Thru-hiking Skógar to Leirubakki: the longest marked trek in Iceland

5개월 전

Iceland's longest continuous marked trail, some say. Where the night is not, the wind wails, the rain rages, and geysers gurgle.

Starting June 15, 2019, I hiked from Skógar to Leirubakki in Iceland. My five day trek covered the following connected trails:

  1. Fimmvörðuháls Trail (Skógar and Þórsmörk, 24 km)
  2. Laugavegur Trail (Þórsmörk to Landmannalaugar, 63 km)
  3. Hellismannaleið Trail (Landmannalaugar to Rjúpnavellir, 55 km)
  4. Hellismannaleið Trail Extension (Rjúpnavellir to Leirubakki, 25 km)

Overview

The hike totaled 167 kilometers (104 miles, GPS track) across many highlights of the Southern Icelandic wilderness:

ViewRanger GPS Track: 2019-06-15 Skogar to Leirubakki in Iceland

While Iceland is home to many multi-day hikes, I chose this Southern excursion due to its accessible logistics and the recommendations of my trusted counsel: Hayden the nomadic giant; Tómas the native, Andersen the nice; and Jake the ultralight introvert.

As I would learn along the way, my path traversed Iceland's longest continuous marked hiking trail system. Please comment if this assertion is incorrect or if it is possible to extend this trek further.

I hiked northbound for additional flexibility, since it provided more potential exit points while ensuring I covered the two most popular segments: the Fimmvörðuháls and Laugavegur trails. While these trails were magnificent, they were also crowded. So if you seek solitude in nature and more opportunities for wild camping, consider the Hellismannaleið trail and its extension.

Icelandic names take a bit of repetition and practice to get used to. This picture of bus routes may be somewhat helpful in seeing how the destinations I mention are oriented:

Trex.is Bus Route Map

I began in Skógar near the Southern coast. Going into the hike, I expected the named villages along the route to be towns. However, in general they were a couple buildings, usually belonging to a single seasonal establishment. Since mid June is early in the season, with substantial snowpack in many areas, several of the villages were still dormant. Hence, it's best to carry everything you need and expect little infrastructure along the way.

Fimmvörðuháls Trail

I met several other hikers on the bus from Reykjavík to Skógar. We posed for a quick picture before setting off:

hikers starting in Skógar

On the first day, I hiked with a French medic (black fleece above). At one point, he asked whether we should take a break to eat, to which I replied, "I already ate." The wonders of multitasking while walking!

The landscapes were expansive.

Fimmvörðuháls Trail marker

The water, rocks, snow, vegetation, and clouds formed compositions of earthen colors:

waterfall

At altitude, the mist and snow merged into a ghostly gray:

rocks snow in the cloud

On the way down, the tectonic textures did not disappoint:

hillslope jigsaw

This rock formation appeared deceivingly anthropomorphic:

rock formation

That night, the Frenchman and I camped at the Básar campground in Þórsmörk. With a nice forest canopy and valley basin to shelter us from the ever-present elements of light and wind, I entered a deep and sustained slumber.

This was the only night where sleep was pleasant. Perhaps the greatest battle going forward was the dreaded night where no amount of exhaustion, melatonin, or earplugs could overcome the forces of restlessness in these everlit arctic borderlands.

Laugavegur Trail

The next morning I set out alone, as I would be for the remainder of the hike.

Laugavegur trail sign

Early in the day, I crossed a stream with my shoes on, for convenience not necessity. Wet sneakers pushed me close to my blister threshold, and for the remainder of the hike I applied maximum blister prevention, consisting of taping hotspots with Leukotape P, crossing streams barefoot or circumnavigating them, and wearing Injinji toe socks as a liner.

Later in the day, I crossed the behemoth Bláfjallakvísl river barefoot:

Big Stream Crossing

A warden I met afterwards said this is the one water crossing where he recommends footwear. It is also a road crossing and is wide. The frigidity rushed me forward against the competing objective of carefully selecting my footing.

Some unfiltered water was more delicious than others:

Water Refill

A great valley carved by rushing water revealed a red underbelly to the green surface:

red in cliffside

The snow had horns:

snow horns

It was rumored that camping outside of established campgrounds, which charge fees if in operation, is prohibited on the Laugavegur trail. However, after 20 plus miles on the day, I arrived to the Álftavatn huts next to an alpine lake of the same name. I was shocked by the location of the campsites, which seemed to be directly in the line of fire of the fierce winds accelerating from over the lake.

