Iceland’s Laugavegur Trek – July 2017

On my way home from Scotland this past summer, I met up with my good friend, Candy, in Iceland to hike Iceland’s most famous long distance trail – The Laugavegur Hiking Trail.  This 55 kilometer trail is located in the southern highlands of Iceland, north of the Eyjafjallajökull Volcano.  It starts in Landmannalaugar and takes 3 – 5 days to trek to Þórsmörk .  The scenery is beautiful, unique, and varied.  Every day has different views from black rock lava fields, to fields of flourescent green moss, to fields of snow.   Volcanic mountains and mountains displaying a variety of colors delight the trekker.  Ice caves, glaciers, and even natural hot springs are found along this trek.

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The trail is challenging requiring a decent level of fitness, yet the scenery you will see is well worth the extra training.  The trek can quickly become more challenging with poor weather conditions, such as whipping wind, snow, fog, freezing rain and more.  Your best chances for good weather are from mid-July to the end of August.  However you could experience poor weather during these two months, it’s the Icelandic mountains after all!

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Below is a map of Iceland with the trail marked in red from Landmannalaugar to Porsmork.  (Map found at http://www.mountainguides.is)

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Below: Candy and Sheri on two different parts of the Laugavegur trek day one of our adventure.

Our original itinerary for the trek is shown below, however we decided to skip staying the night at Emstrur, due to very windy conditions, and continued hiking that day till Basar in Porsmork.
Day 1: Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnusker (12Km) 4-5 hour hike
Day 2: Hrafntinnusker to Alftavatn or to Hvanngil (16K) 6-8 hours
Day 3: Alftavatn to Emstrur (16km) 6-7 hours
Day 4: Emstrur to Basar in Porsmork (15K) 5-7 hours, take bus back to Reykavik

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Finding your way on the Laugavegur trail:  The trail is very well marked with three different types of way markers.  You will see wooden posts with the tops painted red or blue throughout the trail marking the way.  Larger wooden posts with metal signs at the top have locations and distances carved out of them to also show the way.  The last type of sign you will see are wooden rectangular signs with the name of the campsites written on them.

Accommodations along the way: Huts and camping sites along the Laugavegur trail are usually open from the end of June until the end of August, depending on snow and trail conditions. The Volcano Huts in Þórsmörk open earlier in the spring and stay open longer into the fall due to the location and better weather conditions.  In order to use the huts, you will need to reserve many months in advanced.  You may even need to reserve a full year in advanced depending on group size.  Candy and I camped as we did not make reservations early enough.

The photo shown below was taken at the Landmannalaugar hut and camping site.  This is where many people are dropped off every day to start their trek or to do a day hike, hence all the buses parked behind the tents.  People also come to camp for one night allowing them to do a day hike and enjoy the natural hot springs found in this area.

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Challenges along the trail: The Laugavegar trek has many challenges to keep the adventurous trekker entertained such as; steep ascents made up of soft dirt and rocks causing you to slide a bit with every step up the hill, steep descents that force you to shuffle sideways down the hill, fog that will keep you alert and focused on finding the next way marker, freezing whipping wind and rain that will have you diving into your tent for shelter, fast moving rivers that will challenge your balance, and more!  Be sure to bring your hiking poles and layers of clothing on this challenging adventure!

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A well populated trek:  We met many people along the way.  Some were with organized groups and some with a few friends.  We didn’t meet any solo travelers.  At times it felt like there were too many people on the trail and other times where it was just us.

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Traversing rivers and streams:  The water way you see in this photo was rather narrow and shallow compared to others that were wide, fast moving, and up to mid-thigh.  Bring water proof foot-wear to change into to cross these streams and rivers.  When crossing the rivers, remember to cross with the current not against it, an important lesson Candy taught me.  Poles are needed on several river crossings to keep you from falling.

