Where the World is New: Hiking Through Geothermal Mountains on Iceland’s Laugavegur Trail
Bubbling hot springs, steaming geysers, and kaleidoscopic lava flows: If the world feels freshly made here, it's because, in a sense, it is.
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The land is on fire. Actually, the land appears to be smoldering, stoked by some persistent blaze just beneath the surface. Steam from hot springs and other geothermal features rises from scores of points from here to the horizon. Mudpots bubble and burp, their effluent dotting a giant canvas of black rhyolite, purple pumice, and electric-lime moss with paint-can spills of ochre, pink, gold, plum, rust, and honey. It’s a mind-boggling kaleidoscope that spreads for miles in every direction, unobstructed by anything taller than a clump of moss. It looks like Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin, as seen by an ant.
I’m in Landmannalaugar, a park in the remote Fjallabak Nature Reserve of Iceland’s Central Highlands. Landmannalaugar is famous both for its hot springs–the name means “bath of the countrymen”–and for the trail I’m hiking. Called the Laugarvegurinn (“Hot Spring Road”), or Laugavegur, it’s a three- to four-day, 33.5-mile, hut-to-hut trek across one of the most active geothermal areas on the planet. Friends had told me it deserves a place beside the Inca Trail, Annapurna Circuit, and Milford Track as one of the world’s most beautiful paths.
Just a few miles into the hike, I already see why. Passing other hikers, mainly Icelanders and other northern Europeans, I’d soon found myself alone with the Arctic wind and occasional whistling steam vent. Now, as I gaze across the smoking land, I think: This is how the Earth must have sounded not long after its birth, when the ground constantly trembled and belched and disgorged its surplus of heat and water, and there were no plants rustling in the wind or animal noises to amplify and add complexity to the soundtrack.
Later, at a spot along the path called Storihver, where numerous vents spew hot water, I wander off-trail over a rise and come upon a steaming pool about 20 feet across. It sits against a hillside with a hole like a gaping maw. A spring spills from the hole into the pool’s aqua waters, which overflow the opposite bank, sending a stream of bright blue meandering down a valley of impossibly green moss and black dirt. The startling contrast creates a scene that would make a geology professor swoon. I edge down toward the pool for a better photo angle, but the pumice collapses like slushy snow, and I frantically scrabble back up the slope, afraid I’ll slide in and boil like a giant human pot roast.
As a kid, before I knew that hot springs could stew meat from bone, I might have taken that plunge. I was enthralled by Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, in which a teenager, his uncle, and a guide descend into an Icelandic volcano. They discover a vast cavern illuminated by electrically charged gas, dodge ancient creatures, and generally have the sort of exotic adventure that bewitches 12-year-olds from factory towns like Leominster, Massachusetts.
The dream of descending into Iceland’s recesses never left me, and finally, 30 years later, I’ve engineered my own little journey. Besides hiking the Laugevegur, I’ll squeeze in a 4WD tour of the island’s interior, plus dayhikes on Snaekollur, a snowy peak overlooking four of Iceland’s six major glaciers, and a few obscure places pointed out by local guides.
At every turn, I’m transfixed by the primeval terrain, aware that elemental forces are still shaping this landscape. It’s so raw I imagine a mighty hand peeling back the Earth’s crust to show what’s going on underneath. More than anyplace I’ve been–from Yellowstone to the rim of Mount St. Helen’s smoking crater–this land is defined by its upheaval.
That upheaval is a product of Iceland’s youth. It formed only three million years ago–a blip in geologic time–from eruptions that built its mountains while the island was buried beneath the Arctic ice cap. And it emerged from the ice only 12,000 years ago, after the cap receded. Smaller than Kentucky, Iceland has about 150 volcanoes, the greatest concentration in the world. And these volcanoes are active–they add four-tenths of an inch to the island’s width every year, and they’ve produced one-third of the planet’s lava output over the past 500 years. The largest flow ever recorded, the Laki eruption, happened here in 1783.