So I continued on and slept (or attempted to) aside a large boulder a bit off the trail:

Offtrail Campsite

Nature would punish me for my possibly prohibited cowboy camping. By time I gave up on sleeping around 4 AM, my quilt was dripping with condensation. Apparently, my intuition that clear skies would mean little dew was incorrect.

To add insult to injury, not more than 20 minutes into hiking, I encountered a rugged stream crossing. Have I mentioned that Iceland is cold, especially when the sun makes its brief dip below the horizon?

But at the top of the pass, I was rewarded with a steam shadow:

Steam shadow

As well as a more traditional shadow:

Panoramic Shaddow

Long stretches of snowpack allowed for optimized routing and smooth sailing:

Snow passage

I found the snow was most compact and responsive when off the beaten path. Post-holing ⁠— a term some hikers use for when their feet sink into the snow ⁠— was non-existent.

Based on the recommendation of a warden at the Hrafntinnusker hut, I ventured off the Laugavegur to a nearby ice cave that had collapsed, taking with it a German explorer — a tragic reminder of the drastic ephemerality of Iceland's volcanic landscapes.

The trek from the hut to the ice cave was a nice opportunity to escape the crowds, practice my skiing (without skis), and catch some views:

View from the Hrafntinnusker ice cave

The only problem was that I didn't see the ice cave ahead … until I turned around and witnessed:

Collapsed Ice cave at Hrafntinnusker

Take a guess on what topographical features give rise to such a sight.

I continued on to Landmannalaugar. The early start that morning paid off as a prolonged rain began as I neared camp. If you are looking to combine the Laugavegur and Hellismannaleið trails, check out the route I took through the Laugahraun lava field to avoid duplicating trail. This section never ceased to amaze:

Laugahraun lava field bird

At Landmannalaugar, I setup up my tent at the most protected site I could find, which the many other campers seemed to have overlooked:

Landmannalaugar tent setup

I recuperated in the hot springs, enjoying the juxtaposition of cold rain and geothermal bath:

Landmannalaugar Hot Springs

While not a problem for the day-tourists that arrive by the bus load, those who pass through Landmannalaugar on foot may want to avoid unnecessarily wetting their limited wardrobe. When I asked the women at the information office whether it was acceptable to enter the hot springs nude, she replied, "Of course, this is Iceland."

Hellismannaleið Trail

Feeling refreshed, sporting two pairs of surprisingly dry socks, I embarked on the Hellismannaleið trail to Rjúpnavellir. The morning started by crossing a stream-ridden valley before hiking out over the mountains in the distance:

Starting the Hellismannaleið

I successfully hopped over most of the streams … until I failed, soaking my shoes. At least I could just walk right through the remaining valley streams with my shoes on. Later I would discover a new trick for hopping streams: temporarily extending my trekking poles to max height and swinging over the crossing.

A bit later, nature gifted me with a bridge of sorts:

Natural bridge

Unlike the previous trails where hikers were plentiful, I would only see a single couple for the entirety of my time on the Hellismannaleið. Judge for yourself, but the beauty of this trail is distinct and unsurpassed by the Fimmvörðuháls and Laugavegur trails. Meanwhile, there were none of the sights that make Jake mad, like foam sleeping pads still in their plastic shrinkwrap and backpacks with rain covers on a sunny day.

A took a liking to a lost beanie that I picked up earlier in the hike:

Beanie

Also notice the water bottle clip on my shoulder strap, which I was sporting for the first time. I became a big fan … once I performed substantial aftermarket modifications (i.e. superglue) to the velcro attachment system.

No complaining about a stream crossing when it's this tranquil:

Stream crossing Hellismannaleið

The landscapes transitioned to desert:

Desert depression

The wind was at my back, and I was covering more miles in a day than I ever had before. If the wind direction is consistent, this is a big benefit to the Landmannalaugar to Rjúpnavellir orientation.

Behold, Hekla, one of Iceland's most active volcanoes, having last erupted in 2000.

Hekla

For the remainder of the hike, Hekla would remain as a frequent site. In many ways, Hellismannaleið and its extended versions are a homage to Hekla.

I arrived to Áfangagil, which had not yet opened for the season, but did have running water and an unlocked outhouse:

Áfangagil trail sign

The trail signs matched the style of trail markers on the Hellismannaleið: white-tipped posts in the ground.

