I’ve been very lucky to go on some beautiful hikes in my life, but nothing has ever quite compared to the epic adventure I had a few days ago. My hike up and over Fimmvörðuháls was truly mind-blowing and definitely the best hike I’ve ever done. It honestly might even rank as one of the very best days of my life.
Loving life at the top of Magni crater
Fimmvörðuháls is a famous hiking trail from Skogar to Thorsmork that climbs the pass between Eyjafjallajokull and Myrdalsjokull glaciers. It is truly one of the world’s greatest day hikes, passing through extremely diverse scenery and countless glaciers, waterfalls volcanoes over the course of 25-35 kilometers depending on the exact route. The hike can be thought of as having three parts: the waterfall and canyon sections heading up from Skogar, the volcanic pass filled with snow and lava between the glaciers, and the stunning descent into Thorsmork through the sharp valleys and glaciers of Godaland. Fimmvörðuháls is a particularly epic hike for geology lovers like myself, as it goes right across craters and lava formed in the 2010 Eyjafjallajokull eruption – the pesky eruption that disrupted air traffic in Europe for a few weeks.
Map of the trail
While traditionally attempted from Skogar to Thorsmork, I decided to go the reverse route when the weather forecast finally looked good for my last day in Thorsmork. I’ve wanted to do this hike for a very long time yet sort of expected to end up doing it in typical Icelandic rain and wind. Naturally then, when it looked like I might actually be able to do the hike in good weather, I was ecstatic. I also fortunately happened to meet another American solo traveler in Thorsmork who was also planning on tackling Fimmvörðuháls on Sunday so we decided to do it together. So basically, after days of solo hiking in the rain, I got about as lucky as I could get for this hike.
Part 1: Godaland
I awoke Sunday morning to blue skies and sunshine, and after packing up my bag, I was immediately ready to set off for the trail. Alex and I left around 8 am and began the approximately 2 hour long trip from the Volcano Huts to the Fimmvörðuháls trailhead at Basar campsite. We faced our first challenge early on, as part of the bridge over the river Krossa had been taken out the night before. Most Icelanders and Europeans bring water shoes for such crossings, but Alex and I were definitely not that prepared so we tackled the river barefoot, numbing our feet in the frigid glacial water. We then continued along the river bed for a few kilometers until we finally reached the Fimmvörðuháls trailhead.
The start of the ascent
The first several kilometers of the hike include lots of steep elevation gain, and the hike starts off fairly dramatically with the crossing of ‘Kattahryggur’ (literally the Cat’s Spine) just a kilometer or two in. Hiking over the narrow ridge between two green canyons was absolutely spectacular in the sunshine.
Godaland, in Thorsmork
Land of the Gods
Ascending the plateau
We continued hiking uphill to a large plateau where we were treated to magnificent views of Godaland (Land of the Gods): gleaming glaciers, sharp cliffs and deep green mountains and sweeping vistas over Thorsmork valley. Fortunately, Alex and I are both strong hikers, and we flew up the ascent, hiking up the side of cliffs in no time as we scrambled over rocks and sharp edges. We thoroughly enjoyed the sunshine as we hiked the plateaus and cliffs of Godaland before crossing an extremely narrow ridge between canyons and steaming lava.
Looking down towards Thorsmork
Looking towards Thorsmork from aboe
Hiking up the final set of cliffs
Part 2: Volcanoes, lava and snow
With amazing views of Thorsmork behind us, we hiked up the last major steep ascent and suddenly found ourselves in a bizarre moonscape. As Thorsmork disappeared over our shoulders, we faced a moon-like combination of snow, ice, lava, ash and huge craters. The ground was literally still steaming from the 2010 eruption, and we eagerly traversed the snowfields and climbed to the top of Magni, one of the newest craters in Iceland that was formed only just four years ago.
