Thórsmörk – Útigönguhöfði and Hvannárgil canyon
The fabled valley of Thórsmörk 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 with unpronounceable names.
The most prominent is Útigönguhöfði – the ridiculously steep mountain you see looming everywhere in Þórsmörk and on the way down from Fimmvörðuháls.
The queen of Thórsmörk
Climbing it is as challenging as pronouncing its name… 😉 Útigönguhöfði is the queen of Thórsmörk. It stands majestically tall & proud, embraced by the mighty valleys of the Krossá and Hvanná rivers. You just can’t help standing in awe & admiration before it. The impressive Hvannárgil canyon runs below its slopes and together they form a beautiful circuit.
In this article you can read about this route and see the jaw-dropping views along the way.
Evening fog on the majestic mountain.
How to climb Útigönguhöfði
Útigönguhöfði was the unexpected grand encore on my way back from Fimmvörðuháls in September 2017. It looked like a shorter route on the map, but that turned out to be slightly different… So I decided to climb it again in the right way when I came back to Thórsmörk in September 2018. This time I had plenty of margin to enjoy the views 🙂
Read more about the trials and tribulations on Útigönguhöfði (the alternative route) in my story about Fimmvörðuháls…
Epic view from the top of Útigönguhöfði.
The best way up to Útigönguhöfði
The ‘easiest’ way is to take the path up from Básar. I wouldn’t recommend going over Útigönguhöfði on the way down from Fimmvörðuháls. It’s easy to lose track from that direction, and there are only a few marker poles to indicate the route beyond Morinsheiði.
Be prepared for some serious crawling up the rocks on either side. But at least on the Básar side you can still see where the track is going, and there are chains attached to the upper parts. The views from the top are absolutely worth the hardcore slogging up the mountain!
The Básar hut, with Útigönguhöfði looming in the background.
Lower Fimmvörðuháls route
You can also combine Útigönguhöfði or Hvannárgil with the lower part of the Fimmvörðuháls route, including the famous Cat Ridge (Kattarhryggir, or cat spine). These routes all connect on the Morinsheiði plateau above Thórsmörk.
The giant Morinsheiði plateau.
Útigönguhöfði and Hvannárgil canyon circuit
The walking track to the top of Útigönguhöfði starts right behind the Básar hut. The route follows the ridge above the huts to the Votupallar plateau, before leading up the steep & craggy slope of Útigönguhöfði itself. This is also where you emerge from the Hvannárgil canyon on the way back.
On the signpost you’ll see two diifferent paths to Útigönguhöfði, but eventually they both lead to Votupallar. The lookout point on the edge of the plateau offers amazing views into the Hvannárgil canyon – see further down this article!
How much time do you need?
From the Básar hut it takes about 2 hours to walk to the top of Útigönguhöfði, at a lofty height of 800 metres. Count on at least 7 to 8 hours for the entire circuit, including rest breaks for a picnic and a Wilderness Coffee, and time to take in the incredible scenery.
The path up Útigönguhöfði.
Looking down and across towards Réttarfell.
Steep mountains and deep canyons
Like the Laugavegur, the Fimmvörðuháls route is very popular and it can get pretty crowded on the track in the summer. The Útigönguhöfði route is less well-known (and perhaps slightly discouraging due to its intimidating steepness…)
There are of course some steep sections on Fimmvörðuháls too, but nowhere near as the ones on Útigönguhöfði – especially on the way down towards Morinsheiði.
Útigönguhöfði upper path. Yes, it’s steep…
Panoramic views over the entire valley of Thórsmörk
The top of Útigönguhöfði is a surprisingly flat plateau, covered with mossy sections and decorated with bizarrely shaped rocks & boulders sticking out on the sides. And it offers some of the best views in Thórsmörk.
View from the top into the valley of Thórsmörk.
View towards Katla and Mýrdalsjökull glacier.
Bizarre rock pillars and more epic views.
Picnic with a view on the top!
I spent at least an hour bumbling around, enjoying the stunning surroundings and a picnick on the top. There’s nothing quite like a Wilderness Coffee with a view… 😉
Like last time, I was lucky again that there was hardly any wind.
Picnic & Wilderness Coffee with a view from the top of Útigönguhöfði.
On the other side of the platau awaits the descent down that dauntingly steep gravel slope… It’s like a rollercoaster view when you’re standing at the edge of it! Here you have to be extremely careful, even crawl down on your bum and hands and feet if necessary. It may not look very elegant, but it’s the most practical and safest way if you don’t want to break an ankle (or worse…)
Walking poles may be a benefit, if you’re comfortable with them.
