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Hiking Destination: Iceland’s Landmannalaugar

Windy, steep, bleak. Things are starting to get rough.

Landmannalaugar isn’t so much a place. It’s more of a rip in the space-time continuum.

Consider its summer: It’s hard to tell 3 a.m. from 3 p.m. It can wrap you in the warmth of geothermal vents, chill you with wind, hose you down with rain – all in the span of 30 minutes. You can hike for hours without seeing a solitary living creature. It can even dispatch a lethal blizzard – yes, even in June.

Night doesn’t fall. The often-overcast skies will keep you in a permanent state of twilight. The terrain and scenery changes drastically from mile to mile. The colors of the rhyolite mountains will make you want to get your eyes checked.

In June of 2010, I arrived at Landmannalaugar with my wife. We read about it in guidebooks and blogs. Nothing even remotely prepared us for this place. Oh, we had the equipment we needed. But the scenery! You can look at these photos all you want, and you will still not believe your eyes when you get off the bus from Reykjavik.

There just is no other place like this.

Here’s what to expect on this amazing, one-of-a-kind, 12-kilometer trip from Landmannalauger to the Hrafntinnusker camp site.

This is where the bus drops you off. You’ll find bathrooms, a lodge, showers and the warden’s hut. It’s all immaculate and functional.

Basecamp at Landmannalaugar

This lava flow crops up from out of nowhere, and it’s the first obstacle you’ll climb. It’s a pretty short climb, but steep.

Job #1: Get on top of the lava flow.

You’ll see plenty of people on the lava flow. And you’ll think the lava flow with its cover of moss looks lifeless. Just you wait. You’ll soon learn what lifeless and barren really look like.

The mountains are bizarre colors.

You’ll see the fumaroles near the slope from the moment you get on top of the lava flow. This is about two miles into the hike. This was the last place we saw people for quite awhile.

A mountain of scree.

A mountain of scree.

I’ve never seen anything like this before. These snowbanks are almost like miniature glaciers. They’re covered in volcanic ashfall. Most of the time, they’re still pristine and white.

The air turns chillier, and banks of snow covered in ash appear.

The air turns chillier, and banks of snow covered in ash appear.

This beige plain was, in many ways, the hardest part of the trip. It started with a slipper jaunt around an explosion crater. That led to a steep, slippery climb up to the plain. Once on the plain, the trail meandered and seemed to turn just to keep the wind blowing into your face. And it never seemed to end. There was no life up there aside from Sarah and me.

Windy city, Iceland style.

After trekking about two miles over a lifeless plain past a bunch of these crazy mini-glaciers, you’ll descend into a river valley with fumaroles. It’s nice and warm on the ground! This is the first place we run into people since we passed the last fumaroles about two hours earlier.

Geothermal vents pump heat into the chilly air.

Everywhere I look, I see these snowbanks. Where there’s not snow, there’s huge hunks of obsidian. Off in the distance, Dr. Seuss-colored mountains and steam gushing out of the ground.

Some of the most bizarre landscape I've ever seen.

Some of the most bizarre landscape I’ve ever seen.

Low-lying clouds add to the mysterious look. A few yards earlier, we passed a monument to a dead hiker. He was killed in a freak summer blizzard. We’re only about a mile from the hut.

This place gets weirder all the time.

Here’s the obsidian. There are massive amounts of it. I don’t know if it fell from the sky as part of an explosive eruption, or if there was some flow that passed over this area before breaking into chunks.

The area near the campsite is littered with glassy black obsidian.

The area near the campsite is littered with glassy black obsidian.

Several times, I sank into the snow nearly to my knee. It made for slow going, carefully picking each spot and checking its stability.

Closeup of the dirty snow.

Closeup of the dirty snow.

I am good and ready to hang out at a campsite. It’s been a long 12K!

Nearly to the hut.

The snow never seems to end.

To the campsite at last! The people we caught up to stayed in the hut … and get this: They had some shuttle service carry their gear. Cheaters! I have to admit, I was shocked that cars could get here. But this wasn’t just a car – it was a totally tricked-out off-road shuttle. They even had to deflate the tires for traction to get here. Must’ve been a scary ride! And yes, that is an outhouse. Look closely and you’ll see little rings made from rocks. Those are obsidian chunks formed into rings. You pitch your tent in the ring for a little relief from the wind.

Hrafntinnusker camp site

11 thoughts on “Hiking Destination: Iceland’s Landmannalaugar

  1. Matt Long

    WOW looks awesome! Got a pic of the “totally ticked out offroad shuttle” You know that’s the part I’d key into!

  2. admin

    I really should’ve grabbed a photo. But if you google Super Jeeps Iceland you’ll see more crazy four-by-four hardware than you can shake a stick at.

  3. Marlena

    Hey Justin,
    Thanks for all of your great info about Iceland! My boyfriend and I are planning a trip right now. We’re both definitely the adventures kind and are avid hikers. How many nights did you spend on this trail? I’ve read about it on a few other blogs/websites and it seems as though you can make it a day trip, overnight, or four day trip. So I’m just curious what your perspective of this is?

  4. Wandering Justin Post author

    Hi, Marlena. If you go all the way to Thorsmork, it’s about a 3-4 trip. Unless you-re really hammering – I’ve heard of ultra-marathoners knocking it off in one day. But that’s nuts! What we did was an out-and-back overnight trip to the first hut. That’s where you’ll found most of your uphill climbing. In retrospect, I would’ve done the full trip to Thorsmork and skipped our trips to Kirkjabaerklaustur (which I’m probably spelled completely wrong) and Vik to compensate. You do have to camp only in designated spots near (or in) the huts. I feel like we missed out on some incredible scenery and serenity. I would also say you should go to Skaftafell – I have a post about that, too. There’s a hike to yet another unpronounceable and unspellable mountain there that I never saw in the guidebooks, and it looks spectacular.

  5. Marlena

    Thanks for the info Justin! That really helps. I’ve been reading so much about how special this place is, so we may have to do the whole thing. All of your blog posts have been super helpful in planning my trip, so thank you so much for sharing your journey!!

  6. Wandering Justin Post author

    Thanks so much for stopping by and asking questions. If there’s anywhere online you plan on posting photos of your trip, please let me know. I’d love to take a look! I’m also known as wandering_j on Twitter.

  7. Marlena

    Of course!! It’s been fun reading about your journey. I usually post all of my travels on Instagram, but I send all of my Instagram photos to Twitter, so following either one works 🙂 We will be going mid-late September so hopefully in about a month you’ll start seeing my Iceland photos pop up!

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