Hiking Fimmvörðuháls without a Guide in Two Days

Fimmvörðuháls is the passageway between the Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers. The trail connects Skógar to Þórsmörk, via the steaming remnants of the 2010 volcanic eruption, where the two newest mountains in the world reside.

The Journey There

We started hitchhiking from Selfoss in the afternoon. The ring road lay before us and our friends waited at Skógar. Tomorrow we would hike the Fimmvörðuháls trail.

We waited for an hour or so in the dust, anxious for the mountains, as time gathered up. A car pulled in. Winding down his window, a smiling tattooed Icelandic man. We got in and our journey began. Our driver talked of Mt. Hekla, ‘the hooded one’, a nearby volcano, and in medieval times, the gateway to hell. He promised it would explode in the next few weeks, and invited us to watch it from his place.

The car picked up speed, onwards into the south, moving through transforming landscape. My attention was caught by deep mountains seated on the horizon, the kind of mountains Tolkien wrote of. These mountains evoke some kind of hypnotic rapture within me, hinting of an extraordinary wild beauty always slightly beyond. Our driver took us as far as Seljalandsfoss. Then we got out on the side of the road and the wind was fierce and wild.

We started to walk along the 1 road, backpacks on, thumbs out, and in a few moments a van full of young French men pulled up for us. This car is tightly packed and I am the only person who doesn’t speak French. So we can fit in their car my traveller friend, a 37 year old Swiss man, has to sit on my lap, a notion I find inexplicably hilarious. Then we are going again, and deep blue dusk is beginning to settle all around. Out the window mountains emerge and disappear behind layers of mist. We pick up speed. The man sitting next to me takes photos through the window. I laugh, sensing great adventure. The French guys leave us somewhere along the 1 road, six kilometres away from Skógar.

Walking along the ring road.

Traffic is rare now but we know we can walk it so we start, thumbs out just in case. After half an hour a camper van full of excited Americans pulls up, “You’re our first hitchhikers!” They exclaim, making us pose for photos before getting in. We learn they are planning the same hike as us, so they drive us all the way to the campsite. We arrive in style, in a huge expensive camper van, and greet our waiting friends and their bottle of whiskey, just as night descends.

Into the Mountains

The next morning we set off. The hike begins at the impressive Skógafoss – a famous waterfall with an ancient legend attached to it, of secret gold and treasures, hidden just behind the water. It has a width of 25 metres and a drop of 60, and is easily accessed by the ring road.

According to legend, the region’s first Viking settler, Þrasi Þórólfsson, buried a chest filled with treasure in a cave behind the waterfall. Years later, locals discovered the chest, but could only grasp the ring on its side before it disappeared behind the water once more. They gifted the ring to the local church, but still today the treasure remains, undiscovered, behind the waterfall. But, legend aside, for me the true treasures lay just beyond the foss, and over the hill. Stairs lead you above and behind Skógafoss, and through Edenic green landscapes along the eastern bank of the Skóga River. Moving through this land, the famous ‘waterfall way’, is like moving through some kind of earthly paradise. This area is comprised of around 26 waterfalls, each more dizzying than the last.

Two of the regions many waterfalls.

My friend and I were so struck by the beauty here that we ended up lingering for hours amidst misty valleys and roaring waterfalls while our friends left us behind, keen to complete the hike in one day.

The Fimmvörðuháls hike is extraordinary partly because the landscape it passes through transforms in such a striking way. After the ‘waterfall way’, we encounter ‘the ashtray’, a huge strange grey desolate place, which slowly turns glacial, as the passage between Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull, and the site of the famous 2010 eruption, draws near. We put up camp at the top of the glacier, next to the mountain hut, and spend the night there. Despite the bright and calm day, a storm rages in the night, with winds that shake the tents and threaten to pull them apart. Despite this, I sleep for twelve hours on top of the glacier, safe in the heart of the mountain.

The author in Skógar.

The next morning we fill up our water and continue on our way. Walking the path through this immense land with all my possessions on my back I feel like a medieval pilgrim.

Passing between the glaciers.

The morning is spent passing through glacier land, until we enter my favourite part of the hike; the volcanic stage. Here we encounter the two youngest mountains in the world, Moði and Magni. They were formed during the volcanic eruption in 2010, and still radiate heat. We leave our heavy backpacks at the bottom of these mountains and happily climb them, excitedly finding and showing each other beautiful sparkling colourful rocks. One of these mountains is red and purple, and the other is black and silver, like two nestling dragons. I take off my shoes and feel the volcanic heat beneath my feet. Maybe I have entered another universe, or perhaps a Star Trek set.

Móði, one of the two youngest mountains in the world.

We spend hours exploring the strange volcanic rock formations, where steam rises from deep caverns in the ground, and decide to have lunch here. Sitting in this strange pink landscape I feel like I have found paradise. Mountains unfold before us in all directions. We eat noodles at the top of the world.

The view from the volcanic region.

The hike then descends into Goðaland, the Land of the Gods, and then down towards Þórsmörk, or Thor’s forest. No words can describe the beauty of this region, except that it is appropriately named. If gods were to live anywhere on earth, it would certainly be here. This region is often considered Iceland’s most beautiful, and finishing the hike here feels like wandering into paradise.

