By far the most amazing thing I have ever done in my life to date is backpacking Fimmvörðuháls in Iceland, and if you ask my husband, he will tell you the same thing. If you ever go to Iceland, make time to do this, seriously. The whole country is beyond amazing to drive around and do all the touristy attractions and waterfalls, but this hike was so much better than that and like I said, the absolute best thing I have ever done.
That being said, this part of our trip was incredibly difficult to plan, so if you have any questions that I don’t answer in the post, let me know in the comments or send me a message on Instagram and I’ll do my best to help you!
What is Fimmvörðuháls?
Fimmvörðuháls is a 25 km (about 15.5 miles) trail that connects Skogafoss and the town of Thorsmork in Iceland. It crosses through some of the highlands and backcountry and past the volcano Eyjafjallajökull – the one from Walter Mitty! It requires hiking along dangerous ridges, crossing glacial tongues, and about 1,000 m (3,280 feet) of elevation gain. I wouldn’t say it’s a good route for beginner hikers, but it’s worth getting in shape and experience to do.
The trail can definitely be hiked in one day if you want to go fast, or you can do it in two, which is what we did, and stay at one of the huts in the highlands overnight. Also, typically the hike is done by starting at Skogafoss and hiking through to Thorsmork, but Colby and I did it the other way around to give ourselves more time with the bus schedule, and also because I read a ton of blogs and reviews and the consesus was to do it “backwards” for less other hikers and a better experience.
In order to make this journey happen, you need to make two reservations: tickets on the bus to get to and from the hike, and a reservation to stay at the hut if you decide to do that. Figuring out exactly how and what to reserve was the most stressful part of our Iceland trip for me because I couldn’t find anything in English and all the blogs I read about the hike were so vague and not helpful. So I’m going to spell it out for you, as far as what we did.
Bus tickets: The one you want is the Highland Hikers pass from Iceland by Bus. Buy a ticket for the day you will be leaving, and then you have seven days to use your return ticket back. The bus only runs each way once a day, so just make sure you know what time you need to be there and don’t be late! When we were there, the bus left from Skogafoss to go back to Reykjavik much later than the one from Thorsmork did, which is one reason we chose to do the hike backwards, to give ourselves more time. We were able to grab dinner by Skogafoss and explore a bit there before we had to be to the bus.
Hut reservations: This is still somewhat confusing to me as I’m looking back at the website we used, but we booked our hut through FI Huts and stayed in the Baldvinsskáli hut – a tiny A-frame with a detached toilet. On the FI Huts website, though, it looks like this hut may now be called the Fimmvörðuháls hut. There is another hut on this trail, which I think you can book through Útivist. We chose the one we did because it was cheaper, and it got the job done.
Since you’ll be at a high elevation, on top of a glacier, the weather can change pretty quickly. We were hiking in nothing but long sleeve shirts for a lot of the trip, but once we got on top, it started to snow and the wind picked up and we got cold fast. Also, you shouldn’t be bringing anything cotton on this hike. You want items that will dry quickly if they get wet. Here’s a list of the basics:
• Warm winter coat
• Windbreaker (lifesaver)
• Fleece long sleeve
• Durable, waterproof hiking pants (these aren’t cute, but they are necessary)
• Warm undergarments (I wore leggings under my pants & a base layer top)
• Hat & gloves
• Hiking boots
• Sleeping bag & pillow (the hut provides sleeping pads)
• Food (the hut has a fully equipped kitchen – we brought dried backpacking food and lots of snacks)
• Eating utensils
• Water (you can refill at the hut or even in the river)
• First aid kit
• A book or deck of cards (we did not bring these items and I wish we would have for the night at the hut)
• Earplugs (we didn’t have these either and it was a huge mistake)
• Camera & tripod
Day 1 on Fimmvörðuháls
We got on the bus in Reykjavik to head to Thorsmork bright and early on August 31, 2016. Colby slept on the way but I, just like the rest of our trip in Iceland, stared out the window entranced by this place. Every bend in the road brought something new. The bus stopped at Seljalandsfoss on the way so we could all check it out (I will never get over how waterfalls like this are right off the highway everywhere in Iceland).
Then the bus started making its way into the highlands, forging through several braided glacial rivers that a rental car wouldn’t stand a chance in. The bus was huge, by the way – basically a Jeep in bus form. Before we knew it we had arrived in Thorsmork. The area is located between three active volcanos and has been shaped by their eruptions over the years. We knew a town named after the Norse god, Thor, would be legit, but we had no idea it would be this beautiful. There’s nothing to compare it to, really, except to say it looks like a place crafted by divine intervention.
We started hiking and as we did, we saw the valleys that have been carved out and shaped by glaciers and volcanos, and it was breathtaking.
I was stopping every five seconds to take photos, and Colby was in awe. It seemed like all we could say was “wow, this place is amazing.” It is truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my life, and pictures don’t really do it justice at all.
Soon we made it to the top of the ridge and the trail got a little more precarious. If you’ve ever hiked or seen videos of Angels Landing in Zion National Park, it was similar to that. The trail was skinny and had steep dropoffs on each side. Ropes and chains were anchored to the trail in some places to make it a bit easier to keep your footing. But soon the path widened again and we were walking across a large, flat portion of the mountain, toward a beautiful black and green peak.
