The Icelandic Highlands are the wild, rugged interior part of the country that possess some of its most breathtaking landscapes. At the southern tip of the Highlands is Landmannalaugar Iceland, a mecca for hikers and nature lovers alike. From the colorful rhyolite mountains to the jet black lava fields, this territory has some of the most varied and beautiful scenery you will encounter in Iceland.
Landmannalaugar, the Icelandic Highlands
Most people are familiar with Iceland's Ring Road and major cities like Reykjavik or Akureyri. While driving around the country, they tend to stick to certain parts of the island. There's the southern coast with lots of major attractions and highlights. There are the fjords which we have on both the east, west and north sides of the island. And of course, there is Snaefellsnes peninsula in the west.
But those who stick to the outskirts are missing out. Iceland's inner region, also known as the Highlands, is something altogether different than anything else you'll encounter. This mountainous region is home to some of our most spectacular natural wonders, highest waterfalls, and more. It's also home to Landmannalaugar, the best place for hiking in Iceland.
Where is Landmannalaugar?
You'll find this awe-inspiring zone in the Southern Highlands along with the Fjallabak Nature Reserve and Katla geopark. It’s close to the Ring Road and sits directly next to the Laugahraun lava field. The area was formed roughly 500 years ago from a volcanic eruption. This is what also gives the area its unique appearance.
The thing that sticks out most is the orange and yellow hue of the hills in the area. This desolate, barren landscape looks like the surface of Mars or somewhere similar. The streaks of color mixed with black lava fields are out of this world.
Something important to note is that the Highlands are only open during the summer months. Outside of June, July, and August, the F-Roads (mountain roads) are simply too dangerous for Iceland driving.
It is possible to do a special tour like a Super Jeep tour, but most of the visitors come during the summer. There’s easier access at this time and you can go to many more places. You will, however, need to rent a 4x4 in Iceland as 4WD vehicles are the only types of vehicles allowed to drive on these gravel roads.
This is irrespective of the time of year that you visit. Not only it is nearly impossible with a 2WD, but 4x4 vehicles are also required by law. And if you don’t have one, you could always just go on an excursion with a reputable company. They can take you on the road leading to Landmannalaugar, regardless of when you go.
Landmannalaugar: The People’s Pools
We actually get the word Landmannalaugar from Icelandic. It translates to “the people’s pools” and received this name due to the high concentration of geothermal hot springs and hot pools. Many of the hikers who come here to explore its trails should be sure to pack a swimsuit and a towel. You’ll come across hundreds of options for taking a dip in a natural hot spring or geothermal pool.
Landmannalaugar hot springs
Both locals and travelers flock here in the summer to bathe in the heated, relaxing waters of the geothermal hot springs. You’ll want to join in on the fun as you sit in an Icelandic hot pot and take in Landmannalaugar’s colorful rock formations.
And of course, bring a plastic bag for afterward. We don't want your swimsuit getting everything else in your backpack wet. Iceland is already a pretty rainy place and we don’t want you to be stuck with cold, damp clothing for days on end.
Most of the visitors who come here for Icelandic touring do so because they are attracted by the unlimited number of outdoor activities. From trekking a volcano, exploring a glacier, or even horseback riding, the possibilities are endless. So of course, hiking is going to be one of the top pursuits for outdoor enthusiasts in Iceland.
The Laugavegur trek
Landmannalaugar has some of the country's best hiking trails and the most famous one is the Laugavegur Trail. There are some variations and add-ons to the route, but the main trail takes you from Landmannalaugar to Thorsmork (Þórsmörk) Valley. The area, whose name translates to “Thor’s Forrest” or “Thor’s Valley”, is a cornucopia of sweeping landscapes and jagged terrain. It definitely seems apt for a place named after a mighty Norse god.
Unfortunately, I don’t think you’ll see Chris Hemsworth creeping around with his hammer. What you will see, however, are endless rolling hills, dark volcanic rocks, and lush, green valleys. You will also encounter the famous rhyolite mountains, which are multicolored shades of orange and red.
It takes hikers between 4-5 days to complete the 55 km (34 mile) main route. Because of the varied terrain, you’ll want to make sure you bring a nice sturdy pair of hiking boots with you.
The trails aren’t extremely difficult and you’ll really be able to take your time while enjoying your surroundings. You’ll spend between five to seven hours on each section of the trail. The longest takes up to nine hours.
You can choose either Landmannalaugar or Thorsmork as your starting point. There’s more climbing involved if you start south and head north, which is why fewer hikers choose this option. But if you’d like a more private trekking experience, go with this option. You won’t be surrounded by those heading north to south. It all depends on your travel style, preferences, and how sociable you like to be with fellow travelers.
Other trails for hiking in Landmannalaugar
When visiting Landmannalaugar, the Laugavegur Trek isn't your only option. It's just a starting point but there are many other ways to do Landmannalaugar hiking for all different levels.
The Ugly Puddle Trail
One detour is to Ljótipollur ("ugly puddle" in Icelandic). The name is ironic because the volcanic crater lake is actually quite beautiful. Its turquoise water surrounded by the colorful mountains and bubbling hot springs make an oasis in the Southern Highlands. It’s about a four-hour hike there and back.
It’s part of the Fjallabak Nature Reserve in the Veiðavötn volcanic area and can be completed within a few hours.
If you’re looking for a shorter hike, why not try out Brennisteinsalda or Mount Bláhnúkur? Brennisteinsalda is a South Iceland volcano in Landmannalaugar close to Hekla. Its name in English translates to “sulphur wave”. This is because it gets its unique appearance from the colored spots that appear on its side.
The other option for a short hike in the area is Bláhnjúkur or Blue Peak mountain. It’s another volcano in the hiker’s paradise of Iceland and it has a bluish color. This comes from the lava flows and volcanic ash it has seen over the years. From its pek, you can actually see five different glaciers if it’s a clear day. Much like Brennisteinsalda, it’s also near Hekla volcano.
Accommodation while hiking
In between hiking and taking a dip in Landmannalaugar hot springs, you’re going to need a place to lay your head at night. If you’ve never heard of Ferðafélag íslands, this is something you’ll want to know about. Because Highlands are Iceland’s wild backcountry, there isn’t going to be cushy accommodation like a Reykjavik hotel or Vik guesthouse.
Instead, you’ll be staying at a mountain hut as you make your way along the trail. You’ll need to make a reservation in advance with Ferðafélag Íslands (The Iceland Touring Association; abbreviated as FÍ). They are in charge of the approximately 40 mountain huts around Iceland. So if you want somewhere to lay your head in the Highlands, check out their website.
Please note that sleeping bags are not provided, so you’ll need to bring your own. The huts are also closed outside of summer high season.
A Visit to Landmannalaugar
I hope you get to come visit to hike and then take a dip in a Landmannalaugar hot spring. There’s so much more to Iceland than just the Northern Lights, so come enjoy our hiking as well!
There are several activities, hot springs and volcanoes to visit from Reykjavík. But If you're looking for a unique adventure, visiting the highlands of Iceland and Landmannalaugar should definitely be on your list.