Fast Track: Mountain Biking in the Reykjadalur Valley

Guide and biker Magne Kvam

Mountain biker and cycling guide Magne Kvam is an energetic guy with a grey beard and a sleek scalp. When he smiles, one of his cuspids protrudes endearingly. He describes himself as something of an oddball.

“I’m probably very, very strange,” he confesses, while inspecting the ground below us prior to our descent. I had joined Magne in Reykjadalur to watch him fix the trails before summer. “I like to be alone in the mountains,” he observes. “I’m an old soul.”

We head out to the mountains near Hveragerði to speak with Magne and learn more about this unique area.

Read the whole story here.

Fast Track

Guide and biker Magne Kvam

Pollocked with mud Why can’t I just, for once, dress appropriately for these occasions? I was hurtling down a narrow sheep trail in the Reykjadalur valley, ca-clunking up and down on the bucking bronco of my electric mountain bike, when I posed that question. My jeans were Pollocked with mud and straining at the seams. My sunglasses […]

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Nesjavellir to Hveragerði: A Hiking Adventure an Hour from Reykjavík

nesjavellir hike

It was recently the First Day of Summer, a holiday in Iceland where kids get presents and Icelanders flock outside in the hopes of catching some rays. It’s a tricky time of year in a lot of ways, equally likely to still have snow storms as bright, sunny days. It’s certainly a time of year when I’m itching to go for a hike, to go on the inaugural trip of what is hopefully many summer adventures.

Because the time of year can be a little tricky, I wanted to go on an overnight hike that felt like a real hike, but would still be manageable if the weather turned for the worse. I’d known for a long time that you can actually walk from Nesjavellir, a popular hiking area between the south coast of Þingvallavatn Lake and Hengill mountain, to Hveragerði, with a stop at the popular Reykjadalur hot springs along the way. But I’d never actually gotten around to it until this year. 

Who is this hike for?

Clocking in at around 20 km [12.5 mi] each way (some 5 to 6 hours of straight walking), this is a great hike for people who want an experience that really looks and feels like the highland, while still being able to sleep in a hotel at night, have a shower, and eat a dinner that hasn’t been freeze-dried. While trails like Laugavegur and Fimmvörðuháls are without doubt beautiful and worth doing, they can only be safely hiked in the proper high season. They are also harder to access, requiring transport by highland bus to either Þórsmörk or Landmannalaugar. I found this walk to be a great compromise of beautiful views, rewarding walking, and convenience. And while you still need proper gear like hiking boots, a day pack, a wind- and water-proof shell, water, hiking socks, and so on, you can ditch the tent and sleeping bag if you’re staying in Hveragerði, meaning that you save on weight. This makes for a much more comfortable hike, though if you want to save money and bring a tent and sleeping bag, Hveragerði does also have an easily accessible campground.

A caveat, however: Because we hiked early in the season, the snow was still melting up in the mountains, making the trail extremely muddy. It was probably a more difficult hike for us than it otherwise would have been, and for the preservation of the trail, I wouldn’t recommend hiking here until at least late May.

Getting to Nesjavellir

Nesjavellir is a popular hiking area for many capital area residents. It’s a part of the mountains (including Hengill) that separate the South Coast from the Þingvellir area. There’s a dense network of trails in this area, so it’s also entirely possible to just do a quick day hike here as well.

Best deals on renting a car in Iceland

 

We drove east from Reykjavík along Route 36, as if we were driving the Golden Circle towards Þingvellir. Near the lake, we turned onto road number 360, which took us to the south coast of the lake. Below you’ll find embedded a map of the route we took to get to the trailhead.

If you are driving from Reykjavík, you will see a small parking lot to the left of the road. There’s a sign that says camping is forbidden, but leaving your car here isn’t a problem.

The name of this particular hike is Kattatjarnarleið, and the navigation I used was the Alltrails app, which allows you to download topographical maps – very useful when hiking in areas with poor reception and few available maps.

nesjavellir hike
The drive to Nesjavellir is also a beautiful one, takng you along the south coast of Lake Þingvellir.