The rollercoaster views down the slope…
Path at the top of Útigönguhöfði.
Sliding rollercoaster slope
The gravelly bits are one of the most tricky & treacherous things to navigate as you’re going down. No matter how good or sturdy your walking shoes are, the gravel will slide from underneath you.
The bone-thin marker sticks on this side can be difficult to spot…
Path down the back side of Útigönguhöfði.
The same thing goes for the descent into the upper part of the Hvannárgil canyon from Morinsheiði. That’s the only ‘downside’ of this route: you have to slide & shuffle down extremely steep slopes full of loose bits of gravel twice! 😉
Heljarkambur, the ridge on Morinsheiði.
The gateway to Eyjafjallajökull
Up on Morinsheiði the path joins the main Fimmvörðuháls track in the middle of the plateau. Turn right and follow the track until you get to the signpost just before that beautiful ridge leading to the upper reaches of Fimmvörðuháls, the gateway to Eyjafjallajökull.
The king of Thórsmörk
If Útigönguhöfði is the queen of Thórsmörk, Eyjafjallajökull is the king. The one that rules them all. He showed off his power in 2010.
The signpost on Morinsheiði above Hvannárgil canyon.
Heljarkambur – Hell’s Ridge
The name of the ridge doesn’t do it justice. It’s called Heljarkambur, meaning ‘Hell’s Ridge’. But the surroundings and views are awe-inspiring. To the left of it is Hrunagil canyon, stretching out to the east of Morinsheiði.
This is where spectacular lava falls from Eyjafjallajökull drooped down during the 2010 eruption at the Fimmvörðuháls fissure.
Heljarkambur ridge and Hrunagil canyon.
Sliding down gravelly slopes in Hvannárgil canyon…
The track into Hvannárgil canyon
To the right of Heljarkambur ridge the track descends into the convoluted canyon of Hvannárgil, and down more gravelly slopes again. You’ll pass beneath giant boulders clinging to the slopes above, troll faces watching over the canyon, and cross little glacial streams fed by waterfalls.
Troll face watching over Hvannárgil canyon.
Giant boulders & glacial streams.
Canyon path looking back towards Fimmvörðuháls.
Meandering beneath the slopes of Útigönguhöfði
After a while the track becomes more even as it circles along the upper slopes of the canyon. The worst of the sliding gravel sections are behind you now. The path drops down to the river where it flows beneath the slopes of Útigönguhöfði. Then it climbs up to the canyon ridge again, eventually emerging at the Votupallar viewpoint.
Hvannárgil canyon path.
The canyon floor, and tiny droplets on the blueberry plants.
Glacial streams flowing through a rocky gateway.
Going up the canyon ridge again.
Stunning views into the Hvannárgil canyon
The walk inside the canyon from Morinsheiði to Votupallar takes about 2 hours, with incredible views from one end to the other.
Votupallar is the plateau in front of Útigönguhöfði on the Básar side of the mountain. When you walk towards the edge of it, you can see this stunning view into the lower Hvannárgil canyon.
View into the lower Hvannárgil canyon.
From Votupallar it’s another hour’s walk back to the Básar hut. My legs & knees felt quite wonky at the end of the day, after navigating all those sliding gravel slopes! But thankfully they sprang back into shape again after a good night’s sleep.
And I was ready to conquer that other steep mountain – Rjúpnafell.
The Básar huts and Krossá river.
Fjallalæðas forming on the ridges, with Mount Rjúpnafell sticking out to the left.
(*) Fjallalæða – the mountain equivalent of a dalalæða 😉
Útigönguhöfði and Hvannárgil canyon hiking map
This handy interactive map shows the route I took from Básar up to Útigönguhöfði and Morinsheiði, and back down via the Hvannárgil canyon. Zoom in on the different sections of the track for more details.
Thórsmörk hiking routes
The Thórsmörk hiking map below shows the Útigönguhöfði and Hvannárgil circuit as the long red loop in the middle. These maps are outside on the Básar hut and other huts around Thórsmörk. The hut wardens also sell detailed maps with all the hiking routes.
Find more practical details & information about Thórsmörk in this article, how to get there and where to stay.
A map of hiking routes in Thórsmörk.
