Listen to “Go Do” by Icelandic musician Jónsi while reading: link
We start out on the 3 km hike to the hot springs. This translates to 1.86 miles. Less than 2 miles doesn’t sound like much of a challenge. We’ll have a nice mountain walk to get our circulation moving and then relax in the warm water. A perfect way to spend the evening of our July holiday day off.
But hiking these old volcanic mountains is not equivalent to a forest walk through gently rolling Berkshire hills. And not just because there are grazing sheep popping into view the entire walk, sometimes in remarkably surprising places. The path is unrelenting in its steepness. Sections that I think will be flat are only less steep. We huff and puff audibly and stop frequently to catch our breath. But at least we get lots of chances to take snapshots of the astounding scenery.
It takes hundreds of years for a lava field to turn into a verdant dell. When we took the FlyBus from the airport to Reykjavik, the lava fields were clearly fairly new, at least on the geological timeline. Solidified and settled burbles of hot lava petrified into black, cracked rock. Dense, silvery-gray moss the only life for miles.
This volcanic mountain range and its matching valleys are blanketed with lush, soft grasses, low twiggy plants that some might call bushes, and sprays of wildflowers. I think about how utterly delicious these fields must be for the sheep. The rock composition changes as we walk. At first, the ground and rocks are russet-colored because of their high iron content. As we climb, we see more black rock riven with tiny craters. Volcanic basalt.
Ingólfur Arnarson, Iceland’s first permanent settler, named the homestead he settled Reykjavik, or “Smoky Bay,” in 874. We are in Reykjadalur, or “Smoky Valley.”
When I think of viewing ancient geological features I think of mountains or valleys carved by retreating glaciers. Features that appear stationary. But not water vapor. Not steam. Steam seems so ephemeral. Heat fluctuates and dissipates. Cools down and leaves no trace. Returns to the precipitation cycle.
Arnarson and his people looked upon these “smoky” plumes. This immortal steam. Just as I am, walking through this Smoky Valley now, over 1,045 years later.
This quarter-mile long section of thermal river has a wooden walkway on both sides. The water is cooler at the beginning and warms as you walk closer to the source. Families, couples, and solo bathers spread out along the river. There’s not more than 30 people up here on this Monday evening. I really like that it’s not empty. There’s certainly a romanticism and uniqueness to finding a special, hidden place of majesty and enjoying it all to yourself. But here, there’s a communal feeling of relaxation and gaiety that’s generated by our happy fellow soakers.
We choose a spot right in the middle. I sit on the first wooden step and let my feet rest on the second, my legs get used to the heat. The river gliding against my calves, the air cool on my bare shoulders. It’s helpful that the soaking area is clearly marked – many natural hot springs are boiling hot. Here, even if it feels too warm I know it won’t hurt me, so I slide in all the way.
Settled into the flowing hot water, it feels like an alpine paradise. Long grass and buttercups line the riverbanks. The mountain peak extends upward in front of me, black scree and curious formations. A wide meadow freckled with sheep stretches behind me. A faint, soft smell of sulfur salts. The lowering sun playing hide and seek behind a few puffy clouds and making the upriver mist glow.
I close my eyes. We sit for a long time.