Laugarvegur Trek

Getting There


The day nearly started with disaster, as we had been advised by our guide of yesterday that the pick-up time was 8.30am. Wrong - it was 7.30am! Hurried breakfast and superfast pack-up and we were ready just in time. Still the weather was up to its old Icelandic tricks, and as we headed out of Reykjavik on our 4WD bus, the cloud hung low to the ground and a steady drizzle fell - very dispiriting.

Green-clad hills etched by water

Nontheless, by the time we left the sealed road and started heading towards the mountains, the rain had stopped. We passed through a strangely barren black and green countryside - volcanic ash and rubble carved by water run-off and colonised by mosses. It was a wildly beautiful landscape that our bus was creeping slowly through over lava ridges and around jagged basalt outcrops.

Blackened landscapes of bare volcanic rock

The setting of Lake Frostastaðavatn

Shortly after passing the beautiful Lake Frostastaðavatn, we reached the campsite of Landmannalaugar, the starting point of our 4-day hike ...... and the sun was shining. Amazing - we would be setting off under blue sky. Landmannalaugar lies in a magnificent setting, at the base of an ancient lava flow and surrounded by polychrome mountains, a product of acidic lava and unusual for this island dominated by black. Our appetites for the trek had been well and truly whetted.

The grassy meadow at Landmannalaugar


Day 1 - Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnusker (11 km - 680m ascent - 250m descent)

Blue sky! Well, patches of it, but in the Iceland we have come to know that is a big bonus.

Thermal pool at Landmannalaugar

We had a quick bite of lunch at the campsite, listened to the briefing from our guide, Svava, and set off - 17 people in Indian file passing the hot spring at the campsite and climbing up to the Laugahraun lava field via a narrow gap in the black rock jumble.

View over the plain from the gap in the lava field

Climbing up to the Laugahraun lava field

At the top of the flow, we stopped to admire the sweeping panorama over the flat plain to the red and tan mountains beyond. Then it was onwards, winding our way through the jumble of jagged basalt and glassy obsidian.

The polychrome slopes of the surrounding hills

Looking back toward Landmannalaugar campsite

Obsidian outcrop in the lava

Ahead lay the reddish-brown pyramid of Brennisteinsalda, our immediate target. However, all around lay the polychrome mountains bathed in an unexpected sunlight. Reaching the edge of the lava field, we stopped to admire a flower-speckled meadow, where a number of quasi-feral sheep were grazing.

Flatlands on the edge of the lava field backed by the barren hills

View across the lava to the dome of Brennisteinsalda

Colours of Landmannalaugar

Wilflowers scattered in a highlands meadow

The climb up Brennisteinsalda begins

Then we turned south and the climb started in earnest, as we headed up past the steaming sulphurous vents at the base of Brennisteinsalda and then steeply up the mountain itself. Behind us the views opened out over the jagged rubble of the lava field to the plain and mountains beyond.

Steaming sulphurous vents on the slope of Brennisteinsalda

View towards the summit of Brennisteinsalda

Reaching a saddle, we were greeted by a strong and icy south-westerly wind - it was time to rug up. However, as the weather was still clear, Svava suggested we drop our packs and make the short climb to the top of orange-coloured Brennisteinsalda It was well worth it, the reward being superb 360° panoramic views of these barren, but beautiful mountains.

Looking back to whence we came

A jagged basalt outcrop amongst the volcanic hills

View of the fantastically eroded landscape

Nello on top of Brennisteinsalda

A beam of sunlight illuminates the hills

Panorama from the summit of Brennisteinsalda

Descending, we picked up our packs and headed on, down a little at first, but then continuing the climb, up a bare spur of sandy gravel that would take us to the heights of this alien landscape. As we climbed, the wind began to pick up, whistling in my ears as we pushed on into it.

