Our Landmannalaugar hike took us to colourful mountains, volcanic craters and thermal pools. Here are all the details you need for a self-drive Landmannalaugar day trip.


I remember hiking trails up red and green rhyolite mountains, around volcanic craters and across rivers bubbling and spitting. I remember bathing in steaming geothermal baths and jumping over sulphurous scars. I remember driving across desolate volcanic terrain, black rock and pointy lava fields.

And I remember being sent barefoot into freezing rivers as a human gauge of water depth while my father sat in the car, heater blaring, waiting for my report.

Landmannalaugar is in the Fjallabak National Reserve in southwest Iceland. Known for dramatically coloured mountains, steaming sulphur vents and thermal pools, it’s the perfect destination for a day exploring Iceland’s superb scenery. Undertaking the Landmannalaugar hike requires a 4X4, sturdy suspension and a thirst for adventure as the area is only accessible via one of Iceland’s mountain roads, the F208.

It’s on this mountain road, in a weathered 4×4, thirty years since my last visit, where we find ourselves today.

DRIVING TO LANDMANNALAUGAR

We bounce along the F208 heading south. The road is nothing more than a section vaguely marked out from the abundant elements in the area: gravel and rock. Apart from us and our car, there’s not much else out here. No shops, no petrol stations, no people. Just barren landscape that stretches on for miles. The occasional sheep searches in vain for something to eat.

The flat black landscape gradually develops some undulation as we rise over a summit and drop down into a parking area where more adventurous travellers (presumably temperature immune) have pitched tents. We park the car and follow what we hope is the track we’re looking for.

What we’re looking for is Sigöldugljufur, a seldom visited canyon on the mid-way point to our Landmannalaugar hike. We walk for no more than 10 minutes on a path that loops northeast and then southeast around crumbly lava rock before it deposits us directly at the rim of Sigöldugljufur. Or are we on the set of Disney’s Tarzan? This place is mystic and majestic in equal portions. A river sloshes through steep-sided cliffs; a series of waterfalls – too many to count – cascade from the near vertical walls. Lush and green, the whole valley is painted perfection. We take in the scene for a while, surprised that we’re the only people here.

Back in the car, we continue driving to Landmannalaugar. The clouds darken, the road gets rockier. Within an hour multi-hued mountains are beginning to rise all around us. The red, yellow and green rock stands proud above the rivers and lava fields that flow around their base. Colourful memories of my youth come flooding back in this unique Icelandic landscape.

LANDMANNALAUGAR HIKE #1/ LAUGAHRAUN LAVA FIELDS

We park the car, cross a small river on foot and head towards the Landmannalaugar information hut. This place is a hikers and campers paradise. Tents are set up along a small river. A communal hut buzzes with the talk of exhilarating hikes, scenic vistas, pot noodles and hot showers.

Feeling more content than ever with our decision to do Landmannalaugar hike as a day trip, we get some advice from the information desk. The ranger tells us that, with a car, we can see the best of the park in two hikes, so we head towards a path decorated with red markers to start our first hike of the day up to the colourful Laugahraun.

The path rises up onto a lava field of twisting black rock that swirls and disappears into cloud. The famous 4-day Laugavegur hike starts on the same trail, so for a brief time, we’re mixing it with hardcore hiker folk who look prepared for just about anything.

Crossing the lava field, it appears the magma has only just cooled. Its deformed shapes are covered with the lightest of crusts. This rocky path takes some concentration, but it’s hard to look at your feet with these superlative views in front of you.

SUNNY BRENNISTEINSALDA

Colourful mountains and rocky moraines are split by brilliant blue rivers winding in an out of rusty red valleys. We drop off the lava field and make our way up to the red and yellow mountain of Brennisteinsalda. The sun has briefly joined us illuminating the rich earthy hues. The path skirts brown bubbling mud pots. Yellow and grey wounds in the earth eject clouds of sulphur dioxide.

Our 4-day hiker friends head off into the distance continuing to follow the red trail markers. We take up the white markers following the sign pointing to Graenagil. Back on lava fields, we gaze up at the green iron mountain of Bláhnúkur as it rises above us.

We drop down next to a river with red rocky slopes on one side and the green mountain on the other. The view opens out to form a wide expanse of golden rock, interrupted by the flow of a small river.

BATHING IN GEO-THERMAL POOLS

We down a cheese sandwich, an apple and a snickers (the cheapest way to obtain calories in Iceland) and after enjoying our cost-effective lunch, proceed onwards. Walking along a narrow wooden boardwalk that crosses a meadow covered with flowers, we stop at Landmannalaugar geothermal pools, currently occupied by 3 old ladies.

