Pictures of Iceland’s breathtaking landscape have recently invaded social media. Between a giant volcanic eruption, WOW Airlines, and Game of Thrones, Iceland has become a hugely popular travel destination. Once thought of as a barren wasteland with freezing temperatures, Iceland is now known as a country full of adventure and beauty. Although there are many reasons to visit Iceland I went for one reason in particular – hiking Laugavegur Trail.
Laugavegur is a 77km, 4-6 day hike between Skogar and Landmannalaugar. There is a lot of planning involved in hiking Laugavegur, but it’s worth every bit of preparation. Those well-known pictures of chocolate chip-colored mountains and winding rivers are found in the Highlands. Hiking Laugavegur offers a seductive taste of that iconic Icelandic scenery.
Day 1 – Landmannalaugar
Since it was a bucket list item I wanted to take my time hiking Laugavegur. Seven days might seem long for a hike that can be done in four days, but I wanted to see as much as possible. Reykjavik Excursions dropped me off at Landmannalaugar in the early afternoon on a dreary day. I walked past the brave campers curled up in their tents and to the check-in station. The lady at the counter took my reservation slip, gave me a wristband, and assigned me to a room.
Landmannalaugar Hut was big. The upstairs rooms had sleeping pads crammed side by side along every wall. After laying out my sleeping bag I put on rain gear because, gloomy or not, this was not the time to stay cooped up inside. The ranger recommended a 6 kilometer loop that began with Laugavegur Trail and ended with steaming vents. It was exciting to get a taste of what the next 6 days would be like.
Back at the hut there were lots of people milling around trying to find an empty sleeping pad. It felt claustrophobic and I decided to brave the hot springs. Slipping on my bathing suit, I grabbed my towel and ran down the boardwalk to the warm water. It was a fantastic experience to be in a natural hot spring while it was raining. When my fingers began to shrivel I forced myself to run back to the hut in the cold rain.
Day 2 – Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnusker (12km)
The first official day of Laugavegur Trail was sunny and beautiful. The beginning of the trail passed lovely meadows surrounded by mossy mountains. After some quick elevation gain the view looks down onto the beautiful rainbow mountains I’d been longing to see.
On the right hand side of the trail there is a quick side trip to the top of the hill. It only takes ten minutes to walk up and is definitely worth it. The views are incredible.
The middle of the hike winds through patches of snow sprinkled with steam vents. The end of the day goes across a large section of black dirt and a well-worn ice sheet. It’s an easy day of walking that finishes with a view of Hrafntinnusker Hut nestled in a pretty valley.
There are two amazing side trips from Hrafntinnusker Hut. First is Sodull, an obvious 1 km hike directly across from the hut. It’s not very far but the views looking into the valley are fantastic. It is also the windiest peak I’ve ever experienced. Hang on everybody!
The second side trip leads to an ice cave behind the hut. The trail is easy to find but talk to the ranger first about the ice cave conditions. Be warned, this hike involves going down a very steep sheet of ice. It’s a long way down if you fall and I would not recommend going alone. The ice cave itself was amazing! It was caved in but the sheer scale was incredible.
Day 3 – Hrafntinnusker to Alftavatn (12km)
This day starts by going up and down little hills covered in moss. A couple kilometers in, on the left hand side, there is a trail that zigzags up a mountain. At the top is one of the best 360 views I’ve ever seen. The trail is unmarked and covered in skree but if you have the energy make the climb! Just be careful because the trail is challenging and slippery.
The rolling hills continue and include some ice caves to explore. The last third of the hike boasts a brilliant view overlooking perfect cone-shaped mountains and Alftavatn Hut. It’s the perfect spot for a break since it’s all downhill from there.
Alftavatn Hut is actually several buildings. The huts are large and it’s situated in front of a picturesque lake. There is also a “restaurant/bar” that sells overpriced alcohol and good soup.
In the evening a few of us hiked up the nearest mountain to watch the sunset. It was cold and windy as we walked and talked about our wonderful day. My pictures don’t do the sunset justice but the memory of the perfectly yellow sun going down is still in my head.
Day 4 – Alftavatn to Emstrur/Botnar (15km)
The morning greeted hikers with biting cold. The entire day was flat with a small amount of elevation gain at the end. It was also the first day of river crossings. Somehow I didn’t know anything about the river crossings until I had icy water swirling around my feet. Everyone else had brought water shoes. How had I not known about this?!
The cold and windy day made the river crossings worse than they had to be. Thankfully the water wasn’t deep – up to my knees at the deepest parts – but the rocks were sharp and the water fiercely cold. The last crossing was the most difficult. Even though the water was shallow my entire body was shivering by the time I reached the other side. My hands shook as I put my socks and shoes back on.
There were pretty mountains covered in bright green moss that stood out against the white mist. Otherwise, this wasn’t the most exciting day on Laugavegur Trail. When I arrived at Alftavatn Hut I took off my wet clothes and made some soup. The hut was very cold but an hour later it was filled with 20 warm bodies.
An hour later the sun came out like it had never left. I was excited when my friends came to collect me for our daily side trip. It was stuffy in the hut. After only a kilometer of walking we were suddenly looking down into a huge canyon. It was amazing and completely unexpected. We looped along the edge of the canyon and got back to the hut by dark.