The ground at Áfangagil was uneven, and only one tight spot seemed to offer wind protection:

Áfangagil tent site behind outhouse

Sharp volcanic rock below made me wish I had brought my polycro groundsheet to protect my Dyneema Composite Fabric bathtub floor. In retrospect, I should have left the thinlight pad at home and brought the polycro instead.

The arid scenes of endless gravel changed abrutly, as a stream emerged from nowhere:

Stream from nowhere

There were some electronic instruments, perhaps to measure siesmic activity? The stream provided a prolonged oasis, replete with plant life, fish, and waterfalls:

Waterfalls

When I saw the endless fields of lupine (Lupinus nootkatensis), my world turned upside down:

lupine, Lupinus nootkatensis

Purple as far as the eye could see. I would later learn lupine is non-native species to Iceland, with locals having mixed opinions about this foreign invader.

Hellismannaleið Trail Extension

I arrived to Rjúpnavellir around 10:30 AM. The online GPS route I was using for the Hellismannaleið Trail ended here. My bus was scheduled to stop at Leirubakki, a bit down the road, at 7:30 PM. I was planning on either road walking or hitch-hiking.

But to my surprise, the trail signs indicated that I had not yet completed the Hellismannaleið Trail:

Rjúpnavellir sign shows trail continue

The trail goes on! Another 25 kilometers to Leirubakki! So not only did I have some extra time on my hands, but the Hellismannaleið trail seemed to continue in a circuitous route to my pickup spot. I had to continue.

First, I grabbed a beer at Rjúpnavellir for under $2 USD. While Iceland is generally quite expensive, Rjúpnavellir was the exception. Another customer came to recharge his RV while napping… they charged him 500 ISK, which is the same price Básar charged me to briefly charge my external phone battery three days earlier. Wifi was free, and I began preloading the maps for the extension.

The staff was helpful. While the boss was aware of the trail to Leirubakki, he had only done the first section to a waterfall. However, he claimed that I was on the longest marked trail in Iceland, and I certainly did not want to stop short.

So I set off. It quickly became apparent that the footpath for the trail had become quite overgrown (if it ever existed at all). However, hundreds of white-tipped posts were dutifully spaced and placed to mark the trail. Nonetheless, I wouldn't suggest embarking on this trail without GPS assistance.

Hiking at a hurried pace as to not miss the bus, I reached the waterfall:

dirty waterfall on Hellismannaleið Trail extension

There was a long stretch of bushwacking through waist-high brush. Having learned of the lupine invasion, I trampled as many as possible (to little effect).

The trail eventually joined with a dirt road, which seemed to be frequented by horseback. The road passed by a quaint turf house.

turf house

Later the trail diverged from the dirt road. Here's what the trail markers looked like:

trail marker

The heavy infrastructure was generally in good shape, including a bridge and several ladders over fences:

ladder over fence

Much of the land, especially near the end, seemed to have been used for grazing somewhat recently. I left many footprints:

footprint

But by time you arrive, my footprints will have blown away. Finally, I reached Leirubakki, the end:

selfie at real end

Note the sign clearly indicates that the Hellismannaleið trail starts here. But since other resources show Rjúpnavellir as the terminus, I've decided to refer to this portion as the "extension".

With still a bit more time until the bus arrived, I visited the Hekla Center located in Leirubakki. In case you were wondering what to do if Hekla erupts, I took a picture of one of the exhibits:

writing on the wall of the Hekla Visitor Center museum

Gear

Putting together my gear list for this trip was a fun challenge. Before the hike, I gave a professional presentation in London. Therefore, my gear list contains a section of travel/business-related gear that I left at the Reykjavík Campsite.

I'd advise hikers to be well prepared against the cold, wind, and rain. I hiked several days in shorts, but having lightweight leg and arm covering can help protect against flies (big buzzing flies, not mosquitos) and the sun. I always hike with GPS and maps on my phone, but this was especially improtant for the Hellismannaleið trail (& extension).

My father often makes gear recommendations that deviate from the ultralight philosophy, such as wearing heavy hiking boots and bringing extra pairs of clothing. I disregarded this advice. He did however recommend one item I am glad I brought: the snow baskets for my trekking poles.

Since I was flying, with no checked bags, I made sure not to take anything that would be problematic for the airport scanners. The carbon fiber tent stakes and decomposable trekking poles passed through security four times. I used my Trail Designs titanium wind screen with Esbit fuel.

Since I was flying through the UK, I couldn't bring any food containing meat, dairy, or potatoes. I sure was sick of nuts by the end. Many of the huts did have hiker boxes, where I picked up some basic dehydrated meals.

