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Reykjadalur hot spring thermal river, Iceland

When I read about Reykjadalur hot spring thermal river, I put it in my “must-see” list for our trip to Iceland in July. The idea that a river could flow with hot water was too oddly enticing to pass up.

A grass-covered valley stretches ahead with hills, also grass-covered, on either side. The sky is white and a cloud of steam is visible down the valley.
On the walk to Reykjadalur hot spring thermal river.

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Getting to Reykjadalur hot spring thermal river

Reykjadalur hot spring thermal river is about a 45-minute drive from the center of Reykjavik. Or, rather, the parking lot is that distance. From there, you have to walk.

If you aren’t going to rent a car in Iceland, you’ll need to take organized tours to get around, since public transportation is pretty limited. Try this guided hike to Reykjadalur, which includes transport from Reykjavik.

Click here for accommodations in Reykjavik.

After you park at the designated parking lot, the hike is about 3.5 kilometers each way. Going there, it’s mostly uphill, taking an hour to an hour and a half, depending on your walking speed and how often you stop to take pictures. I had brought along some walking sticks and was glad of it: they saved me more than once from turning a weak ankle. (The origin of my weak ankles is in an ill-advised solo hike up a volcano in Guadeloupe.)

A hill, covered in low grass or moss but with exposed rock on the top. On the left of the picture I am walking down a gravel path, holding two sticks and looking down at the ground. On my way to Reykjadalur hot spring thermal river.
Rocking my walking sticks. Photo courtesy of Albert Smith.

The path isn’t difficult. Most of it is gravel, but the gravel varies from fine to quite large rocks that are loose underfoot. It’s muddy in spots as well. I huffed and puffed as usual on the uphills, but none of it was extremely steep, and we didn’t hurry.

As we hiked, we passed views of green valleys and rolling hills: partly bare dirt or rock, partly covered in grass and moss with small wildflowers. We saw traces of the river here and there along the way, passing a number of streams. Some of them were warm, even to the extent of giving off steam, while others were icy cold.

A shallow valley covered in green grass, with, in the foreground, a scattering of white flowers. Straight ahead is a narrow stream, and steam rises from it. The stream meanders a bit down the floor of the valley into the distance. At one point a small bridge with railings crosses it.
Steam rising off a stream on the way to Reykjadalur hot spring thermal river.

Plumes of steam rose from the landscape. While walkers are not allowed to leave the trail – a rule that applies pretty much anywhere in Iceland – at one point early in the walk it was possible to look down right into one of the steam vents. The water boiled merrily.

In the foreground a sign with a picture of a thermometer showing a lot of mercury. It says "HAETTA DANGER ACHTUNG FARE PERICOLO". To the left of the sign is a gravel path up a small hill. About halfway up the hill a plume of steam rises from the ground and a man (my husband, Albert) stands right next to it, taking a picture downward into the hole.
My husband, Albert, photographs a steam vent.

Enjoying the hot pools at Reykjadalur

Reaching the part of the river that is suitable for bathing, we stepped on to a boardwalk along the river. Just a handful of other people were there when we were, and there was plenty of river to go around. It trickles merrily down a series of small rapids, with shallows pools between them. Higher up, the water is hotter than lower down.

To change into bathing suits was a bit of a culture shock for me. All that is available in this treeless environment is an x-shaped wooden wall, allowing, in theory, four people to change in relative privacy at once. The flaw in the plan is that anyone walking up to the river or leaving would walk right by on one side or the other.

The path stretches ahead in the middle of the picture, down a green valley with mountains on both sides. The river flows diagonaly across the image from lower left to upper right. In the center of the photo is a boardwalk along the river, with a wall at one point (described in the article) and a couple of people are visible too.
Arriving at the hot pools, where a boardwalk edges the river. You can’t see it in this photo, but the boardwalk continues further upstream.

