Getting to Iceland was easy. Figuring out where I would hike once I got there was more of a challenge. The obvious thing to do, at least in my mind, was to hike across the country, and to do so horizontally (not vertically) since that route would be longer… no shortcuts. Iceland is the perfect place for a trans-country walk: it’s a small island and therefore requires relatively little time to cross; and it offers a tremendous mix of landscapes and sights despite its size.
Once I determined that I wanted to hike across Iceland, I needed to nail down the specifics, e.g. where I would start and finish, and how I would get between those two points. Based on some initial research (namely the Lonely Planet guide and the 1:250,000 Section Maps), I opted to start at the small coastal town of Hofn in the southeastern corner of the country. Why? Because it is easily accessible from Reykjavik by bus and air taxi; and because the region just to its north, the Lonsoraefi Nature Reserve, looked rugged and scenic. (In hindsight, I could have started almost anywhere in the country, regardless of bus and air access, because hitchhiking is very easy and getting a ride even to a remote coastal village would have been possible. But knowing this now would not have changed my plans—Lonsoraefi was awesome.) I decided to end my hike near the tip of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, from where it would be fairly easy to return to Reykjavik and board my return flight; the other fitting ending location, the Northwest Fiords, is further away and more difficult to access and exit.
Before I began my Iceland Traverse, I decided that I wanted to hike the most famous official hiking trail in the country, the 49-mile Laugavegur. With a well-worn footpath and a hut every 5-10 miles, the Laugavegur provided a safe and easy way to begin understanding the Icelandic environment before I began the more challenging Traverse. See the Laugavegur page for more information.
Hofn to Múlaskáli
From Hofn my first goal was reaching the hut Múlaskáli, where the Snaefell-Lonsoraefi trekking route begins. There are at least two ways to get there: the easiest way is to follow F980 northwest from Ring Rd, but the recommended route starts at the junction of Ring Rd and F984, just east of the bridged crossing of Hoffellsjokull’s outlet river. This latter route is more scenic, much more rugged, and much more exciting. This route is marked on the Lonsoraefi Special Map with a green line (which refers ubiquitously to a “bridal path, hiking trail, or cross-country route”).
Note: If you need to start in Hofn—e.g. if that’s where the bus drops you off, or if you need to pick up some supplies, and/or if you are a purist and insist on starting at the ocean—then you will have a short roadwalk before you begin any hiking.
From Ring Rd I walked a few kilometers north on F984 towards the church, Hoffell. Just before the road begins to climb towards some houses, I turned off the road to the right and followed a 2-track along a field and towards the valley Hoffellsdalur. Uphill to my left was an airplane fuselage that had been converted into a house. I followed this road up the valley to where it ends, just before reaching a low pass above the valley Skyndidalur.
Here, I was presented with the first challenge of the Traverse: getting across Lambatungnajokull, a glacial tongue that descends from Vatnajokull. If there had still been snow on the glacier and/or if I’d had crampons, then crossing the glacier would have been straightforward. (An ice axe is helpful, not necessary; I would only have needed it if I began to slide.) But, instead, the glacier’s surface was ice (this was mid-July) and I did not have crampons, and this crossing was quite dangerous. I did not see any man-swallowing crevasses in the glacier here, though some of the cracks were plenty deep enough for me to get hurt or get stuck if I fell into them. Getting onto and off of the glacier was probably the most difficult part of the crossing: its sides are quite steep, but its top is thankfully more level.
I was not entirely familiar with the dangers of crossing the glacier under these conditions but I wanted to avoid the outflow river, which I thought might be even more dangerous but which in retrospect was quite fordable. It worked out okay but the crossing was time-consuming and nerve-wracking: there were many places where I had to slide on my butt and cling to the ice with my trekking poles. In order to avoid steep sections of ice, I needed to walk about 100 yards up the glacier, cross its spine, and then descend about the same distance. When I reached the other side, I walked along the edge of the glacier until I reached an abrupt drop (the ceiling of the ice cave, from where the river flows), and from there I scrambled up and around the loose, steep valley wall until there was a way to descend to the valley bottom.
