A Backpack Between Volcanoes
Básar to Fimmvörðuháls pass
Sunday, July 8th
Today was the day for the start of our two-day "between the volcanoes" backpack, from the valley of Þórsmörk to the small south-coast community of Skógar.
We chose this backpack for a number of reasons: the first was that the start point - the Þórsmörk valley - is considered one of Iceland's most beautiful outdoor destinations. Surrounded by glaciers and mountains, it has a slightly warmer climate that supports a small indigenous bit of forest, a very unique thing in this country. Secondly, the path of our backpack climbed up and over a mountain pass between two glacier-capped volcanoes; one of the volcanoes is Eyjafjallajökull, and if you don't remember, this is the Icelandic volcano that erupted in 2010, becoming world-famous as its ash disrupted air travel for two months in Western Europe and the North Atlantic. Part of the eruption occurred directly across the path our backpack, and we were interested in viewing the aftermath. And thirdly, this short two-day backpack fitted well into the logistics of our fairly short visit to Iceland.
As I mentioned earlier in this narrative, the logistics surrounding the setup of this backpack meant that I had to get up early and drive the van to the endpoint, at Skógar. The second bus - the one that would take us from the campground into Þórsmörk valley - didn't leave until after 10am, so everybody except me got to have a nice, leisurely morning.
Leaving the campground at 7:15am, I drove east along the ring road towards Skógar. The lower green flanks of Eyjafjallajökull were a constant companion on the left, and I stopped at several of the interpretive lookouts along the way to take some shots of this now-famous volcano. Unlike those days just 26 months prior, the top of the peak looked quiet and smoke-free.
Portrait of an eruption
I arrived at the Skógar area shortly before 8 a.m., and parked the Hiace at the Skógafoss waterfall parking area (the path leading down from the mountains - and which we would use on the second day of our backpack - ends here).
I knew I had to take bus 21a, but it was not completely clear to me if the bus left at 8a.m. or 8:30a.m., and also it was not clear as to whether or not the bus stopped at the Skógafoss parking area, or out at the junction with the ring road. In order to cover all of my bases, I briskly walked the five minutes or so back to the main ring road, and bided my time until 8 a.m.
Farmlands and Westman Islands
I took a few pictures of the surrounding scenery from the ring road while I waited. Of particular niceness was the view across the coastal plains towards the rugged Westmann Islands, situated just a few kilometres south of the coastline. From my point along the road near Skógar, I had a perfectly lined-up view of farmland, a small coastal town, and islands in the far distance.
8 a.m. came and went. No bus coming along the ring road at 8, then. I had at least 30 minutes to work with, so I decided to head back to the car park to see if there was any indication of the bus back there. As I was walking back, I noticed a large white bus come from inside Skógar itself and turn towards the parking lot. I wasn't absolutely sure that it was the bus I wanted, but it seemed promising.
Skógar bus stop
Arriving back at the parking lot, it was clear from a sign in the bus' window that it was indeed the 21a, and it was leaving at 8:30 a.m. Uncertainty resolved. The 21a *leaves* from Skógar at 8:30 a.m.; it does not come from some point further east. I went up to the bus driver and paid the 1100 ISK fee to take the bus back to Seljalandsfoss (and he nicely gave me a 100 ISK discount when I didn't have precise change on hand).
While waiting for 8:30 to arrive, I struck up a chat with a young Welsh family whose children were cavorting about near the bus. They had recently moved to Iceland to live and work, and during their weekends and time off they explored the wilds of the country. It so happened that this particular weekend they were aiming to do exactly the same itinerary we were planning - albeit over a longer number of days.
8:30 a.m. soon rolled around, and we boarded the bus and headed back to the ring road, then east. In about twenty minutes, I was back at Seljalandsfoss, where the bus dropped us off right at the waterfall parking area. It was a simple matter to follow the footpath across the fields and back to our campsite, where the rest of the group was having a late and leisurely breakfast.
