By Michael Lanza
Walking across the campground at Landmannalaugar, in Iceland’s remote Central Highlands, we can see the entire uphill portion of today’s hike ahead of us. A trail zigzags through dozens of short switchbacks more than a thousand vertical feet (well over 300 meters) up the crest of a ridge on a virtually barren, steep-sided, blue-black little mountain called Bláhnúkur, which means “blue peak.” Scudding clouds flash over the peak like tracer fire revealing the wind scraping the peak’s summit.
Minutes after starting up the path, a strange sight appears on the ground at our feet: our own shadows, which we have become estranged from these first days in Iceland—and indeed, will reunite with rarely over the next couple of weeks in this tiny, North Atlantic island nation that sits just south of the Arctic Circle. We receive this anomalous burst of sunshine as a positive omen—at least for the less than three hours my family will spend hiking up and descending the other side of this pile of volcanic rocks and fine, sand-like tephra in the Fjallabak (“Behind the mountains”) Nature Reserve.
We’re climbing Bláhnúkur (also spelled Bláhnjúkur) as a warmup of sorts for the longer adventure we’ll begin tomorrow. I’ve come with my wife, Penny, and our college-age son, Nate, and daughter, Alex, to spend six days hiking hut to hut on one of the world’s great treks, the Laugavegur Trail and its sister footpath, the Fimmvörðuháls Trail—and there could hardly be a better introduction to the adventure awaiting us than this little peak.
At Bláhnúkur’s 3,005-foot/916-meter summit, we all silently take in the panorama, eyes and brains struggling to comprehend a landscape quite unlike anywhere else on the planet.
In an environment where trees and any form of vegetation are nearly as rare as a shadow, wildly colored hills roll away in every direction. Except for the scattered patches of snow and electrically lime-green moss dappling the hillsides, most of the rich hues in view result from geologic and volcanic activity—it’s all rocks painting this land. Steam clouds rise from scores of thermal features dotting the ground almost as far as we can see in this corner of Iceland’s Central Highlands, one of the most active geothermal areas on Earth. The black scar of a hardened lava flow fills much of the valley we’ll descend into today and hike up when we begin the Laugavegur tomorrow.
The only signs of human civilization are the tiny village of tents, a few small buildings, including the hut where we’re staying, a couple of ancient buses converted to a store and luncheonette, and a short row of parked vehicles at Landmannalaugar, at 1,936 feet/590 meters above sea level, the northern terminus of the Laugavegur. It looks exactly like what it is: a stubborn, remote, and seasonal outpost of civilization in a harsh wilderness.
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Far below us, the thin strip of rough, gravel and dirt road to Landmannalaugar weaves like a drunken sailor across a vast and barren moonscape of volcanic rocks and black soil, disappearing over a far horizon. We traveled it yesterday on the last leg of our four-hour ride from Iceland’s capitol, Reykjavik, in a bus with high clearance and oversized tires for the wide, fast-flowing streams it crossed on that road, each time churning up a rooster tail of stones and gray, glaciated water.
A memory rushes back of standing on this very summit on another raw, windy, and damp July visit 16 years ago, the first time I set foot in Landmannalaugar. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to return with my family and walk the entire Laugavegur. After waiting years for our kids to reach an age where they could handle it physically and fully appreciate it—then outlasting a pandemic, healing from an injury, and navigating myriad other routine scheduling challenges—we are finally here.
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The Laugavegur and Fimmvörðuháls Trails
Widely considered one of the world’s most beautiful treks—praise I concur with, and I’ve walked some of the greatest trails from the Dolomites, Patagonia and New Zealand to Nepal, the Tour du Mont Blanc, and others—the roughly 34-mile/55k Laugavegur Trail traces a course across a landscape that continually boggles the mind.
