Fjallabak Nature Reserve
A wild and rugged mountainous region
The Fjallabak region takes its name from the numerous wild and rugged mountains with deeply incised valleys, which are found there. The topography of the Torfajökull, central volcano found within the Fjallabak Nature Reserve, is a direct result of the region being the largest rhyolite (liparite) area in Iceland and the largest geothermal area (after Grímsvötn in Vatnajökul). The Torfajökul central volcano is an active volcanic system, but is now in a declining fumarolic stage as exemplified by numerous fumaroles and hot springs. The hot pools at Landmannalaugar are but one of many manifestations of geothermal activity in the area, which also tends to alter the minerals in the rocks, causing the beautiful colour variations from red and yellow to blue and green, a good example being Brennisteinsalda. Geologists believe that the Torfajökull central volcano is a caldera, the rim being Háalda, Suđurnámur, Norđur Barmur, Torfajökull, Kaldaklofsfjöll and Ljósártungur.
The bedrock of the Fjallabak Nature Reserve dates back 8-10 million years. At that time the area was on the Reykjanes – Langjökull ridge rift zone. The volcano has been most productive during the last 2 million years, that is during the last Ice Age Interglacial rhyolite lava (in Brandsgil) and sub-glacial rhyolites (erupted under ice/water, examples being Bláhnúkur and Brennisteinsalda are characteristic formations in the area. To the north of the Torfajökull region sub-glacial volcanic activity produced the hyaloclastite (móberg) mountains, such as Lođmundur and Mógilshöfđar.
Volcanic activity in recent times (last 10.000 years) has been restricted to a few northeast – southwest fissures, the most recent one, the Veiđivötn fissure from 1480, formed Laugahraun (by the hut at Landmannalaugar), Námshraun, Norđurnámshraun, Ljótipollur and other craters which extend 30 km, further to the north Eruptions in the area tend to be explosive and occur every 500 – 800 years, previous known eruptions being around A. D 150 and 900.
The average temperature in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve is probably 0-1 °C. Temperatures between 5-14 °C may be expected in July and August, and in the winter the average temperature is about –6 °C. Mountain areas have a tendency to alter the general weather situation, and the Torfajökull Mountains are no exception. The most important local weather variations being; lowering of temperatures, increases in wind speed, local changes in wind direction, production of fog and mist, increased likelihood of rain and snow. As a rough guide, winds from the south to southeast rend to bring rain and bad weather whereas north to northeast winds usually bring cold but finer weather. Always be prepared for sudden and unexpected variations – they are frequent.
Because of the cold climate in the Nature Reserve the vegetation’s growing period is only about two moths every year and the formation of soil very slow. The soil is deficient in fully rotted and weathered minerals and is therefore rough and incoherent, furthermore wind and water transport is easily. Sandstorms, common in large parts of the area, as well as volcanic eruptions cover the Nature Reserve with lava and ash. If all these conditions are born in mind, together with the region being heavily grazed through the years it does not come as a surprise that vegetation is scarce in the Nature Reserve. Continuous vegetation cover is rather small and the largest and greenest vegetated areas are close to rivers and lakes in the Kýlingar area which is a continuous fenland with pools and ponds and various marsh plants. The acidic rhyolite bedrock is largely unvegetated, but the hyaloclastite formations are often clothed in moss top to bottom.
About 150 types of flowering plants, ferns and allies have been distinguished. Least willow is common on dry sands and lava, and cotton grass in marshes. Lowland vegetation is found nest to the geothermal area at Landmannalaugar with common sedge widespread and marsh cinquefoil pleasing the eye.
Lakes are relatively isolated worlds. Algae and vascular plants are primary producers. Primary production is slow in cold water and restricts the number of living beings, which thrive there. The lakes in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve are cold mountain lakes. Besides plants there are various small animals and trout. Brown trout runs from Tungnaá River into Kýlingar and the lake Kirkjufellsvatn. As far as men remember brown trout has always been in Ljótipollur and the lake Frostastađavatn. After 1970 Arctic char (trout) has been put into other lakes in the area, which they have in most cases increased to the extent that today there are multitudes of small trout’s, which are unable to grow because of the shortage of food.
