Hiking the Hveragerdi Trail in Winter
The town of Hveragerdi is most well known for its natural hot springs - even its name, hver, means ‘hot spring’ in Icelandic. Its most celebrated attraction is the steaming 40°C geothermal river runs through the Reykjadalur valley some 3.6km north of the town. Locals and travellers alike often spend an entire day wading in the steaming river, pink-faced and relaxed, taking in the view of the surrounding mountains encasing them on either side.
To reach this paradise, you need to take the unpaved trail through the mountains of the Hveragerdi National Park. Weaving up and down the mountainside, the trail is steep and raw but, on a good day, you’ll arrive at the steaming river in the Reykjadalur valley within an hour’s hike.
However, I was in Iceland in January - during the harsh winter. I had heard about how much harder the hike can be in the colder months but I was insistent: I wanted to bathe in Hveragerdi’s geothermal river.
First, some advice
Luckily enough, I wasn’t going in completely blind. A particularly warm and talkative car rental agent, along with a steely-faced tourist information point assistant, gave me some helpful pieces of advice:
Don’t head out too late. The sun sets early and you don’t want to walk back in the dark. People can take the hiking trail at night but need to use special equipment, such as those helmets with headlights.
Check with the locals in Hveragerdi to make sure the conditions are okay before you start.
Make sure you have the right equipment. Wear the right shoes and attach crampons over them.
Use your common sense. Some hikers have said they had to crawl on all fours to get across at some points. If you can’t walk it, don’t crawl it.
We set off completely naive, yet somewhat prepared.
Hiking the Hveragerdi Trail in Winter
This will be fine
We set off over the small wooden bridge and walked along the trickling river that leads away from the car park. Thick snow coated the mountainside, which glistened in the sunlight, and a steep incline loomed ahead of us. We struggled up the slippery slope, trying to stick to the patches of gravel for traction.
We reached the top of the first hill and looked out at the view below us, squinting in the morning sunlight. The snow capped mountains spread out beneath us, their jagged rocks casting electric blue shadows and the powdery snow sparkling like diamonds.
Should we turn back?
We turned the corner and carried on, without realising the conditions had changed, almost suddenly. Beneath the sparkling snow were hidden slicks of ice, tripping us up as we walked. Ahead of us, we watched a returning hiker slip and slide back down the mountain, largely on his backside. We stopped to speak with him, curious for any insights on the trail ahead.
“I didn’t make it to the end,” he said, smiling nonetheless.
“It does get harder further ahead. And there’s one really tough part.”.
We should turn back
We soon hit this particularly treacherous stretch of trail. The path had narrowed to no more than a foot across. On our left was an almost sheer drop-off, with ice and rocks waiting menacingly at the bottom. On our right, the mountain gave us a dramatic incline, too steep and too icy to climb.
I stopped in my tracks, frozen by fear. I sat down in the snow, paralysed by the prospect of walking on but too stubborn to turn back.
While I sat and contemplated my life, one of my hiking partners carried on ahead to check if the path widened out further down the track. He assured us that it did, so I continued shakily, breath held the entire time.
The amazing Hveragerdi geothermal river
After a couple more minutes of careful hiking, the trail indeed opened out into a gorgeous valley. In the distance we could see steam billowing out of vents that dotted the mountainsides. From here, it was 30 minutes of relative calm until those thick clouds of steam started to engulf us. The smell of sulphur thickened. We knew we were close.
One last narrow passageway and one final slippery wooden bridge over a boiling vent and we arrived. The steaming river wound peacefully through the valley, encased on either side by towering mountains, each coated in thick white snow. The soft sound of laughter and chatter floated downstream from beaming hikers bathing in the hot water.
Stripped down to our bathers and teetering on frozen tiptoes across the ice, we made our way to the edge of the water. With no hesitation, we stepped in. With the outdoor air a crisp -10°C, the geothermal waters felt like fire to our toes but we soon adjusted.
With my body being gently boiled and the water on my head starting to freeze, I took in the incredible scene around me. The car rental agent had told us how he oftens hikes up to this river in the summer with friends. They often took a leg of lamb with them, wrapped in foil, which they buried in the ground.
“The ground is so hot, it cooks the lamb through,” he said, “Best lunch I ever have.”
The steam rose up from all sides, obscuring the snowy mountains from view. I looked out at the view of this trickling river and the towering mountains.
It was pure, well-earned bliss.
Getting to the Hveragerdi geothermal river
Just 45 km from Reykjavik, it takes just over 30 minutes to arrive by car in Hveragerdi, even in the wintertime. A straightforward drive along Þjóðvegur 1, you’ll turn left at the roundabout onto Breiðamörk. Following the road for another five minutes until you see the Hot River Cafe and the trail parking lot. From there, just follow the signs to the hiking trail.
Tips for winter hikers tackling the Hveragerdi trail
Start on the hike early. As early as you can. It’s an hour hike in the summer but it’s closer to 1.5 hours in the winter. Go early to allow yourself time to really enjoy the river as you’ll want to head back at least two hours before sunset.
Winter is cold. An Icelandic winter in the mountains is colder. Wear thermals, thick socks, a beanie and a scarf.
Proper hiking shoes are essential, as are crampons.
An ice axe wouldn’t go astray.
Watch your step. In the thick snow, it’s easy to go off track. Keep an eye out for red posts lining the way.
Bring food and drinks. You’ll need to re energise after the hike.
When you reach the river, there are wooden partition to allow you to get change in privacy. You can leave your bag and towel in this area.
The river is warmer the further up you go. Move down the river to find more temperate pools.
Bring thongs (flip flops). If you’ve never before tried dressing yourself in -10 degree weather while standing on ice, you really don’t want to start now.
Bring a plastic bag to put your wet bathers in afterwards.
Try not to wet your hair, as it will freeze and become very cold, very quickly.