Laugavegur, Iceland’s best hiking trail
In July 2023 it will be fifteen years ago that travel companion A. and I hiked the Laugavegur trail, according to many the most beautiful long-distance hiking route in Iceland. That’s a good reason to write a blogpost about that epic journey. Illustrated with photos taken with the simple IXUS850 camera that I had back then. It actually made quite nice pictures, but in the alien landscape between Landmannalaugar and Þórsmörk that is not too difficult.
July 28, 2008: Landmannalaugar – Hraftinusker (10.3 kilometers)
In the days before our hiking adventure there is a heat wave in Reykjavik. In Iceland that means: temperatures up to about 25 degrees. Lovely summer weather.
But during our bus ride to the country’s interior, the weather changes. Dark clouds loom over the wild landscape. And when we get off the bus in Landmannalaugar, the rain comes pouring down from the sky.
Landmannalaugar is actually not much more than a campsite. No cosy places to wait and see if the rain might stop. Moreover: we should actually start the trek because we have a reservation for the hut in Hraftinusker, 500 meters uphill. So with the courage of desperation we start walking.
There are no shops on the Laugavegur trail, so we have food with us for four days. This includes lightweight astronaut food that we just need to add water to. But because we don’t see ourselves hiking 55 kilometers through the mountains on that stuff, we also carry bread, cheese, muesli, pasta, some cans, fruit and energy bars. I don’t know how other hikers manage to cram everything into a backpack, but in addition to my rucksack I also have a shoulder bag and a plastic bag from the Bonus supermarket. And A. even has two backpacks, one of which hangs in front of his belly and obstructs his view of the path.
We’ve got a lot of climbing to do on this first day. That makes us sweat, which forms a stark contrast to the ice-cold wind that has started in addition to the rain. We know from an earlier visit to Landmannalaugar that the mountains are bizarrely colorful, but in these circumstances it is hard to enjoy that beauty.
We pass Stórihver, an area with boiling mud pools; the name Laugavegur (hot springs road) already made us suspect that we would encounter those. But here too we don’t stop for as long as we would on a nice day.
As we climb further up, more and more snow appears on and around the path. Winter, even at the end of July, is not far away here. We pass a small monument to a hiker who died in a blizzard a few years earlier, a stone’s throw from the safety of the hut. Okay, that was at the end of June, a few weeks earlier in the season, but on a day like today, such a drama is easy to imagine.
Our sight is getting more and more limited because it has also become foggy. Suddenly we are in front of the cabin of the Ferðafélag Íslands; we almost walked past it. Inside it is warm and dry. Or well, dry… the humidity is quite high due to all the wet clothing and backpacks.
We unroll our sleeping bags in the crammed attic of the cabin. And we discuss the possibilities for tomorrow. We can return to Landmannalaugar. After all, hiking is not much fun in this weather. But hey, we did reserve and pay the cabins for the next few days. Anyway, first let’s see how the instant chili con carne tastes.
July 29, 2008: Hraftinusker – Alftavatn (11.3 kilometers)
When we wake up the next morning, the weather has changed again. And this time for the better: the sun is shining and the wind has died down. That gives us the chance to dry the items that have become a bit damp despite the precautions.
We can now see for miles and miles and suddenly discover what a special environment we are in. A reddish-brown plateau, intersected by gorges, with little vegetation but many snowfields. And there are shiny black stones everywhere: obsidian.
The hardships of the previous day are soon forgotten. Suddenly, the weather is no longer an enemy but a friend. The route, marked with sticks and cairns, is easy to follow.
Walking with luggage remains a bit cumbersome, but there is not much climbing to be done today. And we really can enjoy the landscape now, which looks great in these weather conditions. The colours are almost psychedelic: in the valleys there is some bright green lichen here and there; some slopes are almost purple.
After a few hours of strolling across the plateau, a steep descent follows. Here the landscape is suddenly much greener due to an abundance of grass and moss. There are also a lot of fluffy white flowers.
We reach Alftavatn: a settlement consisting of two huts and a lot of tents, situated in a green meadow on a lake between the mountains. We are already halfway through the Laugavegur trail.