Bird life is sparse as in other parts of the highlands. Snow buntings are the most common, and on lakes the great northern diver, whooper swans, and the red-necked phalarope can be seen. The great northern diver nests by Frostastađavatn and Kirkjufellsvatn. The harlequin duck is occasionally seen on Jökulgilskvísl river and has been known to nest in the area.
The old horse track, Landmannaleiđ, lying between the settlements of Land and Skaftártunga parishes goes through the Fjallabak Nature Reserve. However the most frequently used road into the Nature Reserve is the route (F22) from Sigalda which joins the old Landmannaleiđ (marked Dómadalsleiđ on road signs) by Frostastađavatn. Both roads F22 and Landmannaleiđ have special dangers: gravel and rough surfaces, blind corners and unbridged rivers. These roads are only passable in July and August, due to snow and mud. The road between Landmannalaugar and Eldgjá is only recommended for four-wheel-drive vehicles, because of the many unbridged rivers and possible quicksand. Never attempt to cross a river which you cannot wade across and always drive slowly (in first gear), but firmly. Never attempt to drive along a track which in not marked on the map overleaf. Bear in mind that no petrol, oil and other provisions can be obtained in the Nature Reserve. Finally remember that it is illegal to drive or park cars off-road.
The Fjallabak Nature Reserve is well suited for walking. There are numerous opportunities for short and long hikes, some of which are marked on the map. The most popular hikes are to the summit of Bláhnúkur 940 m. (1-2 hours), and to the fumaroles by Brennisteinsalda 855 m. (1-2 hours). Other interesting hikes include Háalda 1089 m. (4-6 hours), around Frostastađavatn (2-3 hours), Suđurnámur 951 m. (1 hour) and Brandsgil (1-2 hours).
When walking please keep the following in mind. Use a good map and keep to the footpaths, as it is easy to get lost. Good footwear is essential and even in summer warm clothes are necessary on the hilltops. Exposure can be fatal to those inadequately equipped for sudden change in the weather, or overtaken be fatigue. Always leave word of where you are going and if in trouble contact the rangers at Landmannalaugar. Remember that all rock in the Nature Reserve is unsuitable for climbing and the best routes follow ridges or valley bottoms. Pleas do not tred on hot springs or boiling ground, as it can be soft and extremely dangerous. It is forbidden to throw stones or other objects into hot springs or pits. In most cases detour round vegetated areas, as they are marshy and are easily spoiled.
The hot springs at Landmannalaugar are suitable for swimming. Be careful not to damage the vegetation by the pool and it is forbidden to tear mud from their banks. Please do not take glass items into the pools and soap should only be used down by the dam. A word of warning bathing in the hot mud pool is not recommended for hygienic reasons.
There are campsites within the Reserve in Landmannalaugar, Landmannahellir, Hrafntinnusker and at Sólvangur. The Touring Club of Iceland has huts in Landmannalaugar and Hrafntinnusker. Hellismenn have a hut by Landmannahellir. All huts are supervised during the summer.
Careful observation is likely to be well rewarded in many parts of the Nature Reserve. The Nature Reserve was established to preserve valuable habitats, species and geological formations, so it is usually best left undisturbed by visitors; for the peace and the challenge that “untamed” landscape gives us; and as a haven for wildlife and vegetation.
Today the Nature Reserve is not unaffected by grazing, road building, tourism and power lines. Sheep grazing and fishing dates back many years. In 1841 the Rev. Jón Torfason from Stóruvellir wrote in his parish book that fishing and grazing in the Landmannapastures was less than it had been for centuries. However the area, as then, is still grazed and 2000 sheep graze now in the Nature Reserve during the summer months. Landmannahellir and Landmannalaugar are the main centres when the farmers collect their flock in the beginning of September.
The Fjallabak Nature Reserve was established in 1979. The Nature reserve is 47.000 hectares and is over 500 meters above see level. The land is mountainous, sculptured by volcanoes and geothermal activity, covered by lavas, sands, rivers and lakes. The objective of Nature Reserve is to protect natural features so that forthcoming generations will have the opportunity to enjoy them as we do today. In order to achieve this the country code of conduct is enforced to prevent damage to nature and to the appearance of the land. The desolate wilderness and tranquillity are the main characteristics of the Fjallabak Nature Reserve, which thousands of travellers enjoy every year. Guests in the area are reminded to abide by the code of the Nature Reserve so as to conserve its natural features and to support recreation in this popular area for the enjoyment of future generations as our own.