Day 1: Nesjavellir to Hveragerði

The trail begins in some fields that are overlooked by some vacation houses (the area is a popular weekend escape for Reykjavík residents). You’ll follow a stream for some time, and within 30 minutes of walking or so, you’ll have to wade across a shallow river. Nothing too daunting – though it did take us a minute to find a suitable path across.

hiking near þingvallavatn fording a stream
Soon into the hike, you'll have your first adventure - wading a small river.

Soon after wading across the river, you’ll go up a hill and find a gate consisting of two wooden poles. This closes the area off during the winter and is the start of the “real” part of the hike!

hiking near hengill
Beautiful mountain views just an hour from Reykjavík.

I’ll admit that I was really shocked by the first part of the hike. Following along a river gorge, with Hengill mountain to your front, it’s just amazingly beautiful on a nice day. You would really never guess that you were just an hour from Reykjavík. We also got lucky with the weather – it was late April and temperatures were around 10°C [50°F], with lots of sun and a healthy breeze the whole time. As far as I’m concerned, this is the perfect weather for hiking.

hiking signposts near hengill

About a third of the way into the hike, you’ll encounter this signpost. The major trails through this area run in a figure-eight around Hengill, and you can choose which way you want to take here. We opted to do one pass through the figure-eight on our way to Hveragerði, and take another leg of it back. Heading from North to South, we continued to Hveragerði and Reykjadalur by heading right, following the sign for Ölkelduháls and Hveragerði.

hiking boots
Muddy boots after a long day of walking.

A good two or three hours of walking later, and you’ll have a fine vantage point over the Reykjadalur hot spring area. We got a little bit of a late start and wanted to have dinner in Hveragerði, so we actually skipped the popular geothermal area for our way back.

I was also reserved in taking photos here, and I recommend other travellers and hikers act likewise. This popular bathing areas has some nice wooden walkways these days, but it is still fundamentally a wilderness experience. There are some wooden shelters for modesty, but no closed changing rooms for hikers to get into their bathing suits. That means that you’ll find people in various states of dress and undress here, so I suggest stowing the camera.

Once you’ve reached Reykjadalur, it’s a relatively short walk to Hveragerði itself. At the bottom of the hill where the Reykjadalur trail begins you’ll find a hospitality centre that offers some light refreshments, so if you’re starving and can’t wait to get back to town, it’s a fine place to have a beer.

From the Reykjadalur café, it’s about a 3km [1.8mi] walk into Hveragerði proper. It isn’t the most beautiful walk, mostly by the side of the road through a semi-residential area. So it’s not exactly cheating if you hitchhike or call a taxi into town from this point. If you’re lucky, you might also find an e-scooter lying around. On our trip, we weren’t so lucky. So, tired after a full day of walking, we hoofed it back into town and gratefully showered at our hotel and headed out to dinner.

Day 2: In Hveragerði

What to do in Hveragerði

Hveragerði is a quaint little town some 50 minutes away from Reykjavík. It’s well-known for the hot springs which bubble up from the nearby hills, and it’s historically been a centre for Icelandic agriculture, as the local geothermal springs have allowed the locals to raise all sorts of plants in the greenhouses the town is now famous for.

Eldhestar tours: One of the major horse-riding tour guides in Iceland has a facility right by Hveragerði. Taking a guided horse-riding tour is a very unique way to experience the local landscape, and it is certainly more relaxing than the hike you just took yesterday! With everything from tours for absolute beginners to more adventurous outings for the experienced equestrian, taking a horse tour is undoubtedly one of the most Icelandic ways imaginable to see your surroundings! See all of their tours here.

LÁ Art Museum: Listasafn Árnesinga is a charming little art museum that preserves a small collection of modern and contemporary visual art – this is a great little place to check out if you’re looking for something off the beaten path. In addition to the main exhibits, the museum also puts on a series of workshops and guided tours. Hveragerði is known locally as a very creative community, so we highly recommend checking out this small, but unique, art museum. Admission is free. During the summer, it’s open daily from 12pm to 5pm daily.

Mega Zipline in Hveragerði: The Mega Zipline near Hveragerði in Iceland is an exhilarating adventure, featuring the country’s longest and fastest zipline at exactly 1 km in length. Located close to the capital city, it offers an exciting experience for thrill-seekers. The zipline consists of two parallel lines, allowing for simultaneous rides, and offers breathtaking views of the Svartagljúfur gorge with its waterfalls, rocky formations, and lush hillsides.