I didn't bring a headlight or water filter, based on Tómas' advice. However, a few water treatment tablets (repackaged into a plastic pen casing, of course) would have been nice for some water sources located downstream of grazing grounds or other fecal matter of unknown origin.

Summary

What an amazing trek. If you're seeking a longer hike than the usual Fimmvörðuháls and Laugavegur trails, consider adding on the Hellismannaleið. If you're feeling adventurous and are of a completionary temperament go all the way to/from Leirubakki as opposed to Rjúpnavellir.

Iceland is an amazing natural resource. Help maintain it on the trail by picking up any litter. Hiking is a great way to enjoy Iceland while avoiding many of the more costly and thus environmentally destructive forms of tourism.

Iceland's beauty comes with risk, so please make sure to prepare sufficiently. Plan for rugged conditions. I got lucky with the weather, so make sure you have backup plans should your pace be slower than expected. Note that most common itineraries for these trails take approximately double the days (i.e. 9 days as opposed to 5).

License

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Very cool. Keep it up mate. Inspirational to see people getting out there and experiencing the real world. I will get to iceland one day; so many places to see in this world.

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Surprised you haven't been, but guessing with the adventures you take, Iceland may not too far off in your future.

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One day. Lots of places to go. Just starting a 6000 mile 4WD trip in Australia with our kids.

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Wow, sounds like you'll be busy in Australia for quite a while! Do you record your GPS tracks? Would be cool to see that entire journey on a map.

Hi dhimmel,

This post has been upvoted by the Curie community curation project and associated vote trail as exceptional content (human curated and reviewed). Have a great day :)

Visit curiesteem.com or join the Curie Discord community to learn more.

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Thanks @curie. You've picked on of my best to support!

I've posted a link on the ultralight subreddit, so hopefully fellow hikers will find it useful.

This is not just a hike this is an adventure! I can't even imagine how it would feel to be there trekking those landscapes, seeing the snowy peaks and walking by geysers, the whole post is so exciting and the pictures are of the best I've seen, great job! Thanks for sharing!


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Certainly, go ahead and include this in the Author Showcase. BTW, I applied a CC BY 4.0 license to my post, so no one needs to ask me to reuse the content as long as they provide attribution (like @curie does). Cheers.

Wow!!!!! A true expedition, Himmelstein! This must be your fastest hike in extreme climate yet!

Nice BRIDGE! I also love the ghostly gray!

Have I mentioned that Iceland is cold, especially when the sun makes its brief dip below the horizon?

I can’t even imagine…

Love has surrounded himself by volcanic elements twice this year! Good luck the third coming adventure!!!

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Thanks ❤️🌳. Yes volcanic islands seem to be the real deal for ecotourism. Seems like there are many left for us to explore.

Wow, just wow! Only have a few seconds and from the pics alone, this is an amazing journey your on. Tomorrow I'll read and catch up on all the cool details.

Damn - this is National Geographic standard!! Wow!! Stunning images, and soooo much detail, down to the gear list.

I simply need to go back and scroll through each image slowly... to savour it and feel the wind across the amazing volcanic landscape.

Sleeping on that?? LOL. Your mat thoughts made me smile.

What does the water taste like? High iron content? Metallic? Just curious.

I feel enriched reading your post tonight, as I sit here sweating in Northern Thailand where it's still 30C at 9pm. Grateful for globalization and the internet while my wanderlust feet itch rather badly.

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The water tasted pure. I didn't taste any metals or iron. Most of it was coming from snow melt, so it was cold and fresh.

Wow. This is the best post about Iceland I have ever seen on Steem (and probably elsewere in the cyber space too). Epic hike and stunning landscape shots. Oustanding travel report. You could have added the #travelfeed tag so that the whole travel community of Steem could enjoy it.

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Didn't know #travelfeed. Updated the post to include it as a sixth tag. @steempeak allows up to 10, but perhaps other browsers will like steemit.com cut off at five?

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Yeah, probably. I think it is actually too late anyway. #travelfeed has a great team of curators who manually go through all posts with the tag and upvote and resteem the best ones of the day (and yours was published yesterday). I am 100% sure they would reward and resteemed this post as it really is an oustanding piece of travel blogging. But no worries, you will use it next time ;)

Wow! This is definitely one of the best, if not the best hiking post I've read on Steemit. Ive only been to Iceland once, and saw the 'touristy' side of things and that was beautiful enough. Your hike takes us through some stunning landscape which most would never get a chance to go. Thanks for that.

