Lónsöræfi: Iceland's Secret Hiking Wonderland

December 29, 2017

 If you've ever hiked the Laugavegur trail in Iceland, you were no doubt blown away by the beauty of the landscape, and it was probably pretty clear why it's a world famous hike. But if you're like me, you may have been a little bummed out by just how many people you were sharing the trail with; it can be downright crowded at the campgrounds around the hiking huts. There's no permitting system for the popular trails in Iceland, so every year you can expect that it will get a little more crowded. This isn't strictly a bad thing; you get to meet lots of interesting hikers from all around the globe, plus there are well maintained facilities along the trail, and there are always folks queued up at the river crossings to point out the consensus safest crossing routes. And of course there's the stunning scenery that brings all those adventurers to the area in the first place. But with all those people around, it just never quite felt like the adventure that I was looking for...

 

But I am here to tell you that there is another multi-day hiking trail in Iceland that is arguably the equal of the Laugavegur in beauty, and practically nobody outside of Iceland knows about it. After crossing paths with five hikers and a National Park ranger on day one, my buddy Badger and I saw no other human beings for three days until we were picked up at the end of our hike! I'm conflicted about even posting this, as I don't want to be the one responsible for bringing this to the attention of the masses, but considering I'm not a person of any influence whatsoever, what the heck. What follows is both a trip report and a "How to..." guide for hiking Lónsöræfi.

 

 

OK, right off the bat, I need to specify that while I will be referring to this as the "Lónsöræfi Hike", as far as I know the trail itself does not have a name and there is no consensus as to what to call it (something like "Lónsvegur" would make a nice complement to Laugavegur.) Even the name Lónsöræfi is something not used by the locals; you can read about the history of the area and the name here. I first heard about this hike reading Wild Walking: Independent Hiking in Iceland by Páll Ásgeir Ásgeirsson. He refers to the hike as "Home of the Reindeer" and Lónsöræfi is just one of the areas you pass through. In any event, the trail runs just to the east of the great Vatnajökull glacier, with the southern terminus near the ring road about 30 minutes drive east of Höfn and the northern terminus in any number of spots in the general vicinity of Mt. Snæfell in the highlands. The trail follows the path of the Jökulsá í Lóni river and links together the three main hiking huts in the area (from north to south): Geldingafellsskali, Egilssel, and Múlaskáli (not labeled on the map to the right, but it's about where the three green icons are, just above the word Lónsöræfi.) The general consensus seems to be to do the hike from north to south, perhaps because it's mostly downhill in that direction or maybe because the best scenery is in the southern part (IMHO). But we did it south to north because we were traveling counterclockwise around the country doing different hikes. I feel like this will make the most sense for your average hiker, as catching the bus to Höfn and using that as a jumping off point is clearly the simplest way to access this location. 

 

During the month we spent in Iceland in 2017, when Badger and I tried to share our experiences with the locals we were meeting, most of them had no idea what we were talking about when we talked about this hike. This background information is purely of the "fun fact" variety. It won't be on the final.

 

DAY ZERO: Before our trip I had arranged for a taxi to pick us up at the N1 in Höfn at 7 PM (conveniently located across the street from the campground, and it's also the bus stop for the town). We headed east on the ring road for about 30 km until we crossed the bridge over the Jökulsá í Lóni river just before the Stafafell farm and guesthouse. Just after the bridge there is a gravel road on the left that takes you to the trailhead (NOTE: There is also an F road before the bridge over the river; this is the road you would take if you were driving a Super Jeep all the way to the first hut. This is not where you turn if you're hiking out there.) We were prepared to walk from this ring road junction, but our driver was nice enough to take us about 4 km down the road, until it became a little too rough for his non-4x4, which saved us about an hour of walking.

The spot where we got dropped off was very close to where I had planned to camp the first night. Somewhere, in all my internet searches, I had found just a little info that there is an abandoned farm nearby from the 1800's and you can camp in or near the ruins. Luckily, we found it, and it is in fact clearly a campground. There is a small building with two toilets and a sink, and a drop box where you pay a camping fee (1000 kr. per tent if I remember?) I now know that this place is called Smiðjunes. It's a great place to camp the night before starting the hike, although you could also stay in Höfn and catch a ride out in the morning to start your hike instead. You can find Smiðjunes right here on Google Maps.