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Transportation to and from the trail: Daily scheduled busses drive between Reykjavík and the starting and end points of the trail in Landmannalaugar and Þórsmörk. The bus stop in Þórsmörk is at the Volcano Huts in Husadalur Valley.  The bus in the photo below was taking us back to Reykjavik, but first we had to cross through a fast moving river!

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Below are some photos I took along this trek that show the varied and diverse land of this region of Iceland.  Enjoy!

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I know many of you reading this blog may think a 55 kilometer trail is just not long enough for you. 🙂  If this is how you feel you are in luck!  The 24 – 30 kilometer long Fimmvörðuháls & Eyjafjallajökull hiking trail can be added to this trek, connecting the Laugavegur Trail with Skógar, on the south coast of Iceland.  While Candy and I did not hike along this extension, we met many who were extending their adventure.  Whatever you decide you will surely love walking this varied, beautiful land.

To help you prepare further for you adventure, check out this great blog (Note that most prices the author lists in the blog have increased, for example camping is now $20 per person, not $10 dollars per person.): How to Plan For The Laugavegur Trek in Iceland

The only downfall about Iceland – Everything is very expensive, but that is another blog!  Three quick suggestion to save you money…

  1. Ride in buses not taxi’s.
  2. Bring you own gear, don’t rent.
  3. Bring as much food for the trip as you can (REI has great dried camping food).

 

 

Day Hikes on the Isle of Skye – July 2017

DSC03074Twenty years ago I discovered a magical place called the Isle of Skye.  A small ferry type boat took about 20 of us young and impressionable folks from mainland Scotland to Skye.  We landed in a quaint and quiet little fishing town called Kyleaken.  An even smaller group of us decided to take the island van – tour.  This tour stirred my soul and brought back my child-like wonder.  It was my first time realizing since a young girl that fairies do exist.  They live in Skye’s fairy glen, swim in its fairy pools and cross its fairy bridge.  It was an enchanting land of steep cliffs, castles and rugged yet brilliant scenic views.

Fast forward 20 years to my second visit.  I had to go back to the place that stirred my soul and brought back child-like wonder.  In my past visit I had not hiked and this time I wanted to explore the Isle in a new wayHowever I didn’t expect what I would soon encounter… bus load after bus load after bus load of people.  What had happened to the small van – tours?  Word of this magic Isle had spread like wild fire and everyone wanted to experience the Isle of Skye and where its fairies live.  I was so happy I had had the opportunity to experience Skye and its magical places without the crowds.  Unfortunately it no longer had the same magical feel.  However, it still was the same enchanting land.  Luckily most of the tourists weren’t into hitting the trails, so off to the trails I went!

skyeMy home base for two nights was the cute town of Portree shown in the three photos below and labeled in the map above (map is from Lonely Planet)From there I took buses and taxis to the start of two different hikes.  My last night I went back to Kyleakin, where I found a couple of short hikes.

DSC03086The first night I arrived in Portree I enjoyed not just warm summer weather, but a warm welcome from the town’s Scottish bagpipe band, as well as a not so warm welcome from a few midgies (small Scottish mosquito-like bugs).  The streets were adorned with colorfully painted homes, B&B’s, hotels, stores and restaurants.  I managed to lock down a place to stay for two nights, even though online it showed the town was fully booked.

Day Hike #1: Old Man of Storr

Mileage: 3-miles of various trails when starting from the carpark

DSC03038After waking up later than planned, I missed the morning shuttle bus to the start of the Old Man of Storr hike. (During the summer months bus 57 runs 4 times daily from Portree to and from the Old Man of Storr and Quiraing hiking trails).  Reluctantly I forked over 15 British pounds for a taxi ride vs. 5 British pounds for the bus.  The Old Man of Storr hike is one of the most popular hikes among tourists on the Isle, so if you can go early morning for sunrise or late evening for sunset you will miss the crowds.  I made it just in time for the mad house of people.  However, as I climbed higher, I noticed only those in actual hiking clothing made it to the top.  The heeled dress boots didn’t quite cut it.  And yes, a woman was hiking in dress boots!