By the way, I'm part of the @SteemitWorldmap curation team and it would be great to see your post on the map. You can find out more about it on http://steemitworldmap.com. Just click on the 'code' at the bottom of the map and follow the instructions or check out the FAQ to get your post on the map. Hope to see you soon and that you will follow us @steemitworldmap for our daily #TravelDigest!!!

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Okay I edited this post to include the following line:

[//]:# (!steemitworldmap 63.992363 lat -20.014995 long  d3scr)

Will @SteemitWorldmap detect the update?

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You should get an auto comment in a minute confirming that it's been pinned onto the map

What a great way to present a travel story, Form the introduction we know this is a serious and going to be a worthy read as you included the map, the number of trails and its route. The photographs are looking great too. The water falls - especially the long shot and the close ones really deserves a special mention.

It looks like a sunny day which might had been perfect for the trekking. It also seems to a remote place where number of peoples that comes for this trekking is very less.

Few photographs really looks like from another planet in fact. DO you done any photoshopping? There is a panoramic capture mode in mobiles, if you never tried it check, you could make a 360 degree view by rotating it.

Thanks for this post as it was able enjoy a place that have zero chance to make a visit, so this is really a worthy one.

Cheers

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All the photos were shot from my Pixel 2 phone. No filters or photoshop besides what the Pixel 2 does automatically (it's rumored to exaggerate some colors). A few of the photos did use the panorama feature.

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Those are all great photos, Keep posting more!

Posted using Partiko Android

hey dear @dhimmel, very nice post! Iceland must be a fantastic place, I imagine it green in summer and white in winter, with these volcanoes that continually "sing" some songs !! did you feel any shock? what season did you go to?
I don't know if I would be so intrepid to camp in the cold, do you have to bring your tent in the camps or do you find some hut where you can stay with your sleeping bag?
congratulation for your curie vote, for your beautiful pictures and for all the details you gave us :-))

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I brought my tent and didn't stay in huts. You can stay in huts, but it's more expensive and limits where you can stay. Since I generally just hike until I'm tired, I prefer to not have to plan where to sleep. Many other hikers come in with an exact itinerary, but I think that's a mistake, since it takes more planning and limits your freedom on the trail.

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yes, in this sense you are right, you have absolute freedom of movement. but you must also be well prepared and equipped! Did you learn everything by yourself or did you do some mountaineering courses?

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No mountaineering courses, but I'm not sure any of my hike was extreme enough to qualify as mountaineering. Lot's of my skills I've learned from past hikes, like the John Muir Trail with @trang or the Tour des Aiguilles Rouges.

Also I read r/ulgralight and watch many YouTube videos. For example, before getting the pot / stove I used for this trip, I watched every related video on this channel. It is common for me to research a piece of gear for several weeks, while considering its synergy with my existing and future gear, before I am ready to pull the trigger on a purchase.

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in short, you are a really self-taught optimist !! optimistic in the sense that you are able to arrange yourself in what you need and you have enough confidence in yourself to think that it will work !! good, I do not know if I would trust myself and my choices to make a difficult excursion in the mountains for many days !!

What an amazing experience! I'm glad that you find a place there with no tourists. I've heard many times that Iceland becomes overcrowded with tourists..

Your photos are amazing! I'm sorry for that always being wet part :) I would probably freak out if I would know that I have to walk another 25 km that I wouldn't know about. But well.. when you have to, you have to :)

Thank you for sharing and have a lovely day!

What a nice trip :) amazing pictures thank you for sharing

Excellent read @dhimmel. What an exciting trip—nice tour.

I have only heard about Iceland and kept it into my travel wish-list... I think you really enjoyed overall trip.. Did you visit Black beach Iceland??

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Didn't get a chance to check out Black Beach. My flight arrived at 2 AM the day I started the hike and returned 7 AM the day after I finished. Was glad I got to complete the trek with such little time to spare.

Sorry I found this too late for my upvote to do any good. I've never been into hiking, but I sure enjoy looking at the photos that hikers take! That was such an amazing adventure. Thanks for sharing!

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Beautiful documentary
Extraordinary your hiking trip, you provide many interesting information for those who want to make this beautiful walk.
Good detail of the shoe when crossing the rivers.
I love your spirit to clean the earth where you step.
Stay great!

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Very good explanation, also the photos look beautiful. I would like to visit Iceland, it looks great!

Looks magical !

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