Útigönguhöfði – the alternative route
For a complete surround view I also added the story about my first encounter with Útigönguhöfði below. This was on my way down from Fimmvörðuháls in September 2017. And definitely more tricky to climb it from that direction…!
I thought it might be interesting to take a different route on the way back. Someone at the hut had mentioned another track leading back down from the Morinsheiði plateau, towards Útigönguhöfði, with even more spectacular views on the way. It was also marked on the map I bought. It looked like a shorter route, so I figured I had plenty of margin left.
That turned out to be a little different from what I expected…
Lack of signposts
Halfway across the plateau there was a signpost pointing to the Útigönguhöfði route. The track went down the side and into broad mossy meadows. There were marker poles to indicate the route, but they became progressively fewer and far between as I walked further towards the humongous big mountain rising up in front of me.
How not to get lost on Útigönguhöfði mountain
I expected that the track would weave around this mountain and back down the valley the other way. It couldn’t possibly be going over it. The steepness was just too intimidating, and it looked nearly impossible to actually go over there.
At some point, I lost track of the poles and couldn’t see the next one. I wandered around for a bit towards the side of the valley, hoping to see a reassuring pole to confirm that I’m going in the right direction. It was nearly 6 o’clock, less than 2 hours before sunset, and I was still way out in the wilderness. There wasn’t a pole to be seen anywhere. So I walked back up the hill again to find the previous pole, and scanned the surroundings carefully for the next.
Then I finally spotted it. It was halfway up the Útigönguhöfði mountain.
Can you see the marker pole on Útigönguhöfði…?!
Nooo! You have got to be kidding me!
A slight panic was starting to take hold.
It was too late to go back up the Morinsheiði plateau again and continue on the conventional route. It would still take another 3 hours to go that way. There was no other choice than to crawl my way up this humongous big & frightfully steep mountain, hoping to make it back down the other side before it got completely dark. Luckily there’s a long twilight zone in Iceland. After the sun has set, darkness moves in slowly, and there will be at least another hour before it gets completely dark.
Running out of battery
I checked my phone and saw that I only had 4% of battery left. That might be a bit of a problem if I had to call 112 in case of getting stuck on the mountain in total darkness.
View back down from the top of Útigönguhöfði, its terrifying shadow looming over the valley.
Terrifying & terrific views
So I crawled up the Útigönguhöfði mountain like an animal, while the sunlight was already leaving the valley behind me at an alarming rate. And I made it to the top just in time to see a breathtakingly magical sunset on the other side, lighting up a mind-boggling array of gorges in translucent shades.
From here, the track became easier to follow. At least there were chains & ropes on the way down, and you could actually see where the path was going on this side. There was even a signpost on the top!
Back just in time
I got back to the Básar hut just before it really got too dark – after nearly 12 hours of walking up and down two great big mountains. It might not have been the most logical decision to choose an obscure path two hours before sunset… But it was worth it in the end!
(c) Nancy Claus – Wilderness Coffee & Natural High
This is one of the top-5 reader’s favourites of 2019, 2020 and 2022.
Magical sunset over Thórsmörk.
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The queen of Thórsmörk (in the background. 😉 )
Last update: 27 February 2023
First published: 18 November 2018
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Video – The fabled valley of Thórsmörk
The fantastic surround views from the top of Útigönguhöfði.
More to explore & discover
Kerlingarfjöll – Steaming valleys and surreal landscapes
The zen of Stafsnes – The hidden beach
Mount Titlis – Alpine meadows & beautiful mountain views
El Hierro – A volcanic hotspot underneath the sea
The Vierdaagse of Nijmegen – Four days of long-distance trials & tribulations
6 thoughts on “Thórsmörk – Útigönguhöfði and Hvannárgil canyon”
I have read tons of articles about Iceland (and visited 3 times!), but none are as great as your posts. Yours are truly fantastic. Thank you! I’d like to ask you a question. We will spend 2 full days in Thorsmork in August (staying overnight) and we are avid hikers. Assuming good weather. Which two hikes would you suggest? I was thinking 1- Rjupnafell, and not sure if to do 2- either the up on Útigönguhöfði and down on Fimmvörðuháls or down through the canyon trail. Any suggestions are greatly appreciated – even suggesting a totally different route. Thank you.
Hello Veronica, thank you so much for your compliment, I really appreciate it 🙂 Yes, it can be a bit difficult to choose what loop to do from Útitgönguhöfði… they are both stunning!