Beginning amid the lava fields of Landmannalaugar, we’ll climb through hills where steam issues from scores of thermal features below surreal peaks painted in a chaotic rainbow of electric colors. We’ll cross snowfields, river valleys, and stark, flat plains of volcanic rock flanked by solitary mountains vividly green even though hardly anything grows taller than an adult’s knee. At various points along the trail, we’ll look out over the boundless white seas of vast glaciers, before descending to the trail’s southern terminus in a glaciated river valley in the Thorsmork Nature Reserve (Þórsmörk in Icelandic).
From Thorsmork, where many trekkers take a bus back to Reykjavik, we’ll hike another two days south on the 15.5-mile/25k Fimmvörðuháls Trail. It makes a long ascent up a strikingly green, steep-walled canyon to cross two craters formed by a volcanic eruption in 2010 that halted air travel in Europe for more than a week. After a night in a tiny hut situated on another volcanic moonscape between two more giant glaciers, we’ll finish with a long downhill walk past at least two dozen big, powerful waterfalls along the Skógá River, finishing at the foot of one of Iceland’s best-known curtains of water, Skógafoss.
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Missing your shadow represents the least of Iceland’s meteorological challenges—and even the word “challenging” seems an understated description of the typical weather on the Laugavegur and Fimmvörðuháls and throughout Iceland: Over nearly three weeks in July, from these trails to Reykjavik and elsewhere around the country, we’ll see temperatures ranging from around freezing to a high of 59 F/15 C. Wind and some level of rain occur much of the time on most days, usually anything from a heavy mist to on-and-off steady rain but occasionally day-long, wind-driven, biblical downpours. Even in the rare periods of sunshine lasting a few hours or more, we’ll often hike in rain jackets to fend off the chilling wind.
Still, several thousand people trek the Laugevegur Trail every summer and perhaps a smaller but nonetheless significant number also walk the Fimmvörðuháls Trail. Challenging weather be damned: These trails are that amazing.
Check out these “9 Great Hikes and Walks Along Iceland’s Ring Road.”
Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnusker on the Laugavegur
Under a solid cloud cover on our first morning on the Laugavegur, we cross the lava fields, a sprawling plain of black, sharp-edged rocks from pebbles to the size of baseballs and boulders that resemble large machinery partly melted down and hardened in a form unrecognizable from its original. This jumbled ground of solidified lava would be all but uncrossable if not for the constructed trail winding gently through it.
We climb steadily uphill. The wind grows stronger and colder. The spitting rain escalates to a heavy, wind-borne mist.
About two-thirds of the way to our first hut, we reach a spot called Stórihver, an area of hot springs and fumaroles where steam and hot water erupt noisily from countless ground vents. We wander a minute off-trail to a spot I recall from my first hike here 16 years ago. Cresting a small rise, we overlook a steaming pool about 20 feet across, pressed up against a hillside. A hot spring pours into the pool’s milky waters, which overflow the opposite bank, sending a bright blue stream meandering down a gentle valley of impossibly green moss and black dirt. It looks prehistoric.
By early afternoon, we reach the Höskuldsskáli hut at Hrafntinnusker, at 3,609 feet/1,100m the highest hut we’ll stay in on the Laugavegur and the Fimmvörðuháls, perched on a mostly snow-covered, nearly barren plateau surrounded by mountains largely eclipsed by clouds and fog.
After lunch, Alex, Nate, and I take a 3.1-mile/5k round-trip side hike to the site of ice caves that I visited 16 years ago; once impressive, they have collapsed catastrophically since. Still, the ice “ruins” hint at their former glory and the streams draining off the snowfield trickle down a valley where whistling fumaroles spit steam into the wet air. A near-whiteout descends on us as we start up the blank snowfield to backtrack to the hut: We can see about 100 feet or less, only dirty snow and equally blank fog, but we calmly find the cairns marking our route back.