If you do not have crampons, I would not recommend trying to cross the glacier. I regretted it. I cannot say if it’s possible to walk along the southwest edge of the glacier to its moraine; the valley walls may be too steep, not sure. Unless you are willing to turn back, I might even recommend that you just take F980 to the hut in order to avoid what may be a precarious situation. If you do reach the moraine by getting around the glacier, do not try to cross it—you may get caught in quicksand, which forms when the water-saturated gravelly soil is disrupted. Instead, cross the valley on firmer ground, further down; you will need to ford the glacier-fed river, which will be cold and can be swift, especially on warm days.
Once I was across the glacier I followed the route on the map towards Múlaskáli. This is a rugged route but it is scenic. It begins with a steep, grassy 2,000-foot climb. After I rounded the ridge I needed to cross a very loose scree slope before climbing another 500 feet to a pass. From that pass, I contoured across the slope, which features ~6 steep ravines, a few of which are especially difficult to get into and out of because the walls are steep and loose. A safer option might have been to descend into the valley, then climb up one of the last ravines to the top of the ridge; but I was trying to avoid unnecessary vertical loss. The map also indicates it’s possible to climb up and over the ridge, but I was concerned about getting stuck under or above an impassable cliff band.
Once I was around this next ridge, I contoured up the valley as much as I easily could. When it got difficult, I began descending, but kept working my way up valley when possible. I reached the bottom of the valley (it’s not necessary to contour to the head of the valley—just contour enough to avoid unnecessary vertical loss) and then needed to climb back up the other side. Somewhere near the ridgetop I picked up a noticeable footpath that is marked with 1.5-foot-high wooden posts and followed the southern route down to Múlaskáli.
Múlaskáli to Snæfellsskáli
Between these two huts I followed the Snaefell-Lonsoraefi trekking route, a description of which is available from the Icelandic Touring Association website (it’s #5).
Note: The route description they provide is for the opposite direction of travel, so you need to follow the directions in reverse, including the days.
I will add a few remarks to this section. Heading out of Múlaskáli I followed a light footpath that is marked again with 1.5-foot-high posts; it took me to Egilssel hut. I regretted going all the way to the hut: I should have left it when I reached the top of the ridge, since the trail fades into a cross-country route anyway and since it is longer than necessary. From Egilssel I did not follow the green line exactly, in order to avoid a ford—instead I followed the western shorelines of a series of four lakes, Fremstavatn through Kelduarvatn, and then dropped down to the Geldingafellsskali hut. From there, I had three options: (1) head north and find the bridge over the glacier-fed river; (2) cross Eyjabakkajökull, which I was reluctant to do based on my experience the day before; or (3) ford the outlet river of Eyjabakkajökull. I chose to do the latter and it worked: the river is cold and swift but I found a spot where it braided into five streams, the deepest of which was mid-thigh. Again, do not get too close to the end of the glacier, so as to avoid the quicksand. After the ford there was a long gradual climb through rock-dotted mudhole-pocketed terrain to a primitive track that I followed north to Snæfellsskáli.
Snæfellsskáli to Askja & Dreki Hut
I left the cozy confines of Snæfellsskáli along an established vehicle track to the west. This track eventually turns south in order to climb Saudahnjukar; I left the track here and continued west. Soon I reached a good viewpoint of the boggy wetlands that lie between this viewpoint and the Jokulsa a Dal River (or, as of 2006, more accurately the lake that was created by the damming of the Jokulsa a Dal). I think it was impossible to cross this area without getting my feet soaked. However, that’s not to say that there are not “wet lines” and “less wet lines” across—try to pick the latter.
On the other side of these bogs is a primitive 2-track that I followed north towards the paved highway leading to the dam. This track eventually began backtracking on my westerly progress, so started going cross-country towards the Karahnjukar Dam, which sits just below a prominent knob to the northwest; I was confident in the location of the dam because I could see construction-related facilities and eventually the dam itself.
