Thórsmörk – Útigönguhöfði and Hvannárgil canyon

Thórsmörk – Útigönguhöfði and Hvannárgil canyon

Last update: 18 June 2020

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 with unpronouncable names. The most prominent being 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 Þórsmörk. 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.

Útigönguhöfði, Thórsmörk, Iceland
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 Þórsmörk 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.

View from Útigönguhöfði over the Hvannárgil canyon, Thórsmörk, Iceland

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!

Morinsheiði plateau, hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland
The giant Morinsheiði plateau.

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 connect on the Morinsheiði plateau above Þórsmörk.

Básar hut, Þórsmörk, Iceland

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.

Básar signposts, hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland

It takes about 2 hours to walk from Básar 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.

Útigönguhöfði hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland.
The path up Útigönguhöfði.

Looking down Útigönguhöfði, hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland
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, hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland
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 Þórsmörk.

View into the valley of Thórsmörk, hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland
View from the top into the valley of Þórsmörk.

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 on the top of Útigönguhöfði, Þórsmörk, Iceland

Daunting descent

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 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.

Gravel path down Ütigönguhöfði, hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland
The rollercoaster views down the slope

Looking down the slope of Útigönguhöfði, Þórsmörk, Iceland
Path at the top of Útigönguhöfði.

Path going down Útigönguhöfði, hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland

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, it will slide from underneath you.

Bone-thin marker sticks, Útigönguhöfði hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland

The bone-thin marker sticks on this side can be difficult to spot…

Bone-thin marker sticks, Útigönguhöfði hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland

Morinsheiði plateau

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! 😉

Heljakambur ridge, Fimmvörðuháls hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland
Heljakambur, 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.

Signpost, Morinsheiði, Fimmvörðuháls hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland

Hell’s Ridge

The name of the ridge doesn’t do it justice. It’s called Heljakambur – 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 eruption of 2010.

View from Heljakambur ridge, Fimmvörðuháls, hiking trail, Þórsmörk, IcelandHeljakambur ridge and Hrunagil canyon.

The track into Hvannárgil canyon

To the right of Heljakambur ridge the track descends into the convoluted canyon of Hvannárgil. And down more gravelly slopes again.

Hvannárgil canyon, hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland

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, Hvannárgil canyon, hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland
Troll face watching over Hvannárgil canyon.

Giant boulder, Hvannárgil canyon, hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland
Giant boulders & glacial streams.

Hvannárgil canyon path, Þórsmörk, Iceland

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. The walk inside the canyon from Morinsheiði to Votupallar takes about 2 hours, with stunning views from one end to the other.

Útigönguhöfði and Hvannárgil canyon, hiking trail, Thórsmörk, Iceland
Hvannárgil canyon path.

The canyon floor, and tiny droplets on the blueberry plants.

Hvannárgil canyon, hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland
Glacial streams flowing through a rocky gateway.

Going up the canyon ridge again.

Hvannárgil canyon, upper path, Þórsmörk, Iceland.

Stunning view into the lower Hvannárgil canyon.View into the lower Hvannárgil canyon, hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland

From Votupallar it’s another hour’s walk back to the Básar hut.

Thórsmörk valley, hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland

Wonky knees

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.

Fjallalæðas forming on the ridges, with Mount Rjúpnafell sticking out to the left.

Rjúpnafell and mountain ridges, Þórsmörk, Iceland

(*) Fjallalæða – the mountain equivalent of a dalalæða 😉

Útigönguhöfði and Hvannárgil canyon hiking map

This handy interactive map shows the hiking route I took from Básar up to Útigönguhöfði and Morinsheiði, and back down via the Hvannárgil canyon. You can also zoom in on the different sections of the track for more details.

Útigönguhöfði – the alternative route

For a complete surround view I also added the story about my first encounter with Útigönguhöfði. 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 had 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…

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.

Signpost on top of Útigönguhöfði mountain, Thórsmörk hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland

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 backtracked 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.

Útigönguhöfði mountain, Thórsmörk hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland

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.

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 from Útigönguhöfði mountain, Thórsmörk hiking trail, Þórsmörk, Iceland
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!

Magical sunset from Útigönguhöfði mountain into Hvannárgil canyon, Thórsmörk, Iceland

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

(c) Nancy Claus – Wilderness Coffee & Natural High

Útigönguhöfði, Þórsmörk, Iceland
The queen of Þórsmörk (in the background 😉 )

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The fantastic surround views from the top of Útigönguhöfði.

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