On most trips, Sarah and I have allowed ourselves a few days to settle into our surroundings before an outdoor adventure. Not this time. Less than 24 hours after arriving in Iceland, we had our packs loaded again. And we were walking back to the BSI terminal to catch a bus to the centerpiece of our trip.
The roads to the Landmannalaugar region had just opened when we arrived. They were finally free of snow and mud – at least enough to allow buses to get through. And when I say “roads,” for much of the trip that means dirt roads. Narrow dirt roads.
We quickly left Reykjavik behind – Sarah and I were already starving since we had to leave our guesthouse too early for breakfast (this caused a bit of consternation – they told us that they’d be willing to pack sandwiches for us next time … very nice of them!).
Fortunately, there were a few stops along the way. We were able to get some snacks to fuel us for the rest of the day.
Very quickly, the scenery becomes epic.
There’s a lot of greenery, and a lot of volcanic remnants. In many places, steam shoots out of the ground. In some cases, it’s being harnessed for geothermal energy. In others, the white steam just decorates the view.
Unfortunately, it’s a cloudy day. The top of the famous volcano Hekla, which may have inspired Jules Verne to write Journey to the Center of the Earth, is not visible.
The road first turns to hardpacked dirt as we get near Hekla. Then it narrows. It gets rutted and rocky. But the bus implacably charges over the surface. At one point, we stop and the driver throws the bus into reverse. A member of the bus crew hops off, trots a few yards down the road and re-installs a hubcap that popped off one of the wheels.
Then the scenery goes from brown to a charred gray. A nearby mountain has twin explosion craters in it.
This is volcano country.
Bombs and cinders are everywhere. Shockingly, a few bunches of purple flowers push up through the hardened lava. It’s a stark scene – haunting and bleak. I can’t really decide if looks like an ancient world shattered by an apocalypse, or a young world that hasn’t had time to become host to anything alive.
The bus driver stops so we can take a few photos. Then we plunge on. The road gets more hazardous, with steep descents and sharp turns. None of this would be that bad for a Jeep. It seems a minor miracle for a bus to navigate this outdoor adventure , though.
Sometime just past noon, we arrive in Landmannalaugar. It’s everything I imagine it would be.
The colors are brilliant. The mountain shoot straight up out of the ground, with steep slopes dotted with scree. On some, you can see faint trails.
But right now, it seems to be party time at the warden’s hut.
It’s a friendly staff, and they’re eager to get everyone oriented and out on the trail of their choice. I’m astounded by the quality of the facilities. There’s a nice patch of earth for tents, and also a sturdy backpackers lodge. And real bathrooms and showers.
It’s all as uncommercial and untouristy as possible, but with many essentials. Still, don’t underprepare. Bring everything you need with you.
It seems many people from our bus just plan to hang out for the rest of the day before starting out on the Laugarvegur trails to the Hrafntinnusker hut. Not us. A little after 1 p.m., we started the 8-mile trek.
Job #1 is a quick climb up a lava flow.
We followed this for a little more than a mile, and that’s where we saw most of the people on our trip. Most of Landmannalaugar’s visitors seem to enjoy just being surrounded by the bright rhyolite mountains as the pass through the relatively bleak lava flow.
The lava flow -which includes fumaroles filling the air with sulfur-tinged steam- soon climbs up a really bizarrely colored, scree-covered mountain. Once you reach the top (which requires some strong lungs and legs), there’s an absolutely bizarre and huge plug of cooled lava that looks like the ruins of a castle towering on the mountain. From there, there’s a brief bit of greenery that soon becomes a rolling, wind-swept moonscape the color of wheat. There, patches of snow dusted by volcanic ash come into view.
There are a few sketchy moments about three miles in: You’ll walk an exposed ridge in a pretty windy area. A bad step or two, and you can wind up in a crater or sliding into a valley full of snow. After that, you’re on a wind-swept plain that’s often really bleak and monotonous. It’s not very hilly, but it seems to sap your strength anyway.
The Obsidian Fields of Iceland
A quick descent into a relatively verdant valley dotted by thermal vents then becomes perhaps the most alien environment of them all: Höskuldsskáli, a plain dotted by patches of ash-covered snow and massive hunks of smooth, glassy obsidian. It stretches for miles in all directions. The gray sky, gray ground and glossy black rock makes this part of the hike feel dreamlike, like being on another planet.
The weather changes nearly as often as the terrain. Sometimes, the air is still and relatively warm. Then the wind will pick up, sometimes accompanied by a patter of rain.
This fickle weather can be deadly: A monument on the obsidian plain pays tribute to a hiker who died a few years ago in a freak summer blizzard during his outdoor adventure. The sad part? He was less than a mile from the safety of the Hrafntinnusker hut.
Welcome to Hrafntinnusker
As we marched into Hrafntinnusker, a stupendously cheery warden greeted us. She gave us the lay of the land, and the facilities offered at the hut. She also mentioned a few side hikes. If only we’d had time for a bit more outdoor adventure (in retrospect, I’d have hiked all the way to Thorsmork). There are amazing views to be had all around. And the long hours of daylight give you plenty of time to work with.
Hikers can stay in that sturdy hut, or pitch a tent in one of many protective rings made from small obsidian boulders. The idea is to give the tents some relief from the winds. Hikers can press on all the way to Thorsmork, which is about a three-day hike for the hardy. Some arrange to have a tour service “Superjeep” meet them at each hut with their gear and food. Others carry all their gear themselves. Being loaded with a backpack somehow makes the experience better, less of a simple walk in the back country and more of an outdoor adventure.
That night, Sarah and I dined on “Meal, Ready to Eat” packs. We listened to the wind howl and the rain smack against the fly of our tent. Sometime in the wee hours, a jet flew high overhead. Other than that, there was no other sound – not from the few other tents nearby, or the group in the hut. I could only imagine what this place would be like when night falls during the spring and autumn seasons.
I just wanted a good taste of Landmannalaugar, so we only went to the first hut, spent the night, returned to the trailhead and headed to the next destination. Had I anticipated the area’s grim grandeur, I would’ve likely brought enough food to last until Thorsmork and gone the entire distance.
hough there is more to see than just the first leg, I saw some of the most unusual scenery ever. I couldn’t help thinking that this terrain would’ve been even better as Mordor in Lord of the Rings than New Zealand’s Rangipo Desert – of course, it’s cheaper to work in New Zealand. But having been to both, I can say that Landmannalaugar can out-Mordor Rangipo any day.
Some might prefer cheerier surroundings. Landmannalaugar is the collective scowl of endless stern volcanic faces. For me, that was its appeal – a look at earth scoured by fire and wind, a place that looks raw, unformed and unforgiving.
Despite a sun that never set and an endless patter of rain on the tent’s fly, I slept well. That came not just from being tired, but from the satisfaction of an outdoor adventure in what I consider one of the most amazing places on the planet.