Paul takes one look in and shakes his head, I slip on my trunks and dive in. The geothermal pools at Landmannalaugar are not as warm as some of the others I’ve tried in Iceland. They’re not as clean either. But, making the most of a refreshing situation, I make a beeline for the 3 old ladies who are fiercely guarding the only source of heat in the pool. They’re not giving up their turf easily, refusing to budge as I head towards the hot spring. Unable to outmanoeuvre them, I climb out of the pool, colder than when I got in.

LANDMANNALAUGAR HIKE #2/ LJÓTIPOLLUR CRATER

Back in the car, we drive to the northeast corner of Frostastaöavatn Lake, where a sign tells us we are in the right place for our second Landmannalaugar hike. We pile out of the car and follow blue markers on a path that quickly rises up to the volcanic crater rim. Nestled within the crater is Ljótipollur, meaning ugly puddle. But this bright blue crater lake is anything but ugly. We sit on the rim and survey the scene. Heat rises up from the ground under our butts, reminding us of the natural power that resides here.

We walk part of the way around the crater before dropping down on the path at the base of Noröurnámur.

It’s a breath-taking walk with the path skirting the valley floor and snow-capped mountains framing the edges. The complete lack of trees or anything else growing in this harsh environment gives the whole scene a barren, desolate look. The late afternoon glow warms the abundance of rock into a golden panorama. Walking along this path we can’t help but stare in awe at the unique beauty Iceland has to offer.

A more contorted lava field diverts our gaze from the views to our feet and leads us back to the car where we start our journey out of Iceland’s highlands.

FORDING RIVERS ON THE F225 AND HEKLA VOLCANO

We had asked the ranger at Landmannalaugar about our return journey and he had given us the all clear to return on the F225 heading west, with some advice on how to handle river crossings: low gear, take it slow, don’t hesitate.

The F225 is a beautiful drive along a verdant green valley floor with mountains rising all around us. After about 30 minutes it’s time to pull our senses in from the scenery and focus on the steams that are crossing our path with more frequency.

We get to our first river crossing – little more than a trickle – so we plough through like seasoned professionals. River 2 and 3 pose similar threats to the first, but the fourth has a little more guts to it. This one requires jumping out of the car and taking an amateur assessment of its depth.

We stand in front of the river, scratching our heads and both come to the same conclusion: I need to relive my youth, dispense with my shoes and socks and check the depth of the river. My father would be proud.

Finding the water no higher than my knees, we jump back in the car, slot it into 1st gear and slowly but steadily make our way across the river. Reaching the other side, we feel like proper adventurers, victorious in our river conquests.

Soon the lush green river valley gives way to black rock and sand. These are the remnants of years of explosions from Hekla, the mighty volcano that looms to the south. But with cloud closing in quickly, any hope of seeing this snow-capped volcano is long since gone.

FINDING THE ROAD

Instead, we peer through our windscreen looking out into thick fog, hoping we’re actually on the road. Visibility barely reaches the edge of the road. The remarkable scenes of desolation caused by the earth’s natural power hides behind a blanket of her other influences.

Finally, after about 1 hour and 20 minutes from leaving Landmannalaugar, we drop out of the cloud and turn onto Highway 26. Back into civilisation, or as close to it as Iceland gets anyway.

Driving to Landmannalaugar is an easy way to feel like you’re doing something difficult. Navigating barren landscapes, crossing rivers and seeing spectacular scenery out in the Icelandic wilderness brought me straight back to my childhood.


MORE READING

For a similar adventurous 4×4 experience in Iceland, see our article about driving to Askja. For something equally as beautiful but not quite as difficult, read our day in Kerlingarfjöll.


THE DETAILS/ LANDMANNALAUGAR HIKE

The ranger at the Landmannalaugar hut can provide advice for hiking and two maps; a comprehensive yet expensive 1:50,000 Iceland hiking Map covering Landmannalaugar, Laugavegur, Þórsmörk & Fimmvörðuháls and a cheap hand-drawn map for 300kr. The cheap map along with the extensive trail markers in the area is sufficient for our two hikes.

LANDMANALAUGAR HIKE 1: LAUGAHRAUN

The Laugahraun Hike starts by heading west from the Landmannalaugar Information Centre, and follows red trail markers across the lava field until it reaches the colourful Brennisteinsalda mountain. From here it turns left and follows the white trail markers towards Graenagil. This path leads back directly to the Information Centre.

Difficulty: Easy / Distance: 4km / Duration: 1 hour 45 minutes.