This sleeping place seems to offer a little more privacy than the previous one. Instead of one large room where everyone sleeps side by side, there are bunk beds here. Although there is no mattress in them, they are about a meter wide, which by now feels like luxury. Until we realize that these are double beds and that I have to share that one meter with A.
July 30, 2008: Alftavatn – Emstrur (16.2 kilometers)
At the end of July it still doesn’t get completely dark here, so close to the Arctic Circle. Luckily I have my sleeping mask with me so the light doesn’t keep me from sleeping. Unfortunately, the snorers around me do.
Some hikers make use of the nightly daylight by getting up at three o’clock to start the next leg. This way they avoid the crowds. There are in fact not that many people on this route: no more than a hundred, I estimate. But in this landscape it still feels like a crowd. And especially the group of English teenagers, who make the trip accompanied by officers of the Royal Navy, can often be heard a few valleys away.
We try to get about eight hours of sleep in our cramped sleeping place. After breakfast we set off, through an initially quite green landscape, with still a lot of moss and grass.
We have to cross a number of rivers today. In some cases there is a bridge, but at a number of streams there is no other option than to take off our mountain boots and wade to the other side. The water is ice cold; not surprising because it comes directly from the glaciers. These rivers are not deep, but the water has a lot of power. And actually it would have been useful if I had also put a pair of sandals in my backpack.
When crossing one of the rivers, one of the backpacks of travel companion A. ends up in the fast-flowing water. Fortunately, a fellow hiker grabs the backpack out of the river, a hundred meters downstream, otherwise we would have had to miss part of our supplies. Now the damage is limited to some wet clothes and a soaked Lonely Planet.
After a while, the vegetation becomes more sparse. A kind of gravel desert unfolds in front of us: a plain with gray and brown sand and pebbles, with here and there a tuft of strong white-pink flowers. Remarkably, the mountain slopes in the area are quite green. The blue sky above completes the picture.
At the end of the afternoon we arrive in Emstrur. That too is only a very modest settlement: a few huts, an Icelandic flag and a field with tents, situated in a pockmarked brown landscape with the huge Mýrdalsjökull glacier in the background.
July 31, 2008: Emstrur – Þórsmörk (16.2 kilometers)
There are flyers in Emstrur’s cabin with a warning from the authorities about a possible eruption of the Katla. The last eruption of that volcano, hidden under the Mýrdalsjökull, was in 1918. Statistically, it’s about time again, and in recent years the Katla has been rumbling somewhat. In the case of an eruption, it is recommended to take shelter halfway up the slopes. There is a danger of lightning strikes on the mountain tops and high plains. And in the valleys poisonous gases can accumulate or flood currents can wipe out everything in their path.
A volcanic eruption, viewed from a safe distance, would complete our Laugavegur adventure. But the Katla is keeping quiet today. There are some more clouds than the two previous days, but it remains dry. And the views are once again breathtaking. Because we have eaten most of the food in the meantime, the backpacks are a lot lighter than on the first day and that makes the going much more pleasant.
We do need to do bit more scrambling today though. Ropes are even attached here and there to support the descent. And there are some narrow bridges over deep gorges.
Just before Þórsmörk, the biggest challenge of the journey awaits us. We have to cross another river. But this time the area to be forded is about a hundred meters wide, with several channels, some of which are just a bit deeper than we’ve gotten used to. It is also not clear here what the best route is. Eventually, the Royal Navy comes to the rescue: one of the officers guides us through, shouting directions: “Walk sideways! Face Upstream!”.
On the other side of the river, we find ourselves in an un-Icelandic landscape: a forest. With shrubs and low birches, but still: a forest. These are the first trees we see since we left Reykjavik.
From our hut we look out over an even wider river plain. On the other side, the path leads up to the Fimvorduhals pass. That path officially is not part of the Laugavegur trail, but for many hikers it is a logical next step. Also A. and I have a reservation for the hut at the pass. From that shelter it is another day’s walk downhill to Skogar on the south coast. But when we look up from the valley, we feel heavy. The four days at the Laugavegur have taken their toll. Moreover, the weather forecast is not too good.
We decide to cancel the adventure. It’s been enough. We walk the last section of that planned route from Skogar, a few days later. Even though the weather is not too good, the route, along dozens of waterfalls, turns out to be very beautiful indeed. Anyway, that Fimvorduhals pass, we’ll have to do that another time.