Distance covered: 23 miles
You can get up as early as you want in the Iceland summer. I never got a precise account of what time the sun did rise but I think some “nights” I got to feel ambient light around 3 am before turning back to sleep. Most nights I’m on my own and don’t relate to anyone so it’s not obvious whether I got up early or not if I don’t look at the watch. Today I’m in a tent town that’s still quiet and still when I leave. It must be early even though we’re in full daylight. It’s clear and bright and I get ready for a memorable hiking day.
The Laugavegur trail is my second walk down memory lane on this trip. When I hiked this back in Y2K it wasn’t even called Laugavegur. I expect a very different hiking scene this time. Whatever that is, the setting will be equally breathtaking.
The trail starts with a short climb up the giant lava flow just behind the Landmannalaugar downtown. It’s just a rock wall as seen from camp that gives way to a meandering course along the surface of the lava field. It’s only when you climb farther and see the place from above that you realize it’s an actual flow that came to a halt in its present location.
The trail skirts the slopes of Bennisteinsalda which the literature announces as the most colorful mountain in Iceland. I particularly remember the distinct feature of a horn-like protuberance on its eastern slope. This is the kind of weird thing found in volcanic areas.
This side of the colorful mountain is choked full of geothermal activity with fumaroles coming out of the ground all over the place. You don’t need to go see, it’s trailside.
It’s sunny, bright and cool, top hiking weather and I make quick progress. Not many hikers around, just a few other early starters, but this is a huge leap from the previous 11 days. This is an established hiking route, there is a proper trail and there’s people with backpacks hiking on it.
The Laugavegur trail is spectacular beyond belief. It’s packed with interesting features that you don’t find in a “normal” wilderness trail: there’s the geothermal activity and also the rocks, the colours, the actual relief, all enhanced by a mountain environment that makes every corner an special event. At this stage, there must be millions of articles about it. For me, it’s very interesting to hike again 16 years later in a place two or three worlds away from what’s familiar to me. This helps isolating that former trip and this present one from the rest of my memories. It’s like looking at two pictures, side by side. It’s easy to see what has changed and what hasn’t. For a start, my pack is considerably lighter and my milage way bigger. What was a full day journey back then is just a seamless, initial section before taking a first break at Hrafentinnusker.
Hrafentinnusker and beyond
The Hrafentinnusker hut is the highest in the Laugavegur trail. When I started the short descent and got a view of the area I was shocked at the amount of activity in the campsite around. It was almost void in my previous visit. Today, many hikers are still packing up before heading off, some others already on their way south, the colorful groups clearly visible against the late season snow patches.
After some lunch, I join the caravan. Many different user types, with big groups of 15 or more and plenty of heavyweight backpackers with traditional gear, similar to how I looked 16 years back. It’s still shocking to be hiking among the crowds.
The trail goes over snow bridges, past thermal areas and along fantastic, colourful rhyolite hills that are incredibly scenic.
Trail traffic lessens by the time I get to the edge of the highland escarpment and what’s probably the most pictured view of the Laugavegur trail:
The moss-covered pyramids are so Iceland and always a spectacular sight. The Myrdalsjokull icecap high on the left and the Alftavatn lake for a bit of blue.
The trail comes down rather steeply. Next up is Alftavatn with its hut and campsite, probably the most scenic overnight along the Laugavegur. I spent the night here in my previous visit. I stop for a second lunch today.
South of Alftavatn, the trail meets several streams flowing from the Myrdalsjokull. The two biggest are bridged, there are warning signs about a third one that is not. It turns out a moderate ford with no significant danger. I spot several hikers taking their shoes off / changing shoes for the crossing while I step straight into the water. The streambed is so sandy that I need to get my own shoes off after the crossing to relieve them of several tons of black sand. Funny bummer.
The Laugavegur is so thorough in its portrait of Iceland that it includes a stretch of highland desert. I get transported back in time not only to Y2K, also a few days back when I was skirting the Vatnajokull. Now it’s a different jokull (Myrdals) and the environment much more social with other hiking parties nearby. Other than that, it’s the same old gravel-over-sand scenario.
This section includes the picturesque mossy hills sticking out of the gravelly flats.
It gets uncomfortably windy in a kind of uncomfort unique to wind. It’s not really cold and the hiking keeps me warm anyway but I get really fed up of the wind. Maybe I’m starting to get tired and just fed up in general. I still hike non-stop to Emstrur, the next hut & campsite as I want to keep my options of keeping on hiking today. It’s important to get to Emstrur on a timely fashion because overnighting on the Laugavegur is limited to the established campsites around the huts. Past Emstrur, the next one is at trail-end in Thorsmork, 10 miles further. This is a sad but probably necessary outcome of the huge number of hikers on this trail.
I get to Emstrur on time to keep going and reach Thorsmork but I decide against. It’d turn out to be a 30+ mile day that I don’t really need. My remaining mileage for the trip is split much better if I stay in Emstrur. The weather forecast for a rainy afternoon tomorrow is not enough reason to make the huge effort to get to Thorsmork today. I get a short-ish day and a free evening in Emstrur.
I would remember Emstrur as flat and open when it is not. I’m probably mixing Emstrur and Alftavatn in my memories. Emstrur is over a tender slope as the terrain comes down to the coastal valleys. Flat campsites are rather limited and mostly full by the time I get there but I get my spot. The views are nice with the chasm of the river canyon below and the Myrdalsjokull looming above.
The last section of the day was oddly tiring. It feels weird to be in camp so early and I feel a tad lost in the social environment. I go to sleep early.