~Iceland; Other Worldly~
Trip Length: 10 Days
Highlights: Lagavegur Trail + Þórsmörk to Skogar, Ring Road, Reykjadalur Valley Hot Springs, Svartifoss & Sólheimasandur Plane Crash.
Day 1, Part I - Keflavík Airport to Landmannalaugur Trailhead
Flight Time: 5+ hours
Superjeep Drive: 3 hours
The two best pieces of advice I can give you if you are thinking about traveling to Iceland is to #1, whatever you do, don't have EVERYTHING planned down to the T for each day...be spontaneous. Iceland has so many things that you will not find online or in a book. #2, get this map of Iceland. This is no ordinary map. This is a "where to go and what to photograph" type of map. This map contains all of the major sights to see in Iceland, as well as the off-the-beaten-path sights like old abandoned Willys Jeeps, or amazing shipwrecks, and all of the volcano and waterfall locations. It also features time estimates for traveling between locations on F roads. This map will help you be spontaneous on your journey and see things you cannot find on trip advisor.
The flight to Keflavik Airport in Iceland is direct from Minneapolis, MN. In just over 5 hours you can be flying into the land of ice and fire where gigantic glaciers surrounded by fluorescent green hills of moss, dotted with livestock welcome your arrival. Depending upon the time of year you head to this beautiful country will determine the price of your tickets. Great prices can be found on Skyscanner.com or by searching cheap flights through WOWAir.
Because of our local connections, we hopped a ride with Eddie in his super jeep to the Landmannalaugar Trailhead where we would begin our hike on Iceland's longest backcountry stroll and one of National Geographics top 20 hikes in the world. Eddie is an Icelandic local who welcomed an opportunity to become a key part in our Icelandic travel adventure. Not only did we get to experience Eddie's Nissan Patrol Superjeep, he showed us the back roads of Iceland to include deep river crossings, mountainous expansions as far as the eye could see, and information on its geothermal energy and folklore. Although a man of few words, meeting Eddie and learning from his in-depth knowledge of his country was one of the BEST parts of our entire trip.
Other options for transport to and from the Landmannalaugar Trail System might include the Highland Hikers Passport or taking the Gray Line Bus from the Keflavik Airport to Reykjavik, walking to the City Center-Aðalstræti and grabbing the bus through Trex company to the Landmannalaugar Trailhead.
Day 1, Part II (Laugavegur Trail) - Landmannalaugur Trailhead to Hrafntinnusker
Distance: 7.9miles (12.7 km)
Elevation: 2,153 ft ascent, 903 ft descent
The start of the Laugavegur Trail begins at a popular camping area with bathrooms (small charge), a hut with information about the trail, and HOT springs. The hike begins with a short climb to a perfect vista spot of the colored mountains surrounding a rainbow of tents nestled in the valley. The elevation continues to rise as you pass through a variety of landscapes speckled with white sheep. Be sure to bring proper rain gear as this part of the hike is usually wet. It rained on us for 90% of this first section of the trail. As you meander through the lime-green hills, dark mud, and volcanic rock trails, you'll come upon a stream where you can warm your hands in the steam of the gurgling geysers. Even in July we hiked through large expanses of snow and eventually descended down to the first hut on the planet Mars.
You can either stay inside the Hrafntinnusker hut or tent outside for $10 dollars. Even if tenting, there are restrooms available and running water. There is NO trash drop. We set up camp, made dinner, and slept well from the long hike and the rain tapping our tent's rain fly.
Day 2 - Hrafntinnusker to Álftavatn
Distance: 10.7 miles (17km)
Elevation: 1,857 ft ascent, 3,586 ft descent
From far atop the Laugavegur trail, you round a corner only to get an eye full of the beautiful colored mountains. This section of the trail has you hiking downhill for the majority of the day. There is an amazing section of trail that takes you through a completely barren field with nothing but black soil and black Glass-like rocks. If you pass through this section during a sunset or sunrise, the entire landscape glows gold. At one point on the trail, as you come up and around a bend, the landscape opens up into what looks like a scene out of the movie Lord of the Rings and in the distance you can see camp #2 for the evening. Just before reaching the camp, you will have to strip off the hiking boots and socks to ford the river. The height of the ice cold water wasn't too bad during our July visit but it varies drastically depending on how much rain has fallen that year. Trekking poles are highly recommended**
The álftavatn hut sits right near the mountain framed aqua blue waters edge providing picturesque views in every direction. If it's raining, there is not much available for sheltered tables for cooking with friends. If possible, bring some material to set up a canopy.
