The otherworldly volcanic landscapes of southern Iceland are home to the Laugavegur Trail, often lauded as one of the world's classic trekking routes. Sharron Schwartz & Martin Critchley have written us a comprehensive guide
'In loving memory of Ido Keinan, who passed away in a blizzard, so close to the safe hut nearby, yet so far.' These words etched onto a plaque embedded in a cairn mark the place where, in 2004, a 25-year old man perished. The memorial is sited on a bleak, wind-blasted mountainside devoid of vegetation, where glaring white layers of ice lie encrusted across stretches of volcanic ash and jet-black basalt rocks for as far as the eye can see. This is part of a vast volcanic highland wilderness just 160km east of Reykjavík, which is so unusual and otherworldly it could almost be extra-terrestrial.
Cited as one of the top twenty best treks in the world by National Geographic, the 55km Laugavegur (Hot Spring) Trail running between Landmannalaugar and Þórsmörk crosses this inhospitable terrain. Nowadays it seems to be on every adventure seeker's bucket list. But this poignant memorial is a reminder that it's no walk in the park.
Indeed, the Laugavegur isn't a trek for the faint-hearted, involving glacial river crossings and long, exposed sections of snow-covered mountains where sudden bad weather can make orientation tricky. Fatalities are not uncommon. No one travels to the 64th parallel north to acquire a suntan, but our visit to Iceland has coincided with the worst summer in living memory. The day before our arrival at Landmannalaugar, storm-force winds shredded tents and the trail was closed, so we are banking our hopes on the relatively stable 4-day weather forecast to be accurate, and that our tent survives unscathed!
We begin the trail at Landmannalaugar, and the journey there is otherworldly. Vast plains of black volcanic ash, valleys choked with black lava mottled with neon-green moss, and glacier-topped volcanoes including Hekla, 'the Gateway to Hell', ravish the eye. Asphalt roads eventually give way to gravel 'wash-board' 'F' roads only open to regular 4x4 vehicles from June to September, and a deep river crossing heralds the entrance to Landmannalaugar.
The hut and campsite are located on a spit of land between the Jokulgilskvisl and Namskvisl rivers at the very edge of the Laugahraun lava field which formed in an eruption in about 1477. Towering above are a ring of multi-coloured rhyolite mountains streaked with snow and electric-green moss which look as if they have been daubed with pigments from an artist's paint pox. Landmannalaugar, 'The People's Pools', is named after the hydrothermal natural springs that well up at the edge of this lava field which draw hordes of day-trippers.
Day One: Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnusker (12km, 4-5 hours)
From Landmannalaugar the trial climbs steeply through the Laugahraun lava field, a chaotic jumble of raven-black rock contorted into spikes, spires and shards, which looks as if the Norse God, Thor, has laid waste to it with Mjölnir his thunderous hammer. Sulphur-encrusted fumaroles belch forth clouds of acrid steam or hiss malevolently at the trail-side, and tiny mud pools splatter vile smelling grey sludge from the angry hot earth beneath our feet. The ghostly figures of other trekkers pass in and out of the warm white vapours which permeate the air with an odour of boiled eggs. It feels like we have entered the very realm of Hades.
The rhyolite geology makes this section of the trail intensely colourful and it's likely to be busy with day-trippers hiking up to Mount Brennisteinsalda and the Bláhnjúkur volcano. The crowds soon thin as the route heads towards the Storihver hot springs across a barren, undulating plateau covered with stubborn patches of dirty snow.
Once past Storihver, a surreal green valley where steaming fumaroles encrusted with white and yellow mineral deposits spew scalding hot water, and the earth groans and sighs as if in perpetual pain, the route rapidly gains height. It traverses extensive slushy snow fields before crossing the slope of Söðull past the memorial cairn to Ido Keinan. He froze to death about 20 minutes from the hut just over the other side of a nearby ridge.
Hrafntinnusker (1110 metres) the highest point on the trial, means 'small rocky obsidian island' in Icelandic. It's not hard to see why. Shards of jet-black obsidian glaring angrily in the late afternoon sunlight litter the ground, and the camping pitches are mere scrapes in the black volcanic sand surrounded by horseshoe-shaped walls of the glassy rock, built to provide some shelter from the wind that constantly torments the bare mountainside. Far across a vast plain choked with snow are a line of forbidding brown mountains streaked white with ice. A bleaker, more surreal campsite would be hard to imagine.
