Never have I had to create a windbreak for my salami. And that’s not even a euphemism.
Alright, this is going to be a bit of a long one so grab a bevy and get comfortable. It’s five o’clock somewhere. I very rarely write trip reports anymore, but I was inspired enough by this walk that I figured I had to share. The Laugavegur is incredible – it’s like a mix of the Tongariro Crossing on steroids, the Danxai Mountains, the Chocolate Hills of Bohol, and the Canadian Rockies.
I parked my car in Hella, which is about a 1.5 hour drive east of Reykjavík, and after incessant gas station faff, I had my bag packed. I ordered a pysla og beikon, half to practice my Icelandic and half because I was hungry, only to be garbled at in Icelandic – my comprehension was less than required to understand ‘we only have regular hotdogs’. So I got my regular hotdog (pylsa) with some ice cream and went outside to wait for the bus to the trailhead.
Landmannalaugar is located in the highlands, which are only accessible by F roads – four wheel drive roads, as there are un-bridged (though this time of year it’s more like abridged) river crossings and rough roads. In this case my corolla totally could have made it, but c’est la vie. It’s illegal to take a non 4x4 on these roads, so far as I understand. So I got my expensive bus (90$ CAD for about 2 hours) to Landmannalaugar, and promptly fell asleep. Like the degenerate I am, I slept with my mouth open for two hours until reaching Landmannalaugar. Evidenced by the raging thirst I experienced upon waking.
Upon arrival at Landmannalaugar, which is an area famous for colourful rhyolite mountains and hot springs, I was a bit bemused to see the zoo there. It was like a mini Everest base camp, with well over 100 tents and several buildings, plus all the day trippers around. A steady flow of people visited the toilets, hotsprings, cooking shelters, huts, and ranger cabin. Not my idea of a good time so I filled up my water and hit the trail ASAP, to the south of Landmannalaugar at about 6pm. The hordes thinned out very quickly, and despite one downtrodden and defeated looking couple that were blaring music out of a tinny speaker, most other hikers (all headed north to Landmannalaugar) were looking happy enough. I did give that music-couple the death glare though. Savages.
Perusing the scenery just south of Landmannalaugar.
In any case, as the crowds thinned out the elevation increased. This is apparently the most strenuous part of the trail with a 500m gain within a couple km of Landmannalaugar. Seemed pretty typical to me of BC hike gradients, except the trail is very well maintained and smooth. Easily mountain bike-able. The scenery was pretty good, and you could see geothermal vents all over the place. I was contemplating hiking off trail to go see some closer, but decided to get higher and see where the track would lead. As it so happens, the trail leads right through many geothermal vent fields which are spewing steam all over the place. You can hear water boiling in many of the bigger vent holes. Hard to photograph but very interesting to witness.
That bright patch isn't a trick of light - that's the colour of the rocks. I was waiting for it to disappear when the sun went behind clouds only to discover that was just the rocks. You can see steam on the right.
The weather was calm and cloudy, which is unusual for the highlands – not the cloud bit, but the calm. It’s always windy in the highlands. I didn’t think much of it though as the scenery continued to get better and better with every step. If only I knew.
I still had energy to do some somewhat elaborate selfies - do you see Waldo?
I could have played with composition here for days.
Pretty quickly the trail relatively ‘levels’ out with rolling hills and ridges, but traverses the most incredible mountains I’ve ever seen. Words cannot describe the beauty of the rhyolite mountains of Landmannalaugar. The colours are otherworldly, and combined with the steam vents I felt like I was exploring an alien landscape. I don’t use superlatives lightly, but the northernmost 25km of the Laugavegur are the most beautiful stretch of earth I’ve ever seen. I don’t usually walk with my camera (slr) out, but for this trail I changed that. It got to the point where I was a bit concerned about true dark, which falls at about 11pm now and getting to camp. I had to restrain myself from filling my memory card and draining my battery on the first night. See pictures for evidence. I was walking at about a 1.5km/h pace for the first few hours due to the ridiculous beauty and the constant need to stop and take pictures. Eventually the landscape turned from ‘jaw droppingly absurd’ to just ‘beautiful’ and I was able to cover some ground. I had the first 10km all to myself, which was pretty special. And rare.
