Greetings from the Reykjavik Campground in Iceland! The first two segments of our trip of a lifetime/mini-retirement are in the books. It’s hard to believe it’s already been nearly two weeks since we locked up our Boulder apartment and hit the road. We spent a wonderful week in the Midwest visiting family and friends before hopping on an easy direct flight from Chicago to Reykjavik. We spent a night in this cozy capital before heading out to hike the Laugavegur trail in the south of the country. Before we get into the hike, quick aside about our first night in Reykjavik:
When planning for an extended trip while trying to maintain a rather modest budget, we knew we needed to keep our lodging costs down. We have managed to travel hack our way into a nice bounty of points and miles, but not nearly enough to cover five months of travel. Therefore, we created two guiding rules for strategically booking hotels using travel rewards.
Rule #1: Maximize value. We tried to use the bulk of our rewards-fueled hotel stays in expensive places where we’d pay a pretty penny for accommodation if using cash. Lucky us, our Europe-heavy travel itinerary includes plenty of cities that fit the bill (pun intended). When traveling through southeast Asia, on the other hand, we will use cash for more of our accommodation since lodging is typically very reasonable in those parts.
Rule #2: Hotels on travel days. There is nothing better than finishing a long travel day with an easy check-in process (no fumbling in the dark to find the AirBnB lockbox or waking up the host), a hot shower, baggage storage options, and a clean bed. We will happily rough it in our tent for most nights of our trip, but we are insanely grateful for the small luxuries of hotels when arriving somewhere new sleep-deprived and weary.
After a very comfortable stay at the Reykjavik Hilton (early check in? Heck yes. Amazing breakfast buffet? Even better), we are feeling pretty swell about how The Rules have been working out. We spent a day exploring Reykjavik and running some pre-hike errands before hopping on a bus to Lannamanalugar, our starting destination for the Laugavegur Trail, a 48-mile trek through rugged landscapes in the south of the country.
The Laugavegur Trail is Iceland’s most popular and iconic long-distance trek. It is divided into four segments, each marked by a mountain hut and camping area at the finish. At the official end of the trail, there is the option to add on another day’s hike on the Fimmvorduhals Trail, which climbs up to pass between two glaciers and then descends into the small town of Skogar. Our plan was to combine the first two segments of the Laugavegur Trail on our first day to complete the entire thing and make it to Skogar in a total of four days.
We arrived in Landmannalaugar in the afternoon with plans to camp there for the evening and then set off for our hike early(ish) the next morning. Landmannalaugar is known for it’s amazing geothermal landscape, which is punctuated by otherworldly colors, random steam-spewing crevices, and some truly lovely hot springs. We almost talked ourselves into skipping the hot springs, considering the fact that we hadn’t brought swimsuits and didn’t want to haul around wet clothes in our packs for the next few days. Fortunately, Ian pulled the whole “It’s not everyday that you find yourself at some dope geothermal hot springs” card and I was quickly convinced. Us Coloradans would have preferred to soak in nude, but after a quick survey of the scene we determined that Iceland wasn’t ready for all that and opted to sacrifice one of our precious few pairs of underwear for the cause. Soaking in the hot springs, surrounded by dramatic mountains and dynamic colors in every direction was truly an unparalleled way to kick off our trek. We returned to a very chilly night in our tent before hitting the trail the next morning.
We began Day 1 in good spirits. The initial uphill climb helped us thaw out a bit (did I mention that Iceland is a cold place for camping?) and the views blew us away from the start. Iceland is like no other place on Earth that we’ve ever been. The geothermal activity, volcanic landforms, vibrantly colored mountains, wide rivers, black sand deserts, and powerful waterfalls all come together to give this place a character that is completely unique and totally spectacular. The first day of hiking on a long-distance trek is always a bit of a euphoria-filled blur. For example, we were so blissed out on our first day of the Tour du Mont Blanc that we missed an obvious turn and walked in the wrong direction for an hour before realizing it. On our first day of the West Highland Way, we stopped for a very long lunch (whisky included) thinking we were much closer to our stopping point than we actually were. On the Laugavegur, the trail really gave new meaning to the expression, “a surprise around every corner.” It seemed like every hill we crested or bend we rounded presented a completely new and wondrous landscape. Despite hiking for over eight hours, we finished feeling energized and totally stokey about the next day. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we decided to combine the next segments into another big day the following day. Why sit around and be cold at the campsite when we could spend the entire day exploring the trail?