After I crossed the dam and passed through the construction site, which was still pretty active in Summer 2008, I left the vehicle tracks behind and began travelling cross-country across this gray pebbled desert towards the bridge over the Kreppa on F910. I followed F910 to the bridge over the Jokulsa a Fjollum, which is probably the scariest river I saw in Iceland, and then all the way to the Dreki Hut, which sits at the foot of Askja.
Note: You may get bored following F910 in this section but it’s really the most direct, efficient, and logistically feasible way. If you choose to go cross-country in this section, you will need to pick your way through an old lava flow that pokes out through a sea of soft volcanic sand; your route will probably be longer; and you will need to carry a lot of water since this section is completely dry. In contrast, the road is hard-packed and is used heavily by tourists who are happy to give you water.
Side Trip Idea: the Kverkfjoll ice caves, reachable via F902, after you cross the Kreppa but before you cross the Jokulsa a Fjollum. It’s a long detour—about 30 miles each way—but might be worthwhile if you have the time and food. You probably can hitch a ride with a passing motorist if you don’t want to walk.
Askja/Dreki Hut to Nyidalur Hut
From Askja/Dreki Hut I had two options: (1) follow F910 (the “Gaesavotn Route”) to Nyidalur, or (2) climb Askja via the hiking trail or F894 to see the lake, follow the Askja Hiking Trail (description available on Icelandic Touring Association website; it’s #4) to Dyngjufjalladalur hut, and then a primitive road south to rejoin F910.
I initially planned to do the latter, but my plans were abruptly halted by the combination of an incoming windstorm (strong wind = sand storm in this region of Iceland, and there are no natural windbreaks to hide behind) and by the hiking trail from the lake to Dyngjufjalladalur, which goes right across a fresh lava flow (late-1800’s) that would have made for miserable hiking. So from the lake parking lot I hitched back down to Dreki hut and left from there in the morning on F910.
A few hours out of Dreki on F910 (most of which was on super-soft volcanic sand) I had to
decide whether to take the northern or southern route around the Trolladyngja cone and lava field. The southern route is the original, older route; it is more scenic, shorter, has an emergency hut, and at least one source of fresh water. I went this way. The northern, newer route is better for automobiles but not as enjoyable for walkers or bikers. Whichever direction you go, you may find this section of the Traverse the most monotonous and least inspiring of the journey. The old and new routes rejoin just before Skjalfandafljot, which is bridged.
After Skjalfandafljot I had another decision to make: (1) follow F910 directly to Nyidalur, or (2) head south along a primitive track towards Vonarskard (Pass of Good Hope), which lies between Tungnafellsjokull and Vatnajokull. The first option is more direct and easier (except for one ford on the south side of the lava field Tunguhraun, which I would have had to do further downstream where it braids out, if not for a passing big-wheel truck that offered me a short lift), and it put me at Nyidalur, where I needed to get some info about the next section. The second option is more difficult, slightly longer, and more scenic. Note that if you take the second route but want to visit Nyidalur, you will need to go up and over a second pass in addition to Vonarskard.
Nyidalur to Hveravellir
A direct route between the huts Nyidalur and Hveravellir is technically possible, but the route requires a high level of backcountry skill and experience (namely the ability for ford swift, frigid glacier-fed rivers, and to safely cross heavily crevassed glaciers) and the correct equipment…arm floats anyone? The dilemma is how to get around Hofsjokull. On the south side, the hazards are the numerous tributaries of the massive Pjorsa, which drains the southern half of the icecap and which is crossable in its entirety only in the winter when there is low flow and when it freezes over. The north side is not any easier: more glacier-fed rivers, including the famed Blanda, must be crossed.
I spoke directly with four knowledgeable people about this region—including two guides, a hut manager, and an avid 4×4 driver—and all of them highly recommended (actually, forcefully instructed) that I not try to ford the Pjorsa. I heeded the advice I received and therefore needed to find a bridged crossing of Hofsjokull’s rivers. I decided to go south, to the bridge on F32. I also could have gone north around Hofsjokull, but this route is apparently not as scenic and it is longer.
Not long after I posted the description of my traverse route I was independently contacted by two Frenchman, Olivier “Rando léger” and David Abadie, who informed me that it was indeed possible to get around Hofsjokul, on both its north and south sides. Visit this page for their contact info contact info, excerpts of our email exchanges, and links to their trip reports and photos.