I eventually got to camp, at about 9km in and set up. The sunset was pretty minimal so I cooked some dinner, spiced cous cous with salami, and turned in early, ready for an early start and a big day tomorrow. I didn’t know how big. I can’t really recommend the official campsite here unless you have no other option. Seemed windy, dark, grey and austere to me. It felt like it existed for the sake of creating a campsite within 12km of the next camps, as the valley it’s located in is one of the only semi-sheltered places along the northern section.
I was up early the next day and hit the old dusty trail in some medium fog and fairly cold temperatures – nothing untoward though, maybe 5 degrees, at 7am, well before anyone else. I knew the fog would either blow away or burn off fairly quickly, but again, didn’t think much on that.
Traversing across snow patches and jumping creeks, I set a solid pace for the first couple of hours across the geothermal fields and snaking through cairns. At one point you cross a creek in a ravine – well, several points, but this one jumps out at me. There was a snow bridge over it that looked good from the top, but if you go slightly off trail and get an angle of the underside it was perilously thin, and a 5m drop to a rocky creek below. I jumped across the sketchy section and headed uphill, warning some German guys (first hikers I met that day) about the sketchy snow bridge. They looked rather unprepared for the highlands, but the Laugavegur is such a popular track with huts that you are bound to get that type. Just in Iceland in general, actually.
The earth was still gurgling and steaming away, often sounding like a jet engine at mid range. Not quite the sounds of nature you expect, but certainly unique ones. The geothermal area (and insane colours that come with it) extended about 20km south of Landmannalaugar.
Dropping into the valley at Alftavatn at around 10am, I was impressed enough to get off trail and take a panorama of the cinder cones, calderas, glaciers, and lake. It was reminiscent of the chocolate hills of Bohol (Philippines), but far more dramatic. I could have looked at and explored this landscape for a few days – Alftavatn is a nice camp. It even has a (no doubt horrendously overpriced) bar and restaurant shack. And flush toilets, wow.
That brings me to my next point – all the campsites are road accessible, which is a bit unfortunate. However, it gave me the chance to drop off any garbage (and other matter) I had accumulated as well as a place to eat lunch out of the wind, which was now picking up. Nothing too much, but the clouds were blowing away to be replaced by brilliant Icelandic sunshine. I had only eaten a light breakfast as I was anxious to get going, so my stomach was doing its best angry dog impression. I realized I was really putting on the km and the hike would probably not last as long as I had planned for, which was 4 days. So I was able to eat a double lunch of onion, salami, and thick chunks of cheese on pita, plus wolf down a box of crackers and a chocolate bar.
I was feeling surprisingly good having walked about 17km already, and so after a short break out of the wind I headed south on the trail, quickly catching the groups that had left Alfavatn not long before I arrived. Many of them were casting round at the first ford, a minor creek that only went halfway to my knees. I just walked through with my trail runners, but most everyone else took off their boots and stumbled across in bare feet. No time like the present to get your feet wet – and once they’re wet the first time, it doesn’t matter what you walk through! Of course this attitude was pretty unfamiliar to many of these backpackers so I got a few odd looks. As usual.
The next stretch of trail reminded me a lot of Snowbowl on the Skyline Trail in Jasper. Lush meadows, well maintained easy walking trail surrounded by mountains – but volcanic, rather than tectonic as the Rockies are. At this point I firmly believed that I had entered hiking Valhalla and the rest of this legendary trail was going to be all smiles, sunshine, and silly-good views. I blew through the next camp, which is only 5km down the track from Alftavatn – which means Swan Lake, incidentally.
Passing tourists left and right I came to the next ford – probably the biggest one on the trip – which had a gaggle of hikers on both banks trying to figure out how to get across. Some were stripping down, boots around neck, sometimes even pack above head. After a very quick perusal of the stream, I splashed across and with the help of my pole, had no issues. The current is fast enough that the creek bottom was constantly in motion, so footing was a bit of an issue. At the deepest it was just less than balls deep, fortunately. Despite being the land of fire and ice, that stream was definitely the latter.
