Untouched — Iceland’s Laugavegur trail.
The most difficult thing about a hot spring in the middle of a chilly summer is forcing yourself to get out. It already took a lot of willpower to dip into the stream, but now that you’re there your body is dreading the feel of the cold air again. There are about 800 hot springs in Iceland with temperatures typically around 167 degree Fahrenheit, it has become a popular pastime for locals and tourists. This particular pool I was sitting in this summer can be found at the campground Landmannalaugar, located in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve in the southern areas of Iceland.
Landmannalaugar, meaning “the people’s pools,” is a popular spot for adventurous hikers because of it’s location at the peak of one of Iceland’s most famous hiking trails, the Laugavegur trail, a 55 kilometers (34.2 miles) hike from Landmannalaugar to Thorsmork. The land of fire and ice offers this scenic hike seemingly undisturbed complete with volcanic wastelands, glacier lakes and lush valleys.
Most of the year there is a bus that runs from the capital city of Reykjavik to Landmannalaugar and back, it only stops service for the winter months when roads are inaccessible. But since this trip consisted of myself and three friends, we found it to be cheaper to rent a Suzuki Jimny and drive there ourselves. The drive is what I imagine what the rovers on Mars have to go through, the trail is extremely rocky through red dusty red soil and requires crossing small rivers without bridges every few kilometers.
We picked this four-day hiking trek because of it’s reputation among hikers. It holds some of the most beautiful landscapes in Iceland, virtually untouched by humanity. The first stop at Landmannalaugar reestablished this for us, we set up our tent and immediately soaked in the sites of the colorful mountain ranges and sheep and horses populating the fields underneath, while soaking in the natural hot spring.
The first day of hiking was physically tough, but it’s hard to notice when you’re awestruck by the surrounding scenery. Fifty-five kilometers felt like one very large film montage, similar to the ones in Lord of The Rings and Game of Thrones, everytime you blink everything seems different. The landscape and weather were forever changing. One second you’re stepping through rolling hills of ice and bright green valleys, you blink and you find yourself in the colorful mountains of Brennisteinsalda, painted with streaks of bright blue and orange.
At many points in the hike the air is dominated by the strong smell of sulfur. There are many pockets throughout the trip where sulfur vents out of the earth in a visible smoke, if your nose is brave enough to get close you’ll notice the bright white and green colors surrounding the pockets and the boiling water at the source, hot enough to boil an egg.
My group reached the first campground, Hrafntinnusker, in about 4 hours and 12 kilometers (4.5 miles) of hiking. But because the official at Landmannalaugar recommended not staying, because of weather conditions, we ended up passing it and continuing on. He was absolutely right, because of Hrafntinnusker’s high altitude, tents had walls of rocks that campers had collected and stacked to keep the wind from taking them away. Instead we made our way to the quiet lakeside campground at Alftavatn.
Hikers have a few options for lodging along the trail. There is basic tent camping at designated campgrounds, which will run about 2000 isk ($20) a night, or huts, a bit more expensive ranging anywhere from $90 to $270 depending on privacy level and availability. Camping outside of designated campgrounds is illegal, so is hiking off the path. Iceland has strict laws in place to protect its fragile environment. The campgrounds are pretty well equipped with showers, toilets and rangers to help you with questions about your journey.
Keeping an eye on the time was essential in the summer time, since night time never really felt like night. Iceland is far up in the northern hemisphere, so summer days are long and winter days are short. I regretted not buying an eye mask to combat the “midnight sun” when we laid down.
From Alftavatn we proceeded to our journey to Ernstrur. The journey requires shoes to come off in order to cross two glacier rivers, immediately followed by a hike through Maelifellssandur, a valley of black sand where nothing grows but patches of small white flowers. Distance mountains break away giving a view of the large Eyjafjallajokull and Myrdalsjokull glaciers which bright white caps, reflecting the sun, are easily visible from a distance.
The trail is only hikable in the warmer months, in the colder months certain areas are can be inaccessible due to snow. Even in the summer harsh weather is a concern, only meters away from Hrafntinnusker we past a memorial to a young man, 25 years old, who died in a blizzard in June of 2004.
My group was lucky to run into a small group of hikers from Washington state. Andrew, an aspiring tour guide, showed us a set of canyons slightly off the beaten path near the campground at Emstrur, called Markarfljotsglijufur. The view is a lot easier to enjoy than trying to pronounce the name. The canyon dizzying height makes it hard to get close, only the local sheep are brave enough to make it right onto the edge. The expansiveness makes it easy to enjoy away from the edge. In the evening the sun sits at the top of the canyon for hours, giving it and the river below a long lasting “golden hour” look.
Thorsmork, named for the god of thunder Thor, is the last stop for many tours. It rests at the foot of the glacier Eyjafjallajokull, which erupted in 2010 and changed the landscape in the area. For some hikers, however, the valley of the norse god is just a stepping stone to farther destinations. From Thorsmark there are trails to other locations such as Skogar. Iceland’s hiking trails are expansive, the adventure only has to end when you want it to.