08 18 2015.

hiking report: skógar to Þórsmörk on the fimmvörðuháls pass

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Hiking the Fimmvörðuháls Pass in Iceland was one of the greatest experiences and hikes of my adult life. Even after hiking my way through some of Maine and New Hampshire’s beautiful mountains, no hike has succeeded in humbling me quite like this one.

We had planned this hike well before arriving in Iceland. We knew that we wanted a large hike that both challenged us and gave us a scenic tour of Southern Iceland. For those who have researched Iceland or have been to the beautiful island already know that traveling around in a car can be tricky (unless you opted for a 4-wheel drive vehicle). Getting to Skógar from Reykjavík isn’t a problem in a small car, but the drive to/from Þórsmörk involves several river crossings.

We decided early on to save our miles on our car (we purchased 800km for the week) so that we could drive around the Golden Circle and plan a second, smaller hike – so we utilized the bus system for our travel to and from the hike.

This meant that our hike had to fit within a 10 hour time frame. (The time between our bus drop off in Skógar and the final bus from Þórsmörk to Reykjavík.) This was risky, but we felt up to the challenge.

The Sterna tour guide was absolutely hilarious. He pointed out a geothermal plant while on the trip and his description of it was, “And to your left we have a cloud factory where clouds are bred until they reach maturity and then they’re released into the wild.” Those in the front of the bus kept straight faces and didn’t seem to find any humor in what he was saying but the four of us in the back were losing it!

The bus made one notable pitstop along the way – at Seljalandsfoss. We were allowed out of the bus for 10-15 minutes to take some photos, use the restroom, and just stretch our legs. I decided to go up to the falls and walk around it, since there was a path that allowed visitors to go behind it.

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Seljalandsfoss was beautiful. The spray went everywhere so I got a bit wet while walking around it, but it was well worth being able to see a waterfall from every angle! (Bring a raincoat to wear if you’d like to stay dry.)

A few minutes down the road was our final bus destination: Skógar – home of the famous Skógafoss. Seeing the time and realizing that we were more than 45 minutes behind schedule, we allowed ourselves a few minutes to stare in wonder at the beautiful falls before moving along and beginning our hike. Luckily, the hike actually begins at the base of the falls: with an opening act of over 350 stairs. The stairs were actually the hardest part of the hike!

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We paused at the top of the stairs to strip some layers after the ambitious warmup and then continued on our way, walking along the Skógá river (that feeds into Skógafoss). Almost immediately, we were rewarded with more waterfalls.

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It felt like we’d stumble upon a new waterfall every time we turned a corner. Iceland is very generous with its scenery. Oh, you like waterfalls? Have another! One after another after another. All the while, we were ascending quite gradually. Our surroundings were so beautiful, it was actually hard to realize that we were gaining in elevation until we’d look behind us and see where we came from.

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There were a few tricky areas – areas where we were walking along a ledge overlooking the water. I loved it but others may not. I believe there were alternate routes that bypassed the ledges – but we found that high risk led to high reward as far as the views went. The front row seats that we got for the waterfalls were second to none!

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We were using two GPS devices to help track our progress along the trail. We maintained a steady pace and were knocking off kilometers fairly quickly at the beginning. We did end up stopping in a few areas to take photos for a while, which set us back a bit – but we always had our eyes on the clock to make sure that we’d make that final bus home. We also guessed, from reading about the trail, that the part of the hike closer to Skógar would be the area where we could gain most of our ground. We knew that we’d slow down significantly once we reached the pass as well as during our descent and our crossing of the Cat’s Spine (Kattarhryggir).

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A big change in scenery occurred when we reached a bridge to cross the river. The trail became slightly more gradual as we got closer to the glaciers and we realized quite suddenly that the path that we had been following was now a dirt road. Looking at a map just across the bridge, we could see that we were about 1/3 of the way done. We could also see (the dotted line) that the “dirt road” actually was a road! Many hikers like to be dropped off at the hut, roughly half way, and hike from there to Skógar or Þórsmörk. That’s a perfect solution for hikers who can only afford a day but are unable to complete the full 25km.

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And then there was snow. The snow actually kind of excited me. Truth be told, I have never done a winter hike. My hiking boots have never touched snow – save for maybe a few times while shoveling in the winter before I had proper winter boots. It was surreal, really, to have so many changes in scenery all in one hike. And we hadn’t even reached the pass between the glaciers or the acclaimed “Land of the Gods” yet.

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The snow was fairy ashy. There were areas where ash had built up – much like sand on a beach. Every now and then, during a strong gust of wind, the ash would blow around and coat areas of snow. The snow was also kind of strange. It was really squishy and hard to walk in because it seemed to just collapse under your feet. Looking closely at it, I could see that it was made up of fine ice balls. Like very small marbles.

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The path branched off of the road after a few kilometers and we started to hike through some snow canyons. These areas were so windy. Sometimes, a gust of wind would knock me sideways. The wind made talking really difficult and was a force of opposition for a few hours!

