Iceland part I: The Laugavegur Trail (and some extra’s)

In july I went to Iceland for three weeks with Elien. I have (too) little time to write a full trip report these days, but will post some pictures in a series of three blog entries.

We left for Reykjavik the day after I came back from my rainy IML course in the Jura Mountains. Unfortunately, while Scandinavia enjoyed it’s best summer in many years, the weather in Iceland was dull and rainy; we spend many hours in our tent, and the sun only shines a handful of hours during the first 8 days of our trip.

After arranging our food drops in the cozy capital, we leave for Skógafoss by bus to start our hike all the way towards Landmannalaugar.

In Skógafoss we quickly climb away from the beautiful yet crowded waterfull, and start heading up the slopes of the infamous Eyjafallajökull volcano along a beautiful ravine. We camp at the highest spot we can find before the landscape transforms into a mineral wilderness of snow and ash.

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It starts raining heavily during the evening hours, rain which lasts for almost 36 hours. We spend a full day in our spacious Trailstar, and continue hiking the day after. We cross the Fimmvorduhals saddle through fog and drizzle. The weather improves as we descend towards beautiful Porsmork, with massive views through deep gorges, down to braided rivers snaking down to the lowlands, and all the way to the glaciers of Mýrdalsjoküll.

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I climb the panoramic Valahnúk hill the next morning, and we explore the beautiful, wooded Slyppugil valley after that before dropping down towards the Prönga river and joining the famous Laugavegur trail.

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The first bit of the trail is rather monotonous. We cross a lot of guided groups – this is the most crowded bit of the entire 4-day trail, by far the most reknown and popular on Iceland The next few days we will see about 40-80 people a day. The landscape starts to change dramatically as we reach the Markarfljót canyon, and drop down towards the wild Fremri-Emstrua river soon after, with the Myrdalsjökull as a massive backdrop. We camp in a hidden side valley, and during the evening hours I hike up the slopes of Stóra Mófell for a better view towards the ice sheet.

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The Laugavegur is crowded, but it is so for a reason. It is by far the most remarkably varied 4-day walk I have done in the Nordics so far. The next day is a windy walk through lunar ash plains, interlaced by massive glacial rivers draining the Myrdalsjökull ice cap.

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Another long, rainy episode keeps us tentbound almost the entire next day, and things don’t improve too much as we climb through the Kaldaklofsfjöll mountains and cross the plateaus towards Landmannalaugar in thick fog. We finally descend below the cloud base while approaching the crowded campsite of ‘the tourist capital of the Highlands’, and plunge into the wonderful natural hot springs in the evening.

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Low clouds thwart our plans to make a long dayhike through the hearth of Landmannalaugar’s colourful rhyolite hills the next day, and we turn back towards the hot springs after a quick climb of Bláhnúkur and a nameless hill above the beautiful, braided Jökulgilskvisl river (looks like a packrafter’s dream!).

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I cannot deny I am a little frustrated we have not seen the unique Landmannalaugar wilderness in sunshine. But while we wait for the bus the next day, the clouds suddenly start to break for the first time in many days. We sprint up exactly the same hills as the day before, but this time the landscape is full of warmth and colour. Aaah, mission accomplished!

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9 thoughts on “Iceland part I: The Laugavegur Trail (and some extra’s)

  1. korpijaakko says:

    Veeery nice! I’ve been thinking about summer trip to Iceland since my first crossing of Vatnajökull in winter but haven’t yet managed to do so. Immediately when I saw the photos of the rivers I opened my Iceland maps and started pondering routes utilizing packrafts. Came up with several. It sure looks sweet. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Willem says:

      Hi Jaakko! Thanks for passing by! There are sooo many packraft possibilities in Iceland, at first I only thought about the big rivers, but there are endless routes on smaller streams – both braided and single channel – which should be even nicer. Discharge of the smaller streams was way higher than I expected before going to Iceland.

      The Jökulgilskvisl through the hearth of Landmannalaugar looks sensational in terms of landscapes. Not sure if anybody has ever paddled there. Next time I will bring my raft!

  2. dzjow says:

    Amazing photos! The one with the green wooded valley comes like a big surprise, something you don’t immediately expect to see when thinking about Iceland.

    • Willem says:

      Thanks Joery! Thorsmork is a very special place indeed, the views towards Eyjafjallajökull and Myrdalsjökull must be stunning if the weather is nicer.

