Last update: 1 June 2021
Hiking the hidden gems of Thórsmörk
The fabled valley of Þórsmörk is the stuff of fairytales and epic sagas. It’s so beautiful that it almost seems unreal. Þórsmörk is full of folded valleys and convoluted canyons, glaciers with volcanoes underneath, and bizarrely shaped mountains. Rjúpnafell is one of the steepest mountains in the valley, and the walking track to the top of it is not to be underestimated. It’s a two-headed beast that is frightening and awe-inspiring at the same time.
The distinctly shaped Mount Rjúpnafell
Rjúpnafell looms large on the north side of the Krossá river. At an altitude of 824 metres, it has a distinctive two-headed peak and rivals with Útigönguhöfði in terms of mind-boggling steepness. There’s a sweet litte river valley hidden along the track below its slopes, only revealing itself just before you reach it. I saw this intriguing mountain in the distance on my previous trips to Þórsmörk – and now I just had to climb it too 😉
Rjúpnafell looming across the valley
Word of warning: The path up to the first peak does get a bit scary at some point. You need to be very cautious when going up there. If you suffer from vertigo or fear of heights, don’t even try to attempt it. If the top is covered in clouds or if it’s windy on the higher ground around the base of the mountain, it’s not a good idea either. This is one of the scariest mountains I’ve climbed. At one point I even thought I was stuck at the top… more about that further on in this post!
But even if you don’t climb all the way to the top, the walking track to Rjúpnafell is worth it for the enchanting hidden valley alone. Not to mention the other spectacular panoramic views you will see along the way.
Views along the Stangarháls track on the north side of the Krossá river.
Rjúpnafell hike & start of the track
The Rjúpnafell track leads off from the main loop on the Þórsmörk side of the valley. It takes about 6 hours to the top and back from either Básar or Langidalur. Add a few more if you return via the Trollakirkja and Slyppugil canyon on the Þórsmörk loop.
From the Básar side you have to walk across the stony riverbed and cross the Krossá over two footbridges, placed at varying locations depending on where it flows. Follow the ridge up to Stangarháls, where you will find some of the famous views over the valley all along the edges. Continue across the rolling mossy fields towards Trollakirka.
The troll’s church is further along the Þórsmörk loop, but you will see a rickety wooden sign pointing towards Rjúpnafell before you get to the church.
Footbridge over the Krossá river.
Rolling ridges and the path towards Rjúpnafell.
The hidden river valley
The track goes up and down across more rolling ridges. Then it bends around a steep corner and suddenly the hidden river valley comes into view. It’s a perfect picnic spot, a sheltered little garden of Eden with a burbling river circling around it. There are even some tiny trees. A great place to sit down & enjoy the surroundings before taking on the steep zigzag path up to Rjúpnafell.
The hidden river valley.
Garden of Eden.
The scary stuff
The zigzag path itself is quite doable, but there is a lot of loose gravel along the track. Things start to get tricky where the zigzag path ends, just below the first peak.
Rjúpnafell upper path and ridge.
I followed an increasingly smaller path to a point where it barely clung to the edge of the rock. It just faded out into nothingness in front of me, and I realized I’d gone too far. My heart started fluttering and pounding as I looked down into the petriying depths below. I’m not easily discouraged by tiny paths along steep mountain sides, but at that moment I felt a sudden bout of the wobbly knees coming on. ‘This can’t be right’, I thought, and crawled straight up to the rocks above, holding on for dear life. Loose bits & pieces of came off underneath my feet.
How on earth am I going to get down this again?!
The scary bit! & petriying depths below. The right path is actually on the other side of the rock to the right…
Beyond the first peak a fairly comfortable ridge comes into view, leading up to the wide grassy slope of the second peak, the actual top of Rjúpnafell.
Ridge between the two heads of Rjúpnafell.
And the views are (literally!) breathtaking all around. You can see all the way to the coloured mountains of Landmannalaugar and the highlands to the north. And straight across in the face of Katla, with glacier tongues drooping down into intricate canyons. Sweeping views of folded mountain ranges unfold everywhere you look.
Grand panoramic view from the top of the Rjúpnafell ridge.
Katla and its many glacier tongues.
The colourful Landmannalaugar mountains in the distance.
Looking down from the top.
Horrifying steep slope
But I couldn’t enjoy it as much… The thought of finding a way down again was constantly in the back of my mind. I was trembling at the thought of those loose rocks and sliding down that horrifying steep slope with nothing to hold on to. What if I really am stuck on this mountain? Would I have to call 112 and beg for a helicopter to please come and pick me up?
Útigönguhöfði suddenly seemed easy compared to this.
The two-headed monster
A shower of rain approached in the distance, adding even more drama to the landscape – and my state of mind. It came straight towards the top of Rjúpnafell. Oh no… now there’s going to be wet and slippery rocks as well as loose ones…
I sat down on the sheltered side of the top, overlooking the ridge, and waited for the shower to pass. Trying to mentally encourage myself for the way back down. Meanwhile, I heard some deep and distinct rumbling coming out of Katla. A few times. Glacier movement? Or… something else?
No! I’m not going to panic! Panicking won’t do any good or help me out. I must stay calm & focussed. I’m not going to die on this mountain!
Katla, distinctly rumbling in the distance a few times…
Path into the abyss…
The way back down
So I gathered myself together and walked across the ridge towards that dreaded first peak. And found to my great relief that there was actually a slightly better path going down to the right. On the other side of the rock I had crawled on the way up. As I was concentrating on the path in front of me, I had missed this subtle track going up just a little before it faded out…
The rock below the first peak. On the right side of the track down again! 🙂
View to Tindfjöll, the peaky mountains.
Rain showers over the valley.
Shuffling down the track
It was still tense and tricky to shuffle down, and I sighed a grateful sigh of relief when I was finally below the first peak again. Thankfully I kept my mind focussed & refrained from panicking when scaling that terrifying rock.
Lessons learned & affirmed:
- Take one step at a time. If it’s in the wrong direction, go back and try another. You will eventually get where you need to be.
- Trust your instinct & inner compass (even though it’s wonky sometimes 😉 )
- Do not let fear take over your common sense.
I celebrated my survival with another relaxing stop in the garden of Eden on my way back.
And a glass of wine under the northern lights back at the hut that evening 💚
Find more practical details & information about Þórsmörk in this article.
Rjúpnafell hiking map
This handy interactive map shows the hiking route I took from Básar up to Rjúpnafell and the hidden valley. You can also zoom in on the different sections of the track for more details.
(c) Nancy Claus – Wilderness Coffee & Natural High
What was your scariest mountain experience? If you have a question or a comment, please share them in the comment box at the bottom of this page. Other readers can also benefit from your feedback and the extra information in my reply. Thank you for sharing 💚
Enjoying the views, but still feeling slightly apprehensive at the thought of going down…
Covid travel restrictions Iceland
In these uncertain times, things can change quickly. Procedures are constantly evaluated and updated. For the current situation regarding Covid-19 related travel advice and restrictions in Iceland, see Covid.is (in English).
Video – Rjúpnafell and the hidden valley
Looking out over the hidden river valley beneath the slopes of Rjúpnafell, as it comes into view along the track.
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Pico del Teide – A volcanic playground
Faroe Islands – Atlantic weather systems moving overhead
Stromboli – The ancient lighthouse of the Mediterranean
The opal fields of Lightning Ridge – The mesmerizing draw of luminous stone