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It was hard to be upset about it, though, when our surroundings were so beautiful. I think I also became accustomed to the strong wind. To be fair, I am the shortest of the four of us by a significant amount, so the wind had less effect on me as it was.

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We arrived at the emergency hut, about 11km in (7 miles) – where we had originally planned to eat our lunch, but decided to keep moving since it was so windy, and since we had already stopped for our sandwiches a few kilometers back, around 1:00.

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We continued to trudge along in the snow (and wind!) for another hour or so before we reached a more ashy, volcanic-like part. We knew that we must be getting close to the summit – or at least close to getting through the pass. We even passed an area of what looked like blue water. It turns out that we were walking directly on top of a glacier and the melted area was allowing us to see the surface of that glacier. Glaciers appear blue because they are so dense that they absorb colors on the red end of the color spectrum and reflect blues.

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In the distance we could see some red hills. They turned out to be Magni and Móði – two craters that are in the middle of the Myrdalsjokull and Eyjafjallajökull glaciers, formed by the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption. Apparently, they were steaming as recently at earlier this year. They didn’t seem to give off much heat, if at all, while we were on it, but it would have been spectacular to stand on steaming lava rock!

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Right before reaching the two craters, our path was interrupted by a giant exposed area of dried, cooled lava. This was such an awesome sight. The rocks were really hard to the touch and sharp in some areas – like handling coral. I picked up a few to bring home, since they weighed virtually nothing and would travel back easily.

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This next part of the hike was hands-down my favorite part. It’s also without a doubt the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. Slightly before cresting the final hill, Darren mentioned that we should be entering what is known as the “Land of the Gods” (Goðaland). Unsure of what this meant exactly, we continued on our way, excited about the descent to come.

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And then suddenly we were there and I understood exactly why it’s named as it is. I’ve never been surrounded by something so big and open before – it was incredibly humbling. We just had the most expansive views of Southern Iceland for almost the entire descent.

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As we had predicted, the descent wasn’t without its tricky areas. There were some parts where we had to scale the side of a ridge with the aid of a loose chain. Other areas were just extremely steep slides on loose gravel. These parts could be pretty dangerous if not taken seriously or rushed through.

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At this point, we knew that we were ahead of schedule, so we allowed ourselves the appropriate amount of time to descend safely and take in all of our beautiful surroundings.

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There was so much to look at. It was a balancing act trying to look around while being careful of where we stepped.

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We finally approached the Cat’s Spine (Kattarhryggi) towards the very end of the hike. This part was also pretty tricky and required some confidence in your footing. This was the only part of the hike that I put my camera away for, since I needed both hands (and arms!) to navigate my way across the thin walk. (The change in quality is because the photos are from my phone.) There were more areas with loose gravel here as well that had a few of us down on our butts to be safe.

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It was unbelievable to think that we had hiked 25km in 7.5 hours. It wasn’t easy and we kept a close eye on our GPS and watches. We had adventured through three different types of terrain all in one hike and all exposed to the elements. It was such a drastic change from the White Mountains – we encountered no trees – it was all an open hike with views as far as you could possibly see.

We were also very lucky. The weather was the best we could have hoped for. Even our tour guide on the bus said that this kind of weather (60 degrees F/~15 degrees C and sunny) was a rare occurrence.

We boarded the final bus out of þórsmörk that night exhausted but feeling extremely accomplished. I think every one of us has been deeply touched, in one way or another, by that hike. By the beautiful landscape. By the blues and greens and reds. By the miles of waterfalls and the sound of the rushing water. By the visual, lasting disturbance that Eyjafjallajökul caused in 2010.

This is a hike that I certainly will never forget.

Tips:

We took a 7:30am Sterna bus from Harpa out to Skógar. The bus ride, which doubled as a tour, took almost 3 hours. When we arrived at Skógar close to 11:00, we had 9 full hours to hike before our bus home departed.

We took the 20:10 (last bus of the day) Reykjavík Excursions from Básar (Þórsmörk). The 4×4 bus stops at Seljalandsfoss where riders transfer over to a more comfortable coach bus for the final leg of the trip. The entire trip back took close to 4 hours. We returned back to Reykjavík after midnight.

This hike is not for beginners. We had to move briskly and constantly to make sure that we came in under the 9 hour mark. If we had missed our bus, we would have had no food or lodging for the night before the next bus the following morning. It is generally recommended that you allow 10-12 hours to hike the Fimmvörðuháls Pass – or hike it in two days and spend the night at one of the huts. What we did was risky. We completed it, but we would have also loved to spend longer enjoying the sights or taking more frequent breaks. The consequences for not completing the hike in the allotted time could have turned a fantastic hike into a nightmare trip.


16 Comments

  1. Dan Torpey

    Kelsey, I enjoyed reading your blog. This summer my wife and I are going to Iceland. We also wanted to do a one day hike and I’ve been trying to figure out how far it would be from Skogar to Fimmvörðuháls Pass, then return to Skogar. We might do the full trip to Þórsmörk but think we need to start before 11:00am.
    Both of us are in our early sixties so I think we need a little more time.

