The Laugavegur Trail - A Love Confession
Hiking the Laugavegurinn trail from a guide’s point of view.
The alarm goes off on a crisp mid-June morning, its 5.30 am and the sun is already shining, it’s one of those mornings that make you extra thankful for living here, on this island, in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. Excitement is in the air, my daypack is ready from the night before, a duffel filled with books about flowers, geology, elves and birds along with some necessities like a sleep mask, earplugs, extra electronic charges for the next four days, and my beloved GPS.
As I sit down for a quick breakfast I glance over the names of the adventure seeking friends to be, that I’ll be spending the next four days with. They are from all over the world, some are traveling solo and others in groups, but they all have one thing in common, at some point in the past, they sat in front of their computers and decided to book the Laugavegur trail, a four-day hike through the highlands of Iceland. Where they would sleep in huts, cook meals together, cross glacial rivers and most likely experience all weathers in one day. That is enough for me, I already feel like I know every one of them.
I grab my bags, quickly head to the office and hitch a ride with a coworker to the city center. I walk the last couple of blocks to Reykjavik City Hall, already in a full layer of wool, hiking pants and Tevas (these will come in handy later for river crossings), my backpack strapped on, hiking boots dangling on the side. Today’s departure, however, isn’t just any early morning hiking departure, today we are taking off for the first hike of the season. The first person I see is a fellow guide that will be leading another Laugavegur Trek, just by looking at his lid up smile I know he feels the exact same way as I do. The excitement and anticipation to get up to the Highlands of Iceland and to start a brand new season of hiking adventures are hard to put into words.
It’s just after eight o’clock now and the bus is loaded with supplies for the upcoming days, boxes filled with food, a gas stove, tents and sleeping bags. We are ready to start our drive to Landmannalaugar. At this point everyone is settled into their seats, we have briefly discussed what today’s plan looks like. I’m already acting like I know all these people and it occurs to me that this may be a little strange to them. The drive from Reykjavik to Landmannalaugar takes us about four hours, the first three on properly paved roads followed by a very slow and bumpy ride up to the highlands, this last part is, of course, the most fun and when people usually wake up from their morning nap.
Arriving in Landmannalaugar
Our bumpy drive is coming to an end, I’m once again reminded of just how beautiful this place is. On our short ride up here it seems like we have driven past every contrast nature has to offer, snow and steam, moss that is so green you think your eyes are playing tricks on you, and what can only be described as complete nothingness, and when you think you have reached a place where nothing can grow, all of a sudden these incredible pink flowers emerge and it’s hard not to be in awe of these tiny, beautiful, vibrant flowers that somehow managed to grow in this tough environment.
We have reached Landmannalaugar, we get out of the bus right next to a campground that is nothing but bare rocks. Now it is time to meet our supply driver that will make our life easy for the next few days, pack his car, have a quick bite to eat, grab our day packs and start what we all came here for, the Laugavegur Trail.
Day 1 – Landmannalaugar – Hrafntinnusker
We leave Landmannalaugar and it’s incredible contrasts behind us and start our hike up to Hrafntinnusker. Hrafntinnusker has a special place in my heart, it is the hut that I am always most excited, even relieved, to get to but strangely also the place I am most excited to leave behind the next morning. This first-day hike has the most elevation gain and can be quite exciting in terms of weather.
Today we start out with mild temperatures, sunshine, and wind. As we start climbing it crosses my mind that having had everyone put on their wool thermals may have been a bit of an overestimate, but I remind myself of what is most likely yet to come. We don’t have to go very far to hit our first patches of snow covered trail, the sun retreats behind some clouds and the temperature drops quite rapidly, making it pleasant for brisk walking.
Up we go and the snow is now starting to cover most of the ground, the sun seems to have left us for what is left of today and as we climb even higher the fog sets in, the wind picks up and it starts snowing (sideways, as it always does in Iceland). Now it’s time to throw on that water and windproof shell, grab a handful of chocolate raisins, form a single line and make sure we all journey on together. I tell my group what always crosses my mind once I get to the fog and snow, in not too long, in what will seem completely out of the blue, our hut will appear, and even tho it’s doesn’t look like much, it will be a beautiful sight.
The hut is nice and warm, filled with voices, laughter, dishes being washed and people getting to know each other, clothes are hung to dry. This first day has been just as wonderful as I imagined, soon everyone will lay down in their bunks, feeling that best kind of tired, mind rested and calm and the body ready for a night’s break.
Day 2 – Hrafntinnusker – Alftavatn
Today’s weather forecast is good and typical. It’s going to be partly sunny, some chance of rain (or even a little snow), not very windy but not calm either, it will change throughout the day, it will most likely be decent but it could go either way. It’s impossible to tell. We prepare accordingly.
