For eight kilometres I’ve been ascending the barren wasteland of Hrafntinnusker, 900 metres above sea level. The snow, common here even in mid-summer, provides a little more resistance. But the contrast of snow against field, and the feeling of exhaustion itself, provide a kind of euphoria.
Then I notice the gravestone. Ido was just 25 and he lost his life there, caught by a sudden blizzard, unable to reach the nearby Höskuskáli hut. I shiver.
The warden at the hut in Landmannalaugar had warned me about something. “Two persons died on the trail over the last three years,” she explained, noticing my expression of surprise as I was invited to write down my name and expected hiking itinerary in a thick book, an understandable precaution.
It is Tuesday. My day started in Reykjavík early this morning: the only bus to Landmannalaugar leaves daily at 8:30 a.m. from the BSÍ Bus Terminal. In spite of a spectacular drive along the Fjallabak route, my arrival at the Landmannalaugar hut and campground was spoilt by wet weather: I had never experienced rain in this part of Iceland and counted that my good luck could hold on. Eventually it did: once I was finally ready to set out for my trip – at around 14:00 – the drizzle had actually ceased.
Laugavegurinn is what Icelanders call the fifty-four-kilometre trek between Landmannalaugar and Þórsmörk, a spectacular trail acknowledged as the Queen of Icelandic hikes. Quite curiously, Laugavegur is also the name of the main shopping street in downtown Reykjavík. Fortunately enough, the similarities do not go much further.
This is the fourth time I am hiking the trail, but my first time starting from the north, Laugavegur, instead of Þorsmörk. Also, for the first time I am going to try to complete the walk in just two days, compared to the three or even four usually spent to cover the distance.
Day 1: Landmannalaugar – Álftavatn (21.9 km)
Landmannalaugar is one of the most celebrated locations in Iceland and certainly this credit is well deserved. Whatever disastrous forces have been tormenting these lands, they have created an incredible treasure of geological phenomena: lava fields, fumaroles, hot springs and rhyolite formations (the mineral compound responsible for the characteristic red colouration) follow at a breathtaking pace. With a puzzling chromatic diversity (vivid shades of red, green, blue, grey and yellow) providing the perfect counterpoint to the smooth and rounded shapes that fill the landscape, no detail seems to have been left to random chance. It feels like staring at a geology handbook written by the Creator himself, introducing the most friendly and creative face of volcanism: some sort of artistic touch lends charm to this place, rather than the dramatic and desolate intensity that characterises other volcanic areas of the country.
Surrounded by colourful hills and ravines, the path winds up for eight kilometres, from 550m to the 900m ASL where the Hrafntinnusker desolation lies. Approaching the pass, the chilled winds battering this snow-covered desert increase my sense of weariness and slow down my pace. Eventually, though, I arrive at Höskuskáli, the first hut on the way to Þórsmörk, 10.3 kilometres from my starting point.
A few people are already inside, enjoying the warmth that even a basic shelter can offer in the remote places of the world. The people I meet will spend the night here, in spite of some difficulties: the hut stands in a great position, but in windy and clouded weather, surrounded as it is by threatening peaks and snowfields, it can look unfriendly and rather forbidding. I mean to stick to my plan and keep on until the next stop.
Beyond the hut, the path continues its run across a rhyolitic plateau, the altitude steadily around 1,000 metres ASL. It is a region riddled by ravines, where curves in the landscape and the red colouration of the rocks constitute the visual leitmotif.
Thanks to the relatively late hour, a sense of epic solitude is finally coming to envelop me: a few kilometres from the Höskuskáli hut, I realise I have only seen two hikers as of yet. The path starts to gradually descend, the soil becomes muddy, steaming vents and thermal waters resurface, often cutting their way through the mantle of snow.
And here, as an epiphany, I get to realise why so many well-meaning philanthropists tried so hard to convince me that the only and right way to walk Laugavegurinn is southwards from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk. If you are lucky enough with the weather, the views disclosing ridge after ridge are just indescribable. As I push forward, the thick veil of clouds lift from the horizon, revealing in all its glory the Álftavatn valley beneath, the volcanic formations Stórasula and Stóra-Grænafjall with their typical pyramidal shape and the sharp and snow-clad pinnacles of the Tindfjallajökull glacier further southwest.
