In an adventure only for the bravest hikers, David Leffman tackles the rhyolite hills, black sand deserts and the icy glacier caps of the 55km trail from Landmannalaugar to Skógar.
Whiteout. Five hours into a five-day hike and I was already stuck in a blizzard, barely able to see my feet through the stinging wind-driven snow, let alone the next yellow post marking the route. I was below Hrafntinnusker, a boulder-strewn hilltop made of obsidian – black volcanic glass – and somewhere over on the far side of the crest, probably less than 500m away, was the bunkhouse where I was planning to spend the night. I only hoped it wouldn't take another five hours to get there.
There are many reasons to tackle Laugavegur, the 55km hiking trail across Iceland's southern interior between natural hot springs and volcanic wasteland at Landmannalaugar and the beautiful highland valley of Þórsmörk, "Thor's Wood". But the weather, which routinely drives foul, gale-force winds down the highland passes along the route, probably isn't one of them. Laugavegur's scenery was meant to be spectacular – rhyolite hills streaked in orange gravel, pale blue tarns, black sand deserts and the titanic, icy masses of glacier caps hovering over all – but I had yet to see any of it.
Progress was slow. Occasionally the flurries cleared for long enough to take a compass bearing on the next guide post, which I then had to follow blindly along its line, trying to forget folk tales about travellers who had become lost and died in similar conditions on Iceland's interior tracks. But the Hrafntinnusker bunkhouse was reached at last, and next day the blizzard had blown itself out, leaving a metre of snow and clear views extending off the back of the plateau and down to brilliant green conical hills flanking Álftavatn (Swan Lake), my next stop. From here there was a plain of volcanic sand to cross in unexpected sunshine, which was hot enough to strip down to a T-shirt; near the Innri-Emstruá bridge, over a river swollen fearsomely with snow-melt, a herd of Icelandic horses was being driven to summer pasture, following a centuries-old routine. I spent the evening on a rocky ridge overlooking the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap to the south, enjoying the silence and the vast panorama of outlying glaciers spreading across the landscape below.
A day later and I was at the Þröngá, the deepest unbridged river so far, though fortunately only thigh-deep at the time; sometimes you have to wait for the level to subside before attempting to cross. On the far bank was Þórsmörk and a striking change of scenery: after the spartan, restricted palette of the last few days, I was overwhelmed by sudden lush splashes of colour, flowers, dense thickets of dwarf birch with copper and silver bark, thick grass and cushions of mosses and lichens. Þórsmörk's deep valley runs east-west along the intertwined headwaters of the Krossá, which is fed by ice caps squashing down on the encircling plateaus. There's nowhere more immediately attractive in the whole of Iceland, with a host of trails along low peaks and scree slopes to keep you active.
Having reached Þórsmörk, why stop there? I decided to continue south over the mountains to Skógar and the next main road, and asked Þórsmörk's resident ranger, a tough, friendly young man in his mid-twenties, how long this 25km hike might take. He considered me briefly. "For you, I think eight hours. But it is difficult to know. You see that ridge?" He pointed to the edge of the Morinsheiði plateau high above us. "Three hours is enough to reach there. Although yesterday, I ran it in forty-five minutes during a rescue operation."
Three hours later, via the knife-edge "Cat's Spine Ridge" (thank you, whoever installed the chain here since my last trip), I was indeed at Morinsheiði, a flat pancake of clay and ice-fractured pebbles, in the middle of which was a sandblasted wooden signpost pointing blankly in three directions. Then came a narrow, 50m-long traverse at Heljarkambur: Icelanders, I know you're tough, but a six-inch-wide trail with a vertical cliff hedging one side and 90m drop off the other really deserves some sort of warning sign. Beyond was a steep snowfield – a tiresome uphill slog without crampons, I envied hikers coming the other way who simply slid down – then a fresh lava field, a still-smoking souvenir of the 2010 eruption under the Eyjafjallajökull ice cap whose ash cloud grounded aircraft across Europe. This brought a perverse sense of pride to Icelanders, long accustomed to being ignored by the international community, and also vast amusement as they listened to foreign journalists attempting to pronounce "Eyjafjallajökull" (aey-yar-fyatla-yerkutl).
From here the descent to Skógar began abruptly; the previous few hours' snow was suddenly gone and my pace picked up, then slowed again by a bridge over a river canyon, a short wooden structure whose far-end steps were missing, swept away by flood: nothing for it but to drop my pack off the end and climb down the superstructure. The trail followed the river as it grew steadily larger, cutting an increasingly deep gorge down across moorland, each twist decorated by ever-higher cascades which culminated at the Skógarfoss waterfall, dropping straight off the plateau in a 62m-high curtain of mist and noise. Nesting fulmars – technically seabirds, with the coast in distant sight across a level plain – wheeled in and out of the spray as I descended steps down the side of the falls towards a green sward and the tiny, thinly-spread hamlet of Skógar.
The Laugavegur hiking trail is open from some point in June until late August (exact dates depend on the weather), with daily buses from Reykjavík to the trailheads at Landmannalaugar, Þórsmörk and Skógar. Tough boots, thermals and full waterproof clothing are essential; rangers do not allow people to hike in jeans. Bunkhouses along the route provide mattresses, kitchens and showers and must be booked in advance through Ferðafélag Íslands; bring sleeping bags and food. Attached campgrounds with toilets and water can be paid for on site; you need a storm-proof tent and all cooking gear.
For a map of the trail, see here.
David Leffman is co-author of the Rough Guide to Iceland.