After setting up camp, we ate and went for a day hike to the two highest mountain peaks overlooking the lake. We highly recommend this trip. Another hike option is to walk around the lake but be aware, it is much larger and further than it looks.
Day 3 - Álftavatn Campsite to Emstrur (Botnar)
Distance: 13.2 miles (21 km)
Elevation: 1,643 ft ascent, 2,095 descent
After waking to a light, intermittent rain, our hot oatmeal breakfast was welcomed. We packed up and started our hike. Leaving from this hut, you have two options. *Only one option was available for us due to the height of the rivers. Whichever way you choose to go, be prepared to get wet taking on the river crossings. **Any sandal that straps to your foot is recommended. They stay on through swift current and dry quickly when strapped to the outside of your pack. The first two river crossings where roughly shin deep, however, the 3rd river crossing was quite exciting. This part of the river was very swift and deep rising to about 3 ft high. Crossing as a team can help you remain stable. Make sure to use your trekking poles as stabilizers. Nothing can help against the coldness of the water though because you're crossing through melted glacial water after all! Be ready to see a lot of hikers in their skivvies too.
After surviving the river crossings, the trail takes you into an open landscape where you can see the trail winding ahead for miles. The open landscape is littered with small volcanic black rock then turns into black sand dunes. All around you far in the distance are florescent green peaks. Be prepared for whipping winds across the open landscape here. It can be quite brisk on exposed skin.
After crossing what feels like the longest rock bed in history, you come to the top of a peak and look down upon the Botnar hut and campsite. Off in the distance, you can see part of the Myrdalsjokull Glacier. Nestled in the mountainside or near a babbling brook, pick a spot to pitch your tent and hang out. From this stop, take an epic day hike out to Fjaðrárgljúfur; a magnificent and massive canyon, about 100 meters deep and about two kilometers long. The COLORS are indescribably breathtaking.
Bathrooms and running water are available. No electricity unless you stay in the hut. Still...NO trash dump so plan accordingly.
Day 4 - Emstrur (Botnar) Campsite to Þórsmörk
Distance: 12.1 miles (19.5 km)
Elevation: 1,184 ft ascent, 2,554 ft descent
We woke to blue skies and warm temperatures. The hike climbs for a short section and then descends a steep scree field. At the bottom, you get to cross a long bridge over a raging milk chocolate-colored river. The views over the river from the rickety old bridge are perfect for a photo shoot. After crossing the river the trail will begin to climb again offering amazing views in all directions. Enjoy the fields of pastel colored wild flowers on this section of the trail.
Take a short detour off the trail and make your way through some trees to enjoy lunch next to a waterfall at the second large river you reach. This waterfall is perfect for a dip of the feet and sunbathing on its rocks. Continuing on from this rest spot, you will eventually, reach a very wide river delta with several shallow streams you have to cross to access the trail on the other side. Once you've made it to the other side, believe it or not, the trail takes you through a forest of deciduous trees which was very unexpected! Once you pass through the forest, follow the signs. You're almost to Þórsmörk; the finish to the Lagavegur trail!
Once at Þórsmörk we laid in the grass to rest our feet and catch some rays while we stared at the Eyjafjallajökull glacier in the distance. At one point, we noticed many of the people here drinking COLD beer and eating tasty snacks. We quickly realized there was a general store here offering cold drinks, chips, and candy.
If this is the end of your hike, you can camp here and hitch your shuttle out. If, however, you are continuing on for the Fimmvörðuháls trail, we recommend continuing on for an additional mile to camp at the Langidalur (Basar) Hut. Keep in mind there is not food at this hut but it offers hot showers and secluded spots to set up camp.
Day 5 - Langidalur Hut of Þórsmörk/ Basar Campsite to Skogar via the Fimmvörðuháls trail
Distance: 15.1 miles (24.3 km)
Elevation: 3,829 ft ascent, 4,468 ft descent
Start off the day with a good breakfast as the trail will have you ascending 3,829 feet as a warm up. Don't let this elevation scare you away though. With every step, you can't help but stop to take in the beautiful sites and document the journey through your camera as you catch your heart. The trail winds up through a dense thicket of trees and opens up to a grassy summit leading you on to cross vertigo causing rock spines, thin dirt trails, and pausing at a flat top, rocky vista point which has you staring straight at the Mýrdalsjökull Glacier which houses "Katla," Iceland's active volcano that is ready to make its debut after lying dormant since 1918.
