Icelandic hikes worth the plane ticket alone
Written by Eleanor Ross
Exploring a country on foot is the best way to understand it, especially somewhere like Iceland, where everything – the texture, the smells and the air's chill – comes together to create a unique experience. It's a country that packs a punch with activities, too. After all, where else can you go for a walk and swim in geothermal water, crampon your way across a glacier and lounge on a moss-covered plateau all in a single day?
There are hikes for the adventurous, for solo travellers and for newbies.Oskar Helgi Gudjonsson, outdoor specialist and mountaineer, says the best thing about hiking in Iceland is solitude. "The delicate nature and the power of Iceland – well, it's hard to put this in words – but there are no trees, no mosquitoes, just the quiet solitude of somewhere that is unlike anywhere else on the planet," he says.
So what are you waiting for? Pull your boots on and get out there to try these 7 top treks.
1. Hornstrandir Nature reserves in the West Fjords
Where: West Fjords -– Ísafjörður harbour
Duration: Two days
At first glance, Iceland's northernmost barren landscape may not strike you as the most welcoming, but the island's most vibrant birds and mammals thrive here. Hornstrandir is known for its bird cliffs at Latrabjarg and Europe's most westerly point is home to squealing guillemots and orange-beaked puffins. It's remote, beautiful and windswept.
This is a hike for the adventurous: you’ll need to stay overnight and carry your own supplies, but that's all part of the adventure. After you've arrived at the port of Isafjordur, start day one's 14km hike towards Hlöðuvík.
A tour organiser can prepare a tented camp and food, which will be ready for your arrival should you choose to go with a guide. On the second day, you'll wake early and hike a few kilometers to scale the Hornbjarg bird cliffs, populated with kittiwakes and razorbills. Want to spot Arctic foxes? This is one of their favourite places to camp out in summer. Stay awhile at the cliffs to watch wildlife circle in some of the remotest scenery you'll probably ever experience, before scrambling down to the beach, where a boat will pick you up and take you back to Isafjordur.
2. Fimmvörðuháls hike (the short version)
Where: Skogafoss Waterfall
Duration: One hour
Distance: As long as you want it to be
Most people drive the 2.5 hours from Reykjavik to the base of Skogafoss Waterfall, look up, take a picture and then get back in the mini-van. Don't be like most people. If you look to the right of the waterfall you'll spot a set of stairs that creep up the back.
Sprayed with water, they're steep, slippery and almost certainly a deathtrap in winter, when Iceland freezes over, so have your wits about you. Climb to the top of the waterfall and then, if you're interested in a longer walk, the trail continues along the river and across the plateau. This isn't a circular walk, so follow the river's meanders for as long as you like before turning back and heading towards the car park.
3. Fimmvörðuháls hike (the long version)
Duration: Two days
Two volcanic craters, 26 waterfalls and a fair amount of lava: the Fimmvörðuháls hike isn't for the faint of heart. This majestic route runs along the Skogar River, climbing towards Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers and then onwards to the Magni and Modi craters, where new lava is constantly forming and you can feel the heat through the earth. It’s possible – with a very speedy guide and tough legs – to complete the whole hike in 10 hours, but that would be missing the point. Why rush through this ethereal, magical landscape?
Take your time and book a bed in Skógar HI Hostel to rest up before the second day's adventure. Using Hostelling International, you can book special hiking buses to pick you up from the end of the trail if you're not doing it as part of a guided tour. Oskar Helgi Gudjonsson recommends using public transport for this hike. "Many good hiking places can be accessed by public transport, like Fimmvörðuháls on the south coast," he explains.
4. The Laugavegur Trail
Duration: 3–4 days
Described by National Geographic magazine as one of the 20 best hiking trails in the world, the Laugavegur Trail starts in Landmannalaugar, a valley filled with hot springs. The trail takes two-to-four days to complete, walking around six hours a day, and winds its way through steep lava fields covered with vibrant green moss and patches of snow.
Although hiking in a group is recommended, it's possible to self-guide, too and there are sleeping huts with cooking facilities dotted along the paths at just the right intervals. In high summer, when you can expect some wind, rain and fog, it's possible to camp along the route, although authorities recommend not attempting the trail past mid-September, because snow can make it impassable.
If you like a challenge, Oskar Helgi Gudjonnsen recommends walking during the long summer nights, saying, "Hiking in the summer with 24 hours of daylight is of my favourite pastimes – time doesn’t matter and you can amble for as long as you please."
Unless you have a friend in Iceland willing to drive you the three hours to the start of the trek and the four hours to the end to pick you up, it makes sense to do this as part of an organised tour, whether you hike it as an individual or in a group.
5. Snaefellsjokull National Park
Duration: An hour
Iceland has three national parks and, of course, they’re riddled with trails. You can normally spot walks from local campsites – grass will be flattened down, or there'll be a hand-tacked wooden sign propped up by a gate. Snaefellsjokull National Park however is a special corner of western Iceland, home of black sand beaches, gushing clear waterfalls and jagged peaks that silhouette black against the sky.
There's a glorious one hour walk between the tiny hamlets of Arnarstapi and Hellnar that runs from the coast all the way to the edge of the glacier. The trail is called Nedstavatn and it crosses the lava, snaking between the otherworldly landscapes. Walk back to the road along the path, or continue onwards to the Raudfeldsgja ravine, which is also accessible to the road further up the path.
6. The Mount Esja Trail
Duration: 3–4 hours
Close enough to Iceland's capital, Reykjavik, for an afternoon's walk, it should be no surprise that the Mount Esja Trail is one of the most walks routes on the island. There's a tough 915m ascent that passes through fields of bobbing wildflowers and a small forest. Despite its short length, the steep climb makes it actually one of the more challenging routes close to the capital. This is partly due to Mount Esja being a volcano, so you have to scramble up the conical peak.
Clearly signposted to the top, the view from the summit is spectacular. You'll be able to make out the chocolate-box white houses of Reykjavik below and the gentle curve of the bay, as it gives way to the chilly grey ocean.
It's not the most beautiful trek you'll have in Iceland, but you can't beat it for a quick, challenging hike that gives you a brief flavour of what the rest of Iceland has to offer. There's a car park at the base of the trail, which has a functional cafe serving the sort of enormous cups of coffee you need after a chilly autumnal hike.
7. Reykjadalur Valley, Hveragerði
Duration: One hour
Just 40 minutes by car from Reykjavik (follow signs to Hveragerði), leads you to one of the steamiest and most unusual sites close to the capital. Don't expect remote wilderness, unless you trek here in winter, but handily there is a car park at the start of the walk.
It's a little over two miles from the road to the valley and the three-hour hike (excluding the prerequisite two hours of soaking in the mineral-rich waters) serves up geothermal springs, basalt landscapes and dramatic waterfalls.
Reykjadalur translates directly as 'steamy' in Icelandic and once you see the curls of steam bobbing above the grey-grit landscapes, it won't take you long to figure out why. Soak in the river – the further up the river you go, the hotter the water is – before making your way back.