Relax in the local swimming pool: If you’re like us, you’ll want to just relax and soak after the long walk you just took yesterday. Luckily, nearly every town in Iceland has a beautiful swimming pool, often equipped with a lap pool, cold pot, hot pot, and a steam room or sauna. There’s nothing better than soaking up the sun in a hot tub after a long day of walking. It’s a simple, but well-deserved, luxury. In the summer, the Hveragerði swimming pool is open Mon-Fri from 6:45am to 9:30pm, and Sat-Sun from 9:00am to 7:00pm. Admission for adults is 1,180 ISK [$8.40, €7.85]. Read more about swimming pools here.

Hveragerði Geothermal Park: This area of Iceland is known for its especially active hot springs, so if you’re a geology nerd (or you really want to boil an egg in a hot spring), this is a great stop on a day in Hveragerði. 

Visitors to the Geothermal Park can even get a clay footbath (said to have therapeutic effects) and visit the nearby greenhouses, where everything from bananas, to tomatoes and flowers are grown. Admission is 500 ISK [$3.60, €3.30] for adults and 300 ISK [$2.14, €2.00] for kids. During the summer, it’s open Mon-Sat 9am-6pm and Sun 9am-4pm.

Where to eat in Hveragerði

Hveragerði Foodhall: Look, I’ll admit it. I love food halls. A lot of them have sprung up in Reykjavík and across Iceland recently, so some of the cool kids are turning their nose up at them. But for anyone dining with a partner or family, it’s a great way for everyone to get what they want. The Hveragerði foodhall is known as the Greenhouse. It has a variety of options from burgers, tacos, fried chicken, casual fine dining, an elegant cocktail bar, and more. Prices are no different from Reykjavík. Expect to spend about 3,500 ISK [$25, €23] for an entree and about 1,100 ISK [$7.80, €7.30] for a beer.

Ölverk Pizza & Brewery: Pizza and beer is not exactly a hard sell. This popular eatery in Hveragerði serves up innovative pies, such as a Korean tunafish pizza, alongside tried-and-true classics, washed down with a selection of their own brewed beers. Appetizers are around 1500 ISK [$10.70, €10]. Pizzas begin around 2,300 ISK [$16.45, €15.30] for a basic margherita and go up to around 3,200 ISK [$22.90, €21.30] for more speciality offerings. Beers on offer include a full selection of German pilsners, red ales, and IPA, in addition to seasonal offerings as well.

Matkráin: Looking for something a little more local? Matkráin [The Gastropub] has you covered! Their menu – which is in Icelandic (something not to be taken for granted these days) – features a wide selection of Icelandic and Nordic favourites, with smoked salmon, open-faced sandwiches, smoked lamb, salads, and more. The open-faced sandwiches, which can be ordered either whole, or taken as half for a “take two” deal, are the feature of the menu and will run you about 2,800 ISK [$20, €18.60] or so.

Rósakaffi: Hveragerði is known for its greenhouses, so it’s only fitting to have a light lunch or coffee in one of the greenhouses! On offer are a selection of cakes, coffee, and lunch options such as wings and fries, meatballs, lamb shanks, potato gratin, and more. They have a generous lunch offer which includes a fish entree, with coffee and cake for dessert. The lunch offer will run you 2,490 ISK [$17.80, €16.60].

Where to stay in Hveragerði

Hveragerði isn’t the biggest tourism centre in the region, so it’s possible to find accommodations for a reasonable price. That said, all of the information provided here is to give you a general sense, but of course prices will fluctuate depending on the season, demand, the size of your party, and so on.

Hotels in Hveragerði

Hotel Örk is likely a good option for many. A traditional hotel that’s neither budget nor luxury, you’ll find it has reasonable options for couples and families. A stay here comes with a complimentary breakfast buffet, which we certainly took advantage of before our hike. The facilities also feature a heated outdoor swimming pool (complete with water slide) and hot pots. A 2-night weekend stay here for two adults in the high season (July) is currently around 71,000 ISK [$508, €472], but our stay was significantly cheaper, as April is something of an off-season.