A curious basalt plug on the side of Brennisteinsalda

A long and winding gully

Looking back, we noticed that a full rainbow had formed behind us - good omen or the sign of rain developing? The climb brought us to the top of a desert-like tan dome, again with superb all-round views.

Rainbow over Landmannalaugar

Yet more of this painted landscape

Unfortunately, the view ahead was not the one we wanted. Cloud descending over the hills - rain-bearing cloud! Our brief foray beneath an Icelandic sun was over and it was time to put on the full wet weather gear. Soon after, we were in the mist, with wind-driven raindrops stinging any exposed face skin as we pushed on across the undulating landscape, where grey and black volcanic sand intruded on the colours of Landmannalaugar. We were now walking into the face of the icy blasts - it was about 5°C, but at least our wet weather gear was holding.

The group heads up onto the dark plateau .....

..... a barren and stony land between Landmannalaugar and Stórihver

Reaching the Stórihver geothermal area, a region of steaming vent-holes and bubbling boiling pools, we dropped into a sheltered gully for a quick snack and energy boost. It was a pretty spot, where mosses, herbs and even the occasional bright red fungus took advantage of the warmer microclimate.

The steam of the Stórihver geothermal area lies ahead

Descending into Stórihver

Passing a hot stream and geothermal pools

View back over the steaming vents of Stórihver

The break was good, but even after just a few minutes we started chilling down. It was time to press on, climbing back up past the warm and sulphurous steam to reach the top of a small plateau.

Here we found ourselves in a black desert of volcanic ash and rock. Ahead the big cairns that marked our route across faded into the fog and mist. With an icy wind and intermittent drizzle this was the ultimate definition of bleak.

Climbing up and out of the geothermal area

A large steaming vent

Bubbling hot spring

A milk coloured hot pool

Bleak trek across the black sands

We trudged across this stony black desert, climbing gently as we passed from cairn to cairn (and a memorial to a trekker who didn't make it) to eventually cross a large ash-patterned snow plaque just below the high point. "The hut is just below" said Svava - we looked down into the valley to see only fog. However, as we descended, the faint shape of Hrafntinnusker hut began to appear out of the mist. It was a very welcome sight.

Getting inside, however, proved the next challenge, as the hut was full of trekkers. It had 56 beds in its small area, and 17 people trying to get out of wet gear in a 3x3m vestibule, already full of boots and raingear hanging from rafters, was an interesting logistical exercise in itself. We found ourselves a place in an upstairs room with wall to wall mattresses on the floor and settled in.

Crossing the featureless and foggy plateau .....

.... and one large ash-covered snowdrift ...

... to finally reach Hrafntinnusker Hut

The hut was cramped with people literally tripping over each other or the packs etc spread about, but it met the two necessary criteria for enjoyment - it was warm and it was dry. Svava and the driver, who had brought up our big packs in a 4WD proceeded to conjure up a delicious salmon pasta in the tiny kitchen, which we ate by candle light (the hut has solar power, but the warden said that she had only seen the sun once in the two weeks since she had arrived).

In the warmth of the hut, you could not but feel sorry for the campers, hunkering down in sodden tents protected from the wild winds only by low stone walls. A few asked if room was available in the hut, but the warden had to turn them away - the place was simply over-flowing. Still for us, all was well - we retired content with our first day in the hinterland of this incredible island, but couldn't help wondering - what will the morning bring?


Day 2 - Hrafntinnusker to Álftavatn (11.5 km - 210m ascent - 700m descent)


I looked out the window and the hills around were covered with a thin layer of wet snow. It had been a hard night with the wind howling outside the hut and it was looking like it was going to be a hard morning as well. Trekkers milled around the door, not at all keen to brave the elements, but eventually one by one, they headed off into the mists. Our group followed, heading south across this strange black and white landscape with a strong cross-wind blasting our right sides. Much of the snow had already melted, though the temperature must have only been a few degrees above zero.

