Iceland 2020: Fjallabak Nature Reserve

Updated: Feb 12

These are landscape photos from part 2 of a difficult trip to Iceland in August 2020. After a few days on the south coast (part 1 here), hampered by rain, we tried everything to get into somewhere mountainous - even looking into ditching the 4x4 and getting a bus into Thorsmork - only to be advised by the warden there that the camp site was "basically a swamp". In the end, once we gave up on getting into any areas of the Highlands that we wanted to, we left the south coast and drove to Landmannalaugar - a place I'd sworn I wouldn't go back to, having suffered storms there in the past. It might have been our 4th or 5th choice location but it's still pretty spectacular. It's just not quiet, and remote, like we wanted. But this time around we were much more lucky with the weather than in the past. Although it rarely matched the forecast, we did get plenty of good conditions. In addition to the immediate valley, there are plenty of equally unique landscapes accessible from the base camp and we did our best to cover lots of ground exploring the wider area too.

Landmannalaugar

Landmannalaugar is an area of geothermal activity in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve, known for it's hot springs, colourful rhyolite mountains, and hiking trails. It's also the starting point of the Laugavegur Trail; a multi-day hike we did in 2018. In two previous visits there I hadn't experienced more than an hour without rain, eventually giving way to full blown storms, so I'd never really managed to get any worthwhile photos. This time I saw a different side to the place, and we took the opportunity to explore as much as we could.

This first photo features the pink and orange volcano Brennisteinsalda in the distance, with it's steaming sulphur vents. Tumbling down the side and into the meadow is the Laugahraun lava field, which was formed during an eruption 600 years ago. It's been amazing to watch the recent creation of a new lava field in Iceland this spring, which has really given an insight into how this geological phenomena came to be. In the foreground here, the surface of Mount Bláhnjúkur is covered in volcanic ash.

Landmannalaugar, in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve.
A Volcanic Landscape

As the sun breaks through, this is Brennisteinsalda again. The Icelandic name translates to "Sulphur Wave", which is a nice way to describe the gentle rolling folds of a lot of these mountains. Behind are the mossy rhyolite mountains, most characteristic of the area.

the mountains and volcanoes of Landmannalaugar, in the Icelandic Highlands
The Hills Are Alive

It's these layers, swirls, and variation of colour which makes the mountains of Landmannalaugar so unique.

Háalda, Landmannalaugar, Iceland.
Folds of Colour

This is the folding peaks of Sudurnámur, with the green meadow and lava field below.

Sudurnamur mountain range, with the green meadow and Laugahraun lava field
Landmannalaugar Dawn

A closer view of the convergence of those three subjects again. Shortly after dawn, light first reaches these areas well before most campers wake up.

First light on the Laugahraun, and the foot of the mountain Sudurnamur
Light on Land

This is a three-shot panorama looking down on the main Landmannalaugar valley. On the left you see the Laugahraun lava field; a maze of hardened lava through which various hiking trails snake, including the start of the Laugavegur Trail. Then there's a precious spot of lush green provided by a small meadow heated by a geothermal hot spring. Further round we see the sandy valley floor and the rivers of snow melt.


The valley, hot springs, mountains, camp site, and lava flow, which make up the main area of Landmannalaugar
Landmannalaugar Panorama

These hikers were leaving Landmannalaugar and following the Laugavegur Trail south to Hrafntinnusker.

Hikers on the Laugavegur trail. Landmannalaugar, Iceland.
Laugavegur trail

Just seeing this brought back great memories of hiking the trail two years previously, and the photos and views we missed out on it that first leg, due to stormy weather. The temptation was just too great, so we decided to walk the 24km round trip to Hrafntinnusker and back as a day hike. Including a sunrise and sunset shoot, we ended up walking over 30km that day, which honestly was a little OTT. But I'd probably do it again given the circumstances!

Hrafntinnusker

Hrafntinnusker is the high-point of the Laugavegur Trail, so it's basically uphill on the way, and downhill on the way back. You cross boiling geothermal vents, ice fields, and hillsides of sharp obsidian volcanic rock. It's pretty epic. There's a lot to take in if you're lucky enough to be there on a near cloud-free day. This two-shot panorama shows the classic Hrafntinnusker landscape in the foreground, with a tantalising glimpse of the vast glacier and green valley beyond.