The Storr Mountain is the highest point on the Trotternish Ridge at 2359 feet high.  It is a 984 foot thick sandwich of around 24 layers of volcanic rock formed between 55 and 61 million years ago. (interesting facts I found on a sign at the trail-head).

There are about 5 kilometers or 3.1 miles of well kept trails in this area that start from the car park where the bus from Portree drops you.  When you get close to the top of the trail, hold onto your hat as a tunnel of wind that flows between two steep points almost knocks you off the trail.

DSC03031You will probably want to spend a good two hours enjoying this beautiful scenic area.  Take some snacks and the bus schedule so you don’t miss the last bus back to Portree.  I decided I didn’t want to wait for the last bus and finding no off-road foot path, I walked the main road back to town.  I enjoyed the 7-mile walk, but it’s definitely not the safest option with cars whizzing past you, nor one I would do again.

I highly recommend this Old Man of Storr hikea must do when on the Isle of Skye.  For those of you looking to hike more than 3 miles, you can continue along a trail that takes you to the Summit.  Check out “walkhighlands” (http://walkhighlands.co.uk) detailed directions of that trail.

Day Hike #2: Quiraing

Mileage: Starting from the Car Park, 4.4 miles round trip, starting from the bus stop drop off and back add 2.5 miles

DSC03119My second day on the Isle of Skye I decided to explore the Quiraing area, also part of the Trotternish Ridge which was formed by a massive landslip creating high cliffs.  The same bus (57) that takes you to the Old Man of Storr hike, continues on down the road for more stops, one being the Quiraing loop hike drop-off.  From the bus stop it is about a 20 to 30 minute walk up a winding road to a car park where the hike starts.  Be sure to let the bus driver know that you want to do the Quiraing hike so when your stop comes he/she will point you in the right direction.

The actual hike is a 6.8km loop taking about 2 hours with no stops.  However, hiking in this area is mesmerizing.  You may find your pace slowing, your heart opening and a desire to sit and enjoy the enchanting surroundings take over.  You could end up spending several more hours than intended “walking” this loop.  If you love taking photos you will be in photographer heaven.  Unfortunately my photos do not do this place justice, and I believe the only thing that probably does, is being there in person!  It really is about the feeling you get as you hike through this mossy green wonderland.  Do I recommend this hike?  Absolutely!  Don’t miss it!

DSC03157For more details of this impressive hike check out “walkhighlands” section by section description here.

Day Hike #3 – (Combo hike): Kyleakin’s Short Castle Hike & The Kyleakin Trails / Slighean Caol Àcainn

DSC03267After spending the night in a stuffy camping trailer with about 8 others I was ready for fresh air and coffee.  Why was I staying in a trailer you ask?  Well, silly me thought it would be fun to make reservations at the same friendly hostel I stayed at 20 years ago (Skye Backpackers).  What I didn’t know is that in order to make room for all the new tourists, they had acquired a couple of old camping trailers and Sheri was lucky enough to land a bed in one of them.  Before I left for my days hike, I made sure to cancel my second night and book a bus back to mainland Scotland as the Isle’s crowds didn’t leave any B&B or hotel rooms empty.

I picked up coffee at the town’s tiny general store and then walked the half mile to the town’s castle called Caistol Maol, also known as Bare Castle.  The walk takes you over a waterway and by cute Scottish homes, till you reach a more rugged path past a beach leading to the ruins.  It’s a great wake-up / warm-up hike to get you ready for your next hike of the day.  The hikes only way-marker came at the last 200 meters to the castle.  Start this hike from the general store and head in the direction of the castle.  You will figure out how to get there; it’s not hard!  If you visit Kyleakin don’t miss this one mile round-trip hike.

My next hike of the day found me walking to the opposite side of town and then almost out of town to a trail system located directly behind Kyleakin (about a mile walk).  On the back side of town are two trails called the Kyleakin trails.