Early morning snow at Hrafntinnusker hut

Snow melting around the tent sites at Hrafntinnusker

The pace was distinctly quicker this morning as we descended gently at first and then began a steady climb up towards the pass below Háskerðingur mountain. For a while all seemed well as we crossed a series of steep-sided gullies, some still lined with old snow-drifts, others with steam pouring out of clusters of vents. Even the face-stinging flurries of wind-driven sleet did not detract form the beauty of the landscape as we headed out of the black gravel country and into an area with shades of tan and ochre.

Setting out beneath the Reykjafjöll mountains

A moss-lined stream carves its way through the plateau

Stream bed snowdrifts persist throughout the summer

The superb setting of Kaldaklof Glacier and pyramid of Háskerðingur

The deep valley between Jökultungur and Tungur (where black meets polychrome)

Crossing one of the deep gullies

Ahead lay the conical shape of Háskerðingur and to its right the dark ridge that formed our path. The ridge funnelled the wind down a large gully and it was difficult to maintain our balance as we climbed steeply up its black gravel slope. However, the views of black, tan and cream-coloured gullies and hilltops, glowing in a brief appearance of sunlight was compensation for the climb.

The river of snow

Nello trying to stay upright in the wind

From here we followed the ridgeline to pass a series of sulphurous steaming vents and streams flowing down on orange bedrock to reach the upper reaches of an orange-tinted river. At this point the relatively good weather gave out and the cloud layer dropped quickly engulfing us in fog and drenching horizontal rain.

Muddy red slope in the rain

The sulphurous vents of Tungur

Walking became distinctly unpleasant, as we crossed sidestreams and climbed slippery orange mud slopes, with the rain slowly working its way into clothing and boots. My camera stayed in my pocket.

Where rivers run red

The mists lift to reveal the magnificent green panorama of Álftavatn

Reaching the high point we began to descend, slowly at first, to find ourselves suddenly beneath the cloud layer on the rim of the Jökultungur ridge and overlooking the incredibly green lowlands of Álftavatn - given the distinct lack of visibility a few metres higher, we were indeed fortunate. After a brief break to take in the views, the track led us steeply down towards the valley floor.

Grashagakvisl River backed by Torfatindar

Zooming in on Lake Álftavatn and Torfatindar Volcano

A moody Lake Álftavatn with Stórasúla Volcano

Across from us, the Grashagakvisl River rushed out of the deep canyon that it had carved and along it rocky bed. The somewhat protected edge of the river bed was a good place for lunch and also a good place to swap boots for plastic sandals - the only way across this stream was to wade it. It was only shin deep and only 5-6 steps in the rushing water, but that was all it took for my toes to complain of the cold and feel like leaden blocks. I couldn't wait to get moving again and get the blood circulating.

Wading the Grashagakvisi River

The green plain leading to Álftavatn

All we had was one last walk across the flat grassy plain to Álftavatn Hut and its spectacular lakeside setting. The Icelandic weather had one last lesson for us as a short sharp shower drenched us yet again just before we reached the hut. Still, the hut was more spacious and less crowded - the fair Nello and I even had a room for two.

Álftavatn Hut

View from the hut window of Lake Álftavatn

We had arrived at 2.30pm, having pushed through more quickly in the unpleasant conditions, and had the afternoon to relax in the warmth of the hut, watching the weather change from rain to sunshine and back several times over the lake below. I wandered down to the lake shore to watch the patches of sunlight glisten on the water, interspersed with bands of grey and drizzly cloud. Eventually the cold wind drove me back indoors. We are loving this experience on the Laugarvegur Track, but sometimes things are better observed from the window of a warm hut than from an exposed strip of black sand at the edge of a lake.

Grey cloud moving in over Lake Álftavatn

View of the water-runnelled slopes of a hill near the hut

Old shepherd's shelter on the western shore of Álftavatn ....