The descent towards the valley is a steep and abrupt affair. In a very short while, I am catapulted back to 550 metres ASL, in a completely mutated environment: all around is a tender and green country, asleep in some sort of idyllic stillness in the late hours of the evening.
I arrive at the Álftavatn campground at around 21:30, after having covered 21.9 kilometres in one day. The welcome from the site warden is mostly warm: I wonder whether some kind of misunderstanding leads her to think that I am someone else (after all, I was also mistaken for a travel guide and a voluntary worker earlier in the day), but no, she just seems happy to receive visitors.
A warm meal and the day is over. The clouds are low and threatening, but moving fast. According to my GPS device the pressure is rising. I expect it will be sunny weather tomorrow.
Day 2: Álftavatn – Botnar (16.5 km)
If I had to pick a single favourite place in Iceland, Álftavatn would have a good chance of winning the competition. A deep-blue lake immersed in intensely green surroundings, sharp peaks and glaciers in the horizon, provide all the ingredients for what seems a perfect fairy-tale setting. Capping it all is Stóra-Grænafjall: a great emerald-green mountain shaped like a perfect pyramid overlooking the area.
The weather is fair, mild, sunny and still, as the Icelandic highlands seldom are. I woke up a bit late, but some recovery was necessary after the effort of the day before. I look around the campsite: the dozen tents pitched last evening are down, and everyone is intent to get ready for the day.
Yesterday’s rounded forms and red tints have given way to sharper and markedly angular shapes, while green has taken over as dominant colour. It is roughly a six-kilometre walk from Álftavatn to the glacial stream Bláfjallakvísl. The river is not bridged and has to be forded: nothing really demanding, except from the utterly glacial water, which leaves me numb for a couple of minutes. More and more people are on the way, as most are travelling in large groups.
The river is like a demarcating line between two separate stages in the trek: once crossed, an abrupt change occurs in the environment. Grass and moss disappear and are replaced by a desert field of pumice and black sand. The angles in the landscapes seem to flatten and get squeezed into a desolate plain, which extends towards the horizon. Mýrdalsjökull, the great glacier, is all of a sudden an intrusive presence close in the east.
The black volcanic sand turns out to be an even worse walking ground than the snow of the day before. My steps get slow and heavy, the backpack has never felt like such a burden and even my legs seem on their way to giving out. I surely am not in the best shape ever and the long march of the day before seems to have almost drained my energy. I suddenly see the hope to complete Laugavegurinn in only two days fading away. The grim loneliness of the surroundings provides very little comfort to my thoughts and sense of weariness.
The rest of the day becomes a mere exercise in will. I feel stiff and thirsty, struggling to carry on. After fording the river, I have come across no more streams, and my half-litre supply turned out to be way too little for such a warm day. At one point, the path intersects the 4WD track, and an Austrian in his family van stops: “Hiking here all alone?” he asks me – more surprised than sarcastic, I like to think. “Yes, it’s great!” I answer, trying to look as happy and proud of myself as the circumstances enable me – but I know I sounded not nearly convincing.
When I arrive to the Botnar campsite, the GPS reads 16.5 km from Álftavatn. It is about 17:00 – I am perfectly in line with my schedule and for a second I am tempted to continue on, but it does not take me long to realise that it would be just gratuitous self-destruction. Many people find hiking a masochistic enough practise without the need of pushing it too far: I will spend the night here.
The campsite is busy. All the available ground is occupied by tents, two Icelandic mountain guides are showing off at the barbecue, and this guy travelling alone is giving everyone his best smile with the hope to get invited for some late-night conversation. I enjoy little or none of this: after a rather frugal bite, I reveal to the observers my identity as the only declared smoker on the Laugavegurinn trek and finally collapse in my sleeping bag, praying my body will give me an easier time tomorrow.
Day 3: Botnar – Þórsmörk (16.6 km)
In a dramatic break with tradition, I wake up pretty early in the morning. I had a long and dreamless sleep and feel almost wholly recovered. There is no time to lose, so I start packing at once: I am determined to reach Þórsmörk before 15:00, just in time to catch the bus to Reykjavík.