DSC03228I took the shorter 1.5 mile trail as I had a bus to catch mid-day.  This trail takes the trekker uphill through mixed woodland to spectacular viewpoints over Kyleakin, the Isle of Raasay and north to Cuillin Mountains – popular hiking mountains.  (If I was staying a couple more days on the Isle I would have gone on a couple of day hikes in the Cuillin Mountains.)  The second trail takes you to the same view points, but also through open moorland and conifer trees prior to the climb.  This adds about 3/4 of a mile to your total mileage.  If you have the time, I would recommend the longer trail.   Both trails are very easy and well marked.

DSC03236Do I recommend this hike?  If you are in Kyleakin, yes, but I wouldn’t go out of your way to do this hike.  I regret not heading to Cuillin Mountains.

DSC03240  To find more hiking trails on the Isle of Skye, such as in the Cuillin Mountains, I highly recommend going to this site: https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/  You won’t just find hikes on the Isle of Skye here, but day hikes and long distance hikes all over Scotland.  Enjoy!

Next up… trekking in Iceland.

Until then keep on trekking!

Day Hikes on the Orkney Isles – July 2017

Most of my 2017 summer was spent exploring Scotland – trekking around Arran Isle, hiking the West Highland Way, and taking day hikes on the Isle of Skye and the Orkney Isles.  The most fascinating adventure proved to be the Orkney Isles just north of mainland Scotland…

DSC00768 (1)The Orkney Isles are a place where trust in strangers still exists:  Where the locals pull over to offer you a ride even if your thumb is not out;  Where archeological digs are in abundance, so much so that student’s of archeology come from all over the world to learn;  Where puffins and many other bird species call home – attracting many a bird watcher;  Where trails lead you along steep breath-taking cliffs, all the way down to white sandy beaches that lead to neolithic dwellings, older than the Egyptian pyramids;  Where people flock to standing stones, stone circles, and inside huge ancient burial mounds;  Where winter coats are useful year round;  Where wind can whip so hard it can almost blow you off the cliff;  Where you can be the only one walking along a beautiful white sandy beach on a sunny summer day;  Where time stands still and peace is a constant;  Where you know you have come to a special place.

Unfortunately there are no marked long distance treks on these Isles, but there are many opportunities for day hikes and I found out that they certainly don’t disappoint.  As you scroll down in this blog, you will find that I highlighted three of my favorite day hikes.

I found almost every day-hike I completed at this informative and detailed website: https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/   The website lists long distance treks and day-hikes all over Scotland.  It also gives written instructions of the entire hike section-by-section with photos and a map.  It lets you know mileage, terrain, difficulty, and whether the trail is well marked or whether you may need a compass.  I printed the descriptions of the hikes with photos and maps prior to leaving.  The day before each hike, I asked the information center how best to get to the beginning of the trail.  I did discover one new hike that I wasn’t aware of when I arrived – the puffin hike.  I always learn more when I am actually in the country and can ask questions.  I tend to peruse the postcards that show local attractions.  Then I ask about my favorite ones.  The puffins on the postcards were calling my name and I had to find a hike that led me to them.  The information center in Kirkwall let me know exactly how to find them.  I have highlighted this particular walk in this blog so you too, can discover the cute puffins of the Orkney Isles 🙂

My home base while on the islands was Kirkwall’s Youth Hostel on mainland Orkney.  Each morning I walked to the bus depot, located next to the information center in the heart of Kirkwall, about a 10 minute walk from my hostel.  Next, I would either hop on a bus, or walk to the ferry (just a 5 -10 min walk down the road from the bus station) and then head to the start of the days hike.

The photos below are from my first day on Mainland Orkney where I took a bus to Skara Brae (shown in later photos), the Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness, and the Mound of Maeshowe.  You could hike from Skara Brae to Maeshowe (about 10 miles).  I attempted to do this, but the locals insisted that they give me a ride as there really is no foot path other than the road for cars.  Taking rides from the locals was a delight – a great way to get to know them.

