For all of the photos from this day, check out the photo blog here.
Picking up from before, the Easter vacation week was a good one, trip-wise, for Mark and I. After a nice first day walking around Þingvellir and Laugarvatn, we woke the next morning, had a delightful breakfast at our B&B, Gallerí, (complete with made-to-order waffles and rye bread baked in a local hot spring) and then decided we’d take advantage of the sunshine to check out the walking paths around the base of Laugarvatnsfjall (Laugarvatn Mountain).
The path we took on our second day was, due to all the recent rain, a lot less path-like, and we actually did end up hiking a fair amount (versus just walking, I mean). We followed the river bed up toward the base of the mountain as far as we could until it became clear that continuing would necessitate real climbing gear. It was a very pleasant hike, as you can see:
We had thought that we’d spend the later part of the day at the Fontana Wellness Spa, which is pretty reasonably priced and boasts a number of mineral baths, saunas (situated right on top of the natural hot springs), and a warm black sand beach. But with the weather being so nice, we decided to improvise a little.
Drum roll…..for……The Best Thing We’ve Done in Iceland:
We left Laugarvatn and headed toward Hveragerði to hike through the Reykjadalur valley. Hveragerði is a town located about 45 minutes away from Reykjavík and is built on top of a hot spring field. It is an interesting an unique community for a variety of reasons, which I will let the website summarize for you:
…thermal heat has made horticulture one of the foundations of economic life in Hveragerði, the reason for its being called “The Blossoming Town,” and the reason for the annual “Flower Ball.”
The swimming pool at Laugaskarð––for many years the country’s largest pool––is renowned for its lovely setting as well as excellent facilities, including hot pots, whirlpool pot, sunlamps, and a natural steam bath. The pool is heated with steam coming directly from the ground and because of this many consider it to be good for your health.
Somewhat to the north of town is one of the country’s largest geothermal areas, Hengill, where plumes of steam can be seen for miles. Hiking and riding trails stretch from the town throughout Ölfusdalur valley, into the Hengill volcanic area and all the way to the Nesjavellir geothermal area and Þingvellir National Park. Along the way are warm springs where bathing is possible. (Emphasis mine.)
Since we arrived, Mark and I had received repeated recommendations from multiple people that we should hike through the Hengill geothermal area to the “hot river” in Reykjadalur (smoky valley). On this particular day, we had our swimsuits with us but hadn’t brought towels, so we made a quick stop at a shopping center in Hveragerði, where we changed into our suits (under our hiking clothes, of course), bought a package of kitchen towels from the Bónus, and got directions to the hiking trails from the very nice woman at the information center.
The hike to the “hot river,” (sorry–I don’t actually know what it is called) takes about an hour/hour and a half one way. There are several well-trodden paths around the valley, which vary in difficulty (basically steepness). We took a relatively easy route, but between all the mud (again, it had been really rainy) and the fact that many, many people had been hiking in the area recently, the trail was a bit difficult to traverse, mud-wise, for the first 45 minutes or so. I’m only speaking as a foreigner without a great deal of hiking experience, though. We started the trail at the same time as two young Icelanders who were just wearing sneakers and they made much better time than we did–of course, they weren’t stopping for trail mix breaks and breathers or picture taking. (On our way back later, we were completely overtaken by a group of young Icelandic girls who literally bounded around us—gazelle-like, chipper, chattering, and not in the least muddy (I was covered)—and now are, in my mind, the very picture of “sporty.”)
The first part of the hike was okay, scenery-wise. The mountains are quite steep all around as you hike, and there are little plumes of steam popping up here and there, as well as the occasional bubbling hot spring. Which is great, obviously. But the mud is very gray or very brown, and when the hillsides aren’t yet green and the sky is a bit overcast (the sun left us mid-walk), it makes for a rather monotonous color palette.
But then, suddenly, you start descending into a beautiful valley, cross a (warm) river, and have a spectacular view of snow-capped mountains and an active geo-thermal field:
I, for one, was getting pretty psyched for hot river bathing, but neither Mark nor I were sure exactly where said bathing would take place. We had been told, however, that in recent years this had become a very popular site (leading to new warning signs along the trail about hot springs which are assuredly too hot to bathe in), and so we kind of figured that we’d know the right spot when we saw it.
And boy, did we. Passing through a field of bubbling mud pots and hot springs, we suddenly came out of the steam-fog and saw a lovely bend in the river. Snow on the mountains all around and a whole bunch of people in bikinis and swimsuits just lolling about in a riverbed.
It was amazing, but I didn’t actually take any pictures at this point of the hike because A) I was too excited and B) it feels weird to be snapping away at people who are either bathing or in the process of re-dressing themselves after bathing. I figured the Internet would have pictures which I could share with you anyway, and I was right. Imagine the scene below on a more overcast day, but this will give you the gist:
Let me narrate the experience for you, though:
The trick when preparing yourself to go swimming in a hot river in Iceland in March is to get into the water quickly, but this is complicated by the fact that you are wearing a lot of layers, including hiking boots which have to be taken off first. Once you take off your shoes, your feet will pretty much freeze instantaneously on the frozen, wet ground. Which hurts. Then, you’ll have to pick your way across rocks and pebbles and find a spot to sit in where you can submerge up to your shoulders. This will hurt, too. (Bring sandals next time!)
Then you’ll realize, crazily, that the water you’ve headed for is downstream enough to be a little less warm than is entirely preferable, so you will get up to move further down. You’ll decide that walking along the bank in the mud is better because frozen feet hurt just slightly less than bare-feet-on-rocks but you will wonder if you have made the right decision when you sink to your knees in frozen mud, and will extract yourself as gracefully as possible. Only to then slip, banana-peel-style, on the icy ground and land flat on your bum in front of a large group of jolly, middle age Italian women, who laugh heartily but not meanly. You are too cold at this point to care much, and hey, you have a sense of humor, too. (Plus, guys: hot river!) You will make your way back down to the river bank and into the water, next to your boyfriend who definitely chose the much more direct route. You will settle your back up against a small bank in the middle of the riverbed, so that the hot water–which is hot–runs over your shoulders.
You will think: this is the most awesome thing I have ever done. You will say: this is the most awesome thing you have ever done. Then it will start snowing. And it will get more awesome.
Have I convinced you?
We had to leave pretty soon after we arrived because of the aforementioned snow and the fact that we still had another hour and some back to the car. So we daubed ourselves off as best we could with the dish towels, changed into dry clothes quickly (thermal vests buttoned around your waist work well for cover when you’re slipping in and out of suits, fyi), and then headed back to Hveragerði, where we capped off our day with a long, luxurious soak in the hot pots at the local pool.
So there you have it: Best Thing We’ve Done in Iceland (so far)…