Today the horizon is dominated by glaciers. There are three in my line of sight, their perpetual snow glinting in the distance. The day is coming out warm and bright and the last stage of Laugavegurinn makes for an easy trek. It is a varied and diversified environment, eliciting a peaceful sense of fascination under the summer sun. A footbridge leads across the barren gorge that the river Fremri-Emstruá – stemming from the westernmost borders of Mýrdalsjökull – has eroded. Small oases of shiny moss, desolate fields of black sand (again!) and segments of wasteland left behind by the glaciers’ retreat alternate in a rapid sequence.
Gradually, the vegetation returns. The appearance of small bushes is the unequivocal sign that the woody valley of Þórsmörk is drawing near. Created by the patient labour of the three encircling glaciers – Mýrdalsjökull, Tindfjallajökull and Eyjafjallajökull – Þórsmörk is a rarity in Icelandic nature, one of the very few forested areas in the country. It is also a big party place, where Icelanders can express at best their peculiar conception of camping and their passion for barbecued meat and sing-alongs.
After a last climb, the path will cross a swift stream and then make its entrance into the woods of Þórsmörk. It is past noon and I realise that I am soaking. This is not just a warm day. This is one of the hottest days I have memory of in Iceland.
The last river has to be forded. Under some circumstances (a long sequence of rainy days, for example) it can prove a rather tricky affair. It presents no real challenge today: the level of the water is low and the stream weak, but this is unusual in my experience – if you ever travel this way, apply some extra care at this last ford; if possible, do not do it alone.
The entrance into the valley of Þórsmörk is accompanied by the fragrant smell of brushwood. In this season, mushrooms and blue flowers are pullulating under the trees and I recognise that this last part of the trip makes quite a soothing experience. There are three huts and campgrounds in Þórsmörk, dislocated over the area. I direct my steps towards Húsadalur, the westernmost one: it is here that the connection buses to Reykjavík arrive and leave. If I had more time at my disposal, I would probably head for Langidalur or Básar, deeper in the valley. They make the ideal starting point for another popular trail, which represents the natural appendix to Laugavegurinn. It is the trek leading southwards from Þórsmörk, across the Fimmvörðuháls pass and in close proximity to the Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull glaciers, all the way down to Skógar, near the coast on the Ring Road. It is a magnificent 25km walk, which I would gladly tread again, if I had one more day.
When I reach Húsadalur, I have covered 16.6 km from Botnar, while a total of 55 km have been left behind since I was in Landmannalaugar. Although I found myself knowing the route by heart, step after step, walking Laugavegurinn proved again to be a challenging, if fulfilling, experience. The fact that the hike is easily accessible (at least weather permitting) to anyone in acceptable physical shape and provides such an excellent and complete overview of the diverse facets of Icelandic nature have clearly contributed to the trail’s popularity outside the country’s borders during recent years.
Gear and equipment
– Once you are wearing a good pair of hiking boots and are fitted with sufficient clothing to cope with the most diverse weather conditions (a warm fleece jacket and a water- and wind-proof shell are indispensable) you should basically be fine.
– Trekking poles can provide some welcome help in the steepest fractions of the trail. Also, do not forget that you will have to ford a few rivers: tight sandals or an old pair of sneakers will serve you well for this purpose.
– The path is usually well marked and – except in forbidding weather conditions – orientation should not present an issue. By no means should you need a GPS device on this trek.
– Buses leave daily from the BSÍ Terminal in Reykjavík to Landmannalaugar (8:30), Þórsmörk (8:30) and Skógar (8:30).
Return buses to Reykjavík run daily from Landmannalaugar at 14:30, Þórsmörk at 7:20 and 15:30, and Skógar at 7:55 and 14:15.
– Ferðafélag Íslands (the Icelandic Touring Club) runs the huts and campgrounds on the way. Fees go from 800 ISK for a tent spot to 2,000 ISK for a place inside the huts.
– It is advisable to book the huts in advance, as in high season they tend to quickly fill up with organised tours.
– The Laugavegurinn trek stretches over a protected natural reserve: for this reason, wild camping is strictly forbidden (while tolerated in most parts of Iceland).