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The map below shows where the Orkney Isles are located in relation to Scotland, the Shetland Isles and Norway. (source of map unknown)

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This next map shows the Orkney Isles on a bigger scale, with the names of each Isle. (Map from Lonely Planet)

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Day Hike #1: Stromness to Yesnaby Cliffs to Bay of Skaill & Skara Brae
(A Coastal Hike to 5000 Year Old Dwellings on Mainland Orkney)

Mileage: About 12 miles
Time: 6-7 hours
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This 12+ mile coastal hike starts by the Stromness ferry terminal where the bus from Kirkwall drops people off.  The trail continues through the town of Stromness, the second largest town in the Orkney Isles.  Leaving the town, the trail leads to a campground and to a grass pathway with views of the picturesque Isle of Hoy and its twin peaks of Cuilags and Ward Hills.  Most of the rest of the path follows along the water only turning inland for a bit to climb up a long grassy hill past cow farms and eventually leading back to the coast line.
 This next part of the coastline walk is along dramatic and beautiful steep cliffs, ones you do not want to walk too close to as people have been killed when the unstable edge of the cliff falls into the sea.  The trail is far enough away from the edge that you are safe.  The most memorable of the cliffs on this walk are the Yesnaby Cliffs that include striking stand-alone stones rising out of the water called sea stacks.
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 The Yesnaby Cliffs (seen in the above photo) are about 5K from the end of the hike at Scara Brae. In this last part of the hike the path reveals the Broch of Borwick – the remains of an iron age defensive tower.  After a photograph or two and a few moments watching the seals bob up and down in the inlet of the Noust of Borwick just to the left of the remains, you will continue on to the cairn (mound of stones used as a land mark) on Row Head.  On a sunny day the Old Man of Hoy, located on the Isle of Hoy, is visible.
Shortly after the cairn, the white sandy beaches of the Bay of Skaill make themselves known.  The trail continues to the beach and to the neolithic village of Skara Brae (located just above the beach), a 5000 year old dwelling.  Just behind Skara Brae is the impressive Skaill House, Orkney’s finest 17th century mansion (seen in the background of the photo below) and home of the man who discovered Skara Brae (parts of Skara Brae are shown in the two side-by-side photos below).  Both sites have an entrance fee to visit – money well spent!

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Bring layers of clothes for this hike even on a sunny day, as the whipping wind along this coast line can make what was once a warm day change to cooler temperatures very quickly.  To stay warm I wore two pairs of pants: workout tights and waterproof pants over them to break the wind, as well as 4 tops.  My waterproof jacket and hood (again to break the wind) and my baseball cap underneath to protect my eyes and skin.  Due to the whipping wind and intermittent sun, my eyes were killing me by the end of the day.  My advice – wear sunglasses!  Unfortunately mine broke the day before 😦  And don’t forget your sunscreen!

By the end of this 12 mile windy hike I was exhausted (the wind made it feel like at least a 15 mile hike), but very happy to have walked this beautiful path. 🙂

Day Hike #2: Moaness to Rackwick to The Old Man of Hoy (An Inland and Coastal Hike on the Isle of Hoy)  Mileage: 10 miles if taking the bus at Rackwick – 15 miles if doing full round trip