From the Nyidalur region, I had two options for a southerly route. (1) Follow Jonathan Ley’s route, which hugs the west-northwest edge of Vetnajokull and which is more scenic than the other option. I would have gone this way if I had bypassed Nyidalur and climbed over Vonarskard instead. Or (2) hike south-southwest along F26/Sprengisandur Route, sometimes directly on it and other times close to it on cross-country shortcuts or on parallel primitive tracks. Since this was my most direct route (recall, I had stopped at Nyidalur) and since I suddenly needed to make a 100-mile detour, I went this way. Regardless of the route I chose, I would have eventually reached F32 via F26. About 10 miles east of the bridge, back on F26, I passed Hrauneyjar, an outpost with bathrooms, a nice café, and a small selection of snacks like candy bars, chocolate, cookies, and chips.
Once I crossed the Pjorsa, I turned right up the hill on a primitive track, walked around the reservoir shoreline, and began climbing up the track again. After a few kilometers on the track, I had to make a decision: (1) I could have followed this track north-northeast all the way to Setur hut and then linked together a few other primitive tracks to F37, which would take me to Hveravellir; but instead I chose to (2) take a straight-line cross-country route into the colorful Kerlingafjoll Mountains. This is especially easy on a clear day: you will be able to see the mountains on the horizon, and you can just walk straight towards them across this gray lifeless lake-dotted alpine desert.
The Kerlingafjoll’s were a much-needed break from the gray rocks, grit-covered glaciers, and dark storm clouds that I had been looking at full-time since east of Askja. There are three mountain clusters: west, central, and east. I headed into the central cluster, which is the smallest but which makes for a nice ridgewalk, and it offers views of the other two clusters. The eastern cluster is the most impressive of the three but there is no straightforward way through it. From the central cluster’s ridge I descended a low-angle glacier/permanent snowfield and dropped directly into the thermal area. Yikes! It’s freaky walking around a thermal area—you never know when your foot is going to punch through the ground into a chamber of hot air or boiling water. The topography here gets very complex, but I managed to make my way north, on the west side of the creek that drains the glacier. Eventually I picked up a well-worn hiking trail (this shocked me, but apparently these mountains are very popular with trekkers and tourists) that was marked with short wooden posts. I followed this trail to another trail that headed off in my desired direction—over a ridge and towards the bridged crossing of Jikulkvisi on F347.
Once I reached the bridge I followed the road for a few kilometers to Gygjarfoss, where I left the road and took a cross-country shortcut across easy terrain to F35. I followed the road for a few hours before taking another cross-country shortcut to Hveravellir that nipped the northern edge of Rjupnafell.
Hveravellir to Snaefellsnes/Ring Road
After a soak in Hveravellir’s thermal pool I headed west-southwest on F735, which climbs and then descends steeply. At the bottom of this descent I left the track and hiked cross-country upslope to the backside of Oddnylarhnjukur. From there, I climbed to the edge of Langjokull, which I hugged until reaching the glacier’s northern side. While the shortest route is immediately next to the glacier, I would recommend contouring about a half-mile below the edge, where the rocks will be more settled and where you are less likely to step into a mudhole. From the glacier’s north side I descended across an old glacier-scoured lava field towards Tvidaegra.
Tvidaegra is a grass- and moss-covered expanse of boggy moorlands. It is mostly dry but you may encounter a few wet areas that you cannot avoid, depending on your route. I see two options for getting around this region: (1) follow a primitive track along the Kjarara southwest and then west to join F524; or (2) go cross-country across it, nearly due west, to the Ring Road. I would recommend the latter route: it was faster and more adventuresome than following the track, and there are a few shepherd huts along the way in order to get out of the weather. I did not come across any must-see features in this area, though there is a thermal feature and hut on the river Sika, referred to as Hveraborg.
