I arrived in Reykjavik on June 24th carrying a 60 liter backpack filled with my camera gear, warm clothes, a sleeping bag, tent and freeze dried food. For the past few weeks I had been religiously studying my guidebook in anticipation for a thru hike connecting three of Iceland’s famous treks- the Hellismannaleið, Laugavegur and Fimmvörðuháls trails.
I wasn’t the only one either. A line of backpackers sporting gaiters, trekking poles and buffs formed in front of the bus station’s info booth, all of them with similar missions to traverse Iceland’s highlands. Unfortunately, we would all be disappointed to discover that the highlands were inaccessible due to an unusually high snow year. Busses could not pass and rescue crews had been busy all week evacuating hikers who somehow managed to slog their way into the unmarked and snow-covered terrain. I had to come up with a different plan.
Snow of this quantity is an anomaly at the end of June in Iceland. Despite the nation’s intimidating name, Iceland isn’t actually that cold. Due to warm drafts from the Atlantic, Iceland has a relatively mild climate, averaging about 0 °C (32 °F) in winter and 10 °C (50 °F) in summer which means that Iceland usually sees far more rain than snow.
Fortunately, it wasn’t too hard for me to come up with an awesome week-long adventure since my guidebook, Cicerone’s Walking and Trekking in Iceland, provided details for 49 day hikes and 10 multi-day treks around the entire island. This luxury wasn’t enjoyed by many of the other hikers who had traveled to Iceland with small printed maps of only the most popular treks in the area. After a few minutes of research with a very helpful employee at the info booth, I had a game-plan for the next 3 days that would set me up in a perfect position to “wing it” for the next week until my flight home.
Even though the entrance to the trek I planned to do was closed, this did not stop me from doing everything I could to see at least a part of this famous route. I grabbed the next bus to Þórsmörk, a mountain ridge with a few small huts. Þórsmörk is situated between the Tindfjallajökull and Eyjafjallajökull glaciers, which harbors the end of the Laugavegur trail and the beginning of the Fimmvörðuháls trail. I camped there for my first night under the bright midnight sun with my rain fly flapping in Iceland’s notoriously strong wind.
First thing in the morning, following the directions of my guide backwards, I back-hiked the Laugavegur trail passing through tiny birch brush and deep rivers, over black sand dunes and rugged lava fields and past glaciated mountains, deep canyons and pastel covered rock formations until I hit the end of the visible trail. From that point on- about four hours into my first day- the trail was engulfed in a deep snow. From there, I turned around and returned to Þórsmörk where I spent the night preparing for an inevitably snow covered traverse over the Fimmvörðuháls volcano and down the other side into the town of Skógar along Iceland’s Route 1, better known as the Ring Road.
Climbing up and over the pass, I trekked through ankle deep snow, pushed through insanely powerful winds and harsh hail, following a faint boot-pack and the directions in my guidebook. This 18-mile hike was painful, cold and tiring given the conditions, but worth every step to summit the Fimmvörðuháls volcano with its two massive craters, still warm and covered in fresh lava from its most recent eruption in 2010.
Perhaps my biggest “rookie mistake” was forgetting to bring gloves to a place called “Ice-land.” But with my hands huddled in a dry pair of wool socks, I continued over the pass and descended out of the wind to a magnificent river engulfed in a beautiful canyon dressed in volcanic pastel colors of green, orange and red until the water dumped into the ocean at Skógar’s black sand beach.
After a hot bowl of soup and a windy night in my tent, I walked to the edge of the road, stuck out my thumb and not more than five minutes passed before I was packed into the back of a big white van filled with an energetic Italian family. They blasted fiesta music as the car bounced down the road and the happy family cheered and sang as they pulled off at every viewpoint on the Ring Road before dropping me off with hugs and kisses at Skaftafell National Park.
Skaftafell filled me with awe and wonder as I hiked away from the busy parking lot and into the quiet mountains that are home to wildlife such as the arctic fox and geologic wonders like the massive black and white glaciers spilling icebergs into a vast pool of ice melt. Unfortunately, many of the high routes were closed due to an abundance of snow, but still, no more than two miles of hiking provided enough of a view and solitude to satisfy.
The following day was spent traversing the rest of the South Coast with the help of friendly strangers. When the time came where I was left with the choice of sitting in a bus for two days in order to tour the rest of the Ring Road or staying South to find more hiking adventures, I turned to my guidebook and became captivated by the Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands). I had to explore the island of Heimaey, which was accessible only by ferry or plane, home to a community of Icelanders, habitat to a population of puffins and location of the Eldfell Volcano, which erupted in 1973 and destroyed much of the old island.
Five rides and a ferry later, I stepped onto Heimaey to the smell of rotten fish and weed coming from rugged fishermen’s boats. Then I looked up in amazement at beautiful cliffs diving into the ocean, hundreds of birds flying overhead and the towering silhouette of Eldfell just in front of me. The hike up to the top was exceptionally short but walking through loose lava rock added a bit of a challenge. The summit proved to be just as breathtaking as the rest of Iceland with a large red crater, lava dumping into the ocean and a view of Southern Iceland and the surrounding Westman Islands.
Perhaps the best moment of my trip came the following day and my last night in my tent before making my way back to the States. After getting a ride to the town of Hveragerði, I followed the volcanic scent uphill for about 3.5 km to the Reykjadalur hot river, a geothermal bath up in the mountains that avoids the commercialization of destinations like the Blue Lagoon but still provides extreme relaxation and ten times the privacy. Arriving late in the evening, I set up camp near the river and made a few new friends, two trekkers from Belgium and another from Tasmania who all camped along with me. For a final night out in the nature of Iceland, it was perfect. A warm relaxing bath, good company and the golden Icelandic summer night light created a picturesque moment that will always stand out in my mind from the most incredible country I’ve explored yet.