The what trail?!
Oh man, just wait till you hear the word Eyjafjallajökull…
What a joyous language Icelandic is. I would provide a pronunciation guide, but I’m still not 100% convinced I’m saying it correctly. As far as I know, Laugavegur is pronounced (ley-guh-vey-gur) but I might be wrong so don’t quote me.
As for Eyjafjallajökull… we had to ask a local for that one (actually, a camp warden, so you know he knew what he was talking about) it is (ey-yah-fiat-la-yokul-thst). That “thst” sound gets me every time… what is that? Anyway.
Our journey started just as you might expect: by off roading in a charter bus. Oh wait, that’s right, no one was expecting that. Off roading in a charter bus. The excursion busses here all have really high suspension and some very serious tires, equipped for fording not one or two, but eight rivers!
We took the Reykjavik Excursions bus to Landmanlaugur via the hiking passport, which is really the only way to go if you’re looking to do this trail. We were a little surprised at the price, but then we saw what they put the buses through and made our peace with it. The bus can drop you off at whichever location you want to start at, and pick you up at the end, each way coming back to and leaving from Reykjavik. It’s more than handy, it’s a necessity that feels more like a luxury by the time you get on the bus at the end of a four day hike.
We hiked from Landmannalaugar to þórsmörk , totaling 55 km (about 34 miles since everyone asks) and did it in three days. You can continue all the way to Skógar from there, adding another 20 km to your total distance. We chose not to because, a) we were kind of on a time crunch, and b) it was still fairly early in the season and with all the snow we hiked through in our first day, we were satisfied having seen the glaciers from a distance (though we did at one point hike on top of one!)
The bus arrived in Landmannalaugar early in the afternoon, and many hikers started their trek immediately. We were too tempted by the hot springs, and I had a suspicion the first campground on the trail would be too cold to camp so we planned on packing two days into one. Best to leave a day like that for the morning when we could get an early start.
The campsite itself was whimsical and reminded me of summer camp… only it was the kind of summer camp fairies might attend. There were people from all over the world both starting and ending their journey here in this majestic valley. It rained approximately 5 times in the 18 hours we were there– but that’s the highlands for you!
After a night of thwarting conversations about American politics in the hot springs, we were ready to get on the trail the next morning. The hike starts on a steep ascent, almost to serve as a warning for those ill equipped or the faint of heart. What seemed like five hours later we had gone maybe 500 meters and could still look back and see the campsite.
Of course, it didn’t help that we stopped 5 times to take of jackets, put on different jackets, put on pack covers just in case, re-tie boots, and adjust packs. We just got all that first day awkward crankiness right out of the way.
The hike continues along highlands that look like the following until you hit snow. Then you don’t stop hitting snow (of course, depending on what time on year you go… we were there on the First of July and it was still packed)
The trail from Landmanlaugur to Hrafntinnusker is the only day with elevation gain, so the weather gets continuously worse as you go along. I, for one, was having a really great time hiking in the packed snow until my “waterproof” boots decided they were not so waterproof anymore. Luckily I had good socks, and lots of them! (the boots shall remain unnamed as to not slander any brands, but if you want my advice, go with GoreTex everything if you are ever going to do this trail)
By the time we were beginning to think we could ascend no more, we at last reached Hrafntinnusker which was a relief because it’s the highest point of the whole hike, and also not a relief because (as I had assumed) it was not an ideal camping environment. Most of the campground was still totally covered in snow, and it was only 1 in the afternoon so we decided to push on (I mean, we can’t possibly ascend anymore right?)
There were in fact a few more steep ascents after that, a pretty scary ice bridge (!!) and a hike OVER a glacier, but soon enough the snow gave out and we finally saw some green again. In fact, we could see the entire Álftavatn valley where we would be ending our day.
So close yet so far….
This is where the descending began, which you would think might be a relief after the first half of the day, but your knees may start to disagree after the first couple hundred meters. Mine did.
After what seemed like 18 years of ascent, we finally reached Álftavatn which means “water of the angels” and was aptly named. The campsite resides in a pleasant green valley nestled next to two lakes. We slept like rocks after a 20 km (14 mile) day, warm, and pleased with the fact that we were at least 3,000 ft lower than the place we would have otherwise camped.
Let it be known though, “warm” is a relative term in Iceland, so we were just happy for it to be above freezing.