.... and the view from it of the lake and curious cloud formations

After dinner, Svava led out out across the plain to the lava slope on the western shore of the lake to see a cave used for shelter by shepherds in the area over the centuries. As we returned, in the fading light, we noticed that the wind had dropped and the odd clear patches in the sky seemed to have grown. Hopefully a change in weather for the better was on the way.


Day 3 - Álftavatn to Emstrur (18.5 km - 240m ascent - 300m descent)


This morning was the first time since we arrived in Iceland that we were greeted by sunshine on getting up. It looked like sunglasses would be needed today - shame that mine disappeared somewhere in the chaos of the hut at Hraftinnusker two nights ago. Still, sunshine is not something one should complain about in this part of the world and, after another hearty breakfast, we set off in good spirits.

Looking back up towards the highlands from Álftavatn

Last glimpse of Lake Álftavatn and its hut

Svava led us eastwards away from the Álftavatn Hut, crossing the stream just below it to climb steadily up and over the long ridge running northwards from Brattháls Mountain.

The landscape about glowed neon green with mosses as, with one last backward glance to take in the beautiful setting of Álftavatn Lake, we descended to the Bratthálskvísl River, the first of two river crossings today. It was boots off, trouser legs rolled up, plastic sandals on and across the shallow but icy water.

Wading the Bratthálskvísl River

A lush flower-speckled gully

Small side stream near Hvanngil Ravine

Gully pointing to cloud-capped Stórasúla

The setting of Hvanngil Hut

Panorama of the Mýrdalsjökull ice-cap

From the river, we switched direction, heading south across the grassy green slopes. It was fascinating how the mosses gave perspective to the slopes and hillsides, highlighting the many water run-off channels and erosion gullies in this landscape. Passing to the north of the green pyramid of Stórasúla Volcano, we reached Hvanngil Hut, a good place for morning tea and biscuits. The sun was still shining and the wind was light, if still cold, when we pushed on heading towards a wooden bridge that took trekkers across the rushing water and cascades of Kaldaklofskvísl River, as it flowed down from the Kaldaklof Glacier.

Cascades on the Kaldaklofskvísl River

Wading the icy waters of the Bláfjallakvísl River

The track then dropped down to the wide torrent of the Bláfjallakvísl River as it flowed across the head of a broad plain. It was our second river crossing, wider, deeper and colder, 3°C according to Svava. This crossing risked being more than knee deep, so following Svava's lead, we dropped our trousers and waded across two by two. By the time we reached the other side, our feet were tingling with cold - but a brisk rub dry and socks and boots back on and they felt invigorated.

Heading out into the black flatness of Mælifellssandur

A curious volcanic formation on the edge of the plain

Looking back across the black sands to Stórasúla Volcano

The massive ice-cap of Mýrdalsjökull frames the eastern rim of the black sand plain

The river marked the start of the large glacial plain known as Mælifellssandur - a broad expanse of black sand, gravel and the odd lava rocks rimmed by the green-cloaked volcanic peaks and ridges, with the sun glinting off distant glaciers. It was an alien landscape, with only a few flowering herbs colonising the black expanse. I dropped back a bit from the group to walk alone for a while and allow the emptiness of the landscape to soak in - this plain seemed conducive to a bit of zen. Midway though the crossing of this dark plain, we stopped for lunch at a spot where the muddy glacial meltwaters of the Nyrðri Emstruá River rushed down across the plain, over a waterfall and into a mini-gorge - an impressive spot indeed.

Black desert wildflowers

The cataract on the Nyrðri Emstruá River

The small gorge of the Nyrðri Emstruá

After lunch, the plain gradually tilted upwards to reach a narrow pass at the back of Útigönguhöfðar Mountain. In this sheltered spot, what little wind there had been vanished and, for the first time walking in Iceland, I felt hot. The views from the pass, both forwards and backwards were impressive, with the weirdly eroded greenery of Hattafell Mountain rising out of the black sand plain in one direction and glaciers glinting in the sun in another.

