I woke up to Nate laughing next to me, showing me a photo of my sleeping self a few minutes prior: My chin resting on my shoulder, head lolling in a terrifying way. He couldn’t believe I slept considering we were being thrown around inside our oversized tour bus careening through Iceland's highlands, en route to begin the famous Laugavegur Trail. But jet lag doesn’t care where you are.
The Laugavegur hiking trail cuts straight through the heart of Iceland's southern highlands, taking hikers through geothermal mountains, lush green volcanic valleys, collapsing ice caves, and black rock plains. It’s Iceland in all its glory.
Backpackers from the Pacific Northwest will feel right at home here thanks to frequent rain and overcast skies. But the less-than-stellar weather conditions are more than worth bearing with to spend time in this otherworldly landscape for a few days. I’ve never visited a place where you’ll find all the colors of the rainbow on the ground in a single area, then hike through a monochromatic volcanic plain the next. Every day on the Laugavegur Trail is different, offering an approachable way to get off the well-traveled Ring Road and see a more wild Iceland for yourself.
Along the way, you’ll meet a global community of trekkers, thanks to a system of huts where you can stay each night. The huts offer a way to slow down and connect throughout the trip over a beer. Start a conversation and you’re sure to pick up a few new route recommendations from all around the world. The Laugavegur doesn’t offer the seclusion and the quiet of remote backcountry missions, but it offers everything else in spades, making it a trip that should rise to the top of your list.
The Laugavegur Trek is 34 miles long, stretching from the trailhead in the Landmannalaugar Nature Reserve in the north to Thorsmork in the south, with a total elevation gain of roughly 5,500 feet. The path is clearly marked throughout and supported by a system of mountain huts where you can stay the night.
Hikers typically take four days to complete the route. Experienced backpackers could easily do it in less, but why would you? This route is best taken slowly, meandering onto side trails, soaking up the views (and, inevitably, the rain), which include rhyolite mountains, green valleys, lava fields, black sand deserts, and more.
Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnusker — 12 kilometers (~7.5 miles), 1,500 feet of elevation gain
Hrafntinnusker to Álftavatn — 12 kilometers (~7.5 miles), 900 feet of elevation gain
Álftavatn to Emstrur-Botnar Hut — 16 kilometers (~9.9 miles), 1,380 feet of elevation gain
Emstrur-Botnar Hut to Thorsmork — 15 kilometers (~9.3 miles), 1,450 feet of elevation gain
Tips for Hiking the Laugavegur Trail
Book the huts ahead of time if you want to sleep inside. They will fill up. The huts are heated and consist of single or double bunks with a common area. Bathrooms, drinking water, and a small store with snacks and gear are available at each hut. Expect about $80 per night for the four main huts along the route. It’s also important to note that they only book huts for hikers moving north to south during high season. Tent campsites near the huts are plentiful if you don't get a spot.
Bring cash for a beer, snacks, a hot cooked meal, or even a hot shower at a few of the huts (running water for cooking and filling your water bottle is available and free).
Grab bus tickets from a local bus company to and from Landmannalaugar and Thorsmork for easy transfer between Reykjavík and the highlands.
Hike from north to south by starting in Landmannalaugar for an easier hike (during the high season, this is the only direction you can hike in).
The first day from Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnusker is the hardest uphill day, with 1,500 feet of vert. The remaining 4,000 feet of gain you’ll cover over rolling and downhill terrain the next three days.
If you’re looking for more, take an extra day to extend the route past Thorsmork along the Fimmvörðuháls Trail another 15 miles. This extended hike ends at the famous Skógafoss Waterfall along the southern Ring Road.
Seek out the small side trails around the huts for short day hikes. We found massive ice caves, river gorges a thousand feet deep, and more just a mile or two off the beaten path.
When to Visit Iceland
We visited at the very end of the season, which extends from mid-June to early September. The huts were getting ready to close up shop, but were still booked up every night. Camping was beautiful but you can expect high winds, rain, and general discomfort. We barely saw the sun and dealt with intermittent rain and temperatures that fell consistently in the 40s.
While the weather is always inconsistent in Iceland—you will most likely experience bad weather whenever you go—hiking during mid-summer will generally be warmer. Just expect bigger crowds during that time as well (somewhere between 75,000 and 100,000 people hike the Laugavegur Trail each year).
Points of Interest on Laugavegur Trail
Landmannalaugar - The valley has extremely colorful mountains with geothermal smoke billowing out all over the place. There are ravines and natural hot springs all over the region to discover.
Ice caves near Höskuldsskáli Hut - Just a few miles round trip away from the first hut. You’ll be stunned by the size and geothermal surroundings. Be wary and follow a safe path down the snow field to the trail by the mouth of the cave (we used GPS to make sure we were on the right path).
Lake Álftavatn - The Álftavatn Hut and camping area is literally right on the lake itself. Enjoy a beer or meal from the small restaurant with sweeping views.
River crossings - There are a couple river crossings that are required for the route, the deepest being Bláfjallakvísl depending on conditions. Be sure to check with the hut wardens about current conditions.
Stórasúla and Hattafell - Two stunning mountains right alongside the trail between Hvanngil and Emstrur huts.
Markarfljótsgljúfur Canyon - A quick jaunt west from Emstrur Hut brings you to a beautiful canyon overlook.
What to Pack
Gore-Tex: Prepare for rain and prepare some more. Dial in a solid system for keeping your gear dry while hiking and at night or else you’re in for a sloshy experience. In addition to a rain jacket, consider bringing rain pants.
Synthetic Sleeping Bag: Or a waterproof stuff sack for your down bag—it gets wet out there.
A Good Camera: If you’re photographically inclined, it's worth carrying a bit of extra weight. These landscapes are beyond description.
Cash: Whether it’s checking to see if a hut room is open, enjoying a hot meal along the route, or picking up extra snacks and small items from the hut keepers, cash can come in handy.
Light Water Shoes or Sandal:. There are some river crossings along the route that’ll require them (unless you want to get your hiking boots wet). Good grip on the underside will help a lot, and trekking/hiking poles aren’t a bad idea to top it off.
Thanks for reading. Scroll on below for more visual insight into one of the most beautiful and rewarding trails. Happy hiking!