“Stórurð” is a tricky word to translate. The “Stór” part is easy enough, meaning “big.” “Urð,” at first glance, seems to mean “earth”—but that’s the similar-sounding “jörð.” It turns out that “urð” is a word specific to Icelandic, with no direct translation. It means a long slope littered with boulders or loose stones.
Although it’s a less poetic translation of Stórurð than “big earth,” you can’t fault the name for accuracy. Stórurð is a remote valley near Borgarfjörður Eystri in east Iceland, only accessible on foot. It lies beneath the huge Dyrfjöll mountain range, where hiking paths converge on this famously wild and beautiful spot from four directions. One path comes over the mountains from the coastal town of Bakkagerði. Another two descend from the direction of the Vatnskarðsheiði mountain pass. The fourth route, and the one we choose to take on a cloudy May morning, is a gentle 7.5km hike that begins in the grassy lowlands of the Rjúpnafell valley.
We start the hike in good spirits. The morning rain has stopped, and tiny windows of blue sky are visible through the smudgy clouds. It’s a relatively warm day, and butterflies flit between the yellow flowers, and purple shrubbery growing on the grassy heathland of Rjúpnafell. To the right lies the distant Jökulsá river, the main tributary of Lake Lagarfljót, winding through the valley and glittering silver in the morning light. To the left, waterfalls trickle down from high in the mountains, becoming streams and sometimes torrents that we have to pick our way across. Within half an hour of walking, I’m sinking into a familiar reverie: the thud of my boots on the dirt, the smell of flora and fresh air, and the bright colours of nature take over my senses, and my mind starts to slowly relax.
The path meanders through shallow valleys and up into the hillside before, after about an hour, it turns left into the valley leading to Stórurð. The road and river of the valley drift out of sight, and the mountains rear up around us. Finally, it feels like we’re being swallowed completely by the nature, and, other than the well-worn wooden hiking poles, there’s no sign of any man-made intrusion at all.
Drama and revelations
The first boulders of Stórurð start to appear in the distance. They look out of place, somehow, a series of car-sized grey rocks that lie strewn across the floor of the gradually narrowing valley. The path winds ever upwards into a wall of grey mist. Larger shapes start to appear in the murk, silhouetted against the whitening fog—a chunk of rock the size of a cabin, and then, the size of a house. We veer off the trail and take a little time climbing the rocks and looking at the view back towards the river.
We cross burbling streams and bands of old snow, treading carefully to test if there’s running water beneath. Sometimes, we see old footprints showing that the way is safe. The rocks grow bigger and bigger until we’re suddenly surrounded by huge chunks of grey, mossy stone. Ahead, the mist starts to thin suddenly before the wind, with an immaculate sense of theatre, blows the curtain of clouds away.
What’s revealed is the towering, vast, jagged Dyrfjöll mountains that lurk behind Stórurð, complete with a huge horseshoe-shaped gouge where a glacier pulled down the rocks that lie scattered around us. My breath catches in my throat, and my heart skips a beat—it’s an unforgettable moment in an almost bewilderingly beautiful landscape.
Centre of the maze
There’s a circular hiking path leading around the Stórurð area, but it runs into suspiciously snowed in ruts with the sound of running water beneath. We decide to play it safe and deviate from the path, climbing through clusters of high rocks, scrambling up scree slopes, squeezing through small passages, and tiptoeing along huge boulders to various viewpoints over the area.
After a while, we arrive in a grassy clearing with a crystal clear river meandering through it. Surrounded by rocks that shelter it from the breeze, it feels almost fantastically perfect, like reaching the centre of a labyrinth. The sun breaks through the clouds, illuminating a bright green lagoon at the far end, and a shallow pool of bright blue water, slowly defrosting from the long winter. We take off our shoes and socks, hang them on a boulder to dry, and walk over the warm grass to an information sign with a map of the various routes to Stórurð.
There’s a small plastic box there containing a weathered guestbook. I leaf through the warped pages, noticing comments and signatures from Iceland, France, Greece, Spain, China and Japan. The last entry was made in August 2017, and I realise that this route is only open for a short window each year, much like the Highlands, so I’m probably the first person to open the book this year. I add my name, and put the book back in its spot, feeling privileged to be among the lucky few who made it to the rugged natural wonderland of Stórurð.