The southern part of Iceland is a part of the country I really haven’t explored enough. I’m only familiar with the big touristy things around the area and was therefore curious to find out where I would end up when being told that my photographer and I were supposed to go hot spring hunting in some secret valley located right above the town Hveragerði. We met up with our guides at 9 am inside the Arctic Rafting shop at Laugavegur 11 and drank our morning coffee before jumping into a jeep and driving off. The driver headed south to the valley named, appropriately enough, Reykjadalur (Valley of Steam), which I had never heard of before – strange considering that this place is only a short trip away from the city but a great getaway from everyday life.
Reykjavík to Hveragerði is only about a half-hour drive. After passing through the small heart of Hveragerði, we made a turn at an intersection up an unmaintained, unpaved road, with all the proper hollows and bumps, characteristic of many Icelandic roads. Suddenly it came to an end and we parked at the small parking lot, located next to the river Varmá. Seeing that our jeep was the only car there I realised this area isn’t a crowded tourist spot – presumably because people don’t know it exists, our guide explained. In my opinion, this made the journey even more thrilling.
As we got out of the car the wind started blowing and the cold breeze gave me the chills. I really was unprepared for a hiking trip, wearing my Converse sneakers and a thin jacket. I felt like a silly city girl with no outdoor experience whatsoever. I would strongly recommend better equipment, but with no time to whine I borrowed a woollen cap and a pair of gloves and we set out for the Reykjadalur valley.
I was told it was a short and fairly easy hike, which would reach its peak at the naturally warm spring in Klambragil, where bathing is supposedly an unforgettable experience. The trail is called Rjúpnabrekkur (ptarmigan slopes), named so because of the winter population of ptarmigans in the area. The only living creatures in our path though were a couple of sheep walking around, feasting on the grass, which was turning green again after the cold and snowy winter months.
After about ten minutes of walking I realised to my dismay that I am in terrible physical shape. I thought my lungs would burst, my knees started shaking and I was just waiting to fall flat on my face, letting the group move on without me. The small trail seemed endless, and the headwind wasn’t helping. At that point the idea of a hot spring hunt far away in the valley didn’t sound very amusing. But to my surprise, as we ascended I gained strength and became more light-footed, and started enjoying the view, while our guides informed us about this astonishing area.
The Reykjadalur valley is part of the Hengill area, but the 800m volcano Hengill is a central volcano, providing much of the geothermal heat in its surroundings, making the area extremely colourful with patches of silicon and sulphur. The landscape is symptomatic of this, with transfigured rocks, hot springs, warm rivulets and steam – a lot of steam. The view over Reykjadalsá in the middle of Djúpagil gorge, with its steep, rocky mountains on both sides and a waterfall (which to our guide’s knowledge bears no name) is just spectacular. Standing on the edge of the cliff isn’t a wise choice for those afraid of heights but the impression of looking down on the seemingly untouched nature and the amazing scenery below was like being on top of the world.
When the hike was almost half-finished we came across a small shallow river, which we had to pass by jumping on some small rocks and praying not to slip. The group was getting thirsty, and having nothing to drink, one of our guides whipped out a plastic bottle from her bag and filled it with water from the river. Being able to drink ice-cold water from a river in the middle of nowhere is one of the things I cherish so much about Iceland, enjoy it while it lasts: with all the aluminium factories being planned in Iceland’s landscape, no one really knows when these small rivers will cease to exist.
Reykjadalur valley truly lives up to its name. As we reached the heart of it, smoke and steam soared from the hills as from the earth right at our feet and this distinctive smell, typical of thermal areas, welcomed us. Now our hot spring hunt started for real. Loads of small hot springs appeared all around us and I was almost hypnotised while staring down at the bubbling water. For quite a while we just stayed there, trying to figure out how hot the springs really were and how long it would take us to bake bread or boil an egg in the water. No clear answers came from the speculation so one of our guides started looking for her favourite mud pot, which turned out to be the smallest one around. Often the size really doesn’t matter and I understood her affection while looking down into the grey and muddy hole, which bubbled with strange noises and seemed and sounded as if it were puking. We threw some small rocks into it, which vanished rapidly, melted and turned into grey mud. Once bored with that activity we moved on.
For those planning to hike in Reykjadalur it is worth mentioning that this area can be dangerous if you aren’t careful. The water in the hot springs can reach temperatures of 120° Celsius, with no ropes or barriers keeping hikers a good distance from the boiling water. It’s easy to get burned if you aren’t looking where you’re walking. No warning signs have been put up in the area; the only cautionary sign we saw was an inconspicuous sign marked “Danger” located in a weird place that didn’t indicate clearly which direction it referred to. Bear in mind that although these hot springs aren’t as big as the mighty Geysir, they can do serious harm if you step too close. Here the forces of nature are more evident than in many places you will come across. Icelandic nature isn’t always friendly to nosy travellers.
At this point the walking trail became a little bit muddy and swampy, at which time I started cursing my sneakers for real, as they rapidly changed colour, turning from black to brown. Fortunately no major disasters occurred while exploring the hot springs.
As my feet were getting cold and wet I was thrilled when our guide pointed to a small rivulet, only metres away, where we were supposed to go bathing. The place is located right beneath a conflux where the cold river Reykjadalsá unites with the boiling hot water creating a warm spring with a temperature similar to the hot tubs you’ll find in the swimming pools around the country. The conflux could be described as a set of natural mixing taps, which keep the bath warm year-round, creating a luxury Jacuzzi where hikers can relax and gain strength before heading back. Unfortunately I forgot my bathing suit at home, so while our guides whipped their clothes off and jumped into the warm spring, I sat on the side and dipped my toes into the water instead. As we sat there the sun suddenly appeared, warming us up while we ate our lunch, which consisted of hot chocolate and Icelandic “harðfiskur” (dried cod). A weird but tasty combination. My guides kept telling me how cosy and amazing it felt relaxing in the Jacuzzi, and from the expression on their faces I didn’t doubt it for a second. As the time passed, my toes were starting to look like ten little raisins. It was time to head back to civilisation.
The hike back took a much shorter time, the trail descending and the wind not blowing as heavily. Suddenly we were looking down at highway nr. 1 and the jeep became evident. Our time in nature, far from the bustling city, had come to an end, and as bad as I had felt in the beginning of the journey, I really wanted nothing more than to keep on walking in the peacefulness.
After a brief stop for refreshments at the small shop Mæran in Hveragerði, we returned to Reykjavík around 2 am. A little bit tired and dazed from all the clean air, I felt invigorated and relaxed, already planning another trip with my friends to this truly hidden treasure. Next time my bathing suit will surely be the first thing I pack.
Tour provided by Arctic Rafting, www.arcticrafting.is