The Frost and Fire Hotel may be a more intriguing offering for travellers looking for a more unique experience. Nestled beside bubbling geothermal springs in Hveragerði, this hotel boasts an outdoor pool, two hot tubs, and a sauna. Each room comes complete with bathrobes, slippers, and a flat-screen TV. Wi-Fi access is complimentary. Wooden floors, spacious beds, and private bathrooms are standard features, with some rooms providing scenic vistas of the River Varmá.

Guests can indulge in Icelandic haute cuisine at Restaurant Varmá, situated within the hotel and open for dinner reservations. The restaurant specializes in slow-cooked dishes prepared in the natural hot springs, offering patrons a delightful panorama of the river Varmá. The Frost and Fire Hotel is also a great option for hikers planning on doing this trail, as the hotel is located significantly closer to the trailhead. A 2-night weekend stay here for two adults in the high season (July) currently begins around 140,000 ISK [$1,000, €930].

The SKYR Guesthouse may be attractive for both budget-minded travellers and travellers looking for something more cosy. Located above the popular SKYR restaurant, this guesthouse has a lovely rural Bed and Breakfast atmosphere that would go well with a hike or weekend getaway to the countryside. Rooms come with free Wi-Fi, private bathrooms, flat-screen televisions, free parking, beautiful views, and of course, convenient access to the restaurant. A 2-night weekend stay here for two adults in the high season (July) currently begins around 51,000 ISK [$365, €340].

Camping in Hveragerði

As stated above, Hveragerði also has a campground. Surrounded by nature’s splendour and close to hiking trails, a swimming pool, a golf course, and horse rentals, it’s an ideal base for outdoor adventures. The campground provides most modern amenities, including toilets, showers, laundry facilities, and dishwashing areas. Pet-friendly and family-oriented, it features a playground and barbecue facilities. Services for mobile homes are available, along with an electric car charging station. Prices are reasonable, with adults at 2,000 ISK [$14, €13] and children under 15 free. It’s only open during the summer, however, and for this trip, we chose to sleep in a hotel to lighten our packs. The walk was much nicer without a tent and sleeping bag weighing us down!

Day 3: Hveragerði back to Nesjavellir (with a stop at Reykjadalur)

On the third day of our trip, we got up early, had our hotel buffet breakfast, and were out the door at a respectable 9am. We were, however, not particularly keen to walk the bit through town. It’s not very scenic, and it adds about 3km [1.8 mi] to the total walk. We opted to save some money and located two e-scooters in town – much cheaper than a taxi. Rural taxi services can be somewhat slow to respond and expensive. The road to the trailhead is well-paved and within the service range of the scooters as well. In total, out e-scooter journey turned out to be around 900 ISK [$6.40, €6] – a fair savings from taxi fare.

reykjadalur hike
A waterfall you will see en route to Reykjadalur.

The next bit of our hike will be familiar to anyone who has visited the popular Reykjadalur geothermal area. It’s about a 3 km [1.8 mi] walk from the Reykadalur café to the hot spring area, or about an hour of solid walking. The trail does ramp up very quickly in steepness – both my wife and I are in decent shape and were pretty winded within the first 15 minutes of the walk. The trail does, however, even out once you get into the hills.

view over reykjadalur
The Reykjadalur geothermal valley.

For this day of hiking, we had a bit more time to spare, so we did opt to hop into the hot river. As I noted before, this is a beautiful and special area, but many people are also changing out in the open, so I would recommend that you be respectful and play influencer elsewhere. It was a relatively warm and sunny day, but it’s always a little chilly to run through the cold mountain air in your swimsuit. It’s also worth noting that except for the wooden walkway and modesty screens, this area is unimproved. That means it is a real river, and as such, the river rocks are mostly sharp and hard to walk on. I hope this doesn’t need explaining, but it’s not a luxury spa – it’s a mountain stream. Still, our feet were still sore from our walk, so we gratefully soaked for a good half hour and had a quick lunch. Obviously, if you plan on going to Reykjadalur for a dip, I recommend bringing along a swimsuit and towel so you can dry off. Not very fun to complete the rest of the hike soaking wet!

hiking signposts

From the Reykjadalur area, we headed right, up the hill towards a fumarole on the side of the hill. Following that trail for another 15 minutes or so, you will come across this sign post. Since we took the route on the left on our way here, we decided to head right towards Kattatjörn, the mountain pond that serves as the namesake for this trail.