Continue to ascend a steep trail up the side of a grassy knoll. When you've reached the top it feels as if you've entered into a different world. The trail meanders through a bare field littered with rocks and little vegetation. As you look up, and up, and up, the trail descends slightly on a skinny rock trail between the two gigantics; the Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull Glaciers. The trail becomes so steep you bend over until your nose barely touches the dirt as you make your way to another summit. The next section of trail can only be described as "other-worldly." It appears you have landed on mars with large patches of snow as you hike your way through red and black volcanic rock.
Take a break on the warm volcanic rock to eat some lunch on your way to Baldvinskali hut. Little did we know, the Baldvinskali hut was not the refuge for the evening. We had 8 additional miles ahead of us to complete the hike a day early with one big push. A quick stop to visit with a local at her summer hut was exactly what we needed. So friendly was she that she shared her strong coffee and cookies with us. Candy bars and soda for sale couldn't have tasted any better at that point in the hike.
From here on out the trail is all downhill and brings with it numerous beautiful sightings of waterfalls of all sizes. Be sure to allow enough time to view, hear, and feel the falls since you will not be able to resist stopping at each one to admire their beauty and grandeur. Eventually, you will reach Skogafoss, the finish of what National Geographic calls one of the greatest hikes in the world. Skogafoss has many hostels to stay in and also offers plenty of tenting. Hit up the local restaurant where good food and an excellent selection of beer await to soothe the feet.
Day 6 - Skogar Campsite to Reykjavik
Our ride with Eddie back to Reykjavik wasn't until late afternoon, so we spent the morning riding horses at a nearby stable and drinking beers at the restaurant. Once Eddie arrived, we all piled into the super jeep and headed west toward Reykjavik. Eddie made sure we got to experience Seljalandsfoss; a gorgeous waterfall spilling over the edge of the mountainside where you can walk behind the falls and feel the roar of the water. Eddie surprised us with a detour off ring road onto a bumpy dirt road through what is known as the "thousand lakes" ---basically an offroad paradise! Before full adventure mode, we let some air out of the tires, strapped the GoPropro to the side of the truck, and start slamming through rivers and jumping over hills. We were very lucky to have a friend like Eddie, but if you have the chance, I highly recommend doing a super jeep tour.
Day 7 - Road Trip!! - Reykjavik to Snæfellsnes Peninsula
We rented our jeep from Iceland 4x4 rentals and set out to the Snæfellsnes Penninsula. Once on the peninsula, we stopped at a few seaside towns to explore Ytri, Stapafel, Anarstapi, and Hellnar. Hellnar has some very old cafes right in the cliffside. You MUST stop into Fjöruhúsið Cafe Restaurant for a bowl of their seafood bisque. We also drove up a jeep trail to the top of Snæfellsnes Jokull to get a better view of the glacier up close. Don't forget to make a stop at Saxholl, a dormant crater volcano, for a quick hike up to the top. The strength of the winds at the top will blow you away! (pun intended! ;-)
A MUST see on this peninsula is Kirkjufell. This mountain is considered one of the most beautiful photographic spots in Iceland. It's well worth it to wait until sunset to see the colors that engulf the mountain. We camped in the town of Grundarfjordur near Kirkjufell.
Day 8 - Snæfellsnes Peninsula to Gulfoss, Geysir, Plane Crash, and Vik via backcountry F Roads
Instead of taking the traditional "Ring Road' for most of our next day, we opted for more of an adventurous path by taking F roads to Vik. Shortly after leaving Grundarfjordur , we saw a shipwreck off in the distance. We drove as close as we could in the jeep and walked the rest of the way. Looked to be an old fishing vessel that had run aground. We traveled on toward Gulfoss (foss meaning waterfall) through the Pingvellir National Park. On the way to Gulfoss waterfall take a quick stop at Geysir. This natural boiling geyser has water as hot as 150 degrees. The steam from Geysir is used to heat nearby greenhouses growing thousands of tomato plants for sale outside.
At Gullfoss, witness a short and very wide waterfall, in which the teal water runs off the side of the cliff creating the brightest of rainbows in its spray.
Leaving Gulfoss we took some F roads east and south to make our way back toward Ring Road. Once on Ring Road, we made our way toward the crash site of an old DC3 aircraft. The walk to the plane crash is very straight forward but much much further than it looks. We renamed it, the "Mirage Hike" because you could always see the ocean on the coast but it never seemed to get closer until you reached it! It's roughly 6 miles round trip from Ring Road but well worth the walk. The plane is a unique site and you can even explore inside the plane as it is not fenced off. *In order to preserve the site for others to come, do not climb on top of the plane as it is fragile.