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As on other hut treks I’ve taken, these huts feel very international. In Landmannalaugar, we had met two women from South Africa, Sharon and Barbara, who advised us on the best hikes and parks in their homeland; we’ll bump into them repeatedly over the next few days. A couple from the eastern Czech Republic are backpacking the Laugavegur, staying in huts when they find space available and their tent otherwise. In the Höskuldsskáli hut, we share a long, narrow loft room with a group of families hiking together, Polish, Swiss, and American, with several kids aged from grade school to young teens; we’ll share a small, crowded hut room with the Polish family two nights later—and more than a week later, randomly run into them in the parking lot at the trailhead just off the Ring Road for Iceland’s third-tallest waterfall, Hengifoss. We also meet other Americans, from San Diego. L.A., and elsewhere.
In July in Iceland, night does not bring on the night. The daylight dims to dusk for a few hours between midnight and the wee hours of morning, when the sun merely dips below the horizon, poised to come roaring back to full brightness well before even the earliest risers have opened their eyes.
Alex, Nate, Penny and I joke that we’re dayhiking the entire, nearly 49 miles of the Laugavegur and Fimmvörðuháls trails: We’ll finish it all before dark.
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Hrafntinnusker to Álftavatn
In the morning, after I return from the bathroom outside the Höskuldsskáli hut, Penny asks, “How’s the weather?” I respond: “About three degrees Celsius, cloudy, and very foggy.” She laughs because it’s identical to yesterday and previous days here—and comes as no surprise.
The fog lifts a bit as we resume hiking the Laugavegur south from Hrafntinnusker, slogging over wet snow. The fog rolls back in as we climb steeply but briefly to a high point, where we see a towering wall of ice belonging to the relatively diminutive—by Iceland standards—Kaldaklofsjökull Glacier faintly through the fog.
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At a final high point for the day, we look out over a vast plain unfurling below and ahead of us and see the lake Álftavatn and the hut beside it; although it doesn’t look far off, that’s just a trick of perception induced by the stark landscape’s lack of objects, like trees, that provide scale: It turns out we have more than three more miles of walking to the Álftavatn hut.
As we descend to Álftavatn, the temperature rises into the 50s Fahrenheit—and it feels like a heat wave. We strip down to one or two top layers and pants. But before we reach the hut, the taunting mist rolls back in, chasing us into rain jackets again.
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Álftavatn to Emstrur
On our third morning on the Laugavegur, I step outside the Álftavatn hut around 6 a.m. to a glorious dawn—or “dawn” as it occurs in Iceland, where this time of day does not span mere minutes, as we’re accustomed to at lower latitudes, but stretches into a few hours of low-angle sunlight. Like a lens twisting to bring our vista into focus, the first direct sunlight scrapes over the ragged landscape, throwing it all into sharp relief: the river, lake, and solitary peaks standing like sentinels gathered in a semi-circle around the lake. Some hut guests and backpackers camped in the small tent village between the hut and the lake emerge and, like me, simply stand and pan their eyes over our surroundings.
After breakfast, I start hiking ahead of my family to climb one of the peaks above the lake. I follow the Laugavegur over two footbridges across the lake’s small outlet river and up a short slope, then turn off the trail and walk easily up the northeast ridge of the peak Brattháls, which looms above the lake’s south shore.
Standing on a high point on the narrow ridge less than an hour after leaving the hut, I get a 360-degree panorama of the Álftavatn area and, spinning around to face south, the peaks we’ll hike past today. It’s a stunning preview of what lies ahead of us: Mountains brilliantly green, as if illuminated by a light within them, rise steeply to rocky, knifeblade crests carving into the—for now—partly sunny sky. Then I backtrack down to the trail to meet Penny, Nate, and Alex coming from the hut.
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Later that morning, we reach the wide but shallow crossing of the Bratthalskvisi River, and change from boots to sandals and make the icy ford with a few dozen other people on a day when we’ll periodically share the trail with what looks at times like a pilgrimage of hikers. Perhaps an hour beyond, we come to a double waterfall in a gorge crossed by a footbridge. And not much farther, we make a knee-deep and wide ford of the Kaldaklofskvísl River that’s bone-chilling.