Above: Smiðjunes camp with our tent and facilities in the distance.

Below: Plaque commemorating the family that lived here.

 

Above: Farm ruins.

Below: Sheep ruins.

 

DAY ONE: The hike from Smiðjunes to Múlaskáli is no joke, especially if you're carrying 50 pounds on your back, as Badger and I both were. It's about 15 miles with 2800 feet of elevation gain. Here is an excellent GPS track I would recommend downloading and bringing on your phone if you're going to do this. Our morning was rainy and foggy, an inauspicious start, so we dressed warm, donned our rain gear and headed into the hills.

 Above: A very Mordor-y morning.

 

 

Right off the bat, we're hiking on rhyolite, which is the thing that makes all those mountains in Landmannalaugar so pretty, but is horrible to walk on.  It could also be referred to as scree; loose, sharp rocks which can be especially annoying on side hills because they just slide down the slope when you apply any weight to them. It's like walking on broken dinner plates. Anyway, there is a lot of scree in Lónsöræfi.

 

It was pretty difficult to find our way through this area, which is why I recommend the above GPS track (and didn't share ours!) If I could do it again I might just backtrack to the gravel road and follow it to the "true" trailhead. We were just cutting through to save time; it ended up costing us extra I think. In either case, it's the gravel road that eventually leads you to the first marked stakes that signify the start of the trail.

 

 By the time we had found the trail head the weather had improved a lot and it ended up being a really nice day. Past the gravel road, the trail runs between the river basin and the mountains to the east in sort of a straight line for several miles. The stakes aren't consistent and it's easy to take a sheep trail instead of the true trail, but you can pretty much wing it here anyway. When you look up the river you can see a big suspension bridge in the distance; you'll be heading over that eventually, and aiming towards it is fine whether you're on the trail or not.

 Above: Near the southern terminus of the trail.

 

Before you get to the suspension bridge, there are two obstacles of note. The fist one is a river crossing. You'll need to pick your crossing carefully because there isn't an obvious one, but the good news is that the water is crystal clear so it's easy to pick your way.

 

 Above: Crossing a tributary of the Jökulsá í Lóni.

 

 

 

The second obstacle is one of the most nerve-wracking things I've come across in my hikes. The trail crosses a cliff face that is nearly vertical, on loose scree that does not feel sturdy at all, is as wide as one of my feet, and is about 20 feet directly above the river. We crossed very carefully and very slowly. Later, another hiker we met along the way told us they found a different way around, although it involved backtracking a bit and fighting their way through a birch forest. Probably worth looking for that option.

After successfully not dying on the cliff, you have basically reached the suspension bridge over the river. There's a picnic table there too where you can stop for a rest or lunch. This bridge is an impressive structure. Some folks are surely familiar with the "Golden Gate of the Sierra," a suspension bridge on the PCT/JMT in Kings' Canyon National Park. This bridge is the actual Golden Gate compared to that rickety thing that can only support one hiker at a time. You could drive a car over it if you could somehow get one out here. To come across this bridge, here, after just defying death on such a poorly marked, hastily laid out trail, is like finding a gold ring in your Froot Loops. In any case, the bridge is cool; here are some pictures of it/from it:

 Once you've crossed the river, pretty much everything about the hike changes. There are no more trees, and suddenly lots of sheep (and criss-crossing sheep trails). The trail is staked out much better and very easy to follow. And you finally start going uphill, which leads to some incredible views.

 Above: Badger hiking uphill, with the slippery cliffs on the far side of the river basin.

 

 

 

When you reach the first plateau after the climb, there is a trail junction and a sign that points you to Eskifell. As far as I understand it, there is a hiking hut at the end of this trail that could be used, potentially, to break up this hike into two days, or as an alternate starting or end point for the hike as a whole. However, I have not figured out who owns this hut or how to make a reservation (generally, the huts are owned by a regional hiking club, but none of the clubs I know claim this one).