Breakfast at Seljalandsfoss
Hamragarðar camground buildings
After breakfast and packing up, we made our way to the central facilities building at the Hamragarðar campground. The bus that would be taking us into the Þórsmörk valley stops on the road in front of this building.
Big buses approach
Bus 9a - a large highly jacked-up four-wheel drive Mercedes bus - arrived a few minutes late. We presented the tickets we had purchased the day before and loaded our full packs into one of the cargo holds. Soon, we were on our way up highway 249. The pavement soon ended, and we began the dusty and bumpy drive along the F249 - our first experience with one of Iceland's so-called "F-Roads" (also known as "Mountain Tracks").
Heading to Þórsmörk
The Þórsmörk valley is a highly-prized destination for Icelanders and foreigners alike. Surrounded on three sides by big mountains and big glaciers, especially on the south and west, the valley contains a microclimate that makes it more amenable to vegetation. As a result, there is a small natural forest in the valley, reportedly also quite beautiful and scenic. In fact, the name Þórsmörk translates to "Thor's Forest".
F249 turned out to be quite a dusty and washboarded track, throwing up a huge plume of dust behind us and rattling our teeth. To our left was a very wide, braided river, chocked with sediment. This was the Markafljót, the main river that drains the entire Þórsmörk valley, including the many glaciers that flow down into the valley. The wide sandy flats and many river braids is characteristic of a glacial outflow river.
Off to our right was a steep mountain slope, with snow and glaciers thousands of feet above us. This was the northern slope of now-famous Eyjafjallajökull, which erupted in 2010. The bus made a scenic 10-minute stop at an overlook towards a valley glacier that flowed down from the heights of Eyjafjallajökull. It's snow, ice, and crevasses were quite dirty-looking, sporting deposits of volcanic ash from the 2010 eruption.
Lady's Bedstraw and Eyjafjallajökull
Ewart and Þórsmörk valley
Back on board the bus after our scenic stop, we continued on our journey up the Þórsmörk valley. The road became increasingly challenging, with larger and larger fords of tributaries of the Markafljót river. The largest of the fords, I fear, may have been too much for the Hiace - or at the very least would have made for a white-knuckle experience.
A major ford
There are several huts and campgrounds sprinkled about the scenic Þórsmörk valley, and the F249 road that we were on provided access to two of them: the Húsadalur hut and campground, and the Básar hut and campground. The start point for our backpack was the Básar hut and campground - however, our bus was headed to the Húsadalur hut and campground. From there, another bus would arrive within minutes to take us the final few kilometres to Básar.
Increasingly interesting and beautiful crags became visible around us as we continued up-valley. Under an increasingly sunny day, there were now great views in all directions - green craggy valleys down low and attractively-shaped alpine peaks higher up.
we arrived at the Húsadalur hut and campground at around noon, and got out to wait for the final bus that would take us to Básar. It was a most pleasant location, on the banks of the wide Markafljót river. There was a large green lawn in front of the hut buildings, and in the background, a short but thick forest covered the hillsides, with the occasional crag of lava rock poking up.
There wasn't much time for us to poke around, because soon another large 4-wheel-drive bus rumbled up, and we confirmed with the driver that this bus was indeed continuing on to Básar. All of our logistics, fortunately, were still going according to plan.
Another bus to final destination
Looking across at Skagfjörðsskáli
Within twenty minutes were on our new bus, headed to Básar. We had to head a short way back long the road we had just come up to reach the side junction leading to Básar, and from there it was a short drive along another dustry stretch of the road. As we approached the site of the hut and campground, we could see many tents and four-wheel drive capable vehicles parked in little nooks and crannies between the trees that grew here. It looked like quite a busy place - but only for people with the appropriate vehicular equipment!
Soon afterwards, we reached the Básar hut proper, and the bus slowly backed into a long driveway that led up to it. It wouldn't be long before we were ready to begin our backpack into the Icelandic wilderness!
Interactive Trackmap - drive into Thorsmork - double-click to expand