Bacon or chocolate? A pint of craft beer or a wedge of aged gouda? The family dog or cat?
Picking my favorite hike destination is just as hard. I can narrow it down to two:
The stretch of the Laugavegur trail (which the Best Muffin Blog calls the “oh wow” hike) that goes from Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnusker in the remote highlands of Iceland. I once described the hike as a rip in the space-time continuum, especially in the perpetual gray of summer. The Technicolor mountains, volcanic fumaroles, lava plus and ash-dusted snow just adds to it.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing. If I overhear any so-called “traveler” blather about how everything worth seeing in New Zealand is in the South Island, I stop listening. Tongariro is why. From a barren, blasted volcanic hellscape to verdant rain forests, you’ll see some incredible stuff. Oh, and my ratings are for those who take the side trip up Mount Ngauruhoe. It’s just an incredible hike destination.
Some might find this a travesty, but the Bessegen trail in Norway only gets honorable mention. Is it beautiful? Yes. But it lacks the volcanic features that boggle my mind. Sorry, Norwegians. I love Bessegen. Hell, I love all of Jotunheimen. But I have to draw the line somewhere.
If you’re not used to driving in Iceland, heading to Landmannalaugar in a rental car can be foolish. Odds of getting lost or stuck are pretty high. Tongariro, on the other hand, is easy to find. Paved roads surround it.
Both hike destinations have great huts along the way if you feel like making a multi-day hike. Landmannalaugar also has a nice little snack bus, shower-equipped bathrooms and hot springs.
A genuine threat to your safety can add flavor to a hike. In Landmannalaugar, weather is a threat. In the 90s, a freak summer blizzard – yes, you read that right – killed a young hiker from Israel. When you gaze into Nguaruhoe’s crater, one false step could land you next to Frodo’s ring.
Landmannalaugar demands a sure-footed approach, especially if you’re carrying a pack. There’s also a lot of wind, and the trail seems to wind into nothing … this plays with your mental state something fierce. There are also some steep pitches. The Devil’s Staircase and the scramble up the scree slope of Nguaruhoe will make your heart race. Once you’re past there, it’s all smooth sailing, though. But the length starts to wear on you, especially if you’re making a beeline for the bus at the rain forest side.
There were lots of problems with the Ridley Scott flick Prometheus. Scenery wasn’t one of them. The flyover scene in the beginning features some of my favorite bits of the hike from Landmannalaugar. If you’re more Hobbit-inclined, you’ll recognize Tongariro for two things: Nguaruhoe got a CGI facelift to become Mt. Doom. And Mordor is none other than the Rangipo Desert. You’ll hike through a portion of it.
Every step of the Laugavegur hike from Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnusker is barren. Only a few lichens survive. The same is true of much of Tongariro, where lava and gas has scoured any chance of life gaining a foothold. But you’ll eventually descend into a rainforest. So you’ll have some variety. So does Tongariro win this round? No – because as you near Hrafntinnusker, the trail deals an ace that’s hard to beat: a sprawling plain of obsidian boulders. Look closely, and you’ll see huge chunks of the most glassy, glossy, jewel-quality obsidian you can imagine. I’ve never seen anything so weird and bewitching.
“It’s crowded out there,” the ranger at the trailhead told us. Yeah, there was a real traffic jam on the way to Hrafntinnusker. We saw at about 12 people on the 8-mile hike. Tongariro, on the other hand, is wall-to-wall. If you’re a people-person, this is your trail.
During the summer, 3 p.m and 3 a.m. in Landmannaluagar can look exactly alike. Time will seem to have no meaning, especially if it’s an overcast day. The sun is nearly invisible – enough filters through the clouds to let you see. But you’ll get little more. I love Tongariro’s scorched hostility and the steam rising from unseen vents in the cracked plains between volcanoes. But it still seems like Earth, just younger and more pissed off than your hometown.
Final Score: Landmannalaugar 5, Tongariro 3
Good matchup, then. Let me add, though – you’ll be the winner no matter which you choose.