With an area of 103,000km2 and a population of 364,000, Iceland is one of the world’s most sparsely populated countries. This means a large party of the country is uninhabited, particularly in the center; an area known as the highlands. Among these vast empty spaces are incredible hiking trails. One particularly famous trail is Fimmvörðuháls, the ‘five cairns pass’.
Even those who are experienced hikers may not have encountered something like this before. The Fimmvörðuháls hike is unique; it passes between two glaciers. It’s 24km (15 miles) and requires a climb of 1000 meters (3280 feet). The hike begins at the waterfall Skógafoss and finishes at the mountain ridge, Þórsmörk.
The Skógafoss hike is a trail by itself and many choose to take this shorter option. A path of steps on the right-hand side takes you above the waterfall. From here you can continue following the path that runs alongside the river for as long as you want. If you want to complete the full Fimmvörðuháls, you have 22km/14 miles ahead of you. If only the Skógafoss section is for you, 8km in you’ll come to a footbridge that crosses the river. From this point on you leave the river behind. If that’s you finished, turn around and head back to the car park to complete the hike.
For those that want to travel through Fimmvörðuháls Pass, keep going. You should ensure that all your water bottles are filled with water from the river before moving on. After this, you won’t have access to water for a while. The path is marked with stakes, so continue along it until the next big geological feature: Goðahraun.
Goðahraun Lava Field
Goðahraun means ‘Lava of the Gods’; it’s a lava field created in 2010 by the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. You may remember this event: the ash cloud resulted in the cancellation of thousands of flights across Europe. Anyway, this lava field is incredible to behold. There are also two new volcanic craters, Móði and Magni; named after the sons of Þór.
After this, you pass between the two glaciers, Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull. There’s a hut here where you can spend the night (for a fee), or you can push on to Þórsmörk. You have then completed the Skógafoss to Þórsmörk Fimmvörðuháls volcano hike.
Fimmvorduhals Day Hike
Most people choose to spread this hike over two days, giving them time to stop and appreciate the scenery. Some complete the journey in a day, but then they must be aware of the time taken.
There is a bus from Básar, a campsite in Þórsmörk, that can take you to Reykjavík or somewhere in between. Many choose to park their rental car at Seljalandsfoss and take the bus from there to Skógar. This will put you near to the hike’s beginning, then another bus will take you from Þórsmörk back to Seljalandsfoss. If you choose to attempt the hike in one day, you must be at Þórsmörk before the bus is due to leave. An updated bus schedule can be found here. Buses must be booked in advance.
For accommodation at Þórsmörk, you have a few options. You can either book a hut, a bed in a dormitory, or bring a tent and pitch at the campsite. None of these options are free, and beds and huts must be booked well in advance to guarantee a space.
Note that this hike and the highlands, in general, are only accessible in the summer months. In the winter, snow covers the tracks and makes most places impassable. Even in the summer, the weather can be extreme at high altitude so always be prepared with proper clothing. Know also that Fimmvörðuháls is not an easy hike, so make sure you’re ready for the challenge. Here are some points on what to bring.
What to Bring
Even in the summer, Iceland doesn’t get that warm, and the highlands are naturally cooler. When venturing into the interior of the country, it’s advisable to wear several layers. You’ll want a thermal inner layer and extra waterproof top layers in case of bad weather. It’s better to have them and not need them. Wear solid hiking boots; the terrain is uneven and there may still be snow on some parts of the trail.
Bring plenty of snacks and water too. You won’t be able to buy food en-route, and there’s no access to water between Skógá river and Þórsmörk. If you are camping at Þórsmörk you must have your own cooking and eating utensils.
Of course, Þórsmörk doesn’t have to be the endpoint. It could also be the start point.
Laugavegur Trail vs Fimmvorduhals
First, let’s look at the first trail in more detail. Also known as Laugavegurinn, this pass is Iceland’s most famous hiking trail. It runs between two points in the highlands, Landmannalaugar and Þórsmörk. It’s 54km (34 miles) and is generally spread out over four days.
Landmannalaugar is well known for its natural hot springs and multi-colored rhyolite mountains, so it’s a great starting point. Along the way you will pass geysers, rivers, glaciers and many other natural wonders. You will be following a path that, its fame aside, will give you plenty of opportunities for silence and self-reflection.
So, which hike should you do?
You should know that many hikers combine them. Since the Laugavegur trail ends where Fimmvörðuháls could begin, you are simply extending your hike by a day or two. Some choose to spend some time in Þórsmörk in between, to recover and enjoy the highlands before moving on. If you want to do one or the other, it depends on how much time you have.
They are about the same difficulty level, but the Laugavegur Trail is over twice as long. This means having to bring more food and spending three nights in the wild rather than one. If your time is not limited, I would suggest not picking between the two, but doing both. What if you never come back to hike in Iceland again? Commit five or six days to this adventure and you can say you’ve completed Laugavegurinn and Fimmvörðuháls Pass in Iceland.
Hiking season in Iceland
The highlands hiking season starts around mid-June and finishes in September. You can drive up to Landmannalaugar but note that only 4x4 vehicles are permitted on highland roads (F roads). Any time outside of the summer months the roads are inaccessible. Check the forecast before leaving to ensure you have clear weather ahead of you. Even if the days ahead look perfect, always be prepared for the worst. Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, and remember to keep your heart open to Iceland’s beauty.
Samuel Hogarth, Cars Iceland.