Day 5.1 – Emstrur/Botnar to Thorsmork (15km)
The trail to Thorsmork walks over bridges and down canyons . There are more river crossings, but none as difficult as the day before. Close to Emstrur Hut there is a quick side trek where two rivers junction at the canyon. It’s mother nature at her best.
Knowing there was a long day ahead I sped through this part of the trail. The last section rises steeply through lush forest until the trail opens up at Thorsmork Hut. The hut has nice bathrooms and a cozy lawn. When the sun began to peak out from behind the clouds and I pulled my hat over my eyes and took a cat nap on the grass.
Day 5.2 – Thorsmork to Fimmvorduskali (12.7km)
I would hike 27 kilometers today to reach Fimmvorduskali Hut. The hiking season was almost over and transportation at Skogar (the official end of Laugavegur Trail) was no longer available. Although many people end at Thorsmork, I wanted to complete as much of the trail as possible. Fimmvorduskali Hut was 13 kilometers from Skogar and as close as I’d get.
From Thorsmork Hut the trail crosses a huge river outlet. Temporary bridges make the river crossing easy and the views of the valley are awesome. On the other side get ready for sore legs because the rest of the trail is an ass-kicking, uphill workout. 1,086 meters, to be exact.
After the first initial uphill the trail goes along a ridge which looks down into a beautiful valley with three glaciers. Then the trail gets really difficult. There is a short and steep section with chains, followed by a long climb up slippery volcanic dirt. It was two steps forward and one step back. Although heights don’t typically scare me I tried not to look down while making this climb.
On the way up I clung to the trail markers to catch my breath. The trail kept going steeply up, over thick ice sheets and past huge piles of volcanic rock. This was Eyjafjallajokull – the volcano that erupted in 2010 and caused an ash cloud so large it grounded flights in Europe.
The trail went on and on. There were no signs and I hadn’t seen a soul since Thorsmork. Always expecting Fimmvorduskali Hut to be over the next hill, I began to worry as the sun got lower in the sky. Once Baldvinsskali Hut came into view I breathed a sign of relief. Fimmvorduskali was only 2 kilometers away.
I walked into Fimmvorduskali Hut expecting it to be empty. To my surprise there was an entire tour group taking up every inch of the hut. Apparently there was some confusion with their reservation and they had been redirected there. To my chagrin I was told to sleep in the middle of the kitchen with 15 men. The women’s section upstairs was full. Since I was much younger than anyone on the tour I decided not to argue. I could deal with it.
This was the only bad experience I had on Laugavegur Trail. I had just hiked 27 kilometers and been up since 6am. I couldn’t sleep because the tour group stayed up late drinking. Being the only one with an actual reservation at Fimmvorduskali Hut, I was sufficiently irritated when everyone finally went to bed.
I woke up at 2am to a sudden excited energy in the hut. Among the whispers I realized the Northern Lights were out! I hurried into the freezing cold and saw a light green hue covering the entire sky. It wasn’t in a ribbon-shape like many pictures I’d seen. It looked like an ocean wave curling across the entire sky. I kept the spectacular moment to myself and didn’t take any pictures.
Day 6 – Fimmvorduskali to Thorsmork (12.7km)
The next day began in the pouring rain. The wind was so strong it made the side of my face burn. The wind and rain seeped through my clothes despite careful layering. For most of the day I religiously put one foot in front of the other trying to think about anything but the weather.
I found my way by following well-worn footprints carved into the ice sheets. Otherwise the visibility was hardly ten feet. It got even worse as I approached the treacherous climb from the day before. The steep dirt was dangerously slippery and the wind strong enough to push me off the trail. I butt-slid most of the way down and tried to ignore the foggy abyss below me.
While I hung onto the section with chains I took a breather. I was mentally exhausted from the weather, but the wind was graciously blocked here. Another hiker appeared while I clung onto the chains and asked “How bad is it up there?” With an encouraging smile I told him it was difficult but doable. He reminded me this was the last official day of the Laugavegur hiking season, which somehow made me feel better. I shouldn’t have been surprised the weather was so terrible!
A rainbow appeared as if to congratulate me for making the treacherous climb down the mountain. With it was a sudden realization this wonderful hike was almost over. I took my time hiking the remaining three kilometers. Slowly down the valley, across the river, and through the hilly forest. What an adventure it had been.
I booked two nights at Volcano Huts, a small lodge over the valley from Thorsmork Hut. The cabin had a kitchen, shower, and comfortable bunks. It was perfect. Upon arrival I stripped off my wet clothes and walked to a tiny sauna two cabins down. As I sat there the chill which had set into my body slowly disappeared.
My favorite part of multi-day treks is the first real meal afterwards. The cozy dining room at Volcano Huts had all-you-can-eat soup, salad, and bread. The lamb stew was so good I ate four portions (I’m not even kidding). Sore, stuffed, and content, I settled down to read until I fell asleep.
Day 7 – Thorsmork
Even though Laugavegur was successfully checked off my bucket list I wasn’t in a hurry to leave beautiful Thorsmork. There was one more day to get up early and hike Tindfjoll Circle. Yellow signs wandered up a valley to one of the most gorgeous views I’d ever seen. Glaciers, rivers, and mountains included.
The view was so nice I couldn’t tear myself away for some time. I sat there thinking about everything I had seen and done that week. Every day had been unique in its own way. Laugavegur had been the hike of a lifetime, and everything was as magnificent as I’d imagined it would be.