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.
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.
This polygon-shaped nature reserve encloses a mysterious landscape made from the many forms of water and lava.
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. 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 for ever.
What to see and do
The main bathing pool is right near the campsite and is quite shallow (and hot!), but with icy-cold water running in from the river. Keep your toes pointed upward to avoid getting burned. For this one spot, Icelandic tradition dictates nude bathing, though the influx of group tours now supports an equal balance between clothed and unclothed. However, if you go clothed, you will straight away be pegged as a tourist by locals. Please note that using soap is prohibited in any of the hot springs; also, a few springs are home to a biting parasite – quite harmless but still annoying.
Outside the main camp, the world is your oyster.
The main camp sits in the middle of several beautiful sites: the peaceful lake of Frostastaðavatn, the bright-green bogs of Grænagil (‘green gully’), the obsidian lava field of Laugahraun and the active volcano Mt Brennisteinsalda (855m). The mountain is extremely colourful (and climbable), with bright-red, black, blue, and grey streaks amid the yellow sulphur. Mt Bláhnúkur (943m) or ‘blue peak’ is the blue-grey mountain directly south from the camp. The panorama from the top is wondrous, but the hike is much steeper than it looks – only do it in decent weather. The crater Ljótpollur (‘ugly puddle’) is another must-see highlight: a clear pool set within a crater of black and red earth.
Outside the main camp, the world is your oyster. The hordes of hikers come here to trek the Laugavegurinn trail, which is truly rewarding. Still, the rest of the reserve is huge, empty, and wonderful. Feel free to go off the beaten track, but not too far. Good maps are sold in the shop, but given the number of hot springs and hot ground, it’s important to stick to the paths. Before heading off, be sure to let others know of your plans.
Laugavegurinn: the Laugavegur Trail
The highland trek between Landmannalaugar and Thórsmörk is one that every Icelander walks at least once in their lifetime. Crossing such primitive terrain is truly invigorating, and the overall experience is also exhilarating. The fact that this is a busy and well-trodden route doesn’t make it any less beautiful. The marked trail is 56km long and fluctuates a good 1,000m in altitude.
Warm (and dry!) mountain huts are situated all along the way – if hiking in July–August, book all your accommodation beforehand with the Icelandic Touring Association (tel: 568 2533; e email@example.com; www.fi.is). You may also camp with tents at each designated stop. Several maps are sold for the route – the ‘best’ (the most accurate and comprehensive) is the Landmælingar Íslands Sérkort: Thórsmörk- Landmannalaugar (1: 100,000) because it marks the trail and every single hot spring in the reserve. You can also just follow the trail posts with yellow tips.
To avoid wasting car-rental days on hiking, outside visitors can take the daily highland bus to Landmannalaugar and pick up another from Thórsmörk (or vice versa). It’s a great option. Obviously, the trek can be done in either direction. From Landmannalaugar, the first two days are considered the most difficult, after which it gets easier. It is also quite possible to speed things up and hike it through in three–four days, but that takes all the fun out of it.
Crossing such primitive terrain is truly invigorating, and the overall experience is also exhilarating.
Day 1: Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnu Sker
(12km) Cross the Laugahraun lava field then ascend the southern slope of Mt Brennisteinsalda and continue on the plateau to the bubbling hot springs of Stórihver. Cross the ‘saddle’ (söðull) between mountains to the hut at Mt Hrafntinnusker (1,128m). Geothermal activity and the nearby ice caves are popular, but use extreme caution and pay close attention to all the signs and warnings.
Day 2: Hrafntinnu Sker to Álftavatn
(12km) Descend southwards into the valley and continue to the glacier at Mt Háskerðingur, then walk down the steep slopes of Jökultungur and into the valley of streams called Gráshagi. Continue southwest towards the pair of huts [map page 243] on the heavenly shores of Álftavatn (‘swan lake’; 537m).
Day 3: Álftavatn to Emstrur
(15km) A day to get wet: wade the first river at Bratthálskvísi then pass south by the huts at the Hvanngil Gorge. Take the footbridge across the Kaldaklofskvísi River and take the less-travelled path (not the jeep track F261); wade another river (Bláfjallakvísi) and then cross the bridge at Nyrðri Emstruá. Continue across the rock flats to the pair of huts [map page 243] at Botnar (617m). This is a magical part of the area.
Day 4: Emstrur to Thórsmörk
(15km) Go around the top of the Emstruá Gorge, descend (steep!) to the footbridge, then loop back around to the top of Markarfljótsgljúfur. Follow the edge of this ‘canyon’ in which you must ford a number of streams, the largest of which is the last, Thrónga. Then enter into the valley at Thórsmörk (310m).
Die-hards often tack on another day of hiking to take them across the final mountain pass between Thórsmörk and Skógar, though this is periodically closed owing to the volcanic activity of Eyjafjallajökull.