Day 29 : Landmannalaugar – Álftavatn (25.4 km / 15.8 mi)
Day 30 : Álftavatn – Þórsmörk (31.8 km / 19.8 mi)
The three day Hellismannaleið trail was finished and I found myself at Landmannalaugar, which had revealed itself to me like something of a wonderland, rhyolite mountains in green, pink and yellow and pathways through volcanic debris as though a gateway to Mordor. But I arrived distracted. All I could think about was food.
I had set off carrying over two weeks worth of supplies, enough to last me all the way to the town of Vík, in theory, but my hiker hunger had set in and I was in desperate need of a top up.
Unfortunately, Landmannalaugar was in the Highlands, quite poignantly in the middle of nowhere and only approachable by special 4×4 vehicles. I had heard there was a small shop, but as I arrived, all I could see was people move towards a busy and rather unappealing hot spring on one end, and a campsite that didn’t look much better on the other. I stood in front of a drab, wet stretch of rocky dirt surrounded by a parking lot and a toilet block. It looked like a refugee camp.
I immediately decided against any thoughts I was having of staying an extra day to do some day hikes. Or jump into the hot spring. Instead, I perused the campsite and quickly got to work. I found a spot with as little grind mixed in with the dirt to limit the chances of my tent fabric getting pierced. I set up the tent using the extra titanium nail pegs I had brought, bashing them into the rocky ground with stones, and using large rocks as anchor points for the guy lines.
When I was set, I moved to the information counter and asked about the shop. I was told it was in one of the buses in the back.
I quickly moved towards it and even though the bus was small and only held a limited supply, I selected everything appealing before someone else could take it, and returned to my tent with an armful of stuff. Couscous, several sleeves of cookies, crisps, cans of beans and tomato soup. This was certainly going to improve the rest of my hike.
That evening I sat in my tent, eating and reading, and listening to people talk outside. I wished I had someone to talk to. Instead, I almost laughed out load when when I heard an American guy joke about his expectations of Landmannalaugar before he arrived, saying he had presumed it to be some sort of lush green oasis. I’d thought the same. I’d been in Iceland for a month now, but I still couldn’t let go of the conviction that there would be greenery whenever approaching a national park.
The 53 km Laugavegur trail is Iceland’s most popular hiking path and extends between Landmannalaugar and Þórsmörk. Hikers stay at mountain huts or camp along the way. It is usually completed in four days, starting in Landmannalaugar and staying at the huts at Hrafntinnusker, Álftavatn, Botnar and Þórsmörk. However, the distances range between 12 and 15 km every day, so the hike can easily be done in two days.
I had decided to take my time and stick to the original four days. That is, until I arrived at Hrafntinnusker hut, which sits at high elevation and, in early July, was still covered in snow. It was freezing cold. My feet were wet from ploughing through the snow and it wasn’t the ideal location for the night. I suddenly understood why other hikers were going straight to Álftavatn, and went on to do the same.
Despite my usual late starts, I set my alarm at 5.30am, hoping to get ahead of the crowd. I woke to rain, immediately doubting the early morning call, but I knew I needed to get moving when I heard others set off around me. As I prepared, the rain slowly diminished and was gone by the time I hit the trail at 7.30.
I wanted to start the day hiking the nearby Bláhnúkur mountain. It wasn’t part of the official route, but I had seen day trippers do it the day before and it looked like a great hike. Unfortunately I had been too cheap to buy the local hiking map so I was following the inadequate map on my phone.
I was soon wandering around the Grænagil canyon area, with the rhyolite green coloured mountain to one side, and progressing on to Laugahraun lava field with obsidian rocks on the other. It was a beautifully dramatic start of the day, until I began to wonder when the climb up the mountain would start.
It wasn’t much later when I saw a sign and discovered I had already reached the far end of both the mountain and Grænagil paths. I had taken the wrong route and missed the chance to hike Bláhnúkur. Frustrated, I wondered if I should go back, but it would take too long and the trail would get too busy, so I took the first steps up a steep incline, and ascended the Laugavegur trail.
I loved the trail immediately. I walked up the mountain and looked back at the scene laying out before me. The colours and textures were simply stunning. I progressed through a painted dream world, mountains of brush strokes, painted against white patches of snow and a grey sky. I walked slowly while only a few groups of hikers littered the trail around me, moving higher and higher, passing snow while steam rose from the ground. I was in perpetual awe.
After a game of walking around intermittent snow patches, it soon stretched out before me as a solid field. I was excited to plough through, despite getting increasingly cold, the wind piercing through my layers, my feet soaking wet in my trail runners and the view of snowy mountains growing more and more white, obliterated by fog.