LANDMANALAUGAR HIKE 2: LJÓTIPOLLUR CRATER

Our second Landmannalaugar hike, Ljótipollur crater, began from a small parking area at the northeast edge of Frostastaöavatn Lake. Follow the blue markers east up to Ljótipollur crater and then head back west and south around the base of Mount Noröurnámur. As you approach the F208, you briefly have to leave the blue trail markers to rejoin the road. Head northeast along the road for a few hundred meters where you can re-join the blue markers again. Follow the markers past another lava field, descend between two mountains and drop back to the car.

Difficulty: Moderate / Distance: 7.5km / Duration: 2 hour 15 minutes.

THE DETAILS/ DRIVING TO LANDMANNALAUGAR

Landmannalaugar can only be accessed on Iceland’s mountain roads. Inaccessible throughout winter, these roads are generally open by the end of June and remain open until early October. A 4X4 vehicle is required for all mountain roads in Iceland; 2WD rental cars are not insured on these roads.

Driving to Landmannalaugar can be done one of three ways; the F208 from the north; the F225 from the west and the F208 from the south. In general, the F208 from the south is a challenging mountain road with tricky river crossings and it is recommended you have a larger 4X4 and perhaps some experience.

The F208 from the north is much easier, there are no river crossings and nothing to stop an inexperienced driver making the journey. The F225 from the west is pretty flat and straight-forward but does have a few river crossings which are usually not too large.

Being inexperienced drivers, we drove to Landmannalaugar via the F208 from the north in 1 hour, stopping at Sigöldugljufur canyon after 20 minutes. There is a river crossing just before reaching Lanmannalaugar, however, it’s so close to the parking spot, you can park before the river and walk over it instead.

After hiking, we exited westwards on the F225, after checking road and river crossing conditions with the ranger at the Landmannalaugar Information Centre. The return journey along the F225 to highway 26 took 1 hour and 20 minutes with four relatively small river crossings. If the rivers are high and it is not possible to take the F225, then you can exit the way you came via the F208 to the north.

TIPS FOR CROSSING RIVERS IN A 4X4

The biggest challenge driving to Landmannalaugar was crossing the rivers on the F225. Although 4×4 rental cars are insured for mountain roads they are NOT insured for river crossings. Making a mistake could be a very costly affair. Here are some tips to help you get across.

Get help /Before leaving Landmannalaugar ask the ranger at the information point for advice about road and river conditions. As you make your way to the crossings on the F225 ask vehicles coming the other way for advice.

Set off early /Glacial rivers are usually lower in the morning than the afternoon so you want to get started as early as possible to cross when its easiest.

Scout the river /Do not try to cross a river where the water is higher than three-quarters of the height of the wheels of your 4X4. Cross the river where it is shallower, often where there are ripples and not where it looks calmer and therefore deeper. The best route is often marked by the tyre tracks of other cars. If the route is unclear it is usually better to start upstream and head diagonally across the river. If unsure wait for someone else.

Slow & Steady /Before entering the river put the vehicle in manual in a low gear and drive slowly (5kph) but steadily along the easiest route. Do not change gears or stop.

Further useful information is available here.

TIPS BEFORE YOU GO ON A LANDMANNALAUGAR DAY TRIP

Landmannalaugar is in a remote part of Iceland with few facilities so it’s important to be prepared for your journey. Here are some tips before you head off:

  1. Allow 8 to 10 hours, for the whole day trip: driving to Landmannalaugar, hiking, bathing in thermal spring and driving back again. Leave early as the rivers will be lower.
  2. Always leave with a full tank of petrol, there are no petrol stations on this route and running out is not something you want to worry about. We used about half a tank to get there and back.
  3. There is a small shop with food available at Landmannalaugar, but it is better value to bring your own.
  4. Check weather conditions and pack warm clothes, waterproofs and hiking boots. The highlands are colder than the coast and the weather can change quickly. It was 6 degrees when we were there in the middle of summer.
  5. Download google maps (and our map) for the area onto your phone. Your GPS will work even if you do not have data. It can be invaluable for tracking your drive to Landmannalaugar and when you are hiking if the cloud comes down.
  6. Tell someone where you are heading, ask them about local road difficulties, and make sure you know your rental company breakdown and Iceland road safety phone numbers.
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BUS AND TOURS FOR LANDMANNALAUGAR DAY TRIP

If driving to Landmannalaugar is not for you but you want to see the sights, then it’s possible to take a bus or join a tour.

There are a number of buses and a decent timetable to Landmannalaugar, making a day trip with hiking extremely feasible. Bus prices are around US $90 per person return and timetables can be found here and here.

Given the availability of buses and the well-marked trails, it is not necessary to take a tour to Landmannalaugar. However, you can check tours from Reykjavik below.

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