Iceland is incredible. Endless sinuous rivers snake their way throughout the land; snow-capped volcanoes tower high above; massive glaciers carve and crawl along no less than 10% of the country’s entire landmass; towering waterfalls plunge from impossibly green slopes; and dramatic vistas over harsh landscapes sweep the island around every bend. There really isn't any way to have a bad experience while traveling in this surreal “Land of Fire and Ice”. That said, there are definitely some ways that you can maximize your Icelandic outdoor experience and get the most bang for your buck.
Because of the high cost of traveling in Iceland, a 10-day trip is perfect for someone looking to get in a full-throttle Icelandic adventure while also numbing the effects of $10+ beers and all-around over-inflated prices on everything from food, to lodging, to transportation, and so on. Also, since Iceland is such a safe place to travel (maybe the safest ever) there are some great options to step outside of your normal international comfort zone and to really go headfirst into your adventure.
Arriving in Iceland is interesting, especially when landing in early morning or late at night. The summer months feature endless sunlight—giving you the ability to cram as much as you can handle into any day.
The first day, though, you should take it easy and explore the capital and Iceland's largest city, Reykjavik. Two thirds of the country's population lives here, making it a cultural hub full of cool museums, fun bars, Nordic restaurants, boutique shops, and happy people scattered all about the city. Locals speak flawless English, which is good for you because it's very likely that you won't be able to pronounce even a bit of Icelandic (you can and should make an attempt, but you'll probably be way off).
Reykjavik has plenty of lodging options within walking distance to the city center, including several hostels for the budget traveler. For the super budget option, there is a great campground just over a mile from the city center.
Start Day 2 with a one-way bus ride. The iconic 55km (roughly 34 miles) Laugavegur Trail is a true Icelandic gem, and any outdoor enthusiast should put it at the top of their list for their time in Iceland. There are many tour companies that offer daily rides to either end of the trail: Landmannalaugar in the north and Thórsmörk in the south. Most often the trail is hiked from the north. There is a net decrease in elevation when hiking in this direction, and the big expansive views are usually best seen looking toward the south.
By taking the first available bus to Landmannalaugar (departing around 7:30 a.m.) you will have plenty of time to get moving on the first (and possibly longest) day of hiking for your entire trip. Leaving from Landmannalaugar, the Laugavegur works it's way up and over "painted" mountains with an elevation gain of around 470 meters within the first 12 km. There may be some large snowfield crossings, but there shouldn't be any major difficulty because of the trail's high traffic. The first hut along the trail (there are 5 total) sits high in the mountains, and is a great place for an extended rest. You have the option to camp here, but it's well worth the effort to push on to the next hut for your first night. The trail continues over a ridge and then descends quickly into one of the most beautiful sections of trail in the world. You can see your hut/campsite at Álftavatn beside the lake far below. While on the trail you'll be required to camp at the huts—no reservation needed unless you wish to sleep in a bunk inside.
Total distance for this day is 24-27 km, but because the trail turns downhill at the halfway point, the distance is very doable. Keep in mind that it will never get dark, so you are in absolutely no rush.
Your second day of hiking is much shorter at around 15 km. Moving away from the high mountains, the Laugavegur takes you through desert-like stretches of trail that feel more like Mars than any earthly landscape. There are several creek crossings and one semi-significant river crossing on this stretch. Bring some sort of sandals or water shoes for these crossings (it hurts with bare feet), and trekking poles can better ensure stability while in the water. Your stopping point is the Emstrur hut, only 15 km from the trail's terminus in Thórsmörk.
Your third day on the Laugavegur is mostly flat and smooth, with incredible river canyon crossings (don't worry, there are bridges) and sweeping views of Thórsmörk and Godaland in the distance. The only real obstacle is a wide and shallow river crossing 2 km before the finish. Overall it should be a shorter day of walking, and the post-hike camping is much more satisfying with a hot shower and cold Icelandic beer from the Volcano Huts lodge.
Enjoy some rest! With three long days on the trail under your belt, it's well worth your time to spend a day wandering the labyrinth of trails around Thórsmörk. The roads to Thórsmörk are much more accessible than the ones to Landmannalaugar, meaning that the trails may be bustling with throngs of day hikers. Many Laugavegur thru-hikers spend the day lounging in the Volcano Huts restaurant in between short hikes through the exotic, glacier-carved landscape.
This is a hard day, but the views throughout are simply out of this world. Starting from Thórsmörk, you trek south toward the most famous day hike in all of Iceland, the Fimmvörðuháls Trail. This 30 km hike up and over a glaciated volcano to Skogar has a bit of everything in a single day; high jagged mountains, glacier views, a remote mountain hut, a dramatic cascading river canyon, and a series of enormous waterfalls. The trail's final waterfall, Skogafoss, is one of the most photographed sites on the island. And better yet? There’s beer at the bottom.
This is where things get a bit free form. Depending on how you want to get around the for the next few days, you can head east from Skogar along the southern coast or you can work your way west towards the Golden Circle and around to the Western Fjords.
Heading east generally has less tourist traffic than heading west and allows exploration of some beautiful coastal villages, Skaftafell National Park (part of the largest glacier in Europe), and Jökulsárlón (the famous "iceberg lagoon").
Heading west from Skogar will provide more of the typical "must-see" sights. The Golden Circle is the most thoroughly traveled area on the island due to its proximity to Reyjkavik and gives views of the full spectrum of geothermal features and Goðafoss, the country's largest waterfall. The Western Fjords are farther north from Reykjavik, but the dramatic mountains and shoreline are worth a trip if time allows.
Three days will allot you plenty of time to give either direction some through exploration.
Sadly, it is time to wrap it up. A final day wandering Reykjavik or a day hike near town is a great way to spend your final day in Iceland before your flight home. Hopefully you feel satisfied with the days that you have spent wandering one of the world’s most pristine natural environments, and have taken more than enough photos to make all your friends at home jealous. When you get home, make sure to send RootsRated some of your best photos!
How to Do It Like a Pro:
- Money: The conversion rate between USD and Icelandic Krona is about 1:120. In other words, don't be alarmed that every price tag is several hundred krona.
- Shopping: Food is very expensive, but BONUS grocery stores are pretty reasonable. To save some dough, stock up in Reykjavik (or in the US) to get you through your trip. Local bakeries shouldn't be missed, though. Icelandic doughnuts are crazy good. You might want to try the fermented shark, too, just for the story.
- Camping: Lots of Internet sites make "wild camping" seem super accessible—it isn't! Although it is technically legal to camp (mostly) wherever you'd like, you'll probably have a hard time finding places that aren't farmland or rocky lava wasteland. There are convenient campgrounds in every town that average around $12-15 per person.
- Transportation: Renting a car is the most convenient but most expensive option. There are bus passes that routinely go through popular routes around the island, including some that allow unlimited hop-on, hop-off access for a week or more. You can easily travel the country without a car, so don't be afraid to rely on buses or even hitchhiking to get from Point A to Point B.
- Gear: Pack light, but pack for everything. Icelandic weather is nuts, so be sure to cover all of your bases. In a single day you could wear a winter jacket, rain gear, and your swimsuit—you never know.
- And of course, Beer: Icelandic beer is somewhat deceptive, so check the label to make sure you get what you want. Their light beer (AKA "lettol") is reduced alcohol, not reduced calories.