As we begin our hike from Landmannalaugar, I feel like I am 25 again, discovering new worlds for the very first time: vast green alpine fields, steaming fumaroles, a wide open landscape that stretches for miles. A dark cloud chases us for a while, but after a morning of steady rain on the bus ride from Reykjavik, the rain has stopped. Every few steps demands a photograph: bubbling mudpots, heaps of shiny obsidian strewn across the ground, barren brown hills painted with grassy swathes.
This Monday afternoon is the first day of the Laugavegur trek, a four-day 55-kilometer hike from the hot springs area of Landmannalaugar to the valley of Þormork, where we plan to extend our trek another 20 kilometers by hiking up to the Finnmorduhals pass between two volcanic glaciers and then down to the village of Skogar on the southern coast of Iceland. This well-travelled trek is Iceland’s most famous, and I have been wanting to do it for several years.
After a quick lunch at the huts in Landmannalaugar, we set off uphill as the sun breaks through the dark clouds lingering in the aftermath the morning’s heavy rain. I have never seen anything like this strange volcanic landscape, with its mixture of obsidian boulders, barren sands, green alpine fields, and not a single tree. Climbing higher, we cross a narrow ridge with wide-open views of endless rolling pasture backed by folds upon folds of mountain peaks. We walk across mushy snowfields that usually have melted by this time of year – the first part of July – but which remain intact because of the cooler weather Iceland has experienced this spring and summer.
In the late afternoon, we hike through a cloud of mist that decreases visibility to about 50 feet. Although the scenery is winter-like, the temperature is comfortable. Finally, around 6 o’clock, we arrive at our first hut, Hrafntinnusker, where our guide Elin prepares a late dinner of mild fish – what she calls catfish — with a white sauce and rice.
Hiking for miles across the snow through a damp mist and then sleeping in a crowded hut with at least one heavy snorer is not everyone’s cup of tea, but for me it is close to paradise.
On the second day of the hike, we awake to a cloudless sky, a rare picture-perfect Icelandic summer day, with nearly 24 hours of daylight and no rain. Our goal today is the hut at Lake Álftavatn – “Swan Lake”. Instead of a gradual uphill climb, we climb down to the gorge of Jökultungur. From different vantage points, we take in wide open views of four glaciers and a crazy array of pyramid-shaped mountains rising from the plain. “These are my people,” I say to my husband as I hold out my arms to the mountains.
Mid-morning, we make our first river crossing and slosh through knee-deep water in neoprene socks and water shoes. Considering its proximity to the Arctic Circle, Iceland has a moderate climate, with average winter temperatures hovering around 32 degrees Farenheit in Reykjavik. But nothing is moderate about Iceland’s glacial rivers.
The icy cold water bites at my feet as I pick my way across the rocks across the river. In these mountain rivers, the water sometimes runs three feet high, but on this trek, the rivers never rise higher than our knees.
Day three brings more spectacular scenery, as we hike across the black sand deserts of Mælifellssandur. I’m afraid we might start taking this scenery for granted, that we might too quickly complain about being tired rather than stopping to look around at this amazing landscape.
For several miles, we hike on a dusty jeep road. In the afternoon, in the midst of a rest break by a river, a dust cloud swirls above the river bank. Soon, a herd of Icelandic horses emerges from the dust, some with riders and many without. A scene out of the Wild West here in southern Iceland. But no cowboys here – just tourists on an organized horse trip.
Iceland is home to 300,000 people and 100,000 horses, which people own in clusters of three, four or even ten, just because they like them. With hardy horses that spend most of winter outdoors and so much open land for grazing, it doesn’t cost much to keep horses, so horse lovers tend to collect small herds of them.
Eventually the ground begins to turn green as we leave the sands behind for the pastures of the Emstrur region, where farmers used to let their sheep loose to graze in the summer months. Our hut is located on a ridge overlooking a steep canyon. After dinner, we hike over to look at the Markarfljöt canyon at a cliff that drops 200 meters down the rocks. Very much like the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, minus the railings — and the crowds.
By the fourth day of the trek, all of us in our international group of 13 are feeling tired. I am glad that we will have a rest day before climbing up to Fimmorduhals. On this last day of the Laugavegur trek, we hike up and down many small gullies and valleys. We eat lunch amidst the ruins of an old shepherd’s shelter, where we take a short detour to a stunning waterfall.
Our guide laughs as we snap photos. “You will see so many waterfalls when we hike to Skogar, ” she says, as if this waterfall is no big deal. By the day’s end, we encounter our first shrubs in Iceland, as we hike amidst chest-high shrubbery that remind me of willows (perhaps they are), then through glades of spindly Arctic birch trees. The forest floor is littered with purple and yellow flowers. We climb up one last hill and then down into Þorsmork, the valley cut by the Krossá River, where our hut awaits. Taking off my boots and slipping into Tevas feels like heaven.
By the time we arrive at Þorsmork, I no longer feel like I’m 25. I’m ready to put on clean socks and rest on the sofa in the hut. By the standards of a typical hiking day, eight to ten miles with daypacks is pretty easy. I know I can keep going – and we will continue to Fimmorduhals –but after that, I’m good with returning to Reykjavik for a late dinner. One truth I have learned on this trip is that maybe I won’t be up for hiking the entire Appalachian Trail with a full backpack when I am 65. That maybe such adventures are best suited to younger bodies. That’s okay, because there are plenty of other hikes in between, at home and around the world, including more here Iceland. In another year or so, I’ll wear out these ten-year-old hiking boots that have carried me across the Laugavegur trek, but they won’t be last pair I’ll buy. Already I’m wondering how much it rains in southern Greenland. Do polar bears roam the mountains there?
Part II, about our hike up to the volcano, coming soon!
After researching the possibilities, I decided to do the hike with Icelandic Mountain Guides, a long-standing company that offers many different kinds of adventures in Iceland at a reasonable cost (albeit far more than a do-it-yourself adventure). Although it is not difficult to make your own arrangements to stay in the huts (as long as you do it many months in advance), I liked the idea of being with a group for safety reasons, and I also liked having a guide who was knowledgeable about the area. Also, most of the huts are accessible by rough (and circuitous) jeep roads. A jeep delivered our gear from hut to hut so that we only had to carry daypacks (which was fabulous!). Plenty of people from all over the world, however, hike the trek with backpacks, some staying at the huts and others tenting.