Thursday, August 29, 2013

Hiking the Seljavellir Valley in Southern Iceland


"Where's the campground?" I asked, scratching my head.

My husband climbed a moraine of loose boulders and gravel, and gazed across an open field of volcanic rock and stones, marred only by a small, winding stream that cut through its center.  The field was surrounded by tall, lush, green cliffs, each featuring its own rolling, sparkling waterfall.  It was like a scene from "Lord of the Rings", but we couldn't focus on that just yet.

"I don't think there is one," he responded.

I grimaced, glancing down at my detailed, self-made travel itinerary of Iceland.  Our plan had been to stop at a location just off the Ring Road (Route 1) and make camp for the night before driving on to Skogar the next day.  I had been assured online that Seljavellir Valley was an ideal location for camping, with nearby hot springs within hiking distance.  So far, all I saw was a rutted, ill-kept parking lot, some abandoned summer homes, and granted, a beautiful yet morosely empty valley.

Iceland hot springs, hiking in Iceland
A panorama of Seljavellir Valley in Iceland.

We explored the area around the parking lot and found some stone rings that appeared to be remnants of some long ago fire pit, now disassembled and forgotten.  Rotten logs marked where campsites may or may not have been allocated.

"I think the campground is no more," I observed, and my husband agreed. We got back into the SUV and moved on down the highway to Skogar, where we found some very nice camping indeed (I'll tell you about that in my next post).

The next day, after a nice sleep under a waterfall and a brisk morning hike up its side, we returned to Seljavellir Valley.  Now that we weren't focused so much on finding a place to hunker down for the night, we were able to take some time to really enjoy the amazing view that is Seljavellir Valley.  Indeed, it used to be the site of a campground with a spectacular view, but the campground had closed down years ago.

Iceland hot springs, hiking in Iceland, Iceland waterfalls
The waterfalls of Seljavellir Valley - one per cliff, it seemed.

Instead, you can park your car in the aforementioned bumpy parking lot, hike overtop of the small, sloping moraine hill, and across the barren, flat volcanic rock plain.  All around you tower cliff walls with unusual rock formations, lush green vegetation, and twinkling, distant waterfalls. Birds soar from their cliffside nests, and the sound of rippling water from the stream guides you further into the valley.  It is a very peaceful and picturesque place.  I honestly did feel like I was walking through a scene from "The Hobbit" or other such movie.

Iceland hot springs, hiking in Iceland
Strange cliff formations and caves towered above us as we hiked.

We found a place where it was easy to cross the stream by hopping from stone to stone, and made our way further into the valley.  The pathway most tourists choose to take was extremely muddy and slippery, and we'd passed a hiking couple returning from their morning's journey on our way in who warned us to stick close to the stream and avoid the path.  So that's what we did.

We'd packed a bag with our towels and swimsuits to take with us, just in case we found a hot spring somewhere in the valley.  We weren't really sure what to expect - would the spring be big enough to accommodate swimmers?  Would it be boiling hot like the ones near the side of the road in Hveragerdi, too hot to touch?  Would they just be bubbling clay pits, or clear beautiful water holes?  Faithful that things would work out for the best, we'd packed our stuff just in case.

And then we rounded the corner.

Iceland hot springs, hiking in Iceland
The man-made pool in the middle of Seljavellir Valley - spectacular!

To my absolute delight and surprise, the 'hot spring' had been turned into a man-made pool.  A pool with change rooms.  And ladders.  In the middle of nowhere.  Literally.  It was such a surprise, I could hardly believe it was real.

We tested the water, which was clear and free of scum or debris. It was not hot, but was also far from cold.  One end was much warmer than the other, where the natural hot spring fed into the pool.  The cooled water at the opposite end trickled out of the pool and into the stream via a small cement duct.  There were actually two locations where the hot springs fed into the pool - one area had steaming water spouting from a pipe, which was pulling the natural hot water from underground, while a second area allowed water to trickle straight down the side of the cliff and into the pool.

Iceland hot springs, hiking in Iceland
A view of the Seljavellir Valley from the pool .

You'd think an amazing location such as this would have been overrun by tourists, but I don't know if many people even realize the pool is there.  What with the run-down parking lot, abandoned campground, and barren, rock strewn plain, the last thing I believe anyone would expect from Seljavellir Valley was this treasure of a pool.   And I'm glad, because it was really nice having the pool to ourselves.  A family was just leaving as we arrived, and no one else came to interrupt our swim until we ourselves were drying off to go home.

Of course, being in the middle of nowhere, the pool was obviously free to go swimming in. The 'change rooms' were just empty rooms in an empty building, and had not been cleaned in quite some time, but I didn't mind.  Had there not been a family there when we arrived, you could have changed right out in the open with no one to see you!  It is that private.

Iceland hot springs, hiking in Iceland
The change house at the man-made pool - what a backdrop!

We stayed and splashed in the water for about an hour and a half.  The pool did get chilly after awhile, and I really enjoyed moving from one hot spring entry area (the pipe was my favorite because it was hotter) to the other (I liked the cliff one except for the slime that was growing around it, thriving in the warm temperatures).  I'm sure my husband could have stayed all day, but when we heard a larger group of hikers approaching we decided it was time to pack up.  We'd had a great time, and wanted them to enjoy the same privacy we'd had.

Iceland hot springs, hiking in Iceland
Me enjoying my peaceful swim in the Seljavellir Valley pool.  

Not that I want Seljavellir Valley to become overrun and crowded, but I DO highly recommend that all my readers headed to Iceland stop there for a hike and swim.  You might luck out and find yourself alone in the pool - but if you don't, who cares?  The view surrounding you is worth it alone.

Enjoy the video of us relaxing in the pool and taking in the view! 

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