 Above: A lake along the trail in Lónsöræfi.

 

As I said, after the bridge, the trail is pretty straightforward. The views are absolutely stunning. There is an incredible canyon here called Jökulsárgljúfur. There is a much more famous canyon of the same name in the north of Iceland, in the Dettifoss to Asbyrgi area, so if you check Google maps, for example, all the pictures of this area are from the wrong Jökulsárgljúfur. (I must be the only person who gets mad when they find photos in the wrong place on Google maps.) Also, there are way too many scree slopes here: uphill, downhill, or sidehill, with the rocks slip-sliding down slope with each step. In some places it would be impossible to let a hiker pass coming the other direction, so it's a good thing that we only saw five other hikers on this day. When we stopped for lunch we met an Icelandic couple heading the other direction; they had been on the trail for three days and were heading home. We had actually seen their Jeep parked way back near the trailhead some hours before. And right when we got to the hut there was another Icelandic couple and their 12 year old daughter just leaving. All in all, it's a tough call but this might have been my favorite single day of hiking ever. Here's a slideshow with some more highlights from day one...

 

A note about Icelandic hiking huts, if you're not familiar. Typically, it's a small to medium sized building with a foyer/mudroom, kitchen and as many beds as can be crammed in there. Sometimes there are rooms with a couple bunk beds; usually there is a loft or attic with a bunch of mattresses on the floor. A small hut sleeps 16, medium 24 or 28 maybe, and you can probably cram 45 people into the bigger ones, like Dreki hut at Askja. Usually they have a warden, either in a private room or a small hut also on the property. You can check in with the warden if you have a reservation, or pay the warden if you don't and they have room for you. If you prefer to camp, there will be open areas around the hut, and a small fee payable to the warden. Usually there are outdoor facilities like a sink with running (cold) water and a toilet or outhouse. Some will even have showers with hot water, they usually cost 500 kr and only last 5 minutes. In any case, if you ever plan on staying at one, know that you will probably be sleeping very close with complete strangers. You are responsible for bringing a sleeping bag and pillow, although it seemed like every hut had extras you could borrow.

 

 Day one ends at Múlaskáli, a hiking hut owned by Ferðafélags Austur-Skaftfellinga (Touring Club of the East and Skaftafell or something like that). They have a website here where you can make a reservation online. I used this last year, and fair warning: I didn't get a confirmation email or anything like that. I tried emailing them and never heard back. All the way up until we arrived I had no idea if I actually had a reservation (my credit card had been charged). But they did have my reservation and were expecting us, so the system works. It's just not "confidence inspiring." The warden wasn't there, but there is another hut on the property where a Park Ranger lives in the summer, and he let us in. The two of us had the whole hut to ourselves (this would be a theme) and Múlaskáli is really nice! They have brand new showers on site which are crazy hot and we were even able to do some laundry (with water boiled on the stove, there's no washing machine, don't be crazy). If I ever get back here, I would definitely plan to spend at least two nights at the hut and do some day hiking in the area. We definitely missed a lot heading out the next morning.

 

A few pictures from Múlaskáli :

 

DAY TWO: The hike from Múlaskáli to the next hut at Egilssel is pretty short, under 7 miles, but features 2500 vertical feet of gain including a brutally steep climb up a scree slope (shocker!). Here's a GPS track that I think goes a slightly different way and avoids the steep climb. After a tough first day, Badger and I slept in and took our sweet old time getting up and at it the next morning. I don't think we hit the trail until around noon, but that turned out to be just fine as it took us less than five hours to make the journey. As I said, right off the bat, we were faced with a slippery climb up a steep slope of loose rocks:

 It was difficult enough that we had to go one at a time, about 50 yards a pop until we found a well-anchored place to stop (like standing on a bush) because the hiker in front was sending so many rocks bounding down the slope towards the downhill hiker. But like any good climb, we were rewarded with great views.

 Badger above the Jökulsá í Lóni river.

