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: five days is an ideal time to spend on the trip, allowing three for the trail and a day at either end, though you could hike the trail in just two days. Once at Þórsmörk, there’s also the option of hiking south over the mountains to Skógar or, once the bridge has been built, west to Fljótsdalur.
The 12km stretch between Landmannalaugar and the first hut at Hrafntinnusker is mostly uphill. 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, and the campsite is on bleak scree and very exposed; many people skip staying here altogether and push on to Álftavatn or Hvanngil.
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. Do not enter the caves; people have been killed doing so.
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) and campsite 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.
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 Ferðafélag Íslands’ hut and campsite; 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 campsite 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.
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.
Depending on the weather, the Laugavegur trail should be open from early June until mid-September, when buses run daily from Reykjavík to the end points at Landmannalaugar and Þórsmörk, and also to Álftavatn, Hvanngil and Emstrur.
Ferðafélag Íslands’ huts sleep up to seventy people, cost 9000kr a night for sleeping-bag space, have toilets, kitchens and usually showers, and need to be booked well in advance; you can apply for the coming year after the route closes in September. Campsites at the huts cost 1850kr, with access to toilets and showers, but not kitchens. Bring everything with you, including food and sleeping bag (you can get water at the huts) and, if camping, a tent, stove and cooking gear.
Weather varies between fair and foul, with gale-force winds a speciality of the region; you need full waterproof gear, warm clothing, solid hiking boots and some old trainers or surf boots for fording the several frigid rivers. The trail is well pegged, but at the very least you need to carry Landmælingar Íslands’ Þórsmörk-Landmannalaugar map and a compass. Although the overall gradients are the same whichever end you begin, in practice it’s easier from the north, where you spend a whole day gradually reaching the trail’s apex (around 11:20m) between Hrafntinnusker and Álftvatn, instead of doing it in one short, brutal ascent from the south.
Top image: Laugavegur hiking trail near Alftavatn on Iceland © Sander van der Werf/Shutterstock