Thórsmörk and Landmannalaugar - A view from our expert author

Thórsmörk mountains, canyon and river near Skógar by Martin M303, ShutterstockA hiker’s paradise: Thórsmörk mountains, canyon and river near Skógar © Martin M303, Shutterstock

‘Thór’s woods’ is renowned for its stunning nature, a transcendent, hidden valley beneath a romantic breadth of volcanic mountains. Hundreds of glacial streams pour down the mountainsides and combine into an immense swathe of braided rivers that rush through the valley’s shifting bed of black sand. Thórsmörk also wows its visitors with all the great colours of Iceland:  shiny, moss-green mountains, volcanic black pumice, the brown of aged basalt, steely-blue water, and snow-white glaciers whose long, icy tongues flow down into the valley. The tremendous scale of the place sets it apart from anything else and that is exactly why anyone with even a mild case of wanderlust should hurry there. Alas, only a few can make it given that unless you’re hiking over the mountains, the only way in and out of the valley is along the banks of the very turbulent Krossá River. Driving to Thórsmörk becomes an amphibious activity, and those who actually get this far tend to bask in the light of their own bravado. And yet, to experience this corner of Iceland is something far bigger than machismo.

Hot springs and volcanoes are found just about everywhere in Iceland, but nothing compares to the wild wonderland that is Landmannalaugar (pronounced lahnd-mahn-a-loy-gahr). Halfway between the volcanoes of Laki and Mt Hekla, this polygon-shaped nature reserve encloses a mysterious landscape made from the many forms of water and lava. Pictured in almost every travel brochure out there, the mountains of Landmannalaugar are pure rhyolite  – a crystallised, slow-forming igneous rock that is far more interesting than the basic basalt blocks seen everywhere else in Iceland.

Hundreds of glacial streams pour down the mountainsides and combine into an immense swathe of braided rivers that rush through the Thórsmörk valley’s shifting bed of black sand. 

The colourful stone forms smooth, pyramid-shaped peaks, with slopes that lie somewhere between gentle and unforgiving. Depending on the weather and the light, the rocks and sand shine yellow and reddish-brown, streaked with blue, green, and purple ash impacted from ancient eruptions. On other days, the earth seems scorched and lifeless. In fact, much of Landmannalaugar is dead, the desert wake of volcanic destruction. The steam rising up from each valley adds a mystical sense and leads to the hidden lives of all the rivers, pools and springs that mark the land. Each is a private oasis where green marshes flourish in spite of the cold.

The name ‘Landmannalaugar’ simply means ‘bath of the land’s men’, which points to a long history of travellers who liked to come here for a warm dip in the many springs. Some things never change, and this is still the number-one spot in Iceland for all-natural, outdoor bathing. Unpredictable rivers and the tricky lava fields around Mt Hekla have prevented mass tourist development, but for hikers, Landmannalaugar is now the ultimate destination. Like all beautiful, remote places that become extremely popular, the scene at the main camp flips from a chaos of caravans one minute to ghostly emptiness the next.

From mid-July to mid-August, the place is a jam-packed hiking hell, not bad if you don’t mind having your wilderness with a side of civilisation. If things are busy when you arrive, do not despair, as it’s quite easy to step off the beaten path (just don’t step too far away). Just climb to the top of a hill and in every direction, the mountains go on for ever. 

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