From here, the way is clear, and you’ll walk over a mountain meadow for about an hour until you arrive at a dramatic overlook point, where you can see Þingvallavatn Lake, and the glacier Langjökull in the distance.

After this vantage point, it’s all downhill! Quite literally, in fact, though there are still some difficult bits to the hike. As you descend from the mountains, you’ll pass through a rather Tolkien-esque river gorge. It’s a cool area, but we found the way to be a little tricky. The trail was very sandy in parts, making it hard to get a firm footing. But still, heading downhill back to civilization puts a certain spring in your step, and after a couple of hours, we found our way back to the car!

 

More than just Reykjadalur

The Reykjadalur hot spring area has become an extremely popular attraction in recent years, and I certainly can’t blame visitors for wanting to see this unique geothermal area. But the hiking around Hengill and Nesjavellir offers so much more, and I highly recommend this trail to anyone looking for a bit more of a serious outing than just a day hike, without the need to really plan out a true highland excursion. Nevertheless, some of the views we were rewarded with felt like true highland vistas, so I can’t recommend it enough. Though a word to the wise – do wait until at least the end of May to hike this. To say we were muddy by the end would be an understatement.

Environment Agency: Unnecessary to Close Popular Reykjadalur Hiking Trail

reykjadalur iceland hveragerði

The hiking trail in Reykjadalur has become treacherous due to heavy foot traffic, according to local authorities. RÚV reports.

The trail is described as a muddy mess, with numerous pools of water forming and parts of the path eroding. The mayor of Hveragerði, the town where the trail is located, is calling for it to be closed until it can be repaired. However, the Environment Agency of Iceland has rejected the request, stating that there is no immediate danger to hikers.

See also: Vital to Prevent Travellers Hiking Near Glymur in Winter

The area has become a popular tourist destination in recent years, with many visitors hiking the trail over the Easter holiday. Local rescue teams have expressed concern over the conditions and have been monitoring the situation. They warn that the trail is becoming increasingly dangerous, with some sections starting to give way.

Despite the warnings, some tourists seem unfazed by the conditions and continue to visit the popular spot.

In Focus: Privately Owned Tourist Sites

With increasing numbers of tourists visiting Iceland, local authorities have found it difficult to preserve the conditions of natural sites while still maintaining access for the public. The case of Reykjadalur is the latest example of this balancing act.

Reykjadalur Valley Hiking Trail to Reopen

reykjadalur iceland hveragerði

The popular hiking trail through the Reykjadalur geothermal valley will open this coming Sunday, May 31. Improvements have recently been made to trail footpaths and a new bridge has been installed over the Hengladalaá river.

The trail has undergone some changes, not least in that it has been redirected away from several hillside hot springs due to unsafe conditions around them. The previous bridge had spanned one such hot spring, but the new one has been moved to a safer location. Hikers are encouraged to remain vigilant of potentially dangerous conditions and always remain on the trail.

There are no restrooms or trash cans along the route, so hikers are asked to keep the bathing area clean, taking their swimsuits and towels back out of the valley as well as any other trash they bring in.

Reykjadalur May Become Protected Area

Municipal authorities are considering whether to designate Reykjadalur, a geothermal area in South Iceland, protected status, RÚV reports. Famed for its “hot river” in which you can bathe, the area has become a popular tourist destination in recent years, but has had to be closed by the Environment Agency on occasion when the high level of foot traffic has caused significant damage to the area. This is a particular risk in the wet season.

Reykjadalur is located just above the town of Hveragerði, but the land is actually part of the Ölfus municipality. The mayors of both locations met in late September to discuss the possibility of protection status for the area. Following this meeting he Environmental Agency of Iceland sent the mayors a letter asking for them to make their position on this matter known. The Environment Agency also asked that the local governments appoint a representative to join a land conservation consultation team, which they have since done.

Per the minutes of the town council meeting, it appears that the local governments are in favor of the idea of designating Reykjadalur a protected area. It’s clear that foot traffic has increased dramatically in the area in recent years and has had a profound effect on the environment. Just this spring, for instance, the area had to be closed for six weeks.