Heat In The Highlands: A Road Trip To The Hot Springs Of Kjölur

Heat In The Highlands: A Road Trip To The Hot Springs Of Kjölur

Photos by
John Rogers & a rawlings

Note: Kjölur is a gravel road requiring a 4×4 vehicle

Iceland’s summer solstice is marked by 24 hours of sun above the horizon, making it possible to watch the sun circumnavigate the sky. This year, solstice lands on June 21st, a Friday, the perfect day to seek out a ritual to mark this pagan holiday. Where midsummer is celebrated with bonfires in other Nordic countries, we make ritual out of a pilgrimage to the natural geothermal fires in the heart of Iceland’s Kerlingarfjöll mountain range.

Unlike last year’s sixty straight days of rain, the start of this year’s summer begins with blue skies, sun, and temperatures in the teens. So much sun, in fact, that the Icelandic Civil Protection authorities declared a persistent drought in the west, warning to take care with human-made fires. With precipitous precipitation and fickle weather the norm, such a dry spell is cause for concern in the land of ice and fire.

The farmlands surrounding the Highlands in the southwest remain verdant despite the drought. As we approach the Highlands, the foliage of southwest Iceland thins to dwarf-birch scrubland, patches of moss, and the occasional stronghold of invasive Alaskan lupin. An early crop of cottongrass (“fífa,” in Icelandic, pronounced “fee-vah”) strains its white tufts in the breeze, and we break into an adapted chorus of Little Willie John’s “Fever”: “Fee-vah! In the morning, fee-vah all through the night!”

Orange dust balloon

When the last patch of lupin fades from sight, we know we have officially entered the volcanic desert of Iceland’s Highlands. Here, the lack of rain is palpable. Plumes of orange dust balloon behind every 4×4 driving the Kjölur trail.

Our ride adapts happily to the rough gravel F-road, chugging a decent 40-50 kph along the recently improved route. The road is only open during the summer months—and even then only to 4×4 vehicles—but often closes during winter.

Solstice marks time—24-hours of daylight, the longest day of the year. We pop arctic thyme foraged fresh from the desert to taste homonym.

Gods’ garden party

We arrive at Ásgarður—“The Gods’ Garden” in English, and the name of the old Ásatrú gods’ home. The Ásgarður valley cradles Kerlingarfjöll’s mountain resort, where a burbling river flows past the campsite flanked by a rhyolite sphinx. The resort has several good options for rest, including the campsite, charming A-frame chalets, and other newer accommodation buildings. A 45-minute hike up the valley offers a geothermal hot spring for those seeking a natural bath.

“From our bedroom windows, we see the glaciers Langjökull to the northwest and Hofsjökull to the northeast..”

We receive keys to La Plata, a charming and basic cabin overlooking the valley, its red paint weather-worn by rough seasons. What it lacks in facilities, it makes up for with views; from our bedroom windows, we see the glaciers Langjökull to the northwest and Hofsjökull to the northeast.

The resort bustles with visitors, including several transient international campers. A dozen American teenagers, aged 13 and 14, finish off their Moondance Adventures two-week journey through Iceland with the midnight sun, plokkfiskur, the Kjölur trail, and a game of hearts at Kerlingarfjöll. But the bulk of the visitors have arrived for a special event—a solstice wedding on the bank of the Ásgarðsá river.

A solstice ritual

After dinner, with the sun beaming as though mid-day, we set out for the geothermal wonders of Kerlingarfjöll. One of the largest geothermal areas in Europe, its hot springs and mud pools are magic incarnate. Rhyolite scree paints the rolling hills in orange and yellow hues. It is the ultimate solstice destination, and we arrive to find its carefully appointed boardwalks and hill hikes empty of other humans. The air fills with the acrid scent of sulphur, and we gulp in the odd smell—for we know it means geothermal is nearby.

We pick our way carefully, hurriedly down wood planks to the first sulphuric fumarole. Steam hisses from a vent, and water boils beneath the earth’s surface. We lay down by the phenomenon to angle our ears closer to the geothermal soundscape.

But we don’t linger for long. A bridge invites us over a chattering creek, lined with more steam vents and boiling masses. The boardwalk disappears and we step timidly along the trail over soft yellow ground. To our left is an expanse of sulphur crystals and boiling mud pools, each bubbling puddle a fascination for eye, ear, and nose. One hand laid on the yellow ground reveals geothermal heat beneath the surface on which we crouch. It’s a bewitching, dangerous path, and we learn its beauty with each tentative step.

“The hot springs and mud pools of Kerlingarfjöll are magic incarnate. It’s the ultimate solstice destination.”

Up and down hills we wander, watching the northwest sun play with clouds. The landscape shifts its warm colours with each dip of cloud shadow. Fumaroles and mud pools fill the slopes of the rhyolite hills. Time slides past us.

As the sun dips beneath a taller hill, we find the ideal site for ritual. On the nearby riverbank, work has begun to construct a geothermal bathing area. The hot spring’s boiling water slides into a freezing subarctic stream, mixing to a pleasing 37 degrees. We take off our hiking boots and wool socks, and slide our feet into a small waterfall. Water bubbles and gurgles over our toes as we make one wish at this solstice shift.

Warm ground, warm hearts

After a sumptuous sleep in La Plata, we awake to full sun and two glaciers. Our trusty steed gallops again over the rocky F-road of Kjölur as we wind our way north to the geothermal oasis of Hveravellir. This valley is marked by multiple small geysers and calcified rock formed from hot water flowing in thin bursts over years. Peculiar mounds of sulphur belch fumarole steam into the air. We’ve found yet another hot spot in Iceland’s vast inland desert. Each geyser boils a different rhythm, and we delight at the tiny eruptions spitting water from underground.

“Lava bubbles have cracked into knolls populated with flora.”

After meandering the boardwalk of Hveravellir, we hike into the surrounding lava field in search of circular a’a lava formations. Lava bubbles have cracked into knolls, populated with flora and great nesting grounds for rock ptarmigan. Upon cresting one knoll, we startle a ptarmigan into flight, shuddering loose a few downy feathers as it careens into the field, croaking with surprise.

Kjölur Highlands

The knoll itself is a haven for lichen and moss. We spot tea-cup lichen tiny enough to hold dew for a fairy’s drink. Reindeer lichen proliferates. Black lichen curls a witchy bouquet on basalt. The intimate witnessing activated by our geothermal walk extends to close encounters with these lava-field inhabitants. We are once again warmed by the abundance of curious lives who flourish in the heart of Iceland.

Read more articles about the Highlands here.

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