The second and third days were not nearly as strenuous and we had settled into our groove by then so we were starting to make pretty good time. In fact, it was at this point that Rob started hiking faster than me. If you had seen him on the first day, this fact would have blown you away as well.
What the trail from Álftavatn to Emstrur lacks in elevation changes, it makes up for in rivers. The second day was the heaviest day of river fording, so we were pros by the end. (Note that I was also crying by the end because the cold water hurt so badly) But DANG do you feel alive!
I lost track of how many rivers we crossed, as I was too focused on my initial impression that we would only ford three rivers on the entire hike. I think we had doubled that by the second day. A lot of them were shallow, and if we had hiking poles we may have been able to make it across without taking our shoes off by taking a very careful route across a path of slippery rocks… but we didn’t take our chances.
I can now say there was a time in my life I regretted not owning hiking poles. I never thought I’d see the day. Well done Iceland.
Much of the second half of the day was spent walking over a never ending basalt flat which we were grateful for after a day of steep climbing. It again rained about three or four times throughout the day and we eventually decided to just leave all our rain gear on. It never rained very hard or for very long, but it happened often enough to leave us soaked in no time if we weren’t prepared.
This was also the day of the deepest and widest river we had to ford, which put us right on pace with literally every other hiker on the trail who stopped here for at least 30 minutes working up the nerve to do the dang thing. It was about thigh deep so many people just ended up taking their pants off to cross. I opted for changing into shorts as we encountered a rather large group of high school students.
Some of the rivers are braided and have a small gravel bar in the middle where you can stop for a moment, but I learned that it’s best to just power through and let out of viking-eqsue scream when you get to the end to help contribute to the all-powerful feeling that is inevitably coursing through your veins.
There were about 5 times that we swore we had to be within a kilometer of Emstrur but at last, we saw the village and the welcoming Icelandic flag that flew at each campsite.
If it were possible, I think Emstur was even more whimsical than Álftavatn. We were nestled next to a pleasant stream surrounded by moss and tiny butterflies.
It was also here that we came across the evacuation plan in case Eyjafjallayokull decided to erupt, which is not information that should be taken lightly. We could see the glacier that housed said volcano for most of the third day. A couple times, the trail threatened to turn the direction of more snow and ice, but we remained in a valley for much of the third day as well (with the exception of a few steep ridges and one or two rivers)
The hike from Emstur to þórsmörk starts out kinda hairy (which was my favorite part) but mostly flattens out for the rest of the day (with the exception of a few steep ridges and one or two rivers)
Less than 2k in, you reach a huge fjord and a raging river that you have to cross via two narrow bridges right after you’ve just rappelled down a rock and right before you climb the steepest and slipperiest ascent of the whole hike. Fun!
The hike gets continuously greener from here throughout the day, which was hard to imagine before I saw it and even harder to capture on camera.
We also passed a rock they call “unicorn rock” but we thought it looked more like a rhino. In fact, upon even closer inspection, I made up a tale about two wizards who were brothers but they got in a fight one day and decided to take opposite sides of the stone. A curse then set them like this for the rest of eternity….
Rob said he could kind of see it…
Much of the rest of the day looked like more basalt flats that seemed like they were leading us straight into the glaciers.
Then, at last, we crossed our final (and I’m convinced coldest) river and– trees! We hadn’t seen a tree the whole hike and the small forest was evidence that we were approaching þórsmörk (translated, means Thor’s Woods)
Once you get into þórsmörk , there is still a bit of hiking you’ll have to do once you decide where exactly you’re going for the night. There are three different campsites and a myriad of trails that can take you all over the place, but if you follow the signs for where you want to go it shouldn’t be too tricky.
We opted for the site with the hot pools and the bar because of course that’s what you do when you’ve just hiked 55 kilometers.
We were dying for a beer and a non-dehydrated meal so we were never so relieved as when we arrived at the village for the night. We quickly set up camp and booked it over to the lodge where we each had no less than three bowls of lamb stew from the buffet. I’ll never know if it was actually the best lamb stew in existence or if I was just deliriously happy to not eat food from a bag. Either way, it was glorious.
We decided that, since we weren’t taking the fourth day to hike to Skógar , we would spend the day exploring some day hikes in þórsmörk and catch the afternoon shuttle back to Reykjavik.
We chose one particular trail that led to what felt like the highest point in all of Southern Iceland with a 360 view that was out of this world.
That afternoon, we (begrudgingly) got on the shuttle back to civilization, dirty, tired, and forever changed by what we had just experienced.