We then made our way to the quaint seaside town of Vik were we grabbed dinner and camped at the local campground.
Day 9 - Vik to Skaftafell, Jokulsarlon, Black Sand Beach, and Glacier Lake
We continued our road trip along Ring Road to see the Jokulsarlon Glacier. There is a hiking path that leads you to the base of the glacier. You can also take guided tours on the glacier where they equip you with crampons and ice axes. The hike to the glacier is about 2 to 3 miles round trip.
Next, we drove a short distance to Glacier Lake. This is a must see in Iceland. It consists of a large lake full of aqua blue icebergs floating downstream towards the ocean. As the river narrows under the bridge the water becomes shallow, trapping the icebergs in the swift current. We sat and watched icebergs crash and collide into one another in slow motion for hours. The sight was mesmerizing. It was truly amazing. Guided boat tours are also offered to get right next to the icebergs and cold water wildlife.
After a few hours of hanging around, we headed across the highway to the black sand beach. This is a black beach that is covered with white and blue Icebergs that have broken away from the glacier and washed ashore. We left black sand beach headed for the beautiful waterfall of Skaftafell. This waterfall is a short drive from black sand beach and a MUST see. The waterfall is surround by upside down basalt columns. The hike to the waterfall is a few miles each way.
After seeing the Skaftafell waterfall, we made our way toward the amazing gorge of Langisjor via backcountry F roads. Be sure to have a jeep for this road as you will have many river crossings. These river crossings are more than doable with a normal jeep. Be sure to fill up the tank before leaving ring road as it is a long drive to the gorge.
You will learn that there is no real need to camp at a campground in Iceland. You can just pull off of any F road and set up camp. We found an amazing pull off surrounded by small streams and green fields. We got out tents set up just before the rain came. We gathered around the tailgate and huddled underneath, cooking dinner until the rain passed. It was our favorite night of camping.
Day 10 - Langisjor to Hveragerdi and Reykjavik.
We rose early to get started to the Lakagigar Gorge. We crossed multiple rivers of various depths, hooting with excitement as the water sprayed up the sides of the jeep and drove on over the mountain passes until we reached the hut marking the valley. We hiked to the top of the viewing point that offers magnificent vistas with clear skies. Unfortunately, the clouds were low this day, blocking our views. We were just under a half tank, cutting it concerningly close and commenced the drive back to Ring Road, retracing our steps. We eventually made it to Ring Road and found the nearest gas station as the needle dipped below 'E'. Jeeps are not exactly the most economical rigs to drive in the backcountry.
We set our sights on the town of Hveragerdi for some "steamy hole" bread.....good one Eddie. This little town on your way to Reykjavik features some homemade bread that is cooked by the heat the of the earth via the geysers that surround this area. It's known as "Seyt Rugbraud." Recommended by Eddie, we headed to the farthest corner of town to the trailhead of the local spot to soak in the hot springs tucked away up in the mountains. We had some troubling experiences with "hot springs" in Peru so we were a bit skeptical. We went anyway, and it turned out to be the most amazing experience. The hike is about 3km one way up the mountain. Unlike most hot springs that are pools of hot water, this is a flowing river of hot water. The higher up the mountain you go, the hotter it gets, and these springs are most definitely hot enough. As we lay in the gently flowing river, clouds rolled in, and everyone left to hike back down. We decided to stay, watching the giant raindrops fall around us. We start laughing as we soon have the entire river to ourselves.
After soaking until our hands turned to prunes, we heading back down the mountain to the jeep and eventually to Reykjavik. We had an early flight out the next morning so we went to the nearest campground to the airport. We all sat around camp thinking about the adventures we just enjoyed, talking about how happy we were to take this trip and what our favorite parts had been.
A BIG Thank you to:
Addi for introducing us to your (and now our) very good friend Eddie and pointing out the special, hidden treasures of Iceland to discover. And thank you Eddie ("The Mountain") for taking the extra time out of your day to show us around your beautiful country, teaching us about its geothermal activity, and treating us to an extra special off-road experience in your super jeep. Laughing together as the water sprayed up and over the whole truck as we flew through deep water crossings and up hills and joking around are just a couple of our favorite memories. We will never forget this adventure in your country. We will be visiting again, this time in the winter! :-)
Links contained in this article:
Best Map of Iceland: https://international-photographer.com/en/maps-guides/
Highland Hikers Passport: https://guidetoiceland.is/book-trips-holiday
Trex Company: http://trex.is/
*Some photo credit goes to Ryan Wilkus and Jared Watson.