    Thanks,

    Dan

    • Kelsey @ Spice & Dice

      Hi Dan – a lot of people do Skogar to the Fimmvörðuháls Pass and back again in a day! The pass is roughly halfway – so whether you’re going all the way to Þórsmörk or doubling back to Skogar, you’d be doing the same distance, give or take a few kilometers. You can probably expect a 25km day! I think the deciding factor would be what kind of transportation you can find to/from both locations!

      • Dan Torpey

        Thanks Kelsey, By looking at videos of the hike I think we will miss out on some beautiful sections. Cat Walk looks fun and colors of the green look spectacular. We just need to figure bus schedule.
        Some beautiful hiking in North Cascades in Washington and Wind River Range in Wyoming.

  2. Hi, we’re probably doing this trail in early September. Is it well-marked? We’re experienced backpackers, but I wonder if the snow and glaciers make way finding difficult. And: what’s the best way to obtain a trail map? Thanks!

    • Kelsey @ Spice & Dice

      Hi Polly – the trail, in areas, was not well-marked with any signs. We generally followed a packed down trail (you could tell where people had walked by the lack of grass). We were extremely lucky in that visibility was incredible. I’ve heard that on certain day, visibility can barely be a few feet in front of you. We didn’t have a map to use, though I believe that we saw a few in some shops around Reykjavik that you could purchase. The trailhead in Skogar had a map posted that we took a photo of. We also brought along a GPS with the route pre-programmed in and mapped our progress that way.

  3. Danielle

    Great post! I am doing this hike in July (so soon!!) and I am curious about the buses specifically. We are renting a 4×4 and so we will drive ourselves to Skogafoss. I know there is a bus that leaves from the end of the hike but does it stop back at the start of the hike? Will we have to transfer buses instead?

  4. Hi, sounds like such an amazing day! what a great post!

    I’m gearing up for the Fimmvörðuháls Trek in less than two weeks :) — did you hike the day this was posted? Is this what you experienced on August 18, 2015? the snow is blowing my mind! Did you have many layers on?

    I’ve been looking for a trail map online — thanks for posting the photo…at least I know they exist. Do you have any ideas about where to find it online?

    …I’m asking a lot of questions! can’t help it…trying to be well-prepared and mostly so so stoked for this!

    Alex

    • Kelsey @ Spice & Dice

      Hi Alex! I hiked on (I believe it was) August 9th – so the post was delayed until I returned home! There was snow at the top but it was never all that deep. I don’t think I sunk into it once – it was pretty well packed. I wore a long sleeve tech top, a light North Face fleece and my EMS (red) raincoat that helped to keep the wind out. I also had a hat which I definitely recommend. I didn’t bring mittens of gloves but there was a period of about 45 minutes towards the top where I wished that I had. We encountered unusually nice weather – according to most of the hiking reports that I’ve read. I think we pretty much had the best of the best, and it could have been a lot worse! The map photo that I posted is actually posted at the trail. It’s a sign! There are two – one at Skógar and one right after the bridge before entering the Fimmvörðuháls Pass. I was unable to find a trail map in town!

      • hi Kelsey,
        thx for your reply! I really appreciate it.
        this is going to be so much fun :)

  5. Shannon

    Hi Kelsey!
    My husband and I are planning on doing this trip in about a week and a half. I can’t wait and your pictures are so beautiful! Do you know if there is running water at the huts or anywhere along the way? I am nervous about running low on water and wondering if I should bring a filter or if there is anywhere to fill up. Thanks so much!

    • Kelsey @ Spice & Dice

      Hi Shannon! You’ll be following water all the way up to the bridge! (So for about 6-7 miles!) We didn’t stop into the huts, so I’m not positive about there being water up there, though I wouldn’t bank on it. I packed a 2L Camelbak plus an extra small plastic bottle and was fine for the day! I don’t think it would hurt to bring a filter, I think that’s a great idea. Have a great trip!

  6. I’m planning on going to Iceland in October and would like to do this hike. I am not a beginner hiker. Was hoping to ask someone if that time is still ok to hike the trail?

    • Kelsey @ Spice & Dice

      Hi Connie! I hiked it in August, so I can’t really speak to the hike in October. My guess is that it’s likely to be much colder and the daylight afforded to you will probably be much less. I would ask around once you’re in Iceland as well! Good luck!

  7. Thanks for the fun photos and write-up of the hike (so cool to see it covered in snow as well, that must have been cold…).

    We recently hiked the trail and like you say, it’s incredibly humbling and memorable for sure. We wrote about our experience and linked out to your page as well, cause I think it’s a great resource for hikers looking to attempt the trail :) Feel free to check it out!

    http://www.jocelyn-chuang.com/travel/hiking-fimmvorduhals/

    Cheers!

  8. Hi,

    I love your photos!! Any chance you could advise what camera you used?

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