On Day 2, we packed up camp in damp conditions and a literally bone-chilling wind. One plus side of this weather is that it makes instant coffee taste like the elixir of life. Another positive was that although we had nearly perfect weather throughout the hike, we did at least get a little taste of Iceland’s moody dark side. We set off towards the next hut feeling a little stiff after the previous day’s efforts but totally excited for what the trail would bring. We did have some trepidation however, as we’d read that the biggest of our river crossings would occur on this stage of the hike. For such an expensive country with otherwise impeccable infrastructure, Iceland seems curiously reluctant to build bridges over rivers. Both people and vehicles are routinely expected to ford sizable rivers if they would like to carry on towards their destination. The warden’s notes at the previous huts warned hikers to take caution crossing the Emstur River, and recent reports suggested the water could reach mid-thigh depths. We’d hoped we’d get an hour or two of walking behind us to warm up before crossing the icy water, but lo and behold, we met it within a few minutes of starting the day. For the second time this week in Iceland, we found ourselves stripping down to our underwear and stepping into the steely glacial waters. This time, however, there was no geothermal action to soften the blow. We forged into the icy, fast-moving currents, carefully choosing every step even though we just wanted to run to the other side and get out as fast as possible. Well, that was one wickedly efficient way to wake up in the morning.
The rest of Day 2 was tremendously beautiful, but definitely more of a slog than Day 1, due to very long stretches through rocky desert and the fact that our bodies were starting to feel the miles a bit more. Still, we saw so many amazing sights, like the enormous canyon where two rivers-one slate gray and the other sepia toned-together hundreds of feet below us. Finally, we reached Þórsmörk, the technical end of the Laugavegur. We bought a ridiculously overpriced, but yet so necessary, Twix bar at the Þórsmörk campsite shop and then continued on another mile to the campsite at Basar where we’d be better positioned to start the next day’s big hike. Upon reaching camp, the sun had fully made an appearance and we enjoyed some very relaxing evening hours soaking up the endless daylight before putting on our sleeping masks and turning in for the night.
Day 3 brought more excellent sunny weather, and we knew we had to take advantage of it and bust out the last big day of walking before allowing ourselves a rest day. Today we would complete the Fimmvorduhals Trail. Have you ever wanted to climb between two glaciers, see the youngest mountains on earth, witness recent volcanic eruptions where black ash meets white snow, crest a mountain pass to see the ocean in the distance, or gaze at 20 waterfalls all in one day? Well we never knew we wanted all those things either until we hiked this trail, but it turns out that it definitely doesn’t suck. You’ve got to work for your views though. The trail included some ridiculously steep climbs, a mildly sketchy exposed section, and lots of hiking through slushy snow fields. Technically, today was supposed to be way harder in terms of challenge than the previous day, but we both felt significantly better. It was one of those all-around perfect days in nature.
Reaching the end of the hike was an interesting experience. Skogar, where the Fimmvorduhals terminates, is a huge draw for tourists due to its proximity to the main highway and its very impressive waterfall, known as Skogafoss. To us, after being on the lightly trafficked trail for the past few days, it felt like a total zoo. Giant busses dropped off camera-wielding tourists who aggressively fought their way into position for the perfect instagram shot. It was such an entertaining spectacle that we had no other choice to embrace it and relish the experience. The campground was smack dab in the center of the action, so we enjoyed an endless stream of premium people-watching from the comfort of our tent. The waterfall views were pretty sweet too. Although we appreciated Skogar for what it was worth, we realized pretty quickly that we would struggle hang around at the campground for the nearly 48 hours until our bus was scheduled to pick us up (since we finished a day early). Fortunately, we were able to change our tickets and decided to make the most of our extra time by heading back to Reykjavik, which is how we ended up at the lovely campground where I began this post. We walked around the city for quite awhile yesterday before enjoying a picnic feast for dinner. Soon, we will head off to Chamonix, where we’ll spend a few days in town before beginning our next trek, the Haute Route. We’ll spend nearly two weeks traversing the Alps as we make our way from Chamonix to Zermatt, sleeping in our tent all but a couple of nights. As we wrap up in Iceland, it is easy to get caught up in looking ahead to what’s next. Sure, that excitement is certainly part of the fun, but we have to keep reminding ourselves to try to stay in the moment. We’ve been planning this thing for so long and already the days are getting ticked off the itinerary at a remarkable pace. It’s amazing how time moves when you wake up every day and get to do exactly the thing you want to be doing. It has been an incredible experience to be in a given moment and realize that you honestly don’t want to be any other place or in any other time. What a rare and fortunate feeling. Until the next post, we’ll do our best to keep soaking it all up.