Thórsmörk – Rjúpnafell and the hidden valley

Thórsmörk – Rjúpnafell and the hidden valley

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.

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 😉

Mount Rjúpnafell, hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland

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!

Þórsmörk panorama hike

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.

View over the valley, hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland

Views along the Stangarháls track on the north side of the Krossá river.

Stangarháls lookout, hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland

The walking track to Rjúpnafell

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.

River crossing and signpost.

Path and rolling ridges, Rjúpnafell, hiking trail, Þórsmörk, IcelandRolling ridges and the path towards Rjúpnafell.

Path towards the hidden valley, Rjúpnafell hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland

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.

Hidden river valley, Rjúpnafell, Þórsmörk, Iceland

The hidden river valley.

Little garden of Eden, Rjúpnafell, Þórsmörk, IcelandGarden of Eden.

Path along the river valley ridge, hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland

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 it ends, just below the first peak.

Upper path and ridge, Rjúpnafell, hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland

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. I thought ‘This can’t be right’, 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?!

Scary bit, looking down Mount Rjúpnafell, Þórsmörk, Iceland

Breathtaking views

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 to the top of Rjúpnafell, Þórsmörk, Iceland

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.

Panoramic view from the top of Rjúpnafell, Þórsmörk, Iceland

Grand panoramic view from the top of the Rjúpnafell ridge.

View to Katla from the top of Rjúpnafell, Þórsmörk, Iceland

Katla and its many glacier tongues.

View towards Landmannalaugar from Mount Rjúpnafell, Þórsmörk, Iceland

The colourful Landmannalaugar mountains in the distance.

View from the top of Rjúpnafell, Þórsmörk, IcelandLooking down from the top.

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 pick me up?

Útigönguhöfði suddenly seemed easy compared to this.

View to the top of Rjúpnafell, hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland

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 bring me any good or help me out. I must stay calm & focussed. I’m not going to die on this mountain!

View to Katla and the valley of Þórsmörk, Iceland

Katla, distinctly rumbling in the distance a few times…

Path down the top of Rjúpnafell, hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland

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, Rjúpnafell hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland

The rock below the first peak. On the right side of the track down again! 🙂

View to Tindfjöll and path down Rjúpnafell, hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland

View to Tindfjöll, the peaky mountains.

Rain shower over the valley, Þórsmörk, Iceland

Rain showers over the valley.

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 🙂

Northern lights, Þórsmörk, Iceland

Find more practical details & information about Þórsmörk in this article.

(c) Nancy Claus – Wilderness Coffee & Natural High

Slightly apprehensive, top of Rjúpnafell, Þórsmörk, Iceland

Enjoying the views, but still feeling slightly apprehensive at the thought of going down…

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