Travel: Hiking in Landmannalaugar, A Remote Gem in Iceland

Landmannalaugar is a space shaped from fairytales. The silica-rich mountains of the area are made of rhyolite, a type of volcanic rock, and streaked with the colors of a rainbow – red, blue, pink, green and yellow. It was historically a geothermal retreat for settlers, and the little pool at the base of the mountain was named The People’s Pool. Today, it still remains a bath for adventurers wishing to rest tired limbs after a long day of hiking. It’s no wonder this place is known as Iceland’s Pearl of the Highlands.

How to Get to Landmannalaugar

Starkly contrasted against a black lava field called Laugahraun, this gem of a place is tucked away in the heart of Fjallaback Nature Reserve and takes about two and a half hours to get to from the closest town (three hours if you’re coming from Reykjavik). We stayed at Fludir near the Golden Circle, and took the Northern Route, which according to the reviews was the easiest.

The first hour of the drive was on paved road, and I would recommend filling up the gas tank at Fludir or Arnes, as there will be no gas stations for miles around. After an hour, the road gradually changes to gravel, and then to F-Roads. You need to make sure you have an F-Road allowed car when you rent one at the airport. The F-roads were rough and really slowed down our driving. Some people were zooming along in their trucks, but even they were bouncing past the rocky terrain. After about an hour of F-Roads, the last stretch was on gravel, which was much easier to manage. Thirty minutes more until we got to the first parking lot. There are technically two parking lots but to get to the second, you must cross a river. We came on a summer day and the river tide was low. Still, we chose to park in the first lot since the walk to the second only took five minutes. We didn’t want to risk ruining our rental car. I have heard that getting to Landmannalaugar from the North is the only way to avoid a river crossing.

The river crossing on a summer day in July. Low tide!

Despite this, it is worth the drive, even for a day trip. If you wish to make the most out of your drive, there is a campsite at the base of the mountains. Or better yet, Landmannalaugar is the start of an epic, three-day trek called Laugavegur Trek, which is rated the number one multi-day hike option in Iceland.

The Campsite at Landmannalaugar

There is a campground at Landmannalaugar and a decent number of people were posted up. Since there are multiple day-hikes in the area, I assume it was common for people to stay overnight. The campsite has a stand where you can buy snacks and supplies. At this same stand, you’ll need to purchase a wrist band to use the facilities. Since we were hiking all day (and chugging water on those steep ascents), we did pay for a restroom pass. It became useful when we changed out of our hiking gear and into our bathing suits for the People’s Pool later on. It isn’t necessary to purchase anything ahead of time or to reserve a camping spot. We saw a number of people walk up to the window and ask to buy a spot for the night. Nomad living and campervan life is common in Iceland, so most of the people just post up where they please. I can very much understand why Landmannalaugar is one of those spots. To note, there are also beds to be rented out in two huts behind the supply store (if camping isn’t your thing). A peek into the building windows indicated that there was a working kitchen and common room with electricity and running water. I would look into how to reserve these huts ahead of time.

The campsite from far away. The huts can also be seen from here.

Laugahraun Lava Fields

We started our hikes behind the aforementioned huts. Into the lava fields we went. There was an initial hilly climb that took less than a few minutes to complete. After that, it was an easy stroll for half of the loop trail. The best thing about this area is that all trails are marked by color-coded posts. The lava fields were demarcated with orange/green/white posts – since they are also the start of two other trails.

The Lava Fields.

There was a lot to be seen in the lava fields. Crazy rock formations and a stunning sea of black volcanic rock surrounded you completely. It felt like being on Mars, or being the lone survivor after the world’s doom. Eventually, you will come to a clearing that gives you a great view of the beautifully colored mountains. The view from the bottom is just as amazing as the view from the top, so I would stop to gander. Halfway around the loop trail is the opportunity to veer right. Tall grass beckoned us towards the Brenneinsteida Loop (green posts) and we hugged the mountain side going in a counter-clockwise direction. It seemed that clock-wise was the popular decision, but I do think counter-clockwise was the easier path since the steepest of hills were climbed upwards rather than downwards. This isn’t to say that sliding down gravelly hills is impossible, but I would prefer to do steep descents with walking sticks which I didn’t have at hand on that day. In the end, the counter-clockwise decision on our part was pure luck, and like most things in our life, we do have a knack for going against the grain.