As we make camp, the innocuous-looking clouds of earlier in the day have massed together filling the sky like a slowly swirling giant bruise. Just before twilight the cloud explodes, sending great curtains of sleety rain across the campsite. By now we are snuggled up in our sleeping bags and we drift off to sleep listening to the percussive pinging of icy rain on our tent, hoping for better weather tomorrow.
Day Two: Hrafntinnusker to Álftavatn (4-5 hours, 12km)
By the time we break camp the following morning the rain has passed over, leaving in its wake a sunny, fresh and breezy day. The baby-blue sky is billowing with fluffy white cumulus clouds and the sunlight reflecting back off the snowfield below the camp is blinding. I squint to see a group of matchstick figures moving slowly along a faint line leading towards Reykjafjöll Mountain. We set out after them.
This section of the trail crosses numerous snow bridges, and we need to be careful not to fall through the snow into the streams cut deeply into the landscape below. A short, steep climb brings us to a plateau with extensive views back towards Hrafntinnusker. The Icelandic Highlands almost defy description, and I'm drawn to the mottled, mazy patterns created by the partially melted snow on the deeply eroded interlocking spurs of the rhyolite mountains which range in colour from chalk-white and crème caramel, through umber to vermillion: a spectacular visual leitmotif framed by the blue sky dotted with flour-white clouds.
The trail then undulates steeply over friable, geothermally altered terrain, and passes close to the nose of a glacier on Jökultungur Mountain. Here it begins to drop, undoubtedly like your jaw when you first see the Tolkienesque Álftavatn Valley spread out below. Resplendent in a thousand shades of green, a startling contrast to the barrenness of the rhyolite mountains, it is ringed by glaciers, and dormant volcanoes rise from the landscape like ancient pyramids. From here you get your first view of Eyjafjallajökull, one of the smaller Icelandic ice caps but now one of the best-known, as it covers the caldera of the volcano which erupted violently in 2010 wreaking havoc on European air traffic. Nearby is its big sister, Katla, which is apparently overdue an eruption to make that of Eyjafjallajökull look like a poor dress rehearsal.
A very steep zig-zag path delivers us to the emerald-green valley floor, where the trail initially follows the bank of the Grashagakvisl River which needs to be crossed (often waded), before leading to the hut and camping ground above the Lake Álftavatn. This site offers lots of space for campers, but it is very exposed to the wind and it might not always be advisable to pitch your tent here, but to progress to Hvanngil a few kilometres further on which offers a more sheltered alternative. Álftavatn means 'Whooper swan Lake', and although we do not spot any birds, there are other flying things here: thousands of midges. Although they are annoying, they don't bite. There's a bar and café at Álftavatn, but the initial elation at seeing cans of cold beer is soon dampened when realising the price: €10 per can!
As sunset approaches, a wander towards the shore of the lake is rewarded by the sight of Illasula volcano silhouetted like a giant pyramid against the snows of Tindfjallajökull blushing rose-pink in the setting sun.
Day Three: Álftavatn to Emstrur (6-7 hours, 15km)
We open our tent flaps to be greeted by the sight of cloud rolling across the tops of the nearby mountains like a slow tsunami. There isn't much overall change in elevation along today's stretch of the trail, but there are a few river crossings including the Bratthálskvisl, encountered about 20 minutes from the hut. When in spate this can be very fast flowing and deep, but today the bitterly cold water only reaches my mid-shin. A steep descent brings us to the Hvanngil ravine, a pretty valley frequented by shepherds where there's also a trekkers' hut and campsite.
Soon after, we cross the bridge spanning the mighty Kaldaklofskvísl River near the boundary of the Katla Geopark where the trail splits in two. The section marked Emstrur and Þórsmörk runs almost parallel to the F261 highland road. The Blafjallakvisl River flowing off the nearby Mýrdalsjökull ice cap must be waded, and it's at least 10 metres wide, deep, fast flowing, ice-cold, and provides a sharp demarcation in the landscape.
Gone are the verdure-covered hills; in their place, an enormous flat desert of pumice and black sand known as Mælifellssandur, from which rear the lurid moss-streaked cones of extinct volcanoes. Huge tongues of gleaming white ice spill down to the desert's edge from the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap dominating the south-eastern horizon, and the faint scar of the trail snakes its way across the vast landscape towards a line of distant hills where it's lost to sight in a shimmering haze. Walking across this endless, dusty and extremely exposed expanse of sand and grit is surprisingly tiring and would be a nightmare in high winds and/or driving rain.