The green peaks of Stórkonufell and Stóra Mófell rise above the ash plain

Mælifellssandur landscape

A glorious view from Útigönguhöfðar Pass

A desert stream meanders its way

Hattafell rises proudly green above the black desert

The ever-present ice of Mýrdalsjökull

Descending the pass to cross one more stream (fortunately no wading required), we climbed gradually upwards to reach a large dune of volcanic ash and sand. After a short sharp descent of its soft slope, Svava took us on a short detour to the edge of the Markarfljótsgljúfur Canyon. Here the Markarfljót River has carved the 200m deep walls into the layers of volcanic ash and rock. A scattering of wildflowers had colonised the rough basalt soil. It was good to be back in the greenery after crossing the black desert of Mælifellssandur.

Approaching the Markarfljótsgljúfur

The Markarfljót River in its canyon

A curious wild flower

Looking south down the 200m deep Markarfljótsgljúfur

The canyon was a magnificent sight and we followed its precipitous walls along for a while, looking across to the west to snow-capped Ymir Peak and Tindfjallajökull Glacier and eastwards to the massive Mýrdalsjökull Glacier.

Ymir Peak and Tindfjallajökull Glacier

Eventually, we left the canyon to cross a region of black gravelly sand and reach Embrur and the Botnar Huts. The red-roofed buildings were tucked away in a protected hollow, with views down the valley to the ice of Mýrdalsjökull. There were four cabins holding 20 people each (one was for our group) and at least 30 tents - it was a popular spot and the night promised to be cosy indeed.

The fair Nello on the canyon rim

Arriving at Botnar Huts in Emstrur

An ice-wedge of Mýrdalsjökull at the end of the valley

The closest thing to a Laugarvegur sunset

Still, we had walked all day without a drop of rain and to hang up dry jackets and take off dry boots was a bonus in itself. We would enjoy the moment, for Svava informed us that the weather forecast for the next three days was rain, rain, rain. Our one day of Icelandic summer was over.



Day 3 - Emstrur to Þórsmörk (16.5 km - 280m ascent - 570m descent)

Calm! .... but was it the one before the storm?

Thick grey clouds hung overhead, but the wind of the past few days had died away. The air was almost still as we set out from Emstrur Hut and, even though it was still only 10-11°C, we could walk without gloves or beanies and let our heads feel the air. After three straight days of wearing one, I was developing a bad case of greasy hat-hair.

The interplay of light and shadow

The creek below Emstrur

Svava led us eastward, past the campsite and towards the Entujökull, a big icy tongue of Mýrdalsjökull ice-cap. Low white cloud enveloped the top of the glacier, giving the illusion of being part of the ice. With low dark cloud and bright sunshine competing for the sky, the play of light and shadow was intense. We hopped across one small stream to climb steadily up to a pass.

Cloud wrapped over the wrinkled glacier ice of Entujökull

Time for a group photo (courtesy of Rona)

From the top, we looked down onto a long and wide crack in lava. The Syðri-Emstruágljúfur Canyon cut across our path and it became clear why we had headed eastwards. We descended a black sandy track, and dropped over the top of the canyon using a short section of rope to reach a wooden bridge that took us over the deep chasm. Below us the Syðri-Emstruá River rushed away westwards, carrying the meltwaters of the glacier down the dark-walled canyon.

The patterns of lava

Descent to the canyon

Looking down the Syðri-Emstruágljúfur Canyon

Climbing out of the canyon, we continued across this undulating landscape criss-crossed by deep gullies and even deeper canyons. A little later we passed the junction of the Syðri-Emstruágljúfur with the Markarfljótsgljúfur Canyons (you get an A+ in Icelandic if you pronounced those names correctly) that we had looked down yesterday - one last chance to admire its 200m high walls.