  3. Koen says:

    Waarom ben je niet verder gestapt via Landmannahellir en Afangil naar Rjupnavellir? Even mooi (of zelfs mooier) dan de Laugavegur, maar je komt geen kat tegen! Dat is één van mijn favoriete stukjes Ijsland.

    • Willem says:

      Hey Koen, oorspronkelijk was ons plan om verder naar het zuidoosten door te trekken, richting Torfajökull en Eldgja. Maar aangezien we voor die route toch wat betere weersomstandigheden (hogere wolkenbasis) nodig hadden en aangezien we al 2 volle dagen verloren waren door de aanhoudende regen zijn we daar niet meer aan toegekomen en hebben we beslist om na een extra dagje Landmannalaugar meteen door te reizen met de bus. Misschien een volgende keer🙂

  4. Pedro says:

    Hi,
    I would like to hear your opinion on nature protection and leave-no-trace philosophy? Wild camping is not allowed within the nature reserves in Iceland and not recommended in the surrounding area due to nature protective reason – how did you justify doing it anyway? Especially with all the scars you must have seen from 4×4 driving… please understand me correct – I’m not against wild camping in general, but I believe that some places is so visited that one needs to respect the guidelines.
    I have hiked in Iceland for the last 8 years and sadly, must admit that some places have been ruined by extensive wear while others have literally been covered in TP. Fortunately, there are preventive actions where volunteers help maintaining the trail as done in Northern Sweden but it is only a few places.
    Please think of the next generations planning your trips and not just your own goals.

    and then return to iceland – there are plenty of experiences left to explore for many trips…😉

  5. Willem says:

    Hi Pedro,

    Thanks for your reply! Good questions you ask there, and I fully understand your point of view.

    – Wild camping is indeed forbidden by law in the Thorsmórk and Fjallabak Nature Reserves – we did camp next to the huts in these area’s. Although it is not recommended along the remainder of the trail, it is not forbidden as far as I understand (http://uk.visiticeland.com/TravelGuide/Rightsandobligations).

    – Then there is the more general discussion about the ‘leave no trace’ principle. Frankly, I have strong doubts that wild camping – if done responsibly, of course – is more harmful for the environment than camping next to (or sleeping in) a hut. I have seen too many huts and campsites – also in the nature reserves in Iceland – where garbage is poorly stored and taken by the wind or animals, wastewater is discharged directly into streams and lakes, and supplies are brought in by snowscooter or even helicopter.

    I believe wild camping should not be considered as a bigger threat to the environment if done responsibily. Let me be clear, people who leave garbage, … shoud be fined and punished. I see your point that this is easier to control near the huts.

    I’ll be happy to have your views on this.

    • Pedro says:

      Thanks for the clarification.

      Garbage is one thing, since the impact can be reversed with a little effort. Regarding the leave no trace – most hikers practice it (to various degrees). Even though there are huts along fx Laugavegur, one should (learn and) get used to taken all garbage (incl TP) all the way back to civilization! Leaving it at remote huts is not the best solution. Furthermore I have seen to many attempts to burn garbage around the world to believe in this approach. I understand that your wild camping is a way of getting the alone feeling that I also prefer. During this years Iceland trip I witnessed wild camping in order to save money. Arriving at Vik I walked up the cliff. Up there I saw a single tent just beneath the cliff almost at the beach but still within city limits. Next morning I came by the site on the way to the beach and there were clear signs of a camp and human “use” – unacceptable.

      No, I agree with you – wild camping might be less harmful in less visited areas than permanent camp sites (especially if the environment is our concern). However, I do question it in the highly used areas. It is not the camping alone but also the off trail hiking and its impact on the hiking experience. As you know people do not like getting “dirty” boots and if something resembles a path they’ll walk there instead. Similar if there is an alternative trail (i.e. to a wild camp) some will walk there and eventually it becomes a clear trail. Then, when we returns, trails has become broad “highways” visible from far away (which I think hampers my experience of pristine nature) instead of one single (maintained) path. This is my main concern with wild camping.
      Yes keeping on the trail one will meet people but it depends more on the season than the trail.

      Finally, in my opinion, does Iceland need to limit access to some “remote” areas. There is way to many superjeep and minor bus services that offers unique experiences. And I do not think that if you not single handed can access a mountain peak or volcano lake – one should be allowed to drop you of right next to it. Personally I find that some of horse trails has bigger impact than driving as they has a tendency to broaded.

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