Iceland Day 3 – September 3, 2018
aka The Day of My Dreams
It’s really hard for me to put into words Landmannalaugar and the highlands of Iceland. Even now that its been four months since I was there, I still can’t figure out how to express how that little corner of the world felt to me, or if I can even figure out if it was all real and not a dream. All I know is I’m so so so so so happy I was able to squeeze in a day there on this trip, and I know I must go back to spend extended time in the highlands. It’s really hard for me to admit that any place is more beautiful than Medicine Bow Peak is (the mountain peak mere miles from where I grew up), but without doubt Landmannalaugar takes the crown.
Some of my first internet searches for “cycling in Iceland,” my original plan for a trip to the country thanks to Walter Mitty riding the shore bike inspiring me, brought up incredible photos of the highlands. Therefore, it was natural that my initial plans for Iceland was a highlands mountain bike tour. Slowly this plan evolved and changed to the point I didn’t even touch a bicycle while in Iceland, but the desire to witness the absolutely crazy landscape of the highlands remained. Our camper van, “Carl,” was two wheel drive, and we wouldn’t be able to drive any of the “F-Roads,” which are for four wheel drive only vehicles and are the only road type in and out of the interior, highlands area of Iceland. So a day trip was planned and tickets purchased for a Trex bus to take us in. We’d have about eight hours to hike, explore, and soak it all in (literally and figuratively, thanks to the natural hot pot!).
I purposely picked our campsite for nights 2 and 3 to be the Árhús campground in Hella as it was a stop for the Trex bus running into Landmannalaugar, which sits inside the Fjallabak Nature Reserve. This made it super convenient both before and after the trip, as we could just leave Carl parked into his camp spot, and walk about a minute. No worries about Carl left in a big parking lot all day, or having to drive after an exhausting adventure! Our pick up time was promptly at 7:45am (I must admit, I was shocked the buses didn’t run on “Icelandic Time” like Icelandair did!), and we were on our way! The bus stopped to pick up more passengers at the gas station in Hella, and then another campground on Route 26. Before I knew it, we turned off onto F225, which is also called Landmannaleið.
I watched as the landscape turned into something I couldn’t even dream of. Desolate, barren volcanic wastelands, moss covered hills, untamed glacial rivers. To the east-ish, one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes, Hekla, rises confidently over the skyline. I was glued to the window, head swiveling back and forth with my camera, trying to take it all in. Sometimes out my window on the left side of the bus was a volcanic wasteland, while out the window on the right was neon green contrasting with the snow and glaciers of Hekla. I simply did not know where to look, I definitely need eyes all around my head!
The drive into Landmannalaugar was a treat, needless to say. Scenery aside, the skills of our driver were impressive, considering he was driving a massive bus on merely a dirt path that was barely wide enough for a single car. I must admit, I’d much rather have been driving myself, as the road seemed so fun!
Couple of river crossings and a turn onto F208, and the rhyolite, “painted” mountains of Landmannalaugar came into view. No, it really wasn’t photoshop, I realized. This is real life. All the research, the photos, etc, were telling the truth behind this unreal landscape! I busted out of that bus as soon as I could breathe in that incredibly crisp Icelandic air and see Landmannlaugar without a pane of glass in the way.
After a toilet break and some quick photos of the maps, we set out on the Laugavegur trail up to the Laugahraun lava field, hoping we could find our way (the map isn’t too highly detailed). I had planned for Kubo and I to hike to the summits of Mount Brennisteinsalda and Mount Bláhnjúkur, but wasn’t sure if we would be okay on time. It was easy to tell from the base area that the hiking trails up these volcanos were STEEP, and it might be slow going. Not to mention the fact we were stopping every 15 seconds to take photos!!!
We hooked up with a solo guy that was originally from Boston who was hiking with a mission. He was kind enough to stop to explain to us on the map where we should go and what trail would go where. He had tried hiking just a week prior, but the highlands were inaccessible due to a snow blizzard! I’m telling you, Iceland weather is cray cray! We really lucked out with the weather on our Landmannalaugar day. Though it remained overcast, it never rained and the wind was pretty much calm! We power walked with him to the base of the Brennisteinsalda trail, and wished him well as he scurried on his way, hoping to nab a few summits before his early bus departed.
Hiking trails in Iceland tend to go straight up the mountain, and the trail to the summit of Brennisteinsalda was no different! Mount Brennisteinsalda, whose name means “sulfur wave,” is an active volcano that tops out at 2,805 feet in elevation. It last erupted in 1961. We started slogging up the steep trail, but stopped a lot for photo opportunities and to look at all the beauty before us.
Respecting the fact that we didn’t want to rush to get a summit of Mount Bláhnjúkur under our belts, we decided to descend back down the Laugavegur trail to the base area from the summit of Mount Brennisteinsalda. But first we ate some burritos and took photos!
Coming down the Laugavegur trail we saw the expanse of the Laugahraun lave fields in front of us, along with numerous geothermic features and mossy lava. There is definitely a lot of variety and things to see in the Laugahraun!
After getting back down to the base, we still had a few hours to kill. We finished off some more burritos and snacks, and then changed into our swimsuits so we could relax in the natural hot springs. I think we’d end up soaking for two hours or so! The water temperature varied depending on how close you were to the inlet. We chatted for a little while with an American couple on their honeymoon, swapping trip stories, tales of trying to pronounce Icelandic place names (“you know that ‘d’ with the slash through it?”) and what not. I learned it’s rather easy to make “single serving friends” on this trip, which added to the fun.
Sadly enough, it was soon time to depart and get ready for the bus trip back to Hella. We changed back into dry clothes, and walked a short lap around the base area before claiming our seats on the bus. Kubo wanted to sit in the seats right behind the driver, but the assistant, who was rather grumpy and unimpressed with being alive (and not amused that I mispronounced Hella), told us no. Kubo decided to be persistent, and went to befriend the driver, who agreed to let us sit in those forward-most seats. We had a front row view for the river crossings and F208 that stretched before us!
We popped out of F208 onto F26, which turns into Route 26, and slowly reemerged into the real world. Mr. Grumpy Bus Assistant didn’t want to do a drop off at the Hella campground (even though that’s what our tickets said…), but the driver decided not to listen to him and dropped a whole slew of us off there, and we bid goodbye to the highlands Trex bus and walked back to Carl at our campsite. Proud of my newfound shower skills from Day 1, I enjoyed a hot shower to freshen up and then we crashed early from exhaustion.
Until next time, Landmannalaugar! You definitely hold a giant piece of my heart!
Follow along on our entire 19 day Iceland road trip adventure! Click here for a comprehensive itinerary, with links to each day’s adventure.