The allure of the green mountains, volcanoes, and ice-caps, in the central highlands of Iceland
What Lies Beyond

In some light, the mountains appear almost black, with white snowdrifts filling the pockets of land least accessible to the sun. Great fun to play with though a camera lens.

Near Hrafntinnusker, Icelandic Highlands.
Mountain Abstracts

Time for a complete abstract.

Snow and mountain ridges. Hrafntinnusker, Iceland.
Icelandic Mountainside

Looking back towards the Fjallabak Nature Reserve you see the green and brown mountains, also still harbouring snow in August at this height.

Receding snow reveals the characteristic brown mountainsides of the Fjallabak Nature Reserve, in Sothern Iceland
Snow-Melt in Fjallabak

You just don't get views like this anywhere else.

Colours, shapes, and tones, of the iconic Fjallabak Nature Reserve, Southern Iceland
Fjallabak Nature Reserve

I'm really glad we did this hike, as all of these views of Hrafntinnusker were hidden by low cloud on our previous visit.

The Wider Fjallabak Nature Reserve Area

Landmannalaugar is the headline act of this nature reserve, as that's where the camp site is, but it's worth exploring as wide an area as possible, for quieter fells and less photographed views. Our trip coincided with the cotton grass, so we tried to feature that in the landscape too.

Cottongrass meadow, in the highlands of Iceland.
Icelandic Cottongrass

After the horses, sheep would be the next most famous Icelandic livestock. They must be hard as nails to thrive here, and they're full of character. This is almost a postcard shot, featuring sheep, a mossy mountain, a waterlogged meadow, dark skies and impending rain. That's all the classics in one :-)

Welcome to Iceland. Land of slate grey skies, lakes, mountains, and sheep.
Icelandic Postcard

Having lost most of our plans to the weather on this trip, we came up with a cunning plan to 'make lemonade', and utilise our fancy Jeep. We would beat the system by driving out in the rain - keeping nice and dry in our 4x4, and pulling over to shoot out the windows; capturing the drama of the dark skies and the rugged Icelandic landscapes. This is a large mound of ash and volcanic detritus, which the wind has sculpted into shape, and bright green moss has taken root where it can.


Huge collections of volcanic ash are formed into hills by the wind, and once they settle this way, the iconic Icelandic moss takes root
Mossy Mound

It's that time. My favourite photo from the trip...

The edge of a volcanic mound,. on which moss has made an existence.
A Slice of Iceland

Well, shortly after this we got a puncture. Honestly, I've really tried to keep the moaning to a minimum, but we genuinely were thwarted at almost every attempt to salvage something from this trip. Once we'd put the spare tyre on, we were essentially 'on our last life', so we couldn't risk any more needless driving, and we had to put this plan to one side too. I'd try it again in future though. It was pretty successful. It just didn't go our way.

Reflecting On The Trip

Me on a mountain above the iconic Landmannalaugar valley
Intrepid Explorer

If you know Landmannalaugar, you'll see that two thirds of the camp site is waterlogged. Fortunately we did OK on that front, but as such a popular place to visit, it was impossible to find a quiet corner to ourselves and we were surrounded by tour groups and wannabe-influencers. Fair play, they were only having a nice time, but it wasn't the quiet highland escape we'd planned. Still, the landscapes made it worthwhile.

It was a difficult trip logistically, having to constantly reassess the situation and change our plans on the fly, but then that was why we didn't book any accommodation before we went. We had planned to drive between camp sites and last-minute accommodations in order to keep our schedule flexible - and work around whatever weather we got. And in that respect, the plan was a real success. I think we used our time pretty well, and made the best of the weather we had. I'm gutted we never did manage to get to the destinations we'd planned to, but maybe that will work out some other time. As it was, I quite like these photos. I'm sure lots of people have taken pictures from the same places, but these feel like mine. Integrity is an important quality for my photography, so I wouldn't be happy if I didn't feel like I was photographing the landscape as I saw it, and representing the conditions and emotions I experienced. These all fulfil that criteria, and I think there are a few gems in there too.

-

George



 

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