Walk in , ascent 1414m, length 56.6km
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The Laugavegur (Hot Springs) Trail, Iceland

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mcrtchly: Track 4011 in area near Iceland, South ()
The Laugavegur (Hot Springs) Trail, Iceland
Length: 56.6km, Creator time taken: 76h31m, Ascent: 1414m,
Descent: 1817m

Places: Start at Lon -19.0601, Lat 63.9906, end at Lon -19.5128, Lat 63.685 41km SW from Start
Logged as completed by 1
Listed as one of the top twenty best treks in the world by National Geographic, the Laugavegur Trail (The Hot Spring Route) is a 55km multi-day trail through a volcanic highland wilderness just 160 km east of Reykjavík which is so unusual and otherworldly, it could almost be extra-terrestrial.

Only open for the few short months of the Icelandic summer, we decided to begin this trail at Landmannalaugar, the northern, and more popular, starting point and then to trek south to Þórsmörk (Thor’s Forest). Starting at the Landmannalaugar end which is at 600m above sea level, means that you experience around 500m elevation gain to the highest point (1,110m) in contrast to the 900m experienced when trekking from Þórsmörk, and the only persistent uphill section is encountered on day one.

We decided to camp because the mountain huts are usually booked out months in advance and to overnight in them is extremely costly (around 70-90 euro per person at summer 2018 currency conversion rates). No advance booking is required for the cheaper camping option which also provides more flexibility. The downside to camping isn’t just the extra weight we have to carry, but also the weather. No one travels to the 64th parallel north in summer to get a suntan, but our five-week visit coincided with the worst summer in living memory. The day before our arrival at Landmannalaugar the wind was so ferocious it shredded tents and the trail was closed, so we were banking our hopes on the 4-day relatively stable weather forecast to be accurate.

The campsites cost 2,000 Kr (about 15-16 euro) per person, and showers are extra. At Landmannalaugar be prepared to pay an eye-watering 500kr (4 euro) to use the toilet (if you’re not staying at the hut or campsite), which makes something of a mockery of the phrase ‘going to spend a penny’! No covered shelter is provided for campers, which is somewhat surprising given the notorious weather. No wild camping is permitted so you have to use the designated camping areas, and for the tariffs charged, the facilities along this trail fell well short of the standard we have encountered elsewhere in the world. Indeed, Laugavegur isn’t a trek for the faint-hearted, involving numerous glacial river crossings and long, exposed sections of snow covered mountains where sudden bad weather can make orientation tricky. In recent years several people have died due to being unprepared for the terrain and/or the weather, or by ignoring wardens’ advice about when to trek.

We left our Land Rover in the public car park in Hella, the last town before heading north into the highlands, where we caught the 9.35 am bus operated by the Trex bus company (50 euro one way per adult for a journey lasting just over two hours). The asphalt eventually gives way to gravel ‘wash-board’ ‘F’ roads, open only to 4X4 vehicles from mid-June to mid-September. A deep river crossing heralds the entrance to the Landmannalaugar campsite, ringed by multi-coloured rhyolite mountains and located on a spit of land between the Jokulgilskvisl and Namskvisl rivers on the very edge of the Laugahraun lava field, formed in an eruption in about 1477. Landmannalaugar, ‘The People’s Pools’, is so-named after the hydrothermal natural springs that well up at the edge of the lava field which draw hordes of day-trippers.

Day One: Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnusker (12km)
Leaving Landmannalaugar, the trail climbs steeply through the contorted and chaotic Laugahraun lava field, passing hissing fumaroles and clouds of sulphurous steam. This section of the trail is very colourful due to the rhyolite geology which is enlivened further by streaks of electric-green moss, and is likely to be busy with people hiking up to Mount Brennisteinsalda and the Bláhnjúkur volcano. The crowds soon thin as the route heads towards the Storihver hot springs across a barren undulating plateau covered with stubborn patches of dirty snow. Once past Storihver, a surreal green valley filled with steaming fumaroles spewing scalding hot water, the route rapidly gains height, passing across extensive slushy snow fields and past a memorial to a young Israeli trekker who died just over a kilometre from the Höskuldsskáli Hut at Hrafntinnusker (1,110m), the highest point of the trail. The terrain here is strewn with black obsidian rock and grit, and the brutally exposed camping spots clinging to the side of the mountain are mere scrapes in the dirt surrounded by horseshoe-shaped walls of obsidian blocks.
Rhyolite hills above Landmannalaugar
Day Two: Hrafntinnusker to Álftavatn (12km)
From Hrafntinnusker the route crosses a large, snow-covered plain before climbing the flank of Reykjafjöll Mountain. Care is needed to cross the numerous snow bridges over streams that have cut down deeply into the landscape. Atop Reykjafjöll, the extensive views over the snow-streaked rhyolite mountains are spectacular. The trail then undulates steeply over friable, geothermally altered terrain, and passes close to the nose of a glacier on Jökultungur Mountain.
Snow-covered terrain near Reykjafjöll Mountain
Here it begins to drop, undoubtedly like your jaw when you first see the Tolkienesque Álftavatn Valley spread out below. Painted in a thousand shades of green, a startling contrast to the barrenness of the rhyolite mountains, it is ringed by glaciers, and dormant volcanoes stand proud of the landscape like ancient pyramids. Here you get your first view of Eyjafjallajökull, one of the smaller Icelandic ice caps but now one of the best-known, as it covers the caldera of the volcano which erupted violently in 2010 wreaking havoc on European air traffic. Nearby is its big sister, Katla, which is apparently overdue an eruption to make that of 2010 look like a poor dress rehearsal.
The Tolkienesque Álftavatn Valley with Eyjafjallajökull top right
A very steep descent brings you to the emerald-green valley floor, where the trail initially follows the bank of the Grashagakvisl River which needs to be crossed (often waded), before leading to the hut and camping ground above the lake. This site offers lots of space for campers, but it is very exposed to the wind and it might not always be advisable to pitch your tent here, but to progress to Hvanngil a few kilometres further on which offers a more sheltered alternative. There is a bar and café at Álftavatn, but the initial elation at seeing cans of cold beer is soon dampened when realising the prices (about 10 euro per can; main course meals cost almost 30 euro)!