From there, the Laugavegur crosses an expansive lava plain, flat as a tabletop, with the edge of the Mýrdalsjökull Glacier visible ahead of us. We pass between mountains unlike any I’ve seen: sheer-walled and impossibly green with moss growing up their flanks, they stand as disconnected, solitary peaks arrayed along either side of the trail, as if sculptures in a museum rather than random geologic giants. Scores of trekkers file past them under warm sunshine and the trip’s warmest temps, in the upper 50s, allowing us to hike in shorts and T-shirts for a couple of hours, before the clouds thicken and a cool breeze returns.
In mid-afternoon, we round a bend overlooking our next hut in Botnar on Emstrur, perched above another green valley flanked by cliffs, with a lobe of the Mýrdalsjökull Glacier looming ghostlike above it. Alex says to me, “Wow. Just when you think it can’t get any better, boom.”
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Our small dormitory room in one of the huts at Emstrur has a tiny kitchen square with a sink, a countertop, and a two-burner stove, one picnic table with bench seating for perhaps 14 people, and bunks for sleeping 20 on two levels—a tight space but we make the best of it, sharing it with a group of families from Ottawa that we met briefly at Álftavatn this morning plus one of the Polish families with younger kids, including a brand-new Laugavegur celebrity: the girl who earned a rousing applause and cheers after she crossed the last river.
Before dinner, I pull my rain jacket hood up and head out alone—none of my family accepts my invitation for an hour-long walk in the heavy, misting rain—following a rocky, winding path that diverges off the Laugavegur just north of Emstrur, Thirty minutes from the hut, I step up to the brink of the ragged, vertigo-inducing rim of the Markarfljótsgljúfur Canyon, where the earth falls abruptly away for 656 feet/200meters to the white Markarfljót River, snaking along the bottom of this sheer gorge.
Alone in this weather, at this time of day, I can almost imagine being the first human to see this canyon. It makes the walk back through the intensifying rain feel warmer.
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Emstrur to Thorsmork
Leaving Emstrur under gray skies, we follow the Laugavegur’s switchbacks down a steep, loose gully and cross a wooden footbridge over a raging, foaming, black-water tributary of the Markarfljót River in a narrow gorge. Clouds obscure most of our views, but we catch fleeting glimpses of a few distinctive peaks all day, including one with a horn-like tower growing like a digit beside its summit, and the distant and massive Mýrdalsjökull Glacier.
Notably, today is the only day, so far, that we see not a drop of rain.
The Laugavegur delivers one more flash of excitement before we exit it. Not long before Thorsmork, we encounter the trail’s final river crossing. We easily step or rock-hop over most of its braids, then reach the last and largest channel, requiring us to ford a knee-deep, strong current, silted black with volcanic sand and rocks, and loud as if giving voice to gods angry over our invasion. Boots and socks off, sandals on our feet, leaning on our trekking poles for balance against the pushy creek, we join a small parade of trekkers braving the numbingly icy water.
Then we climb over a small hill and descend to Thorsmork, at about 650 feet/200 meters above sea level, named for the god Thor in Nordic mythology. It seems like an apropos name for the place where we finish the Laugavegur Trail.
And we’re not done yet.
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The Fimmvörðuháls Trail
The morning after finishing the Laugavegur, we eagerly devour a hot breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage, rice pudding, homemade bread, croissants, coffee, tea, juice, and fresh bananas and apples at the restaurant run by Volcano Huts in the Húsadalur Valley in Thorsmork, a 30-minute trail walk from the Langidalur hut, where we spent last night. We also had a hot dinner there last night—it’s well worth the hour’s walk.
The Gear I Used See my reviews of the outstanding backpack, rain jacket, boots, soft-shell pants, trekking poles, and backpacking quilt I used on Iceland’s Laugavegur and Fimmvörðuháls trails. And see my Gear Reviews page for best-in-category reviews and expert buying tips.
See also “How to Prevent Hypothermia While Hiking and Backpacking,” “5 Tips For Staying Warm and Dry While Hiking,” “7 Pro Tips For Keeping Your Backpacking Gear Dry,” and this menu of all stories offering expert backpacking tips at The Big Outside.