The Fimmvörðuháls path is more established and easier to follow than the canyon path. Especially the far end of Hvannárgil, when you are sliding down into the canyon from Heljarkambur ridge, is quite rough in the beginning. There are also less people hiking in Hvannárgil canyon than on the Fimmvörðuháls track. I would say, see how it goes after you’ve gone over Útitgönguhöfði and what you feel like once you get up to Morinsheiði. And decide at the crossroad which path you will take on the way down, depending on the weather and the time of day. Alternatively, you can peek into the canyon, or do a side-track into it, from the Votupallar lookout point just before you go up to Útigönguhöfði. This way you can still see a bit of the canyon if you decide to take the Fimmvörðuháls track.
Did you see my article about the new Fagradalsfjall volcano on Reykjanes peninsula? It’s not erupting at the moment, but could still go off again at any time. But even if it stays quiet, the area around it with its extensive lava fields is an incredible sight to see. It’s about 40 minutes drive from the airport and you can find extensive information & tips in the article.
I’d love to know what path you decide to do when you get there!
I received this comment & question by email from Greg: ‘Thank you so much for all the information you have shared. It is amazing what you have done and I hope to follow in your footsteps. Would you have a picture of the trail map to THÓRSMÖRK. I am looking to do the same hike as you from Basar to Útigönguhöfði and see the Hvannárgil canyon, but I do not want to do the entire circuit. I am looking for a way to see the canyon from above and then turning around and returning to Basar. Would you be able to provide any more information because I can not find any trail maps. Thank you for all that you do.’
Here’s the reply I sent, so others with similar questions can read this too 🙂 ‘Hello Greg, thanks for your message! I have added a picture of the hiking routes around Útigönguhöfði to the blog article because of your question. You will see these type of maps on information boards at the huts in Thórsmörk. They also sell detailed maps with all the hiking routes, which are very useful if you’re planning to do more walks.
You don’t need to do the entire circuit to see the Hvannárgil canyon from above (as on the picture in my article). Just follow the signposts from the Básar hut towards Útigönguhöfði until you reach a point called Votupallar. That’s where you will have those amazing views. There’s also another marked track from Básar to the lower end of Hvannárgil canyon.
Have a great time in Iceland and Thórsmörk!’
P.S.: If you plan to see the volcano that’s erupting in Reykjanes at the moment, check out my recent article about Fagradalsfjall for practical information, maps, videos, and of course lots of pictures.
I received these questions by email from Irmgard from Germany: ‘Dear Nancy, I happened to find your report Thórsmörk – Útigönguhöfði and Hvannárgil Canyon and absolutely loved it. However, I think our family (with two adult sons) is not quite as sportsy as you are. My questions: Where can we find this stunning view into the lower Hvannárgil canyon? What is the best way to see this view if we are not prepared for some serious crawling up the rocks or make it up (or down) Útigönguhöfði?
We have booked the bus to arrive in Basar at 11:15 and we can leave from Volcano Huts Husadalur at 18:00 or from Basar at 18:30. We have around 6 to 6,5 hours for the hike. Any comments and suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thank you so very much in advance! Kind regards, Irmgard.’
These are my suggestions, so other families with similar questions can read this too 🙂 ‘Hi Irmgard, thank you for your lovely mail and for reaching out. I’m glad you enjoyed my blog post about Útigönguhöfði . And yes, those views into the Hvannárgil canyon are indeed stunning…
The view on the picture is on the side of the canyon, near a lookout point called Votupallar. This is the plateau in front of Útigönguhöfði. You don’t need to scramble up the mountain itself to see it. The best way to reach it is to take the path from Básar huts, and follow the direction of Útigönguhöfði. Both paths to Útigönguhöfði are leading to Votupallar. From there, you take the path to the right, towards the canyon. It’s easy to see, because the other path goes right up towards Útigönguhöfði.
If you have 6,5 hours to spend in Thórsmörk you will have enough time to do this walk and return to Básar huts. It takes roughly another hour to walk from Básar to Volcano Huts across the bridge over the Krossá river. I would only do that if you have enough time left to catch the bus from there. Otherwise I’d recommend to take it from Básar, so you have more time to spend in this area. It’s very easy to get distracted by all those views! Thórsmörk is such a beautiful place, it’s worth spending a few nights there if you have the chance.
Be sure to leave a comment on the blog when you have done the walk. I’d love to know how you liked it.’
I have also updated the article with extra information based on Irmgard’s questions.