Note: My 1:250,000 map indicated at least two primitive tracks in this region that did not exist, namely the tracks that head west and northwest from Nupsheidarskali hut, on the lake Urohaeo. This was a disappointment because primitive tracks would have made for easier travel: throughout Tvidaegra there are giant grassy mounds and energy-sapping moss clumps that make cross-country travel difficult. I believe these primitive tracks refer to herding trails or centuries-old cross-country routes.
The Snaefellsnes Peninsula
I was several days ahead of schedule when I reached the Ring Rd, which meant that I had the time and food to wander freely all over the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. And that’s exactly what I did—my route was entirely spontaneous, based on what “looked good” and “looked like it’d go.” I slowly moved west, but I’m sure that I did as many miles in northerly and southerly (and sometimes even easterly) directions. I’ll describe my route below, as I have done before. But because it was so circuitous, you may not want to follow it as exactly as you may follow my route east of here.
I began by climbing up to the rocky and broad Snjofjoll, which gave me a great view of where I had come from (Tvidaegra) and where I was going (west). I made it over to Sandur and followed the ridge west-northwest to Grafartindar. I was relieved to find only a loose scree slope on this peak’s west side (instead of impassable cliff bands) and descended into a brushy thicket before crossing F60.
I walked on the road for a little while before turning off on a long driveway towards the farm named Fremri-Hundadalur. I ducked a fence and followed a 2-track for a long way south. The track eventually faded and I hiked towards Borgarhraunseggiar, which has some cliff bands on its west side but which is passable on its south end. I descended into the valley north of the lake Langavatn, crossed it, and climbed Trollakirkja, which has some cliff bands on the southeast ridge that I had to climb around to the right. I descended below the cliff faces on Trollakirkja’s northeast side, contoured around its north side, dropped north to a 3-way pass, and picked up a well-worn sheep trail to the west. The topography in this area is slightly complex, so pay attention. While the pass just north of Ok looks more direct, it’s difficult to access because of cliff bands; the west side may be impassable, sure looked like it from a distance. I instead went north, over the pass to the east of Helgufe…(sp? Sorry, my map creases on this mountain and some of the ink has worn off.), looped around to the left, and then up and over another small pass north of Geirhnukur. I hiked around some lakes and dropped down to gravel F55.
I went along the south tip of Svinafell, crossed Satudalur, and then climbed up to the saddle just south of Hestur. After crossing the pass I contoured along the south slope below Skyrtunna to another pass, from where I descended south along a fenceline to paved F54. I walked this road to its junction with Rt-56, where there is a restaurant with a small selection of snacks and goodies. I hiked north and climbed Seliafell, where the breeze kept the bugs away and where I found one of the best campsites of the trip. I descended its north side to the paved road and went around the north sides of Raudarvallavatn and Hraunsfjardarvatn. I climbed to a lip at the northwest end of the latter lake and descended to the primitive track around Hraunsfjordur. A centuries-old road goes up and over a low pass south of Gjafi to the old F54, which I followed to Kverna, a farm with a campground just east of Grundarfjordur. From Kverna there are two cross-country routes to the south side of the peninsula: (1) the east track goes up and over a pass on the east side of Smjorhnukur before descending to Lysuholl, where there is a hot spring; (2) the west track, which I followed, goes over a pass on the west side of Smjorhnukur. If you take the west track, be wary on the descent—there are lots of impassable cliff bands. Speak with the owner of Kverna before you go—he might be able to give you some advice.
I walked F54 west to the junction with F574, which I followed around the south side of Axlarhyrna, where you get your first great view of Snaefellsjokull. I walked south on a driveway towards the lake Miohusavatn in order to access the beautiful beach Hraunlandarif/Breidavik. When I reached the beach’s west side I climbed to the basalt cliffs above and followed them into Arnarstapi.
I stopped in Arnarstapi because the trip felt over when I got there. But you don’t need to stop there if you don’t want to. There is a popular hiking trail that goes to Hellnar, and apparently there are hiking trails, bridal trails, or cross-country routes all the way around the tip of the peninsula. If you have crampons and an ice axe, you can also climb Snaefellsjokull, which I think would be the most fitting way to end the Traverse. Just do it soon, though—the mountain is losing its glacier quickly and experts predict that it will be gone entirely within another 50 years.