 Looking back towards Múlaskáli part way up the climb.

 Badger climbing the steep scree slope.

 Sheep waiting to greet us at the top of the climb. Note the rain at 45 degree angle in front of the dark cliffs. It was very windy up top!

After the tough climb, the wind picked up and it started to rain just a little. The plateau here is called Kollumúli and its altitude is around 700 meters. On this day, the clouds were just barely above our heads; we were quite lucky not to be hiking in complete fog. But despite the weather, the hiking is pretty easy once you've finished the big climb and the views are spectacular. After a few miles there is a well marked fork in the trail, with a spur heading to the cliffs known as tröllakrókar. Tröllakrókar are these incredible cliff formations in Lónsöræfi along the Jökulsá í Lóni valley and they are honestly one of the most incredible things I have ever seen in Iceland. I have no doubt that if they were easily accessible by road they'd be one of the top attractions in the country. Lucky for us you have to hike for two days to get to them. It is well worth the journey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 The size and scale of the this place is really difficult to capture but I hope the above pictures do it some justice. Standing on the edge of these cliffs with no guard rail or any sign that people have visited before you; it kind of feels like being the first person to see the Grand Canyon. And speaking of the wind, this Youtube video might give some idea of what it was like:

 According to Wild Walking, there is a trail that runs along the river through the valley at the base of the cliffs, allowing you to hike a complete circle around Tröllakrókar. Another reason I want to go back to this place.

Amazingly enough, right after leaving Tröllakrókar, we went over a small hill and spotted the other big attraction of Lónsöræfi, a herd of reindeer! They took off like a shot as soon as we saw them, but they didn't go too far...

 

The Egilssel hut is only a mile or so past Tröllakrókar and it didn't take us long before we saw it in the distance, on the shore of Kollumúlavatn lake. The hut (and the next one too) is owned by a different Touring Club than the last one, Ferðafélag Fljótsdalshéraðs, and neither of them has a warden. That means that the only way to get in is to be with a guided tour, or to reserve and pay for spots in the hut in advance and get the key code from the club. You can book your hut stay on the club's website here. Egilssel is much tinier than Múlaskáli, and Badger and I were lucky to have it to ourselves. Badger got a fire going in the wood burning stove, and we cooked ourselves a mini feast of Knorr rice, Knorr pasta and Idahoan instant mashed potatoes. And wouldn't you know it, after dinner, the reindeer herd showed up again.

 Our first glimpse of Egilssel hut.

 There were probably 70 to 80 Reindeer in the herd that showed up just outside the hut.

 

 

 

Because we arrived so early to the hut, we had plenty of time to kill (hence the three course meal.) I read through years worth of entries in the hut's guestbook (skipping the Icelandic ones, which were most of them anyway). The upcoming days' hikes were not marked; I knew this going in and was prepared for it. There is no official trail from Egilssel to Geldingafell but I had a GPS track on my phone I was ready to follow. However, reading the experiences of other hikers (who had come the other way), I ended up changing the planned route, which was definitely a mistake. We'll talk about that on day three. Eventually, the clouds descended and the hut was wrapped in fog. We couldn't see the reindeer or the lake 20 feet out our front door. We hoped it wasn't a bad sign for the next day.

 

There are other interesting side hikes from Egilssel, including hiking down into the valley to the east of the hut, Víðidalur, to visit the farm ruins of Grund. If I ever do get back here, I would probably spend one night in Egilssel, then head down Víðidalur and back to Múlaskáli. Or I might try the alternate path back to the ring road as (briefly) described on this website. The hiking north of Egilssel has its charms, but nothing worth coming back to see a second time.

