For many Icelanders, the summer isn’t complete without a visit to the vast, desolate heart of Iceland—The Highlands. This region is dotted with some of the most amazing sights of the country. Landmannalaugar—the famous basecamp for many beautiful hikes, and the destination of the Laugavegur trail—is a never-setting star amongst Iceland’s top attractions.
But in the shadow of its shine there’s a place that’s usually skipped by the masses—Landmannahellir. The one corner of home comfort in Fjallabak Nature Reserve, this small campsite holds a handful of well-equipped huts; some beautiful, sparsely-trodden hiking trails; and curious stories from its glory days as a sheep farm.
We start out for this remote and hazardous part of the country with—of course—a storm warning. Planning things by the book, we’ve gotten ourselves a decent 4×4 car, some food, a route map, and have—oh, thank you, dear caution—made sleeping arrangements at one of the the huts of Landmannahellir. Throwing on another layer of wool, we do a sassy hair flip at the darkening clouds. Not too sassy, though. It’s not good luck to piss Þór off before a journey.
The Highlands have a strange draw to them. The nature in this immense region, with its unique features and surreal contrasts, is astounding, but there’s more to the Highlands’ appeal. It’s also the thrill of driving car-wrecking roads and rivers, the isolation, the bad weather, and the lack of phone signal. It’s the lure of the wilder side of wilderness.
Like a flickering movie, I take in the ever-changing scenery as we approach Fjallabak, from serene mountain giants with white-spotted dusky slopes, to hillside fields frosted with soft moss and sweeping expanses of pitch black sand. In the middle of this raw seclusion, a row of colossal metal pylons emerge. Like strange carcasses of the characters, who inhabit Dali’s paintings, they underline the contrasts of the region.
Two river crossing lie between the turnoff and the campsite, making the it feel like we’re invading a medieval castle. After splashing nervily through, we find ourselves cradled between the mountains at the grassy fields of Landmannahellir. As we drive towards the cabins, we’re eyeballed by three woolly locals. Deemed not interesting enough, they return to chewing grass.
In fact, sheep have a special significance in these parts. Since old times, this was the place where the animals were gathered from the surrounding regions each September. You can still see the remains of stone enclosures used for this purpose, and a whole fenced-in mountain, which at times would be a bleating, woolly sea. Even the cabins have a connection to sheep. The main house was originally an upgrade from the comforts from the nearby Landmannahellir cave in 1907, and the former shepherd shelter is still in use today.
The shepherd ghost
The cabin guard shows us around and says we made a good accommodation decision. Some strong gusts tore down tents the previous night, leaving some campers with no option but to hope for a free spot in one of the cabins.
We settle into our cosy shelter as the wind picks up, howling over the plains. With the low hissing of a gas heater in the background and candles flickering below our faces, we study a map of the area. It’s the perfect moment for a ghost story, and sure enough one is found on the Landmannahellir information booklet.
Not much is known about the shepherd called Egill, who fell to his death at a nearby mountain slope, now known as Egilsgil. His remains were stored there for a couple of days in an old sheep cave before later being transported and buried at his home. However Egill’s ghost is still seen walking around the cave, the huts, and the surrounding mountains. According to the tales, he’s sometimes naughty. It’s fine with me if the ghost decides to blow out a candle or two, but let’s just agree not to mess with the heater. Warm toes are quite precious.
After a night with no supernatural incidents, we deem the 4.2 km hike to Egilsgil a safe choice. The beauty of the area reveals itself in both the grand, panoramic views and dainty details. Summertime is still showing off at the side of the trail. Attractive narrow-leaved cotton grass, with it’s gray hair covered head leaning in the wind, sits by patches of lamb grass and creeping purple-flowering thyme–which, by the way, is a lovely spice for a roast.
The trail leaves us breathless, quite literally, going mostly uphill, but it’s worth it for the view. While we don’t see the famous rainbow-coloured mountains of Landmannalaugar, the scenery here has a more subtle appeal—an enchanting tranquillity, with flowing and swirling lines of green and gray, almost as if someone had lazily stirred the fields with a giant spoon. The light glazes everything in a quiet, almost divine glow, seeping through the soft, grey cloud cover.
I recall what a group of travelling photographers we met earlier that morning said about this place. It’s the mystery—the magic of the mountains bleeding into the fog—that makes Landmannahellir so special. The weather makes the sights more stunning.
Despite being, by now, desperate to reach Egilsgil, we’re forced to turn back when we see an eerie looking wall of clouds moving our way. It later turns out Egilsgil was a discrete fissure we had already passed… so much for the dramatic, chilling canyon of my imagination.
One of the cabin keepers, Fríða, tells us that she’s spent three summers working in Landmannahellir after countless weeks visiting as a kid. There’s no grocery store, no cable TV and no phone reception. She says it’s the calm and solitude that keeps her coming back. It’s a sort of haven.
Starting out home, we stop at Landmannalaugar for a bowl of soup, mingling with crowds of people starting or finishing their hikes. The mountains are magnificent, showing off their colour palette in the fickle afternoon sun, and we pass by the hot spring, with its pretty fields of cottonheads. It’s beautiful, but very different.
The Highlands are abundant. There are sights at which to marvel, river crossings for a shot of adrenaline, and multitudinous mountain trails to test your stamina and determination. And in the middle of it all lies Landmannahellir—a place of absolute calm.