Ford not pictured
Shortly after leaving the stream and the tourists behind, the trail takes you onto a road for a bit. Too bad, but it is what it is. The vegetation quickly faded out as I entered a vast sand and rock plain. The wind was getting quite noticeably now but as it was at my back, I was okay with that. The trail crews that are levelling the Laugavegur have done a great job here, removing the rocks from the trail. Not the most ‘natural’ trail but it did allow me to make great time. I hauled across the 8km or so flat, feeling good. There are no water sources here, so fill up at the ford if you need.
Grand Central of the Central Highlands
I was starting to get a bit tired by this point and was considering camping at Botnar, which was another 10km ahead. This section was pretty enough, but very desolate. I didn’t take many pictures as most of my effort was bent to getting to camp.
Good work by the trail crew.
Upon arrival I ate a second lunch and after checking my watch, I was surprised to see it was only 4pm. 35km down for the day, and my feet were feeling it – I had some notable hotspots developing. I thought about setting up camp here, but as I was considering the wind really kicked up and brought with it a lot of blowing sand. Even eating lunch in the lee of the hut left a gritty taste in my mouth, and the thought of pitching a tent (my Hubba Hubba, which has a lot of mesh) in the dust bowl wasn’t all that appealing. I knew that there was forest (well, ‘forest’) about 15km ahead in Ţórsmörk, where I have been before. 15km seemed like a reasonable step, but I still had 6 hours of daylight. Shouldn’t be too hard, right?
As soon as I left Botnar my hotspots turned from reasonable into ‘why are you still on your feet’? The first few hundred meters were quite painful but they somewhat calmed down after that. Thankfully, it seemed most hikers had set up camp already so I mostly had the trail to myself again, quickly descending into the vegetation zone again. This stretch of track is river and canyon country – pretty cool, but I was too tired to enjoy it much. Scattering sheep as I went, I limped my way on south as the wind increased. Occasionally visibility was cut to 50m or so as walls of sand blew past me.
Upon my first view of Ţórsmörk, I could see a hefty amount of blowing sand on the glacial floodplain from 10km out. Fortunately I wouldn’t be going that way, but it showed that the wind was not an isolated occurrence. I passed several likely campsites within stands of scrub vegetation, but with no water source. I probably should have camped at one and walked for water, but I was set on getting to the forest and camping within the birch – entirely protected from the wind.
The grass is turning colour already, and a French hiker and I head into the next dustbowl.
Descending to the last ford before entering Ţórsmörk, I took a pretty hard fall on the loose gravel atop hardpack. If dramatically sliding down a hill while flailing like a fish was an Olympic sport, I would definitely medal in it. My pole ended up a few meters behind me when I finally stopped, and after making sure nothing was seriously injured I couldn’t muster the energy to get up. Instead, I threw rocks at the hill above my pole and as they rolled down they slowly pushed the pole towards me. Not the most efficient solution but it let me sit down for a bit more. Finally I got up and stumbled on, finally making the ford – this one was about knee deep – and at long last into the trees.
The final ford
Hurray, I had made it to Ţórsmörk – or so I thought. The trail here is a mix of single track and dirt road, which I was happy with as it was easier walking. Eventually I reached a sign that stated “Ţórsmörk” – the end of the Laugavegur track. However, it wasn’t the end of my day as I needed water. Stumbling past Básar, the camp on the north side of the river, I raced the sunset to a copse of birch at the head of the valley, where I had camped before. The trail across the flood plain follows an empty road at times, to which I was singing ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’. I walk this empty street, on the boulevard of broken feet.
My hotspots were killing me at this point and my shoulders and hips weren’t much happier. Kilometer 50 for the day came and went and finally I came to my desired camp spot at 9pm – a 14 hour walk, for 54km. A bit much for out-of-training Jon.
Some ungrateful sob was in my preferred spot, so after swearing at an innocent tent briefly I threw my stuff down on the flattest piece of grass I could find. I threw up my tent and considered cooking dinner but I was done in. Despite the gorgeous sunset, I couldn’t muster the energy to take a snap of it – dinner consisted of cheese, crackers, and scotch. A quick soak for my feet in the glacial creek and then I passed out, awakening briefly at 0130 to check for aurora. There it was, dancing around, but pretty tame compared to what will be happening in a few weeks, so I resumed snoring.