We changed into the bathing suits we’d brought along, with my husband watching out to let me know if anyone was approaching, and made our way into the river. Here and there small ladders offer access.

The water was lovely and warm, so warm that I had to hold my upper body above the surface from time to time in order to cool off. The day was cold and misty, as you can see from the photos I’ve included here. That hadn’t bothered me on the way up, since I worked up a sweat on the uphill walk. Now, in the warm water, the contrast was delightful.

To stay as close as possible to the start of the hike, use the map below to find accommodations in Hveragerði, the nearest town:

The water isn’t warm enough? That’s easy to solve: just move up the river one “step”. Each pool higher up is slightly warmer than the one below, as the water cools on its way down.

In this photo of Reykjadalur hot spring thermal river, a wall of stones crosses the river and the water flows over it in a mini-waterfall. I lie in the water, my back to the waterfall, my feet floating ahead of me. I wear sunglasses and a purple bathing suit.
Natural jacuzzi action at Reykjadalur hot spring thermal river. Photo courtesy of Albert Smith.

I wished I’d brought swim shoes of some sort, since the floor of the river was rough and rocky. It was difficult to walk, and pulling myself along on my hands didn’t work either. The water was too shallow. It was worth the effort – part walking, part crawling – to get to where the little waterfalls were, which offered a natural jacuzzi action.

Eventually, we faced the same scramble to climb out, dry off, change clothes without exposing ourselves to other visitors, and then walk the 3½ kilometers back down to the parking lot. For my ankles, walking downhill is no better than uphill, but at least I didn’t get out of breath this time. And the views down the valley are just as lovely as the views up. The walk down took less time, perhaps an hour or so.

A view down a green valley with a low mountain on the left. Here and there plumes of steam rise from the ground. In the distance, the sea is visible.
From this spot, looking down the valley toward the sea, you can see lots of steam vents, showing how geothermically active this area is.

Reykjadalur hot spring thermal river is without a doubt worth the effort to get there. How often do you get a chance to experience a hot river?

Advice for visiting Reykjadalur

Here are some suggestions for your visit to Reykjadalur:

  • Wear hiking shoes, preferably the kind that support your ankles.
  • Wear layers, so you can shed or add as needed. This applies pretty much anywhere in Iceland.
  • If you’re clumsy, like me, carry walking sticks.
  • Bring water.
  • Stay on the path. Off the path can be a) dangerous and b) damaging to a delicate environment.
  • Stop often to take in the views.
Mountains in the background, and, in the foreground, a waterfall flows down a narrow green valley in a number of steps.
A waterfall we passed on the way to Reykjadalur hot spring thermal river.
  • Bring bug repellant: we contended with midges that dive-bombed our faces and got in our ears, noses, eyes and mouths.
  • It’s a good idea to take along some food to keep your energy up.
  • Bring a swimsuit and towel.
  • Go together with someone else who can hold up a towel or sarong for you to change behind.
  • Bring a waterproof backpack or plastic bag to put your clothes into if it rains while you’re in the river. There is no shelter. Then you can use it to carry your wet swimsuit and towel back down to your car.
  • Bring swim shoes or just any shoes that you can use to walk in the river.
  • Be prepared to get chilled very quickly when you are in your swimsuit and making your way into the river. And be prepared to get chilled again when you get out. Be ready to dry off and get dressed quickly.

Is this something you’d enjoy doing? Or is a formal spa more your style?

Pinnable image:
Text: Iceland's Reykjadalur hot spring thermal river and tips for visiting (and the Rachel's Ruminations logo)
Images: Above, the photo of the danger sign in front of a plume of steam emerging from the ground. Below, the photo of me in the river.


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about Rachel

Hi, I’m Rachel!

Rachel’s Ruminations is a travel blog focused on independent travel with an emphasis on cultural and historical sites/sights. I also occasionally write about life as an expatriate. I hope you enjoy what I post here; feel free to leave comments!  Read more…
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