of which were locked yet again), the warden's hut and camping area next to a pretty creek.
There are times when moments should just be enjoyed and not necessarily captured by the camera. I have no urge to run inside and grab my camera when I witness my first and so far only colourful sunset in Iceland, complete with glacier and rainbow against black rain cloud, at around 11.20pm that night.
Some creeks are wider than they look
(Day 4: Emstrur - ϸórsmörk)
Soon after we begin our last day we are reminded by a large sign about emergency information during a sub-glacial volcanic eruption in this area of just how dangerous this expedition potentially could be. Moving on, I am further reminded that some creeks are wider than they look and that the achievable distance is greatly reduced with a full hiking pack on. Pete has, of course, no problems jumping across without even getting his boots moist. I, on the other hand, don't even touch the opposite bank and land flat on my face in mud with my boots/legs/shorts fully immersed in water. Roaring laughter around me followed by "Are you ok?" “Yes.”, I reply after Pete finally manages to pull me out of the water, followed by more laughter. Jo doesn't even contemplate jumping and wades across in her Crocs without incident. Clever girl.
I am also slightly nervous as the booklet alerts hikers to be extremely careful when crossing the new bridge over the river Syðri-Emstruá which flows through another glacial gorge as there may be some danger involved especially for people who are afraid of heights. It is, in fact, a bit of an anti-climax and I accomplish this particular section without problems. A steep zig zag track leads down to the bridge and hikers are assisted by a rope to hang on to for the last section. There is a lovely view of the gorge, which will eventually turn into the Markarfljótsgljúfur Gorge accessible from Botnaskáli, and the track continues for a short section along steep cliffs up to the Langháls and further along Almenninger areas.
The landscape changes gradually to one with more vegetation. We meet a group of young track workers along the way who set up their tents along a creek. Half of them greet us friendly but the other half don't appear to be too enthused to be here. We wonder if this is some kind of compulsory community service, however, as we find out later, all tracks in this area are maintained by volunteer track workers whose management and base camp is at ϸórsmörk. The track continues until we reach the last steep slope up the Kápa mountain, which offers panoramic - albeit very windy - views over the Almenningar area and the river ϸröngá, the bounday between Almenningar and ϸórsmörk. By now we're experts in glacial river crossings. This time Pete videos Jo and me wading through the icy water and we nearly fall in as it's rocky and the current very strong. I have a headache when we reach the river but it's gone after we've crossed it and our feet feel as new. Glacial water should come in tablet form.
We walk up a short slope and almost out of nowhere an Icelandic forest appears. 'Forest' in Iceland means trees no taller than 2m and I would also include dense bush in this loose definition. It's very pleasant
Crossing the bridge over the river Syðri-Emstruá
walking indeed after 4 days of barren, rocky highlands, and the trees
even provide a bit of shade from the warm sun. We reach a turn-off with about six signs pointing West to such wonderful things as "Volcano Huts", "Restaurant", "Shop", "Bar", and "Buses", and one sign pointing East saying "Langidalur - Skagfjördsskáli". Although we have an urge to head West for obvious reasons, we take the opposite direction.
Langidalur is one of a few welcoming and serene spots in ϸórsmörk, a unique valley in the Icelandic wilderness sheltered between two the large glaciers Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull. You can sit on the hut's verandah and watch cars and buses negotiate the river crossings, a small kiosk advertises it's opening hours from 20:10h - 20:30h, and there are numerous walks ranging from short distances to a full day hike over the Fimmvörđuháls mountain via Gođaland (Land of the Gods). Our very friendly hut warden Rani – who is also a musician/songwriter - opens up the kiosk for us outside normal hours and tells us about trail volunteers, the land, the innate urge for Icelanders to be outdoors and awake in summer for as long as possible, and her time when she lived in Canberra. And we listen intently.
You can easily spend a few weeks here, however, we have a tight schedule and miss out on exploring this fascinating area a bit more. Spending the afternoon wandering and hoping the clouds would clear and reveal the full extent of the infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcano feels soothing. In the evening we walk the short distance (30 minutes) from Skagfjördsskáli to the Volcano Huts for all-you-can-eat Icelandic lamb & fish buffet dinner (ISK 4,500 pp), local beer (ISK 1,000 per can) and to watch Germany beat Brazil 7-1 in the Soccer World Cup (priceless).
Holding on to the imaginary Jesus bar on the bus whilst crossing the rivers in ϸórsmörk on the way back to Reykjavik, I'm mentally putting this place on the "places to come back to list".