 I caught the early morning bus from Kirkwall and headed back to the charming town of Stromness (shown in first photo below), where a small foot and bike ferry awaited passengers heading to the Moaness Ferry Pier on the Isle of Hoy.  The hike started where the ferry dropped us in Moaness.  The first four and a half miles went through the valley of Hoy’s twin peaks – Cuilags and Ward Hills to Rackwick.  Brilliant greens from various plants and grass and hues of purples from Scottish Heather adorned the valley.  My photo of the valley doesn’t do it justice (bottom left hand photo)…
 The second part of the hike rose up and out of the valley to the steep coastal cliffs of Hoy.  After an impressive walk along these cliffs, the trail turned slightly inward and the old man of Hoy became visible for the first time. The trail crossed an open field heading to the The Old Man of Hoy.  This sea stack is 449-feet tall (137m), part of the Orkney archipelago that people come from all over the world to climb.  Three young men were attempting the climb when I was there.  This area of the hike was stunning, with breath-taking, stomach dropping, and close to heart-stopping cliffs.  Not a place to fool around near the edge.
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The day turned out to be the best weather I would have while on the islands, blue sky, with barely a breeze and almost 60 degrees – close to t-shirt weather!  It was beautiful and quite peaceful.

DSC01070After a good hour of enjoying the weather and view and chatting with other hikers, I headed back the same way I came.  There is a trail that is more direct to get back to the ferry that goes over Cuilags hill, but it involves protective dive bombing Skuas that aim for the head – no thanks!  (Skuas are a type of bird that unapologetically protect their young that nest in grassy fields). I’ll take extra miles over frightening and unpleasant experiences any time.  And had I taken the short cut, I would have missed out on this adorable family of sheep and the dramatic cliffs behind them.

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On the way back to the ferry just prior to re-entering the valley portion of the hike, a car that was almost full of locals pulled over and offered me a ride.  To be honest I was hoping a car would come along and offer me a ride, as I was tired and didn’t have a huge desire to repeat a 4.5 mile section from earlier.  I gladly hopped in – the pickle in the middle of the back seat was happily me 🙂

I waited for the the ferry at the ‘Beneth’ill’ Cafe, where stories of the day were shared over tea and toasties.  What a great adventure!

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 View from the ferry ride home…
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Day Hike #3: Westray Ferry to Puffin Cliffs
(An Inland and Coastal Hike on the Isle of Westray)

Mileage: 4-5 miles
Time:  Varies as puffin watching can be an enjoyable 30 minute or 3 hour event!
Terrain:  Fairly flat

My day started with a walk from my hostel to the Kirkwall ferry.  I hopped on the earliest ferry (7:20AM) and headed with locals and bird watchers to Westray Isle and its Puffins!  The ferry ride was 1 hour and 25 minutes.  I was happy to discover that some refreshments were sold on board.  Coffee helped me stay awake for the ride!

Arriving on Westry I discovered that everyone but myself had rides to their destinations.  This caused a bit of anxiety when I walked out of the bathroom and not one soul was still there.  I was on my own, but was told all I had to do was turn right when I left the ferry terminal and walk the road until I saw a sign that pointed out the trail to the puffins.  I was also told it was not a long walk to reach the sign, so off I went.  After 25 minutes of walking and two ride offers from the only two vehicles that drove by, I was at the sign.  All anxiety disappeared as I turned right and headed up the gravel road that lead to the coastal trail and puffins.  I recognized vehicles parked at the start of the trail and ran into a few people that I had met the day before.

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 It didn’t take long to reach the cliffs and spot my first puffin.  I was shocked at how small they were.  Photos make them look bigger than they are in reality.  The faces of puffins are so perfect and uniform that they almost look fake, as if they were painted on or as if they were wearing a mask.  It took me about 2 hours to walk the half mile trail along the cliffs where the puffins lived.  I enjoyed every minute!  After the puffin section, the trail continued along the cliffs for a while, then turned inland and back to the road that led to the ferry.  Just past where you turn towards the ferry there is a home that sells tea, and can be a nice warm place to sit while you wait.  I also visited the white sandy beach while I waited for my 1:35PM ferry ride.  What an enjoyable day!

Now that you have caught a glimpse of the Orkney Isles, I suggest using this great website: https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/ to help you prepare further for your adventure in Northern Scotland!

DSC01306For more information on trekking in Scotland, come to my February 3rd talk at Savvy Traveler in Edmonds, WA at 10AM.