The bus to Hveragerði rumbles to life in Mjódd bus station, gliding out into the sparse mid-afternoon traffic and cruising quickly through the outskirts of Reykjavík. The tree-lined streets quickly give way to red craters and wide lava plains, their mossy crags casting long shadows in the low autumn sun. To our left, vast plumes of white steam gush upwards up from the Hellisheiði power plant, blotting out the Hengill volcano in the distance; and to our right, the peak of Skálafell vanishes into the hazy clouds.
It’s only a forty minute bus ride, but as we descend from the Hellisheiði mountain pass, the city already feels a world away. The small town of Hveragerði, population 2,333, is located in a highly active geothermal valley with jets of steam billowing from the surrounding mountains, making the whole area come to life with verdant greenery. This abundant natural resource has also been put to practical use—the hot spring water and cheap geothermal electricity provide heat and light to long terraces of greenhouses that produce fresh vegetables and flowers all year round. At night, the greenhouses glow warmly, giving the town a homey feel.
We’re the only people who disembark the bus at Hvergerði’s Shell gas station. As the bus rumbles off southwards towards Selfoss, Vík and Höfn, we take in our surroundings amidst the spitting rain. Some nearby ruins, with rough grass sprouting through the cracked concrete slabs beneath, stand coated in graffiti . Several nondescript industrial units line the street, their flapping flags signalling car workshops and delivery depots. Hveragerði, it seems, is not the best at first impressions.
This changes quickly as we wander the town. Mixed in amongst some charming, colourful residential streets there are several tucked-away cafés, an ice cream parlour, a pizzeria and alehouse, an impressive contemporary art gallery with several airy spaces, and a local fishmonger that serves piping hot fish and chips. Like many small Icelandic towns, there’s much more to Hveragerði than first meets the eye.
Our accommodation for the coming two nights, Hotel Örk, is a hulking white hotel that sits just a few hundred metres from Route One. Passing through the smart lobby, we find a comfortable breakfast room with a view of the purple mountains, and an airy bar and restaurant that overlooks a private pool, complete with water slide, hot pots and sauna. As the night draws in we eat a delicious meal of langoustine, lamb, and local vegetables, washed down with some well mixed and well priced cocktails. We turn in satisfied, and excited for the morning.
Ochre and umber
Hveragerði is perhaps most famous for the Reykjadalur (“Smoky Valley”) hiking route, which has, in recent years, gone from being a little-known sheep trail to the star attraction of the area. Beginning a forty minute walk from the town centre, the well maintained and clearly marked hiking route ascends gently at first, passing several vivid cauldrons of furiously bubbling mud and some bright blue fumaroles belching forth columns of pungent steam.
The route soon steepens, climbing rapidly into a dusty mountain pass that yields spectacular views of the distant glittering sea, crossing deep, waterfall-strewn valleys. The ochre and umber scree slopes glow in the afternoon sun, set off by the maroon, orange and purple tones as the landscape shifts into a vivid autumn palette.
The smoky river
On the other side of the mountain lies Reykjadalur, where a hot geothermal river meanders down the valley. As luck would have it, in some places the water is perfect bathing temperature. We stride up the riverbank, crossing foot bridges, picking berries, filling our bottles in a freshwater stream, and passing through clouds of sulphurous steam before arriving at the bathing place.
A few years ago, bathers at Reykjadalur would hastily strip on the muddy bank and hop into the gently flowing river, usually with a cooler full of beer within arm’s reach. Recent improvements mean there’s now a wooden boardwalk that lines each bank of the river at the most temperate spot, with simple changing stations, steps down into the water, and small rocky dams that create separate pools every few metres to accommodate more people.
Reykjadalur’s previous wild and untouched charm has been altered by the introduction of the manmade facilities, but once we slip into the water, any such concerns are quickly forgotten. We drift away and let the hot, burbling river knead the knots out of our tired muscles. Spells of drizzle and sunlight come and go, with the churning clouds and blue skies silhouetting the towering peaks that line the valley. Bathing at Reykjadalur is a divine way to spend some time absorbed in the Icelandic wilderness.
Several hours pass quickly, and it’s only when the light dims and evening closes in that we finally pull ourselves back onto land. We dry off in the fresh mountain air and start back towards Hveragerði with a smile on our faces and a spring in our step.