Hiking Iceland: Fimmvörðuháls

Fimmvörðuháls usually comes up as an optional extension to the 55 km multi-day Laugavegurinn trail, widely considered one of the best epic hikes in the world.

Fimmvörðuháls-waterfallRegular readers will already know that we are strictly day hikers, so as we planned our Iceland vacation, it was a no-brainer to put the 25 km Fimmvörðuháls trail at the top of our “must do” list. A few weeks have passed since we hiked Fimmvörðuháls, but we talked about it again today and agree that it’s one of the top 4 hikes we’ve ever done. In terms of foss, Fimmvörðuháls is by far the most impressive waterfall trek we’ve done!

We generally hike on our own, but have hiked with a guide a few times in the past, including: Burgess Shales in Yoho National Park; Single Cone in New Zealand; and Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand.

For this hike we contracted with Haukur Finnsson, owner of Nature Explorer and our driver, hiking guide, photography guide and teacher of fun and interesting facts for most of our 12-day adventure criss-crossing Iceland. Given the need for a vehicle shuttle, using a guiding company for this hike was very helpful. We were especially thankful for Haukur’s detailed knowledge of this hike since we were in low-hanging cloud and hiking through deep snow much of the day, which made the trail markers hard somewhat hard to spot. NOTE: It’s possible to do this hike by bus, as a day-trip out of Reykjavik, but it’s a very long day (about 14 hours) and would be with a relatively large group.

ÞórsmörkMost of the Fimmvörðuháls trail descriptions we’ve read are based on hiking from Skógar (along the ring road) to Basar (in þórsmörk). One of the advantages of hiking in this direction is that it’s easier to be at the trailhead relatively early.

Our guide recommended we hike the other way, and since we didn’t stay in þórsmörk, that meant we not only had to wait for the nearest grocery store to open about 9 o’clock so we could pick up supplies for lunch, but we also had to drive the 30 km 4×4 track through þórsmörk to Basar. It was about 10:30 before we were at the trailhead and ready to get underway. The late start wasn’t really a concern, though, because there are so many daylight hours in Iceland during the summer season. And from our perspective, there were a few advantages to hiking from Basar to Skógar:

  1. Total elevation gain is 800 meters (vs. 1000 meters hiking the other way).
  2. Distance to the summit is only about 7 km (vs about 16 km hiking the other way) so the elevation is gained quickly.
  3. We knew we’d be spending a lot of time photographing the 40+ waterfalls between the summit and Skógafoss, so by saving that part of the hike for last, we’d have a better idea how to manage our time.
  4. If you need to refill your water bottle later in the day, it’s possible to do so as you walk down along the river. Going the other way, there’s no easy access to water until you’re all the way at Basar.

Starting from Basar, the trail ascends quite steeply along a relatively narrow dirt track. Although there is one stretch of about 20 – 25 meters where there’s a safety chain installed for those needed a little extra help, there’s not much exposure at all. In fact, we were overtaken by a three mountain bike riders fairly early on. They were not planning to do the whole trail, but planned to ride up and then enjoy the thrill of gravity-assisted descents along a few different routes. Also during this early stretch we overtook two tour groups hiking in the same direction.

After about 4 km, the trail flattens out as it crosses the Morinsheiði Plateau, a sort of icy lunaresque landscape where the ground was a bit squishy.

Looking across to the Mýrdalsjökull glacier we could see one opening in the ice where steam was drifting up from the hot ground below.

After the Morinsheiði Plateau, we faced the steepest part of the trail. Only a short bit of this section was free of snow, but the snow was soft enough that it was easy to kick in and make slow and steady progress without much concern over backsliding. We gained a little over 200 meters in less than 800 meters distance. In some places the grade was steeper than 50%.

Fimmvörðuháls

Reaching the pass between Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull (two large glaciers on the stratovolcano Katla) we saw nothing but snow and lava fading into the distance. We took a short detour to climb to the top of one of the two new craters created during the 2010 eruption. These two new craters are named Magni and Móði, after the sons of Thor, the Norse god of thunder.

We took about 90 minutes to cover the 4 km from the top of the steepest section to one of the huts where we stopped briefly to use the facilities (pay-per-use). It was windy and fairly cool, so we were glad to be wearing hats, gloves, multiple layers and our rain gear (which also serve as wind gear, if needed). We didn’t really stop for lunch, but snacked along the way. My sandwich was pretty much frozen when I ate it and K remarked that his granola bar was rock hard.

The boys were eager to start down, so we left the hut and began making our way downhill from there, about 4 hours after we started hiking.

Fimmvörðuháls

Our first protracted waterfall stop was at a foss that dropped into a beautiful, round, blue pool. The boys and I stayed up on the trail while Mr. GeoK and Hauker scrambled down a big patch of snow to make some long exposure photographs.

Once we crossed the wooden pedestrian bridge we had two options: the trail that roughly parallels the Skógá River or the track road that services the huts. Of course, we opted for the riverside trail, which Haukur assured us was more appealing to photographers. The trail had some minor ups and downs, but overall there was a slow-but-steady loss of elevation.

The waterfalls varied greatly in width and height. I’ve grouped more than a dozen of Mr. GeoK’s best waterfall photographs into this slide show:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

About 8 hours after we started hiking, we caught our first glimpse of the mist blowing off Skógafoss.

Fimmvörðuháls

A short while later, we were at the base of the falls, near the very crowded car park. Skógafoss is truly impressive and well worth a visit since it’s right off the ring road.

Fimmvörðuháls-waterfall

Our total hiking time was 8 hrs 30 minutes (K finished about 30 minutes faster) to cover 24.2 km. Out of that time, a little over 2 hours was spent making photographs, enjoying the scenery or at one of the mountain huts. All-in-all, one of the best day hikes we’ve ever done!

Got questions? Leave a comment below and we’ll do our best to answer.

By the way, if you’re curious about which other day hikes made our list of the top 4 day hikes we’ve ever done, they are: Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit in Yoho National Park, Iceline Trail in Yoho National Park and Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand.

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6 thoughts on “Hiking Iceland: Fimmvörðuháls

  1. Pingback: Sjáumst Síðar Iceland | Out and About with the GeoKs

  2. Pingback: Hiking Iceland: Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon | Out and About with the GeoKs

  3. Pingback: Exploring Iceland – Vik to Jökulsárlón | Out and About with the GeoKs

  4. Gorgeous!!! We, Kasper and myself are planning to hike the Laugavegur Trails in September ’16 with an two day extension. Not sure if it’s the same as my hiking buddy is preparing the trip but is sure looks worth it.

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