In comparison to yesterday’s elevation gain, today is pretty mellow, we have started our hike to Alftavatn early today, after having had breakfast, prepared snacks and loaded the supply truck. Visibility is not great right at the beginning but you can tell that the sun is trying to peek out through the mist, giving our surrounding a mystical charm. It’s in weather like this when you find yourself questioning if there may even be the remotest possibility that all those stories about elves and trolls and otherworldly creatures have a grain of truth to them.
Spirits are high, people are getting to know each other better and I think we are all excited for what is yet to come. After having descended a bit the clouds part, the sun comes out, and yet again I am reminded of how incredibly lucky we are to be here. Today’s path, only about fourteen kilometers from where we started our hike yesterday brings us through landscape so unimaginably different you’d think we had already traveled to the ends of the earth.
After climbing a decent hill early on in the morning we sit down and break for a snack, you can already hear the magic of the Highlands has set in, these people that were complete strangers yesterday morning are now chatting away like old friends, sharing experiences, stories and cracking jokes. It’s not uncommon, and in fact, I think most people that have spent some time up here, could tell a story about how lifelong friendships have formed, how up here for whatever reason there is some kind of beautiful honesty where we let people see us, exactly as we are.
The smell as we walk into our hut at Alftavatn is like walking into someone’s warm embrace, standing there at the stove is our driver and tonight’s dinner is already simmering in a huge pot. Tonight we are having Kjotsupa, traditional Icelandic lamb stew. This particular dish is almost like a religion up here, a mix of root vegetables, rice and Icelandic lamb (that has roamed around free for its entire existence), we genuinely believe it is the answer to most problems and so we make a lot of it. While dinner is cooking we get settled, take full advantage of the luxury that showers have become, play some cards and enjoy my favorite pastime of reading the guestbook. Tomorrow’s river crossing is also discussed in great detail, we hear stories around the campground of the water being up above the waist but also that it barely reached a short person’s knees. Like the weather, this part remains unknown until the time comes to actually cross the river.
Day 3 – Alftavatn – Emstrur
Somehow, it’s sun and rain at the same time. We walk away from the cabin, in its beautiful setting where it sits right between the mountains, next to a lake and today is only made prettier by that beautiful rainbow stretching right over it.
Shortly after leaving the cabin we come to our first river crossing of today, this is a small little river and a good practice run for our crossing of Blafjallakvisl later today. We play a little game of make-pretend and imagine we are crossing a big glacial river, it’s already as cold so imagining that part isn’t hard, but we also loosen our backpacks, cross two and two together with arms linked and make sure we don’t stare down into the river as we walk. The trail is flat today, and again completely different from what we have seen for the past two days, about halfway through the day we come to the much anticipated Blafjallakvisl. Just a few meters up the river bed the other group getting ready to cross, there is a lot of water in the river. This is a place where you want to take extra precaution, after doing a practice crossing to check condition we decided the best way is for the guides to accompany clients across the river and for one of us to stand upstream to break the current. The plan goes smoothly, it takes us about half an hour to get everyone across, there is laughter and a bit of relief as we dry off and agree that crossing a glacial river is the perfect remedy for tired feet.
Surrounded by sand and bare mountains in what could best be described as a volcanic desert, it all of a sudden feels like the ground, is just ever so slightly, trembling. Looking back, out there in the distance we see a herd of horses running the path towards us. It truly feels like we have entered into some otherworldly adventure, we step of the to the side to let the horses pass us, they are small and strong, and ass they run past you can’t but feel the almost overwhelming power of nature we are surrounded by.
Day 4 – Emstrur – Thorsmork
Today is our fourth and last day, sitting around after dinner last night we decided to leave Emstrur early this morning, in order to have more time to look around in Thorsmork before catching our bus back to Reykjavik. The vegetation (or what has been a total lack there off) around the trail is starting to change quickly, more and more plants are appearing, little flowers are peeking out from the ground, there are even some trees (trees that are at most a bush, but we are still going to call them trees).
This lasts day hike is the longest, we cross one river and once we reach the so-called forest, there isn’t much further to go. We are greeted by sunshine as the lush views of Thorsmork appear. Our end point is Langidalur, a perfect little valley that opens up to the river Krossá and what must be the most impressive mountain view in Iceland. We sit down in front of the little store that doubles as a bar with no cooler, however on a day like today, sitting here amongst friends, looking out at the mountains that separate Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull, it doesn’t matter much if the beer is cold or warm.
The first hike of the season has come to an end, a feeling that is always bitter sweet. We all leave here slightly changed, having shared this rare and beautiful experience. With the knowledge that up here there is this undeniable intangible magic, one that is so obvious, so easy to feel, but so very hard to explain.
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