Black rock juxtaposed against white snow.
The valley view before you leave Lagauhraun to chase Brenneinsteida.

Brenneinsteida Loop

From the lava fields, you hug a grassy trail around the mountain’s base. Even in mid July, there was a patch of melting snow on the back side of the mountain where the light doesn’t hit it as much. Hiking boots are a must for this trail, although hiking poles are not. The melting snow is nothing but a short patch and if you’d like to stray from the trail a bit, you could cross the tiny stream and walk in the grass. From here you can cross the plain and there is a trail that goes into the mountains on the right. However, we hugged the mountain on the left until we reached a very steep hillside for ascent. It was incredibly brutal, but the whole way up, I was thanking the heavens that I was going uphill instead of downhill. My fear was that thee would be a similar hill on the other side of the mountain, but luckily it was more gradual and easier to descend. Like I said, clock-wise is the way to go.

The melting snow mudpile you’ve got to maneuver around.

After the steep ascent that took no more than 10 minutes for us to climb, there is a series of upward slopes with areas of flat terrain in between, giving us a good number of breaks. I found myself constantly stopping and turning around, as well as looking to my sides. There was beauty to be seen everywhere and I have never seen such magical colors come out of the Earth before. In geothermal pools, yes. But not from mountains!

Mikey taking in the views from the top.

At the very top of the mountain, there is a view of the lava fields below, and of Blahnukur Trail (Blue Mountain). It was breath-taking. If you have it in you, you can continue this loop to the Blahnukur Trail. A few hikers at the top mentioned that there is a river crossing required (maybe up to the knees, you must remove your shoes, and the glacial water is freezing cold!) and a scramble up some scree on the initial hill. (If you were doing the hike clock-wise, the scree scramble would be at the end of Blahnukur Trail, on the way down, which in my opinion is worse). Other than those two things, the trail was described by others as fairly moderate and straight-forward. The mountain man giving us advice had a 6-month old baby strapped to his chest – which either says something about his abilities at scrambling, or the level of difficulty of the hike. We decided it was the former, and skipped Blahnukur due to the fact that we still had half of the lava fields to do. If we were camping overnight, I may have done it on a different day.

The view of Blahnakur Mountain from the peak of Brenneinsteida Trail. The wall of scree is visible, and the river crossing is right in front of the lake, hidden by the hill in the foreground. The trail wraps around the mountain side and looks moderate after the steep start.

The People’s Pool

After we made our way through the second half of the lava fields (the latter portion has more rocky terrain and isn’t as easy as the first half), we decided to take a dip in the ever-famous People’s Pool. We changed in the restrooms and walked the plank over to the natural, geothermally heated pond. It is not as nice as the Reykjadalur Hot Springs and since it’s more of a pool rather than a river, you have to be okay with stagnant water. Mossy greens float in the water and it isn’t clear in color. Rocks cover the bottom of the pool, so do bring sandals if you’ve got tender feet like me. I was okay wading through the rocks but it did hurt and it took me a while to meander to the warm part of the pool.

There is a changing deck with stairs leading into the water. It’s a bit frigid until you get to the part of the pool where the running water enters it – these are the sources of geothermal heat. Which is a great spot to meet other travelers and converse about the beauty of Iceland. Sometimes, it does require a bit of moving around, as areas tend to get too hot, depending on the rate of water flow. It was exactly what our muscles needed! I was even okay with smelling like geothermal water (rotten eggs) on the entire car ride home!

The heated areas are easy to spot.

This is definitely one of our top five experiences in Iceland. I know that it’s far from Reykjavik but it’s well worth the drive. Next time we’re back, we’ll save time for a three-day trek down the Laugavegur trail, perhaps even connecting to Fimmvorduhals Trail for a total of five days. This area is not to be missed!