Where canyons meet

Wedged between sky and earth - the rugged beauty of Iceland

The route now took us up to a high pass and, for the first time on this walk, I was perspiring from effort. From the top we could look back over the undulating dark landscape behind us framed by even darker peaks and the distant snow-covered cap of Mýrdalsjökull. To the south, the caldera of Eyjafjallajökull, which last erupted in 2010 was vaguely visible in the midst of the glacier ice. Ahead lay curiously-shaped peaks, while in the distance, low cloud wrapped itself over the glacier and sunlight highlighted the sculpted slopes below the ice cap.

Nello looking back from the pass over our route from Emstrur
Showers approaching from the west
The curious peak of Einhyrningur (Icelandic for unicorn)
- I actually see the head and snout of a big "porker"

Descending the pass, a cold wind began to pick up - it didn't take much air movement to make us put our beanies, gloves and jackets back on again. The track now led us across a region of black sand and lava rubble to reach yet another set of gullies and small gorges. A few short but steep descents and ascents brought us to a shallow sheltered gully where Svava declared an early lunch break.

Passing a narrow section of the the Bjórgil Gorge

View ahead towards the mist shrouded Eyjafjallajökull

Einhyrningur in full sun - and isn't that Kermit the frog
looking down on us from its face

A more open part of the Bjórgil Gorge

Heading out across the shrubby plains
of Almenningar

Exiting the gully after lunch, we started a long straight walk that gradually descended the grassy plains of Almenningar, heading on towards the distant sunlight. This was sheep-grazing country and the wild Icelandic sheep were out, sheltering from the wind rather than grazing.

The narrow chasm of the Ljósá River

The vegetation was beginning to change, with first low shrubs replacing the herbs and mosses and then the first scrubby birch trees appearing as we reached the Ljósá River in its incredibly narrow gorge.

A fine specimen of Icelandic feral sheep

Nello in the Icelandic forest

A bridge took us over the gorge and on to our last big climb of the walk, leading up to a high grass-covered dome called Kápa. Again, this gave us panoramic views back over our route from the north and ahead over the braided strands of the Þröngá River in its broad gravel bed and the coastal plains beyond. It made me realise that the walk was coming to an end.

View back over the Almenningar Plain from Kápa

View to the east from Kápa

Russet-red grasses and bright green mosses

Still, not all the fun was over - on descending the far side of the hill, we had one last river crossing. A wide gravel bed and several strands of the Þröngá River lay between us and the forest of Þórsmörk. Once again, it was boots off and plastic sandals on for an icy wade of the fast-flowing torrent. We felt a slight regret that there would not be another.

View south from Kapa as the clouds roll in

The many braids of the Þröngá River

Crossing the Þröngá River

Climbing up from the river and into a stunted forest

We were now in the Icelandic forest - passing through thickets of stunted birch as we pushed on towards the track's end. It was a much softer landscape and a pleasant variation to be walking through vegetation higher than your ankles. Moreover the sun broke through, but so did the rain and we found ourselves walking beneath a soft sun-shower. Svava commented that we should feel special as we were witnessing the rare event of vertical rain in Iceland.

Deep in the forest of Hamraskógur


Multi-stemmed trees

A pair of ancient birch trees

The showers soon stopped and, at a junction, we headed off towards Húsadalur, traversing high up the slopes of a birch-filled valley before descending to reach the Volcano Huts and campsite on the edge of the grassy coastal plain. Our Laugarvegur trek was over and, as a fitting finale, a perfect rainbow formed over the forest behind us. With the sun-showers returning we retired to the restaurant for a traditional celebratory beer.

Bad weather chasing away the sunshine at Húsadalur

The rainbow at the end of the Laugarvegur Trek

The Icelandic flag flutters over Húsadalur

It was not the usual walk-ending though, as all but one of our group were continuing on with an extension to the hike. As sunlight and evil-looking black clouds competed for the sky above, we farewelled Rona on the bus back to Reykjavik and headed back up the path for a further two days walking in sanctuary of Þórsmörk.