Day Three: Álftavatn to Emstrur (15km)
There isn’t much overall elevation along this stretch of the trail but there are a few river crossings. The first is the Bratthálskvisl about 20 minutes from the hut. A pair of lightweight plastic Crocs come in very handy when wading these rivers. A steepish descent brings you to Hvanngil, a pretty valley frequented by shepherds where there is also a trekkers’ hut and campsite.

A bridge spans the Kaldaklofskvísl River near the boundary of the Katla Geopark where the trail splits in two. The section marked Emstrur and Þórsmörk runs almost parallel to the F261 highland road. The Blafjallakvisl River flowing off the nearby icecap must be waded, and it’s at least 10 metres wide, deep, fast flowing, ice-cold, and provides a sharp demarcation in the landscape. The green hills now vanish to be replaced by an enormous flat desert of pumice and black sand known as Mælifellssandur, fringed by the mighty Mýrdalsjökull icecap and broken only by the lurid moss-streaked cones of extinct volcanoes. The trail tappers away to a point in the direction of a line of distant hills, and plodding along in the deep sand is quite tiring and rather monotonous. Walking across this endless, dusty and extremely exposed expanse of sand and grit would be a nightmare in high winds and/or driving rain. After several kilometres the bridge over the Innri-Emstruá River is crossed and it’s then just over five and a half kilometres to Emstrur, a surreal fluorescent-green oasis tucked away in a tiny valley overlooked by the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap and its hidden volcano, Katla. Good pitches are at a premium here, so it’s wise to ensure you leave Álftavatn in plenty of time to stake a prime spot!
Crossing the black sand desert
Day Four: Emstrur to Þórsmörk (16km)
Above the campsite the trail traverses a gravelly plateau, before descending steeply to the edge of the yawning Fremri-Emstruá River canyon which has been cut deeply into the basalt by the meltwater from the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap. A footbridge crosses this at its narrowest point. After a climb up to a higher plateau above the gorge, it’s worth the short detour to a viewpoint over the junction of the Markarfljotsgljufur Gorge and that of the Fremri-Emstruá. The 200m deep Markarfljótsgljúfur Gorge has been carved out of the basalt by the 100km long Markarfljót River, one of South Iceland’s largest watercourses which rises in the mountains east of Hekla and is fed by meltwaters flowing off the Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull glaciers. It has carried millions of tons of sand and sediment towards the coast, creating the Markarfljótsaurar outwash plain which is seen near the end of the trek.
Junction of the Markarfljótsgljúfur and Fremri-Emstruá gorges
Soon after leaving the canyons the hilly area of Almenningar with its ancient lava flows heavily scored by the action of flood waters is encountered, and Eyjafjallajökull fills the horizon. Eventually, the rust-red rooftops of isolated farmsteads appear, bit by bit the landscape begins to green again, and at the Ljosa River footbridge we are surrounded by head high birch trees.

One final adrenalin rush is experienced in the form of the Þröngá River. This is the most challenging of all the river crossings as it has braided channels, is very fast flowing, deep, and the water is chalky-grey making the river cobbles invisible. Walking poles are most useful in making crossings such as this, and it’s best to wade it in your underwear to avoid getting soaked trousers! Excellent views of the Markarfljótsaurar outwash plain and the coast are enjoyed before the steep drop down to the Krossá River in Þórsmörk. Iceland is definitely arboreally challenged, but you would not know it on the final stretch of the Laugavegur which passes through ancient birch forest which escaped the axes of the first Viking settlers who were responsible for deforesting huge swathes of the landscape.

There are three mountain huts run by different operators to choose from in Þórsmörk: the Utivist Basar Mountain Huts; the Volcano Huts – Husadalur; and the ITA Mountain Hut Skagafjordsskali Langidalur. We opted to head to the latter which sits in the very shadow of Eyjafjallajökull. Here we caught the 6.00pm Trex bus back to Hella (which terminates in Reykjavík) to collect our Land Rover. Seats must be booked in advance and the two hour journey to Hella costs about 40 euro each. The hut has extremely expensive beer to celebrate the completion of the trek!

It is possible to take the 25km trail from Þórsmörk over the Fimmvörðuháls Pass south to Skógar, a natural extension to the Laugavegur, but a severe storm was closing in as forecast, so we didn’t take the risk of getting caught out on high ground in such bad weather.

Read the illustrated blog of this incredible trek at: https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2018/11/Four-days-in-a-Volcanic-Wilderness-Trekking-the-Laugavegur-Trail-Iceland

And watch the video at: https://youtu.be/y9ZfNqLiUqk

Uploaded on: Mon, 3 Dec 2018 (23:18:55)
Trackback: https://mountainviews.ie/track/4011/  
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Your time to complete will depend on your speed plus break time and your mode of transport. For walkers: Naismith's rule, a rough and often inaccurate estimate, suggests a time of 13h 40m + time stopped for breaks
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