Most trips to Iceland begin and end in Reykjavik, the capital city and home to the nation’s only international airport. However, far fewer travelers make it to one of the country’s hidden gems less than an hour’s drive east of the capital. The Reykjadalur valley (“steam valley”) is home to picturesque views and rolling trails. There are fascinating geothermal terrains and relaxing hot springs. Reykjadalur is a worthy addition to your itinerary.
The Reykjadalur valley is located within the larger Hengill geothermal area. This area saw its last volcanic eruption around 2,000 years ago. However, geothermal activity here remains high. So high that it provides most of the hot water and electric power for the 300,000-plus residents of Reykjavik.
Getting to the Reykjadalur Valley
By car, take the Ring Road toward Hveragerdi, the closest town to the springs. At the town’s main roundabout, take Breidamörk north and follow the signs to Reykjadalur.
At the end of the road, you’ll find a parking lot that will likely be quite full during the summer months. The trail and springs are quite popular among both locals and travelers. Near the parking lot, you’ll find public toilets and a small café called Dalakaffi. Here, you can fuel up before your hike, or relax with coffee and baked goods afterward.
From the parking lot, you’ll cross a footbridge and traverse a gravel path. This will take you up the Rjúpnabrekkur Ptarmigan slopes and back down into the steaming soil of the Reykjadalur valley. The trail is about 3.5 kilometers (just over two miles) with an elevation gain of around 200 meters. For this reason, it’s well-suited to hikers of all experience levels.
The trail can get narrow at several points, though, and may be slippery if the weather is damp. It’s crucial to use appropriate caution. The distance typically takes most people less than an hour to complete. However, you’ll probably want to factor in additional time for stopping to admire the stunning scenery and take photos.
Hiking the Trail
As you hike the first section of the trail, look to your left to see a handful of small hot springs and mud pools, as well as a prominent borehole known as Drottningarhola (“Queen’s borehole”). Resist the temptation to leave the main path to explore. Remember, hikers are required to remain on marked trails to prevent damage to the area’s unspoiled natural beauty. Leaving the trail also puts you at risk for stepping into a concealed mud pool simmering just below the surface and sustaining serious injury.
As you navigate the trail, you may notice evidence of recent equine activity. You may even see a group of visitors enjoying the view via horseback, as several companies offer riding tours of Reykjadalur.
About two kilometers into the hike, to your left you’ll notice the majestic Djúpagil canyon and Djúpagilsfoss waterfall flowing through its depths. Surrounding the canyon are lush green fields of moss. There is also steam rising from the earth, and colorful peaks dotting the landscape. The sparkling surface of the Atlantic Ocean is visible in the distance.
Just beyond this point, you’ll enter the most geothermally active area along the trail. Remember to use caution and stay on the marked path to prevent accidental injury. As you walk, you’ll see pools of burping, bubbling mud. You’ll also see the acidic waters of the boiling hot springs, and clouds of hot steam filling the air. Just ahead lies the geothermal river, where the temperature is moderate enough for a relaxing hot soak year-round.
Testing the Waters
The river is relatively shallow, ranging from one to two feet deep in most spots. Its temperature may vary depending on proximity to underground “hot spots,”. So, if it isn’t to your liking in one location, try moving a few dozen feet in a different direction. The higher you go, the hotter the water will be. It can be dangerously hot at its highest points, so always test it with your hand before submerging yourself.
Note that the bathing area is extremely rustic, with no proper changing facilities. There are a few folding screens to use for cover, but in general, plan on leaving your modesty in the parking lot. Be sure to pack a dry bag to keep your clothes protected from any sudden rain showers that may pop up while you’re in the river.
As you soak in the river’s restorative depths, don’t miss the lovely scenery around you. Geothermal activity allows colorful vegetation to flourish in this area. Brilliant hues of moss and other flora thrive in and around the river. You’re also likely to see sheep wandering along the river banks, enjoying the peaceful setting.
Extending Your Journey
Once you’ve finished bathing in the warm water, you can go back the way you came or keep going along Klambragil canyon just above the river. Klambragil is the origination point of the hot springs and boasts plenty of its own natural wonders, including fumaroles, mud pools and boiling hot springs that can even be used to cook an egg.
If you continue up the narrow trail, you’ll be rewarded with a panoramic view of the Reykjadalur valley. From there, ambitious hikers can continue to Thingvallavatn Lake; if you’re ready to call it a day, marked routes will take you back to the trailhead.
Consider reserving a few hours before or after your hot springs hike to explore the charming town of Hveragerdi, or “the blossoming town.” Hveragerdi is home to a significant concentration of the nation’s greenhouses, where a surprisingly wide variety of fruits, vegetables and flowers—including bananas and papayas—are grown.
Fittingly, this hamlet of about 2,000 residents is also the location of the Icelandic Horticulture College, part of the Agricultural University of Iceland. Fields of brightly-colored wildflowers flank rustic wooden houses, and the ever-present clouds of steam rising from the ground are a visible reminder of the abundant geothermal energy that powers the town.
Another interesting attraction commemorates the powerful earthquake that shook southern Iceland in May 2008. The magnitude 6.3 quake’s epicenter was located just over a mile from Hveragerdi, and many local homes, businesses and other structures sustained major damage. The “Quake 2008” exhibit, housed at the Sunnumörk shopping center, includes fascinating photos as well as an earthquake simulator.
Where to Stay
If you decide to stay in the area overnight—perhaps to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights—you have several good options for lodging:
- Hveragerdi Campsite: Open year-round, this centrally located campsite is a short walk to the public pool in Laugaskard and offers a wide range of amenities, including showers, toilets, laundry facilities and cooking facilities.
- Hot Springs Hostel: Open only during the summer season, this guest house offers shared and single dorm-style rooms, as well as an on-site restaurant and spa.
- Hotel Örk: Choose from 76 twin rooms and nine deluxe rooms, each with its own private bathroom, minibar, television and phone; the hotel also operates an outdoor swimming pool with water slide, hot tubs and a geothermal sauna.
- Frost and Fire Hotel: Nestled along the banks of the Varmá River, this small guesthouse is open year-round, welcoming visitors to its 14 comfortable double rooms with full bath facilities, television and internet connection. Relax in the hotel’s pool, sauna and hot tubs as you enjoy the riverfront views.
Tips for Your Trip: Planning Ahead
- Duration: The Reykjadalur valley is an ideal day trip from Reykjavik. Give yourself an hour to get to the trailhead, at least three to four hours for the hike and swimming and an hour to get back to the capital. Add time if you plan to linger in Hveragerdi or extend your hike beyond the valley.
- Clothing: Wear sturdy hiking shoes and take warm and waterproof layers in case an unexpected storm pops up, as is often the case in Iceland. Be sure to bring a swimsuit and towels for your dip in the river.
- Food: You’ll expend significant energy hiking and swimming, so pack snacks like trail mix or jerky along with plenty of water. You can also stop at the Dalakaffi café before or after your journey or visit one of the restaurants or bakeries in Hveragerdi.
- Amenities: Despite its popularity, Reykjadalur is still quite primitive, with no bathroom or changing facilities available along the trail. Try to take care of business in the village or at the café at the trailhead, but if you must stop along the way, remember not to leave anything behind that would spoil the pristine nature of this national treasure.
- Cost: There’s no entry fee for the trail or the springs, and parking is free, so the only costs you’ll need to cover are food and possibly lodging.