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Descending towards Básar in Þórsmörk

A Day Hike on The Fimmvörðuháls Trail

Fimmvörðuháls is the name of the highland trail between Skógar and Þórsmörk and considered one of the most beautiful hiking routes in Iceland. From Skógar, you start the trail by following the stairs next to Skógafoss waterfall. Fimmvörðuháls is ideal for a day hike during the summer, rated medium to high difficulty (3 out of 4, or 4 out of 5). 

I went there for the first time recently. Our bus left Reykjavík at 7 AM on a Saturday morning and made three stops (two to pick up people and one in Hvolsvöllur for us to grab a bite and for a toilet break). Our group of around 30 people started the hike from Skógar camp site at around 10 AM. The weather was perfect for a hike that day, mild and slightly overcast when we started walking upstairs alongside Skógafoss waterfall. When we reached the top of the waterfall, the drizzle from it sprayed on us refreshingly like light rain.

We continued on the path with moderate elevation alongside over 20 waterfalls, different in shapes and sizes. Soon after crossing the only bridge on the route, we were approaching the highest point and got into heavy fog, no majestic view on that part. Make sure to refill your water bottles before crossing the bridge, because there is no access to water for a long time after that.

One of over 20 waterfalls on Fimmvörðuháls
Waterfall on Fimmvörðuháls

In the fog, we hiked for the longest period without a break and for a moment it seemed endless, until we reached the mountain hut Baldvinsskáli, which appeared very suddenly just 10 meters away from us. Outside the hut, we took a food break and people could go to the toilet (a privy next to the hut). When we were about to leave the hut to continue the hike towards Þórsmörk, we met a jogger coming from there. It had taken him two hours to jog from Þórsmörk to the hut and he told us about the “brakandi bongó” (meaning Icelandic summer weather as good as it gets) in Þórsmörk, 18 degrees and sunshine. This was like the best motivation for us to continue the hike and we couldn’t wait to get out of the fog and into the sunshine. If only we had known back then that the hike to Þórsmörk would take us five more hours. In hindsight, I wonder whether the jogger was real or imagined, maybe just one of the elves or hidden people, taking a prank on us in the fog.

The hut Baldvinsskáli on Fimmvörðuháls
The hut Baldvinsskáli suddenly appeared in the fog

We had to walk in fog for one or two hours after leaving the hut and met a small group of tourists that had lost their way on the way to another hut higher up (Fimmvörðuskáli) where they were planning to stay for the night. Our guide could lead them to the right track again and show them the way. We walked in a mix of sand and snow at the edge of Mýrdalsjökull glacier, surreal surroundings, even more so in the fog, which added a mystical feel to the experience. At the end, we came out of the fog and into the sunshine, it was really like walking out of a wall, the contrast from the fog and sun was so sharp.

After a short hike from the end of the fog layer, we reached a lava field (Goðahraun, literally translated The Lava Field of Pagan Gods) formed in the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010, a crossing that was among the most difficult terrains on the route. Next to the lava field were two small mountains called Magni and Móði, both also formed in the same eruption. We crossed the side of Magni and saw Móði to our left side after that. We started descending towards Þórsmörk and I thought we had finished the most difficult part of the hike. I was wrong, the most dangerous and difficult part was still to come.

Descending towards Þórsmörk
Descending towards Þórsmörk

On our trek down a rather steep mountain side with many loose gravel spots, one of the oldest members of our group lost his balance, slipped and fell forward. Fortunately not far though and not hitting his head. But he was in a shock after this and afraid to fall again, so he walked slower from then on. A moment later, I found myself stranded on a spot where there seemed to be no good step to continue, a bit like a lamb on a ledge. Our guide then came towards me, looked at the surroundings and suggested that I could step upwards before continuing to the side. That worked and got me safely on track again. The other man that fell earlier was lucky not to fall further down or land on his head, that could have ended very badly. This hike is not without risks, so please mind your step.

The route was easier after this but worth mentioning is the 10 meters long ridge called Kattarhryggur (literally translated Cats Spine), where you need to step on an extremely narrow path next to a cliff with steep and long hills down. Before that is another less difficult ridge with a more dramatic name called Heljarkambur (Hell’s Ridge), which starts with a steep route down where you need to hold on to a chain that is attached to several metal poles. On this final part down towards Básar in Þórsmörk, you probably get the best views of the route. Dramatic sharp cliff edges, snow caps, mountains and valleys as far as you can see and the height is dizzying. The kind of surroundings that make you feel small as a human being in the larger context of nature, but at the same time big in spirit, having come all this way from Skógar.

Down towards Heljarkambur (Hell's Ridge)
Down towards Heljarkambur (Hell’s Ridge)

After 11 hours of hiking (including numerous stops), we reached our bus in Básar (Þórsmörk). The estimated time for the hike was 9 to 11 hours. After crossing numerous rivers on a bumpy gravel road on the way from Þórsmörk to the highway, we reached Reykjavík at 1 AM. I highly recommend this hike and would go again. For two days after the hike, I felt extra good. It must have been the balanced exercise plus all the oxygen I got from being outside in the fresh mountain air the whole day.

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