It was after 11 when I hit the first hut at Hrafntinnusker, and I realised why people camping were passing by. The high elevation left me freezing cold and the rocky spots for tents were covered in snow. I had hoped to pitch my tent and warm up, but I soon opted to continue to the next hut. Besides, it was still early. Way too early to set up camp.
I continued through the snow. According to my notes, it took about four hours to get through. It was the start of July. A lot of the snow, although not all, would melt as summer progressed. Slowly I reached the last of it. I turned around and overlooked the fields of snow and mountains. It was breathtaking.
The trail began a decline, and I waded through a small river as though cleansing myself in preparation of the next stage.
Suddenly the sun peeked through the thick clouds and revealed the marvel before me: a descend toward a lush green valley. It looked as though I was descending towards Rivendell.
I couldn’t stop taking pictures even though the view was difficult to capture, the grey clouds masking its beauty as it revealed itself to me. I stood still about every ten steps until I ran out of batteries and storage space and had to rest just to charge my phone and delete pictures.
The way down was slow and steep in places, and once at the bottom, the valley opened itself up into a vast green landscape.
The lake with Álftavatn mountain hut and campsite rested in the distance, but I still had a fair bit to walk and several rivers to ford. My feet were already wet from the snow, so I didn’t bother to take off my socks or shoes for any of the crossings, walking right through the last river at the hilarious bewilderment of two British guys, who were on the other side changing back into their hiking boots while I waltzed right through without a moments pause.
I reached the campsite at Álftavatn lake by 4pm, tired and happy, already certain that day was going to be my best day in Iceland.
I set off just before 9. I had been waiting for the office to open to retrieve my battery pack, which I had left charging overnight. The huts don’t offer electricity, but the wardens sometimes charge devices using solar power.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t in luck. The solar power wasn’t strong enough to charge my device and I left worried about the little power I had left for the coming days. I almost hoped the views wouldn’t be as good as the day before, so I didn’t have to take so many pictures.
I crossed the green valley and passed several rivers before hitting a section of lava fields. I walked across the black desert plains for several hours until the landscape began to undulate a little more. It was rather dull, everything black and the occasional hill topped with a green hue.
I passed the Botnar hut at 1pm, which had the sweetest campsite, small flat spots stepped around the bank of a stream. It was early again, so I decided to continue on to Þórsmörk, the end of the Laugavegur trail.
The landscape remained rocky with a green haze covering the black lava. It was raining and foggy. Along the way I took few pictures, until I decided to take a picture of myself. I attached my tripod to a signpost and set the self timer, leaving myself ten second to dash into view. But somehow I misstepped and slipped in the wet gravel next to the path. I toppled forward.
All of a sudden, I was on the ground with my hands and knee buried in the loose grind. At once, my body was stiff and aching, a sincerely stupid thing to do. For some time I could hardly move, until I managed to get myself to my camera and pull it off the post, quickly sitting down so I could pretend I was just having a rest to the people who passed me moments later, as though sitting in the dirt next to the trail while the rain gets worse and worse is a completely pleasant thing to do.
The oncoming hikers had only just been obscured by the sloping path when I made my tumble, keeping the embarrassment private. I had a gash on my knee and hole in my leggings. When I managed to walk again the whole area was stiff and very painful. Every time I rested, my knee stiffened up and I struggled to get moving again. I had really hurt myself.
It was another three hours before I reached Þórsmörk, the surroundings getting more and more green until I was surrounded by thin trees. The final river crossing was a glacial stream with murky water. I couldn’t see the bottom. A few guys were checking out the best spot to cross, but I was tired from the day, and wanted to hurry up. I rushed through quickly, wearing my socks and shoes. It was raining off and on and I was wet anyways.
I was almost at the end of the trail when I encountered a good bout of confusion. I reached a crossing with signs directing me to different campsites. I had no idea there would be several and they all seemed to offer the same. Somehow, the triviality made the decision impossible. Found myself standing around aimlessly in the rain, stupefied. I watched as people passed, knowing exactly where to go, while I waited as my clothes got more and more wet and nothing mattered anymore.
Eventually, I stumbled on towards the campsite at Langidalur. It was closer to where I was, closer to the trail I was on and was the start of the next trail: Fimmvorthuhals.
Next: An Iceland Expedition (part 7) : Hiking Þórsmörk and the Fimmvörðuháls Trail, walking from Þórsmörk to Skógar
Previous: An Iceland Expedition (part 5) : The Hellismannaleið Trail, walking from Rjupnavellir to Landmannalaugar
Overview: An Iceland Expedition