Lava fields and snow
The view over the steaming lava and snowfields from the top of the crater was incredibly surreal. The ground at the crater was so hot that if you dug a small hole, you could literally cook a hot dog, and the waves of warm steam passing over us felt so strange amidst the frigid air up at 1000 meters between two glaciers. Never has the power of volcanoes been more clear to me than it was standing there on that crater, and I found myself mesmerized thinking about what this place must have looked like in 2010 with the fresh fiery lava and ash forming the bizarre landscape.
Helicopter visiting the top
We continued from the crater over more lifeless ash and snow towards Fimmvörðuskali hut. Those few kilometers were completely devoid of life and color; it was as if the world had been turned to black and white. When we finally reached the hut, it was windy and fairly cold, so we took just a short break and then continue down the broad plains towards Skogar.
The summit of Eyjafjallajokull in the background
The final uphill to the pass
Looking down towards Skogar
Part 3: Waterfalls and canyons
Unlike the extremely rapid transition from lush green to volcanoes and ice as we approached Fimmvörðuháls from Thorsmork, the change in scenery coming down from the pass Skogar was much more gradual. As we followed the river down from the glacier, gray rocks and snowfields slowly turned into green pastures and deep canyons. With numerous beautiful waterfalls and views over the plateau and all the way to the ocean, the scenery was very different from the dramatic mountains and glaciers of the ascent. Realizing we had plenty of time to spare, we took a few long breaks on the descent and enjoyed the long peaceful walk downhill past canyons and waterfalls.
After several hours of walking downhill (and lots of time spent talking about how glad we were that we did the hike in reverse and did the other section uphill), I was starting to feel a little tired and my feet were getting fairly sore. At around 6:30, I assumed we still probably had at least an hour left to Skogar, but all of the sudden, we rounded a corner and the top of Skogafoss, the final waterfall of the trail came in two view. Before I knew it, the hike was over and we were walking past the dozens of tourists visiting the waterfall. We promptly bought some snacks and drinks and then relaxed on the field in front of the waterfall waiting for the 9 pm bus back to Reykjavik, tired but also still very high on endorphins from completing such an awesome hike.
We found some sheep on the way down
As I sat on the bus back to Reykjavik that night, I could not help but think about how lucky we were to have such a perfect day for the hike. Alex and I estimated that we probably hiked around 20 miles given the circuitous route we took as well as the added distance from the Volcano Huts to the trailhead. I’ve never hiked 20 miles in one day before, especially not with a decently heavy pack, yet I felt great the entire time. We had simply spectacular views throughout the day, and knowing the fickle Icelandic weather, we probably had more beautiful vistas than 95% or more of people who make the pass over Fimmvörðuháls. The whole day truly felt like a dream, and it made me so excited to continue my Icelandic backpacking adventures next week.
Living the dream
For anyone reading this blog and thinking about hiking Fimmvörðuháls, I have a few pieces of advice. For one, this is a long and serious hike, so only somewhat experienced hikers should attempt to do the whole trip in one day without a guide. In great weather like we had, the hike really is not that difficult and is fairly well-marked, but even on a beautiful day like Sunday, the top was cold and windy with variable visibility. I would highly advise only attempting this hike if the forecast looks good – otherwise, it would just be a very long, cold and windy slog with a very high possibility of getting lost.
Also, though almost all tours and guidebooks recommend leaving from Skogar, I strongly advise going the opposite way and leaving from Thorsmork. The climb up from Thorsmork to the pass is quite steep and rocky with a few sort of exposed sections, and I was very happy to be going up on the steep parts rather than trying to navigate down steep rock with a heavy pack. Hiking up to the pass from Skogar would be a very, very long trip up a moderate incline, whereas hiking the gradual downhill was relaxing at the end of a long day.
Overall, for anyone who enjoys hiking and beautiful views, Fimmvörðuháls really is an absolute must. It so far has been by far the highlight of my summer in Iceland, and easily one of the highlights of all the traveling I’ve done in the past few years. I could not more highly recommend it!