DAY THREE: There is not a staked trail between Egilssel hut and Geldingafell hut. This is a fun and exciting fact, because you're supposed to be on an adventure, right? Now you really can test your mettle by navigating the Icelandic highlands on your own! In practice, getting from A to B is not that difficult, at least on a sunny day. Roughly speaking, you head northeast and uphill, to a plateau called Kollumúlaheiði covered in varying amounts of snow and partially frozen lakes that increase in size the further north you head. You can then make your way across the plateau in any manner you like, as long as you keep heading towards the huge volcano you can see in the distance (Mt. Snæfell). Eventually you'll run into the Geldingafell hut. That being said, this GPS track is definitely the way to go. I'm certain it's more scenic and less monotonous than staying up on Kollumúlaheiði (probably less windy, too.) Oh well, these are the things you learn when you hike somewhere new without a trail or a guide.

 Looking back at Egilssel and Kollumúlavatn.

 

We were quite lucky that the clouds lifted on this day and eventually broke altogether. Navigating our way solely by GPS would have been challenging, although we would have been forced to go the "good" way so maybe it would have worked out for the better. The hiking was very swampy from the get-go, and with no trail we tried in vain to find a dry way; one that probably didn't exist at all. We caught another sight of the reindeer herd but they bolted pretty quick. When we reached Kollumúlaheiði we were greeted with spectacular views as well as a field of boulders and snow that stretched on for miles and miles and miles...

 The next five hours or so basically amounted to a never ending game of "the floor is lava." Hopping from one boulder to the next to keep our feet dry because the ground between the rocks is just marsh but also because there is not really anywhere else to step. It was monotonous and slow and I made way too may "In the Latin alphabet, Jehova starts with an 'I' " jokes.

 Video of Badger boulder hopping.

 Sometimes we had to cross running water on natural snow bridges of uncertain strength, which was definitely exciting, in the bad kind of way. The progress was achingly slow, the wind was relentless, and our nerves were frazzled. There is just not much to say about this hike besides how much I regret not following the original plan of the downloaded GPS track. We eventually made it to the incredibly tiny Geldingafell hut (seriously, how do they sometimes cram 19 people in here?) and settled in the for the evening. Badger gave himself a warm water sponge bath in the freezing cold and wind on the front porch for some reason (photo not found). When the sun set behind Mt. Snæfell the view from the hut was pretty spectacular. It was our second day of not seeing another human.

 

DAY FOUR: From Geldingafell, you've got three basic options to get back to civilization. The easiest and quickest way would be to follow the F road from the hut north to where it hits the paved road (day one of this excellent GPS track, which contains this entire hike). On the flip side, the most difficult option involves heading west, crossing over the Eyjabakkajökull glacier tongue, and eventually making your way to the Snæfellsskáli hut and spending a night there. This GPS trail covers most of it, I would assume this group got a ride from the hut to their GPS starting point. You really need to make sure you know what you're doing to take this route; I wouldn't recommend it without a guide. The third option, the one we took, is to split the difference and hike through the Eyjabakkar wetlands until you reach the paved road (GPS track here).

 Heading into the Eyjabakkar wetlands (unknown if this is an F road or just damage from illegal off-roading.)

 

The Eyjabakkar wetlands area is renowned for its reindeer and, in July, its pink-footed geese, who come here to molt. We saw no reindeer and not very many geese, which was a shame. The hiking is easy despite the lack of a trail, although swampy, which is to be expected. The wind, on the other hand, was absolutely relentless, with nowhere to hide. The scenery is dominated by Mt. Snæfell; always looming on your left. It lends to a sort of illusion that you're not making any progress...

 

If you keep walking north, you will eventually reach a paved road. You will also get mobile phone service, because there are several hydroelectric dams in the area. When we reached the road, we called Palli from Laugarfell Highland Hostel to come pick us up (arranged in advance, of course). He was the first person we had seen in three days. Laugarfell makes a fine place to end your hike (or start a southbound one), and we enjoyed our hot showers and hot dinner and cold beers and the natural hot springs to swim in as well. Badger even took a video to demonstrate just how f-ing windy it had been that day...

 

 

 

 So that's one account of a four day trip through Lónsöræfi. If you decide to give it a go, don't forget to book your spots in the huts well in advance, and be sure to download those GPS tracks I linked. Or, alternatively, you could just book a tour through Icelandic Mountain Guides. Ask for Greta as your guide, she's the best.

 

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