All the hot rock comes from 1,000 miles inside the Earth’s mantle, via a plume, or vent, that angles between the plates that form the planet’s crust. The vent spews prolifically, constantly transforming what author Katharine Scherman describes as “a collection of ice-shrouded peaks and craters deformed by glacial action, surrounded by a freakish complex of hot springs, seething mudpots, and simmering lakes, with steam shooting through holes in old ice and cauldrons of boiling water under a frozen cover.”
Early explorers thought this land was the gateway to hell. Except for the high temperatures down below, they couldn’t have been more wrong.
Iceland is like a first crush, or a mountain cabin, or Alaska: easy to love, hard to leave.
An hour’s hike from the Hrafntinnusker hut, our group descends a crumbling slope into a scene of simultaneous destruction and creation. At the head of a valley thick with steam clouds, the crack-riddled, 100-foot-high snout of a glacier splits apart. Two ice caves, 50 to 75 feet tall and twice as wide, open like giant windows on the underworld, their floors littered with refrigerator-size ice blocks that have crashed down from above. Water drips cold from the ice caves and erupts hot from myriad vents in the ground below. The mixture flows in braids so numerous our boots splash in one every second or third step.
In the days that follow, we’ll pass a dozen similarly breathtaking scenes and decide that Iceland is like a first crush, or a mountain cabin, or Alaska: easy to love, hard to leave. Yet it’s not just the geysers that seduce us. Much of the island remains primitive: Driving into the interior, we’ll fill up at the last gas station for 200 miles, then ford unbridged rivers on rough jeep roads. The people are different, too–or at least their way of looking at the land is. When we learn that Iceland routes new highways around rock formations that are purported to house elves and trolls, we chuckle. But then, thinking of our own billboards and blast-through-the-mountains freeways, the detours seem perfectly sensible.
If Iceland values a good story more than a speedy commute, it’s also a culture that knows how to wring every bit of fun from the endless days of an Arctic summer. For almost two months, the skies never get darker than a cloudy day. And because winter is the dismal opposite, residents burn the candle hard from May through August–fishing, hiking, kayaking, camping, eating, and drinking almost nonstop.
When we return from Laugevegur, our guides round up friends and family for two nights of camping. It kicks off with an enormous lamb dinner, then moves to a traditional Icelandic dish: rotten shark. Fermented for weeks, the rancid, chewy fish tastes like very strong cheese with a disconcerting ammonia aftertaste. We chase it with shots of “Black Death” schnapps, a sweet, searing gut punch that nevertheless seems like an act of mercy after the shark. Guitars come out, and we sing until 2 a.m., under a sky that’s bright enough for reading. Then, as kids race among the tents, my new friends gear up for the next morning’s adventure.
On my last day, we visit Thingvellir, the “parliament fields,” a national park 14 miles east of the modern capital of Reykjavik. For centuries after Iceland established the world’s first parliament in 930, thousands of citizens convened here annually to debate government business. I’ve come to look out over the Atlantic Fault, a gap that’s visible here between two giant plates. According to Scherman’s book, it’s inexorably widening, the slow movement literally tearing Iceland in half a few millimeters a year.
Several minutes down a wide, gravelly tourist trail, I scramble up a break in a 40-foot cliff. Below me sprawls a field of mottled, ropey black lava. The fault slices through here, stretching and cracking the lava like brittle taffy. On the North American side, the ground creeps westward. Across the valley, on the Eurasian side, the brown hills slowly retreat eastward.
The scene isn’t quite as magical as what Jules Verne described, but I wager it’s as close as a kid from Leominster will ever get to the center of the Earth. My 30-year journey complete, I turn and climb down, watching a couple of preschoolers playing below a waterfall, blissfully oblivious to the geological cataclysm taking place beneath their feet.
Season July is the peak hiking season, but even in summer temperatures regularly drop near freezing; pack a down jacket and rain gear (both jacket and pants) that can stand up to days of rain and high winds
Camping Pick up a hut bunk or pitch your tent at one of the campgrounds beside them, both operated by Ferðafélag Íslands. Reservations are available on their website.
Getting there Icelandair flies from most major US airports to Reykjavik; from there, rent a 4WD vehicle (necessary for many of the dirt and gravel roads heading into Iceland’s interior).
Originally published in Backpacker in 2008; all information has been fact-checked and updated as of July 2021.