After several kilometres a bridge over the Innri-Emstruá River is crossed and it's then just over 5.5km to Emstrur, a surreal fluorescent-green oasis tucked away in a tiny valley overlooked by the Katla volcano. Good pitches are at a premium here, so it's wise to ensure you leave Álftavatn in plenty of time to stake a prime spot!
As sunset draws near, long, lazy shafts of sunlight fall across the landscape making the impossibly green moss glow as if it's phosphorescing. We climb to a spot above the Markarfljotsgljufur Gorge to watch the setting sun turning the wispy clouds rose-pink above the icecaps.
Day Four: Emstrur to Þórsmörk (6-7 hours, 16km)
Leaving the campsite, the trail traverses a gravelly plateau before descending steeply to the edge of the Fremri-Emstruá River canyon, a deep gash in the basalt created by the meltwater from the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap. A footbridge crosses this at its narrowest point. After a climb up to a higher plateau above the gorge, it's worth the short detour to a viewpoint over the junction of the Fremri-Emstruá and Markarfljotsgljufur gorges.
The 200m deep Markarfljótsgljúfur Gorge has been carved by the 100km long Markarfljót River, one of South Iceland's largest watercourses which rises in the mountains east of Hekla and is then fed by meltwaters flowing off the Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull glaciers. This mighty dirty-brown river roaring like a jet engine has carried millions of tons of sand and sediment towards the coast, creating the Markarfljótsaurar outwash plain which is seen near the end of the trek.
The route now passes through the hilly area of Almenningar with Eyjafjallajökull filling the horizon. The landscape, heavily scoured by the action of flood waters, is spread before us in tsunamis of nickel-grey ash. The valleys are choked with gunmetal-hued lava which once oozed like treacle across the terrain. Now solidified, it resembles ruched silk crepe. On the western skyline the bizarrely-shaped Einhyrningur Mountain rears up like a horned-faced dinosaur. Eventually, the rust-red rooftops of isolated farmsteads appear, bit by bit the landscape begins to green again, and at the Ljosa River footbridge we are surrounded by head high birch trees.
A steep climb up to the bare crest of Kápa is rewarded with fabulous views of the Markarfljót River flowing in a tangle of silver channels which wriggle like eels through its outwash plain. One final adrenalin rush is experienced crossing the Þröngá River which lets out a menacing low, grating roar as invisible cobbles are turned in its bed. It's the deepest and fastest flowing river we've encountered and is braided into three channels separated by banks of gravel and silt. I strip to my knickers to avoid getting soaked trousers, and find my walking poles very useful for maintaining my balance as the water swirls alarmingly round my upper thighs and the current tugs strongly at my legs.
Excellent views of the Markarfljótsaurar outwash plain and the coast are enjoyed before the steep drop down to the Krossá River in Þórsmörk (Thor's Forest). Iceland is definitely arboreally challenged, but you wouldn't know it on the final stretch of the Laugavegur which passes through the ancient Þórsmörk Forest which escaped the axes of the first Viking settlers who were responsible for deforesting huge swathes of the landscape.
The air is pregnant with rain as we descend to the Langidalur Hut on the bank of the Krossá River, and an approaching weather front is lifting huge columns of spindrift from the summit of Eyjafjallajökull, whose splintered and gnarled glaciers spill menacingly down the cliffs of the valley facing us. I get a heady feeling as we descend the green and pleasant Langidalur Valley. Perhaps it's due to the sweet-smelling herbage, the majestic scenery, or the fact that we have successfully taken advantage of one of the only periods of settled weather during this truly awful summer to complete this epic trail.
As if on cue, it begins to rain just as we arrive at the hut in plenty of time to celebrate over a couple of very expensive cans of Gull lager. Eventually we see our bus lumbering up the dirt road on the opposite side of the valley before slowly churning its way through the rushing grey waters of the Krossá River.
