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!

Travel: Hiking Reykjadalur Valley in Iceland and Bathing in its Geothermal Hot Spring River

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Of all the day hikes we did while visiting Iceland, the hike in Reykjadalur Valley was by far our favorite. Just a stone’s throw away from Reykjavik, this valley is full of beautiful scenery, geothermal hot springs, mud pools, and best of all, a hot river that you can bathe in at the center of the valley mid-hike. I would highly recommend relaxing your muscles in the running river, as it is a serene and beautiful spot. We almost skipped it but after high praises from my sister, who dipped into the river a few days prior, we rolled up our leggings and shorts and waded in. We had a great time and call it one of the best experiences on our Iceland trip.

You can hire a tour guide to explore this area on horse (Iceland does have the cutest horses around, with their squat legs and beautiful flowing hair) but I prefer hiking on foot. My sister did the tour with the horses and it was an all-day trip, whereas my husband and I hiked Reykjadalur Valley on foot and it took about 3-4 hours. If you’d like to learn more about the hike to Reykjadalur Hot Springs, feel free to read on.

Spoiler alert: There’s a number of photographs in this post that may spoil the views. This may not be the best post for hikers who prefer to be surprised by the scenery. I, for one, like to know ahead of time.

This is a view of the valley on the main freeway as you approach from Reykjavik. From far away, you can see the geothermal activity of the area in the form of smoke rising from the hills.

Reykjadalur is located fairly close to the main city of Iceland, Reykjavik. You just hop onto the 1 Freeway (also known as Ring Road) and head southeast for 40 minutes. You can see the valley on the freeway and before you reach Hveragerdi (the closest town), there is a turnout with a map of southwest Iceland. From this turnout, you will see smoke rising from the hills. Know that you are not far away. You must turn left towards the mountains when you reach Hveragerdi. The roads are well paved and there are no F-roads to encounter along the way (meaning you can reach the trailhead with a regular car). A large parking lot with a cute coffee shop marks the trailhead. There was plenty of parking space when we went, despite the late start to our day.

The beginning of the trail.

From the parking lot, you will see a well-kept gravel trail that begins the journey into the valley. If I had a do-over, I would start this hike earlier in the morning, so as to return for lunch at the cute cafe near the parking lot. In reality, we slept in after some major jet-lag, and started our hike at noon. As you can tell from the photograph, Iceland stays relatively overcast, even in July. That doesn’t mean you should skip the sun-screen. I would pack a light rain jacket if you have a problem getting wet, or a light fleece jacket over a tanktop. I like to wear layers when I hike for easy shedding. It was fairly warm that day, so I didn’t need both. For us, hiking boots are a must, although this trail is doable in regular running shoes as well. To get an idea, these are the things I wore on this day.

What to Wear When Hiking Reykjavik Hot Springs

Things to Bring

When we went, there were no crowds. People were spaced out enough and as you get deeper into the valley, you see fewer and fewer hikers.

On the day that we went, there were few crowds. I was happy to be hiking with less people around. As you get deeper into the valley, you will notice that the hikers spread out even more. The winding trail allows for bouts of isolation, so that you can enjoy the scenery without a bother. Mike and I prefer to hike fairly alone, and do most of our deepest talks during the most strenuous of hikes, which also happens to be the lesser crowded ones. Check out the photo below to see what I mean.

A lone hiker in front of us, and nature all around.

I would rate this hike as easy to moderate. Don’t let the steep looking inclines dissuade you from trying this one out. There is a steep hill at the very beginning but it is fairly flat towards the middle. Plus, you know what steep hills mean – easy descents! We hiked this trail without walking sticks, and the path was not so gravelly that we were slipping and sliding. Of course, our hiking boots really helped with the solid footing. To give you an idea of the difficulty level, we saw 3-5 year olds doing the hike with their parents. And there is only one patch of the hike that still had ice in July. It was fairly short (twenty steps total?) and was on a flat surface.

A word of caution: Don’t stray too far from the trail. This place is teeming with geothermal activity. Mud pools could create soft pockets of dirt, which a boot can easily depress into. The last thing you want is a burned leg. Stay away from the steaming areas, and I would think twice about touching running water. The hot spring river is good to swim in, but I can’t speak for other areas. Other than that, enjoy the views!

Don’t get too close to these hot vents. They’ve turned black for good reason!
A happy giant looking down on us from the rocks.
Sheep grazing in the grass, unperturbed.
The views undulated between grassy knolls, black lava rock, and bright blue running streams. The overcast day and the white smoke rising from the brown mountains was really a sight to see!
You can see the steaming river just around the bend.
When you get to this bridge and a horse pen, you know that you aren’t too far away.

A bridge and horse pen demarcates your proximity to the running river. You cannot miss it, as people are most likely wading in the waters. There are changing stalls without any doors. If we knew we were going to get into the water, we would have brought a towel and swim suit to switch into. As is customary in Europe, nudity is never a problem and you’ll see a number of people changing without the typical modesty you would see in America. You can always hide behind a stall and wrap your towel around you if that makes you uncomfortable. On either side of the river are stairs by which to enter the water. We spontaneously did it and are so glad we did. We stayed for an hour, and never wanted to leave. It was the perfect break before hiking back down to the parking lot.

Side note: The river is not the end-all-be-all, even though it is where we turned around. The trail continues past the river and into the mountains. It is a loop that starts just past the river and returns to the river. Continuing on would add an hour to your hike. Then you return the way you came.

It is worth stopping by the shop and cafe when you reach the car park. There were delightful cakes in the case, and sandwiches and coffee to be had. They also have clean restrooms and you can refill your water bottles at the restroom sinks. Lastly, there is a tiny shop where you can buy souvenirs or hiking necessities (such as a tiny towel, or a swimsuit).

The valley and all it’s pretty terrain.

This was our favorite hike in Iceland. It was also our favorite geothermal spot (better than the touristy Blue Lagoon!). We are introverted travelers and we prefer the romantic views and more isolated spots where we can hear our inner thoughts, and discuss them too! Even when we were in the river, there was enough space for everyone to get a stairwell to themselves. This place never felt crowded or overwhelming, but rather peaceful and serene, something we like over the tourist scene. I don’t think it’s worth getting a tour guide, as that would require you to see this place on their time. I recommend doing this hike on your own, and taking it in without rushing through it. It would probably take a half day to do.