Of the eight days we spent in South Iceland this summer, the three days of hiking, biking and surfing in and around Hveragerði with Iceland Activities were by far the highlight of our trip. After talking with a couple of friends who had been to Iceland, we decided to hire a guide for this portion of our visit so that we could get out of the car, travel a bit deeper into the area, and really explore the incredible landscape. Our absolutely awesome guide, Úlfar, took us hiking deep into Mt. Hengill, swimming in hidden waterfalls, surfing at a deserted black sand beach, and snorkeling with wild salmon. This was where we stopped feeling like tourists and started to truly experience the magic of Iceland.
Hiking Mt. Hengill and Bathing in a Hot Spring
Our day exploring Mt. Hengill began with a river crossing that submerged Úlfar’s jeep almost to the windows and sent sheep running into the highlands, earning Úlfar total worship status with the boys. Our plan for the day was to hike Mt. Hengill, stopping for a picnic lunch and “bath” at a geothermal hot spring deep in the valley. Úlfar paced the hike perfectly for our 9 and 11 year old boys, stopping at hot springs to paint their faces with “viking” mud, showing them a troll’s footprint, and jumping off the trail to try to pet the sheep (an entertaining, but unsuccessful endeavor).
The hike itself was not terribly difficult, but there are some steep sections where the gravely trail makes conditions a bit tricky. There are no trees (or bugs!), so it’s fairly easy to follow the well worn path at Mt. Hengill, which was originally made by grazing sheep. However, there are parts of the earth where the hot springs underneath make the ground unstable and burning hot, so you have to be really careful where you step– or hire a guide to follow. You do not want to accidnetally step into boiling hot mud. We started our trip early in the day to avoid encountering too many other people in the river, and were rewarded with a little slice of paradise all to ourselves.
Our lunch destination, a picturesque river where boiling hot, geothermal heated water mixes with a freezing cold glacial stream, was everyone’s number one favorite part of the entire trip to Iceland. With air temps in the low 50’s, low wind, bright sun, plenty of food, and the water temp around 90ºF, we could have stayed there for hours. Actually, we did stay there for hours.
And just when we thought we had experienced a near perfect day in Iceland, Úlfar decided to show us a hidden waterfall where he swam as a kid on the way home. Tucked around a little hill making it invisible from the road, the waterfall blended glacial and geothermal water to a near perfect temperature– refreshing, but not nearly as cold as it should be, and absolutely magical.
Surfing at a Black Sand Beach
Having learned to surf in Costa Rica, the idea of putting on a 5/4 mm wetsuit and braving the North Atlantic Ocean surrounding Iceland was not an overly appealing idea. But the morning we had scheduled with Úlfar to surf was clear and sunny, with a nice offshore breeze. The black sand beach was completely deserted, with clean little knee- to hip- high waves rolling in. My idea of perfect conditions.
The boys decided to boogie board while my husband and I went surfing with Úlfar. Despite a water temperature hovering just above 50°F, with all the proper equipment it was actually not that cold…and the waves were really, really fun. We were both up and catching nice, long rides and having a blast. Check that one off the life list!
After our surf session, Úlfar set up a bbq in the dunes, grilling up Icelandic hot dogs– a national specialty– while the boys played in the warm sand. They threw the football around for a while after lunch, while I took a little siesta in the sun. And, once again, just when we were ready to close the book on another incredible day in Iceland, Úlfar took us on a detour to see the cave where the movie Noah was filmed. Unlike the lava tube we had visited earlier in the week, this cave had large, open areas in the ceiling, allowing light to stream in, so you could really see the rock formations in the cave.
Mountain Biking around Hveragerði
Our third and final guided day we decided to do a mountain bike tour around the town of Hveragerði, one of Iceland’s “hot spring” towns. Úlfar set us up with bikes and led us on a tour of the trails around his home town, including stops at an old stone viking house, an earthquake simulator, and one of the town’s geothermal greenhouses (a novelty in a land too barren for trees). For lunch, Úlfar and the boys boiled eggs in the hot spring, which we ate with butter and cheese on fresh rye bread from the local bakery, and bananas from the greenhouse.
After lunch, we biked to another of Úlfar’s secret swimming holes, this one a deep pool with two waterfalls on either side– one cold, glacial water and the other too hot to touch. The land of fire and ice. After a few jumps from the rocks, we all found a spot in the river where the hot and cold water met for a little rest. I think we stayed in the river for almost an hour, completely relaxed, soaking up this magical spot.
When we finally emerged from the river, rested and rejuvenated, we biked along a little single track trail to yet another waterfall, this one icy cold and teeming with wild salmon. Úlfar brought out the wetsuits and snorkel gear and challenged the boys to catch a salmon with their hands. I skipped this last swim, but my husband and oldest both said it was a highlight of the trip. Nobody caught a salmon, but my son swears he had his hands on one.
Hiring a Guide in Iceland
Whether or not to hire a guide to show us around in Iceland was one of my biggest questions in planning the trip. As I think this post illustrates, hooking up with Úlfar of Iceland Activities absolutely made the trip. Even if we could have found these amazing trails and waterfalls on our own (which we definitely could not have), we would have missed so much about the culture, history, folklore, and geology of Iceland.
Choosing the right guide for your family will require some careful research. I contacted at least 3 or 4 other guides before we found Úlfar. Iceland Activities appealed to us immediately. The family run business bases its itineraries around their own experiences camping, hiking, biking, and exploring around Hveragerði. They are passionate outdoorsmen (and women!) with trips designed specifically for families, and have the kind of local knowledge that comes with raising their own kids in the area. Plus, they were all genuine, kind and just plain fun to be around.
Where to Stay in Hveragerði
The town of Hveragerði is about 45 minutes from Reykjavík and nearby many of the popular sites along the Golden Circle, but there’s not a lot going on there. We rented a lake house about 15 minutes outside of town through VRBO, which was perfect. There is a hotel in nearby Selfoss, called Hotel Selfoss, where we had a great breakfast one morning, but in my opinion renting a house is the way to go in this area. Both Hveragerði and Selfoss have grocery stores, and there is a nice fish market in Selfoss, but don’t expect much else. Getting out into the highlands is the appeal of this area.