With the rapidly deteriorating weather conditions, we decided to hedge our bets and not undertake the 25km trail south to Skógar over the Fimmvörðuháls Pass between the Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull glaciers, which is a natural extension to the Laugavegur. After all, Keinan's memorial cairn in the Icelandic Highlands is already one too many…
When to go
The trekking season is short, from mid-June to mid-September. In June there will be almost constant daylight, but by September the nights pull in rapidly and it becomes possible to see the Northern Lights.
We hiked the trail north to south in the second week of August. Landmannalaugar, the more popular starting point, is 600m above sea level and there is only around 500m elevation gain to the highest point (1110m), in contrast to the 900m experienced when trekking from Þórsmörk and the only persistent uphill section is encountered on day one.
Completing the trail takes two to four days. However, it's wise to add at least one extra day on top of your estimated completion time to allow for unexpected storms which could close the trail.
Buses run to Landmannalaugar from Reykjavík via Hella, the last town before heading north into the highlands, where vehicles can be safely left in the public car park (there's no charge). We caught the 9.35 am bus from Hella operated by the Trex bus company (€50 one way per adult for a journey of just over two hours)
From Langidalur in Þórsmörk we caught the 6.00pm Trex bus for the two hour journey back to Hella which terminates in Reykjavík (€40 each). Thule Travel and Reykjavik Excursions also operate to Langidalur, while Sterna goes to Básar (just across the river from Langidalur). Seats must be booked in advance, and a hiker's pass is offered by some or all of the operators.
Wardened huts at Landmannalaugar, Álftavatn, Hvanngil, Emstrur and Langidalur (Þórsmörk) run by the Iceland Touring Association (ITA) can be booked online
Huts are always booked out months in advance, so it's advisable to make early reservations (ICA huts 8-9000 Kr/€70-90 per person per night in summer 2018); warm showers are extra (500 Kr for 5 minutes). Sleeping areas are communal and you must bring your own sleeping bag. No meals are provided at the ITA huts. The Álftavatn Highland Restaurant & Bar is run by the Volcano Huts; main course meals cost around €30. Most huts sell some (expensive) supplies (snack bars, dried food, and camping gas). It costs 500 Kr (€4) to use the toilet if you are not overnighting at Landmannalaugar!
No advance booking is required to camp (2000 Kr/€15-16 per person), which is far cheaper and provides flexibility. The downside to camping isn't just the extra weight to carry, but also the notorious weather. No covered shelter is provided for campers, who are not permitted access to hut kitchens. Some of the pitches are woeful, but as no wild camping is permitted you have to use the designated camping areas. For the tariffs charged, the camping facilities along this trail fell well short of the standard we have encountered elsewhere in the world.
Card payments are available at some huts, but it's best to carry enough cash.
Although the route is waymarked throughout, it's still wise to carry a map and compass, as signs and waypoints might be under snow or washed away by floods, especially early in the season. IÐNÚ Publishing's Þórsmörk- Landmannalaugar 1:100 000 can be purchased online for €14
Travellers can list their travel plans online with Safetravel.is before setting out, and download the Icelandic emergency App 112 for smart phones. Mobile service is available on some parts of the trail but is very limited in others, so don't rely on a mobile phone GPS.
Very strong winds with heavy rain, hail, fog and even snow, with an attendant drop in temperature, can occur with little warning. To acquaint yourself with the weather forecast before setting out, the two most reliable Icelandic online weather forecast sites are: www.vedur.is and belgingur.is
What to wear and equipment
Standard UK hillwalking kit should suffice for this trek, with an emphasis on layering, as the weather is highly changeable and it's possible to experience blazing hot sunshine one minute and near-Arctic conditions the next. The volcanic terrain is rough underfoot. GoreTex walking boots and gaiters are recommended, and Crocs for river crossings. Also useful are walking poles for wading rivers and a head net (for annoying midges).
A strong 3-4 season tent is essential, and it's advisable to carry some extra guylines, pegs and gaffer-tape for emergencies. As sub-zero temperatures are not uncommon, a four season sleeping bag and well-insulated sleeping mat are recommended for camping. A 1-2 season sleeping bag is sufficient for hut use. Camping gas and freeze-dried meal pouches are widely available, but expensive.
About the authors
Sharron Schwartz and Martin Critchley live in County Donegal, Ireland. For the past ten years they have enjoyed trekking and mountaineering in six continents, including in many of the world's great mountain ranges. In 2017 they set up Purple Peak Adventures to showcase their landscape photography, video and time-lapse film, and to blog about their adventures. Visit their website