Famous for its rugged landscapes, volcanoes, waterfalls, and impressive Northern Lights displays, Iceland is an ideal destination for outdoor lovers, and the country has been at the top of my bucket list for years. When I started planning my first trip to the remote island nation, I didn’t have any particular destinations in mind—I just knew I wanted to spend most of my time outdoors, soaking up the scenery and experiencing all the beauty the country has to offer. Fortunately, I stumbled on 57hours early in the planning process.
Founded in 2021, 57hours is a platform for booking guided adventure experiences all across the globe. The company’s mission is to help people get outdoors, appreciate our planet, and learn more about the people who live in the places they’re adventuring in. To that end, 57hours partners with certified guides who live and work in these communities.
“We love partnering with local guides because of the passion and knowledge of the local areas they guide in,” co-founder Perica Levatic tells Men’s Journal. “Local guides know the area best, they are passionate about promoting sustainable tourism in their local areas, and they know all the best trails or hidden spots.”
When I typed “Iceland” into the 57hours search bar, several enticing trips popped up, but one in particular caught my attention: The Hidden Trails of Iceland. For the trip, 57hours partners with local guides Albert Ojembarrena and Mónica Fuentes. Both Ojembarrena and Fuentes grew up in Spain, where they loved to hike, but as adults they were drawn to the rugged beauty of Iceland. With thousands of hours of guiding experience under their collective belts, the couple decided to join forces in 2017 and open their own guiding company, Amarok Adventures.
“We wanted to lead trips we like to do ourselves and share those adventures with everyone else,” says Ojembarrena. “Iceland is not that difficult to get to, but if you try to, you can get to some very isolated and remote places with very wild nature.”
I booked the trip and in July, I was on a plane to Europe with the promise of an adventure of a lifetime. I touched down in Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital, and spent a couple days exploring the city before connecting with the rest of my 57hours group. The plan was to spend the next 12 days exploring the Highlands of Iceland. After introductions and a group meal in a local hostel, we set out to our first destination: Landmannalaugar. Known as the “People’s Pools,” Landmannalaugar is located in the southern Highlands and is renowned for its geothermal hot springs and incredible scenery.
After driving to and dropping our gear at the backcountry hut where we planned to spend the night, we immediately set out on our first hike. When most people go backpacking in Iceland, they hit the Laugavegur trail. The trail travels 34 miles from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk, and it’s often crowded due to its popularity. Instead of hiking it all the way through, we decided to experience it as a day hike and tie in lesser-known trails for our thru-hike.
Just minutes into our trek, Iceland was already making quite the first impression. For summertime, it was incredibly cold: Snow sprinkled the hillsides and the wind was biting. But the landscape was unlike anything I had ever seen. It felt like we had been dropped on an alien planet. We were surrounded by lava rock, with steam snaking its way upward from hidden crevices. The moss-covered mountains served as a stunning backdrop, and blankets of snow brilliantly contrasted against the bright green. It truly was the land of fire and ice.
We spent the next two days at Landmannalaugar before motoring to a new hut and leaving the crowds behind. From there, the rest of the journey would be spent on foot. We planned to explore the country’s less popular trails and venture to a new backcountry hut each night.
The Fögrufjöll Mountains
We soon arrived at our next hut, which was much smaller and more homey than the previous one. But we didn’t stay long: We set out on an evening hike that offered amazing views of the surrounding peaks and a dry riverbed. We basked in the scenery without another soul (besides our group) in sight. Then we returned to our hut for the night.
When we woke the following morning, we packed up our things and spent the day hiking eight miles through the Fögrufjöll Mountains, located in the southern Highlands. As we moved along our route, we were treated to stunning views of the Langisjór Lake and the massive Vatnajökull glacier on the horizon. The following day, we set off for Skælingar, an area near the Skaftá River that was once a farm, but after a volcanic eruption, it’s now a remote lava field. Skælingar looked like something out of a movie, with funky rock structures and vibrant moss lining the river. The only audible sounds were those of the wind and the babbling creek. That made the night in the hut a restful one.
The Fire Canyon
On the morning of day six, we set off to trek through Eldgjá, a.k.a. the Fire Canyon. The area earned its name due to its rich volcanic history: It was the site of a massive eruption in 939 that unleashed a huge volume of lava. Today, the canyon stretches nearly 25 miles and is about 885 feet deep at its deepest point.
While hiking into this massive gorge, we marveled at the dramatic cliffs, ancient rocks, and resident goats before reaching the Ófaerufoss waterfall, where we broke for lunch. After eleven long but beautiful miles, we reached Hólaskjól, a compound of huts and cabins in that would serve as our home for the night.
After a few days traveling through remote terrain, Hólaskjól felt like a mini village, and there were lots of travelers coming and going. We spent a restless night in Hólaskjól before following the Syðri Ófæra River a few short miles to Álftavötn, a peaceful, remote hut. Once there, we spent a relaxing afternoon playing cards and resting—the next day, we’d embark on our longest hike yet.
On day eight, we hiked 14 miles from Álftavötn to Strutor. Although the hike was mountainous and challenging, the views provided good motivation: The black sand contracting against the bright green moss made for an incredible sight. Near the end of the hike, and after two frigid river crossings, we were rewarded with a soak in a geothermal spring. After a long day on the trail, soaking in the hot water felt amazing. As I sat in a natural hot spring surrounded by newfound friends, breathtaking views, and fresh mountain air, I realized I was having one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
The Black Desert
The following morning, on tired legs, we linked back up with the Laugavegur Trail and were treated to stunning views of Álftavatn Lake. The following day, we left the mountains behind and set off through the black desert—a vast, otherworldly landscape formed by volcanic ash. In the distance, the hulking Myrdalsjökull glacier served as a backdrop; the glacier sits atop Katla volcano and covers nearly 373 square miles. After approximately 10 miles of hiking, we descended into Emstrur canyon and arrived at our next hut.
On our final day of hiking, we saw trees for the first time since leaving home—Iceland was once covered in forests, but most of its trees were cut down in the Middle Ages to make room for farms and pasture. (Thanks to reforestation efforts, those woodlands are slowly making a comeback.)
We began the day hiking through the volcanic terrain of Emstrur Canyon before reaching a river crossing and an oasis of dwarf birch trees and willow forests below hanging glaciers. From there, we rejoined the crowds to hike through Thórsmörk, the valley of the God of Thunder, before arriving at our last and final hut. Once there, we celebrated with a delicious barbecue of lamb and veggies prepared by our guides.
The 57hours Approach to Iceland
Over the course of the journey, we logged nearly 100 miles of hiking. Every day brought new sights, each equally as impressive as the day before. In the evenings, we ate huge, delicious meals prepared by our guides and played games before dozing off to sleep in preparation for the next day’s adventure. While it may be possible to do this trip on your own, the guides really made the excursion worthwhile. Not only did they know the trails—including less popular routes—like the back of their hands, they were able to teach us about the history and geography of the landscape along the way. They helped make the journey way more enriching and informative than if I had gone on my own.
If you’re looking for a luxury vacation, this isn’t the trip for you. Accommodations are rugged and the weather is challenging, making the trip unfit for the faint of heart. But for those who don’t mind the cold and putting in some work, Iceland delivers one of the most beautifully unique landscapes I have ever come across. And 57hours is an ideal way to experience it.
My time in Iceland was twelve full days of challenging, rewarding type-two adventure—not bad for a guided tour.
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