Like I said, I had really planned for this walk to take 3.5-4 days for 85km, but I was only 25km out to Skňgar now. I’ve walked the Fimmvörđuháls route before, which traverses over the 2011 Eyjafjallajökull eruptions which halted European air traffic. I knew what to expect and figured it wouldn’t be too bad. Surprisingly my legs were fine, but the feet, hips and shoulders weren’t thrilled. To boot, I had ripped open one of my shoes the day prior. Nothing for it but to keep going – can’t walk in down booties on igneous rock.
Off I went through the wilds of Ţórsmörk. The first eight kilometers are spectacular and I was very much looking forward to it. The geology is pure chaos, with caves, arches, overhangs, cliffs, and in an unusual case for Iceland, no waterfalls. Ţórsmörk is seeminglycomposed mostly of sedimentary rock, but I think it's actually a huge pyroclastic flow deposit - ignimbrite, which is easily eroded. The rivers have mostly reached base level and run level, which contributes to this geology. The moss covering everything only enhances the contrasts and angles.
The wilds of Ţórsmörk
It’s a long grunt up to Magni and Modi, the two fissures from the 2010 eruptions, and the high point of the Fimmvörđuháls track. You gain about 1000m, but I hardly feel it as I kept looking back at Ţórsmörk. Ţórsmörk and Landmannalaugar are two of the prettiest places on earth.
A quick detour of Magni
As soon as I reached a higher elevation the wind returned with a vengeance – and with it, the sand. There were many snow crossings but most of them were completely black with sand. In some cases, descending snow slopes was more like descending dunes as there was sand up to a meter deep in places. Not my favourite thing to walk on. I reached the hut on this route after a few hours and the wind was bad enough that there was no lee to be found. Just lots of vortexes. I found the most sheltered spot I could and whipped together another lunch. As I was cutting cheese (also not a euphemism) a gust blew my salami off my pita and into the sand. That was a first for me, and also a big part of my lunch. I dusted off the salami as best as possible and had a couple of gritty pitas. Good roughage for the bowels I suppose.
Who needs to go to the ocean for a beach?
I was having zero fun in the sandstorm, and wasn’t looking forward to hitching out along Route One as I could see that it, too, was engulfed in blowing sand. Still, I had to get out and there was a cold beer calling my name. “Jon…Jon… you can’t afford me”. So on I went, and put my camera away. There was too much sand to bother with photos.
The 15km or so down from the hut to Skógafoss are a decent walk, with lots of waterfalls a few nice canyons. I have a bit of waterfall fatigue though. Most don’t even warrant a second glance at this point. No pictures, of course. You can google any one of a billion images of Skógafoss and its environs.
Finally, eventually I made it out to the bottom and struggled through the crowds of tourons taking selfies and limped out to the main road. 88km for me over 47 hours. I might have pushed a bit too hard, but it was nice to spend the entire next day in a hot spring.
I hitched a ride with two Swedish women who promptly got a speeding ticket for doing 124km/h in a 90 zone. The ticket was 50 000 krona which is about 600 CAD$. If they were 1km faster, that would have gone to 70 000. Don’t get caught speeding in Iceland, it seems.
Finally made it back to my car, had that beer and a sandwich while soaking my feet in the river. The hotspots were real, and even four days after finishing I am still having pain in my feet. Totally worth it though. Like I said, I spent the next day driving back to Ísafjörđur, where I live, stopping for six hours at a lesser known hot pot. I even got a sunburn.
The Laugavegur trail is truly special. I am usually very sceptical of tourist tracks like this one, but some of them are just worth it. This walk was very easily top three of my life in terms of beauty, and the effort to reward ratio is off the charts. In a good way. If you have a hiking bucket list, I would think this one should be on it. There’s a good reason why it is one of the most famous global tracks.
Well, sorry for the prolonged read – please don’t do a word count on this. Hope you didn’t fall asleep. Sign the guestbook on your way out.