Some 15km east of Hveragerði, the Ringroad passes the junction of Route 35 north towards the Geysir–Gullfoss area, before crossing a suspension bridge over the fast-flowing Öfulsá and running into the bustling town of SELFOSS. Caught between the looming bulk of Ingólfsfjall to the north and flat grasslands running to the horizon in all other directions, the town has been the centre of Iceland’s dairy industry since the 1930s, and now has a population of around four thousand. Selfoss is laid out along a 1500m-long stretch of the Ringroad, which runs east–west through town as Austurvegur; there are no specific attractions here, but its crossroads position on the southwest’s main roads means that you’ll almost certainly pass through on your way around Iceland.
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Thirty kilometres due east of Hekla via the four-wheel-drive F225, Landmannalaugar is an astonishing place, a hot springs area set in a flat gravel plain between a glacial river and the front of a fifteenth-century lava flow. The landscape oozes rugged grandeur, with sharp-peaked obsidian and rhyolite mountains, brightly streaked in orange, grey and green, rising to a snowy plateau. Despite its proximity to Hekla, the area has provided summer pasture for sheep since medieval times, and was once a stage on back-country routes to the coast when flooding from Katla had closed the preferred coastal trails. Today, hikers have made Landmannalaugar a popular destination in its own right, not least for its position at the start of the exceptional four-day Laugavegur trail down to Þórsmörk, though an escalating number of campers simply come to enjoy a hot soak amongst the wild scenery.
The hot springs
Your first stop at Landmannalaugar has to be the celebrated hot springs, which are in a patch of green at the end of a boardwalk up against the lava front. A scalding stream emerges from underneath the lava and merges with a cold flow; you simply wade up the latter to where they mix, find a spot where the temperature is just right, and sit down up to your neck. You have to keep shifting every time a fellow bather moves, which alters the water currents and temperature, but you couldn’t ask for a better place to unwind. Be aware that some unidentified parasite in the hot pools has caused paralysis in ducks; the effects on humans are unknown but locals certainly don’t care.
Laugavegur, the 55km hiking trail between Landmannalaugar and Þórsmörk, is the best of its kind in Iceland, with easy walking and magnificent scenery. Huts with campsites are laid out at roughly 14km intervals, splitting Laugavegur comfortably into four stages: six days is an ideal time to spend on the trip, allowing four for the trail and a day at either end, though you could hike the trail in just two days.
Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnusker
The 12km stretch between Landmannalaugar and the first hut at Hrafntinnusker is mostly up. You leave Landmannalaugar via Brennisteinsalda onto the muddy moorland atop the plateau, surrounded by stark, wild hills. About two-thirds of the way along is Stórihver thermal area, a steaming gully and rare patch of grass, beyond which there’s a scramble onto a higher snowfield which peaks at Söðull, the ridge above the huge volcanic crater of Hrafntinnusker. “Hrafntin” means obsidian, and just about all rocks in the area are made of this black volcanic glass. The Hrafntinnusker hut has no shower; the campsite here is on scree and very exposed.
The tightly folded ridges due west conceal Iceland’s densest concentration of hot springs, with a pegged walking track (about 40min each way) out to where one set rises under the stratified edge of a glacier, hollowing out ice caves, though these mostly collapsed in 2007.
Hrafntinnusker to Álftvatn
It’s a further 12km from Hraftinnusker to the second hut at Álftavatn. The first stage continues across the snowy plateau to a rocky outcrop just west of Háskerðingur, whose sharp, snow-clad peak makes a good two-hour detour – though views northwest from the base, over worn rhyolite hills, patches of steam from scattered vents, and Laufafell’s distinctive black mass, are just as good. The plateau’s edge at Jökultungur is not much further on, revealing a blast of colour below which is a bit of a shock after the highland’s muted tones: Álftavatn sits in a vivid green glacial valley, lined with sharp ridges and abrupt pyramidal hills, with Mýrdalsjökull’s outlying glaciers visible to the south.
The subsequent descent into the valley is steep but not difficult, and ends with you having to wade a small stream before the trail flattens out near the two huts (one owned by Útivist; t562 1000, wutivist.is) and campground on the lakeshore at Álftavatn. After getting settled in, hike around Álftavatn’s west side and follow the valley for 5km down to Torfahlaup, a narrow canyon near where the Markarfljót river flows roughly between the green flanks of Stóra-Grænfjall and Illasúla, two steep-sided peaks.
Álftvatn to Botnar-Emstrur
The next stage to Botnar-Emstrur is 16km. Around 5km east from Álftavatn via a couple more streams, Hvanngil is a sheltered valley with a privately run hut and campsite with showers and toilet; after here you cross a bridge over Kaldaklofskvísl, and have to wade the substantial but fairly shallow Bláfjallakvísl. The scenery beyond opens up into a grey-brown gravel desert, fringed by the surreally green hills and Mýrdalsjökull’s ice cap, as you follow a four-wheel-drive track southwest. Part-way across the desert, there’s another bridge over the Innri-Emstruá, where this chocolate-brown glacial river hammers over a short waterfall with such force that it sends geyser-like spurts skywards. Then it’s back across the gravel, up and over various hillocks, until you find yourself descending bleak slopes to the hut at Botnar-Emstrur, whose campground is in a small, surprisingly lush gully. Otherwise, the immediate scenery appears barren, though there’s a short walk west to Markarfljótsgljúfur, a narrow, 180m-deep gorge on the Markarfljót, and superlative views of Entujökull, the nearest of Mýrdalsjökull’s glaciers, from clifftops around 3km southeast of the hut.
Botnar-Emstrur to Þórsmörk
The final 15km southwest to Þórsmörk is perhaps the least interesting section of the journey, though there’s initially another good view of the glacier, just before the path crosses the Emstruá over a narrow bridge. This is followed by a climb onto a gravelly heath, with the Markafljót flowing through a series of deep canyons to the west – easy enough to investigate, though out of sight of the path. As you follow the ever-widening valley, you’ll start to encounter a few shrubs before crossing a further bridge over the Ljósá and descending to the gravel beds of the Þröngá, the deepest river you have to ford on the trail – don’t attempt it if it’s more than thigh deep. Once across you immediately enter birch and juniper woodland marking Þórsmörk’s boundary at Hamraskógar: shady, carpeted in thick grass, and with colourful flowers everywhere. From here, it’s a final 2km into Þórsmörk to the huts at either Húsadalur or Skagfjörðsskáli.