Thórsmörk and Landmannalaugar

Thórsmörk

‘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, interlocking 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.

Thorsmork Iceland
© Peter Wemmert, Shutterstock

On the way into the valley, the road passes the pretty glacial tongues of Gígjökull and Steinsholtsjökull, both extending from Eyjafjallajökull. The woods, from whence comes the name ‘Thórsmörk’, include a number of shady, low-lying birch forests protected by the wind in the hollows between the mountains. Once you get into the heart of the valley, all you need are a good pair of hiking boots and the urge to explore hill and dale. A relatively short hike takes you to the top of Mt Valahnúkur (465m), offering great views out over the valley Langidalur. A longer trail goes to the top of Mt Rjúpnafell (830m) and another ascends to the icy edges of Mýrdalsjökull. Also, take a look at the tell-tale rock formations of Tröllakirkja (troll’s church). The trail to Skógar passes the southern uplands of the valley, known as Goðaland or ‘God’s land’. After a day’s hiking, have a good, hot soak in Thórslaug, the manmade but naturally heated wading pool near the Volcano Huts. Your body will thank you.

Getting there and away

Inaccessibility is a large part of Thórsmörk’s appeal. The landscape is untarnished and the numbers of tourists are relatively few. The jeep track from the ring road (Route F249) is for hefty 4×4 vehicles only. Do not try to make the drive in a compact car: you will most likely get stranded as drivers must cross no fewer than 20 rivers, some of which rise to depths of more than 1m. Small cars just won’t make it. If you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t chance it. In summer, a highland bus runs twice a day between Reykjavík and Thórsmörk via Hella and Hvolsvöllur.

Landmannalaugar

Hot springs and volcanoes are found just about everywhere in Iceland, but nothing compares to the wild wonderland that is Landmannalaugar (pronounced lahndmahn-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. The colourful stone forms smooth, pyramidshaped 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.

© Jerzy Strzelecki Galleries, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Until recently, unpredictable rivers and the tricky lava fields around Mt Hekla prevented mass tourist development, but as the ultimate highland destination, Landmannalaugar now attracts more hikers than the trail can handle in a single season. Like all beautiful, remote places that become extremely popular too quickly, 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. However, do not despair, as it’s quite easy to step off the beaten path (just don’t step too far away). Take particular note of all signs and warnings. Just climb to the top of a hill and in every direction, the mountains go on forever.

Getting there and away

If you are driving from the west and unsure of your vehicle’s ability, take the ‘high’ road – take Route 32 (which meets up with Route 26) and turn south on Route F208. That way you’ll avoid any fords. If you’ve got a good 4×4, then it’s quicker to drive directly east along Route F225 (which branches off Route 26) but you must ford a number of rivers.

Several highland buses service Landmannalaugar from June to mid-September. Reykjavík Excursions has a twice-daily bus to and from the Reykjavík Campsite, stopping off at BSÍ on the way, while TREX makes three trips a day to and from City Hall in downtown Reykjavík. In either direction, the buses stop in Landmannalaugar for a little under 3 hours.

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