I thought the trail would veer off to one side of the cliff, but it quickly became clear that we were going to climb it. We reached the end of the flat area and on both sides were huge, magnificent glacial tongues pouring into waterfalls and valleys filled with ice. We had to climb down through a crevice before we could start up the mountain, which we did, and found ourselves on the most dangerous part of the trail. It was extremely steep and at one point we were balanced on a cliff, with a dropoff to one side that looked to be hundreds of feet. Colby and I gripped the chain tightly and slowly made our way across.
When we emerged, panting, on top of the peak, we were greeted by another new landscape – the glacier itself. On the exposed mountain, the weather turned cold and we began to be pelted by snow. Quickly, we wrapped our backpacks in their rain covers and forged on.
The top of the volcano was barren and gorgeous in its own right, plastered with ice paired with black and red lava rock. Up here, we finally ran into more hikers, but didn’t stop to talk as the wind started to pick up more and more, pushing us from behind and making conversation impossible. We saw calderas and burnt hills and the whole time I thought to myself, how incredible is it that we are so small compared to this place?
The wind continued to gather speed (I’d estimate it was between 40-50 mph at this point) and it started to become more than just uncomfortable as we forged on toward the hut. At one point, Colby lost his rain cover to his backpack and had to sprint down a hill after it as it blew swiftly away. Luckily, he caught it, and soon, the hut came into view. The wind was so strong that it knocked me over and I skinned both knees on lava rocks just before we made it into the hut. The shelter was very welcome and we shed our layers and began to warm up.
Night at the Hut
It was only around 3:00 or 4:00 pm when we arrived at the hut, so we had a lot of time to kill before bed. We ate some snacks and chatted with an awesome retired Australian couple who became our friends for the night. We came to learn that they had been traveling the world for years, doing tons of backpacking trips in different countries. “Which one is your favorite?” I asked. “This one,” they answered enthusiastically.
Not long after we settled in at the hut, a small group arrived, along with a huge tour group. The tour group would be staying upstairs in the loft, and we would have the open downstairs room/kitchen to ourselves with the Australian couple. The smaller group, a family, was only stopping in to warm up before they continued on to Thorsmork (they had been hiking from Skogafoss). They seemed to be exhausted from hiking against the gale force winds outside, and eventually, they asked the hut warden if they could stay the night even though the hut was booked. She said yes, which meant they would be staying with us downstairs in the kitchen area. There were also some people camping outside, which I think is crazy.
(This photo is of the bathroom. If you weren’t staying in the hut, you had to pay 500 krona – around $5 – to use it as you passed by.)
Eventually, we made dinner and waited for the tour group to disappear upstairs so we could set up our sleeping arrangements. We laid out our sleeping pads next to our Australian friends, and the other family settled in across the room. Within five seconds, the father of the family across from us fell asleep and began snoring in a way that I can only describe as someone trying to start a lawn mower over and over and it won’t start. I have never heard someone snore this loudly or this sporadically before in my life and I realized I would not be getting any sleep.
I laid there for a while, until suddenly someone came into the room saying “the northern lights are happening outside!” So obviously I bolted up, grabbed my camera and tripod, and booked it outside.
The winds had finally died down and the night was crisp and clear. I slipped on my boots and coat and peered into the sky and there they were: green and purple trails of light dancing across the inky sky. It was mesmerizing and dreamy and I couldn’t get enough of it.
I had never photographed the sky before but I was determined to try. I’m not super happy with the photos I got, but all I wanted was something to help me remember that magical night, and I think I got it.
A group of us stayed outside entranced by the sky for about an hour, before the lights started to fade away and we all trickled back inside. I settled back into my warm sleeping bag. By some miracle, the spaces between snoring man’s snores had gotten long enough that I could fall asleep between a couple of them, but all night I was haunted by dreams of revving motorcycles and chainsaws as his snores faded in and out of my consciousness. By 5:00 am they had woken me up for good so I listened to Ellie Goulding on my phone to drown them out as I waited for day to come.
Still early in the morning, I wandered outside to see the bright sunrise lighting up the mountain, and I saw what I couldn’t see the night before in the wind and chaos. From the hut, we could see all the way to the black sand beaches on the coast, and it was beyond beautiful. We hurried and made breakfast and packed up before the tour group could take over the kitchen again, and soon, we were on our way down the hill.
Day 2 on Fimmvörðuháls
The second day of our journey had us following the Skoga river down to the town of Skogar, and it was completely and utterly different from the first day. The weather was perfect and the trail starts out as a road that the hut warden takes down the mountain to get supplies, before turning into more of a traditional hiking trail when it meets the river.
There is not much to say about this day except that the waterfalls along the Skoga river are too numerous to count, and every corner we turned held a new and completely different one. This was truly my heaven, so I’ll just let the photos do the talking.
At one point we crossed a bridge, at another we ran into a small herd of sheep, and all the while we caught views of the coast and of waterfall after waterfall after waterfall. We stood on the edge of canyons carved out by the water and sat on cliffsides as the mist from another fall washed over us. We were happy we had decided to do the hike over two days, because we could truly take our time and appreciate each and every spot we came across.
Too soon we started to see more and more day hikers – people climbing up from Skogafoss to do short hikes in the area. And then there we were, looking over the top of one of the most famous waterfalls in the world. We climbed slowly down the stairs and then approached the massive falls. Skogafoss was so crowded – but we had made it. We conquered Fimmvörðuháls.
Would you ever hike Fimmvörðuháls? If you have any questions about this trip that I didn’t address here, please leave me a comment or send me a message! I’d love to help you plan your trip – this is something everyone should experience.