Descending into Goðaland.

The journey down towards Þórsmörk is beautiful but exhausting, and at some points very steep and narrow. Finally reaching the Básar campground, nestled in the foot of this extraordinary land, is such a relief for my exhausted body. I feel that I need several days to digest the vastness of what I have experienced. I set up camp next to a small river and sleep for a long time, protected by the mountains all around.

Goðaland and Þórsmörk.

Facts

Fimmvörðuháls is a remarkable hike in the southern region of Iceland. Essentially, it is a passageway between two glaciers – Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull. The trail connects Skógar to Þórsmörk, via the steaming remnants of the 2010 volcanic eruption, where the two newest mountains in the world reside. In length, Fimmvörðuháls is around 15.5 miles (25 km), and takes between one to two days to complete. It can be fairly challenging, so only attempt it in one day if you are quite physically fit. The hike can be fairly evenly divided into three sections - the waterfall way, the vast steaming eruption site, and then Goðaland, the Land of the Gods, which leads down to Þórsmörk. Unless you hike there from Landmannalaugar or from Skógar, Þórsmörk can only be accessed by high-clearance four wheel drives, or by bus, due to several deep river crossings. It is cut off from the rest of Iceland, and feels like another universe.

The trail should only be attempted in the summer months as weather conditions can be dangerous. Even in high season be prepared to pass through many different seasons, as snowstorms, powerful winds, and mist are not uncommon in the high glaciers, even while Skógar and Þórsmörk remain in brilliant sunshine. Always check the weather report before heading out on a hike like this, and be prepared, as the land is wild and unpredictable.

Proper hiking gear is essential, and plenty of food and water. It is possible to drink from the Skógar River in the first part of the hike, but water sources are limited as one progresses into the later stages. Make sure to fill up at the Baldvinsskáli mountain hut at the halfway point, in the glacier region of the hike. It is also possible to sleep here - the hut houses twenty people inside, and there is a cheaper camping area outside. There is also a kitchen, toilet, and a social area. To stay inside the hut for a night costs ISK 7.000, and to camp costs ISK 2.000 per tent. To save money, I camped here rather than staying inside the hut. We were the only people to set up camp that night, as conditions were due to get very cold. There was a storm, but we were prepared, and secured our tents with rocks. If you intend to camp here, make sure you bring the right gear with you - a good quality sleeping bag, thermal clothing, and a strong waterproof tent are essential. Alternatively, you can pay ISK 500 for access to the facilities without an overnight stay. The hut is open between June 17th to August 31st, and stays can be booked online, or at Útivist´s office at Laugavegur 178k, Reykjavík, tel. +354 562 1000. The warden at Baldvinsskáli can be contacted by telephone at +354 893 4910.

The hike can be done in either direction, but starting at Skógar is recommended, as the initial incline is more gentle, and views walking this way are simply extraordinary, on either side of the hike. The descent into Þórsmörk, with its monumental landscapes, can be very steep and narrow, so exert caution. Þórsmörk tends to get better weather than surrounding regions, and is a very popular hiking destination, so there are several campsites to chose between. I camped at the Básar site for ISK 1.500, in a shaded wooded region. There is also a Básar hut with accommodation space for 83 people for ISK 7.000 a night. Here there are showers and kitchen facilities, but not many options for buying food. To book a stay here, the warden can be contacted at +354 893 2910. I am more of a hitch hiking and dumpster diving kind of traveller, but if you have more money to spare there are other options in the region. Volcano Huts Þórsmörk, for ISK 16.849, offer accommodation in a resort in Húsadalur Valley, where there is a sauna, natural pool, restaurant, bar, and bus stop. They offer guided tours and activities, and the option to hire a 4x4 for exploration further afield. As winter approaches, and while the Fimmvörðuháls trail is closed, there are still options to explore the local region - Volcano Huts arrange guided overnight winter stays and similar events. More information on these events can be found online, or by telephone at +354 552 8300. At the start of the hike, it is also possible to camp at Skógar for ISK 1.500. The scenery here is fantastic, but the campsite charges extra for showers and use of the toilet facilities.

Some chose to combine Fimmvörðuháls with the Laugavegur hike between Þórsmörk and Landmannalaugar, a psychedelic highland hot spring region. The Laugavegur hike is 33.6 miles (54 km), and was listed by National Geographic as one of the most beautiful trails in the world. Combining these two hikes is around 45 miles (80 km) and can take just under a week, depending on speed. It is possible to buy food at Þórsmörk from a camping shop, but the store is only open sporadically for a couple of hours a day. Alternatively the Volcano Huts restaurant is a short hike away from Básar. Leaving the Þórsmörk region can be difficult without a super jeep, so bare in mind it may be necessary to buy a bus ticket back to the ring road. As with any multi-day hike, bring proper gear, be prepared for anything, and, most importantly, enjoy the immense and wild landscape.

Dogspotting at Eyjafjallajökull. 

 

Start/finish                     Skógafoss / Þórsmörk

Duration                         1 or 2 days

Distance                        14.5 miles (23.4 km)

Season                           Summer

Maximum elevation      1068 m./ 3504 ft.

 

All photos: ©Pearl Jackson-Payen.