John on Hengilssvæðið
In the thick of Hengilssvæðið, which last erupted in 1789 (Tom Adkinson)

Our bus drove down a long black lava winding road. Not a tree in sight, just lava, more lava and mountains. It was a hazy afternoon with a hint of rain in the air. Our planned hike had been canceled. Too muddy and slippery for a group of writers and photographers.

It was disappointing to learn that our hike to a hot spring was not going to happen. We had all been told to wear bathing suits under our hiking clothes to enjoy a soak in a natural hot pool on our hike.

The strangely stark landscape of Hengilssvæðið

Being in Iceland feels like you’re on some distant planet. The trail wound between rocks and moss, without a tree in sight. Other than the mountains, the only thing there was to look at were the trail crossing signs. They looked like something that would be in any neighborhood, identifying crossroads. Out here they were surreal.

Hiking Hengilssvæðið
One of the many trail junction signs we encountered

Without a map in hand, the names meant nothing to us. We followed our guide as he led us across the barren terrain. Mixing into the haze, what looked like the smoke from dozens of individual campfires rose off in the distance.

Hengilssvæðið hike
A haze from steam meets the clouds

It wasn’t smoke we were seeing. It was steam. When we arrived at the first pool, our guide warned us not to put our fingers or hands into the water it was just below the boiling point. As we continued, some of these small pools were gently boiling. Others were at a full rolling boil.

A boiling stream rushing down the hillside
One of the deeper boiling pools

The paths were steep and slippery as we began our climb. The views of the treeless hills and twisting streams were beautiful. Under a blue sky, this would be what you would expect to see in a tourism brochure.

Near the top, using a chain mounted into the rock to help pull yourself up the trail, we could hear the hissing and churning of a huge fumarole.

Hengilssvæðið hike
Yes, we had to climb that rocky slope by hanging onto the chain
Hengilssvæðið hike
The closer I got the more daunting it looked, but we all did fine

Nearby we spotted an odd little building, a thin triangular structure. Tom and I were in the rear of the group, making guesses about what it could be. Mine was a privy with the best view in the park. Tom, the more practical of us, thought no, it was probably a small warming hut for use during the winter.

Hengilssvæðið hike
Triangle with a view

Curiosity got the best of me so I headed up to the top to solve this riddle. Tom was not far behind. When I opened the door he yelled, “Well?” I told him that it was probably the best seat with a view in the park.

I think we were both right. During the summer, it is a privy with a great view. Then in winter it is a combination privy and warming hut. With ideas like this, maybe that is why Tom and I were far behind the crowd.

Our first stream crossing was just a little to wide too jump across. A few tried, and were pleasantly surprised that the water was only lukewarm. I was the only one of the group in waterproof leather hiking boots. And it was the first time I have ever crossed a warm water stream. In a valley, we reached an intersection of two streams. From a distance, we could see the steam floating above the water as it wound its way to the bottom.

Hengilssvæðið Hetta
Strangely symmetrical confluence of hot streams

Our guide instructed to remove our shoes and soak our feet in the water. If the water wasn’t warm enough, just move up the stream until you found the temperature you liked! It was here we soaked our feet and enjoyed Icelandic chocolate.

Pausing to soak our feet

From the valley we started our ascent following along the stream. As we climbed, we could see the boiling pools as they poured into the stream. This was the first place that I could see the colors of minerals as they were deposited by the flowing hot water.

Hengilssvæðið hike
Vapors rise all around on Hengilssvæðið

Crossing one stream, only a few feet away I saw a small ring of stones, maybe six inches across. In the center was a roil of boiling water. I was thinking, if I placed a pot right there, what could I be cooking?

Hengilssvæðið hike
Warning: hot stuff off the trail

About halfway up the side of the mountain when I looked back I saw what I first thought what looked like a caldera. I quickly dismissed the idea because there was a big piece missing. I wasn’t until I reached the top and looked again, that I realized it was a huge caldera, and that the missing piece is where the lava probably spilled out thousands of years ago.

Yes, I guess this IS a caldera after all!

Back at the room, I showed Sandy the pictures. Her eyes got wide and she looked up something on the computer. Then looked at me and said, “You were walking across a live volcano!”

Hike Hengilssvæðið

Hengilssvæðið – Hengill in English – is the nearest active volcano to Reykjavik, with boiling rivers and springs and other geothermal features along a 140 km network of hiking trails started in 1991. Care must be taken to stay on the footpaths due to the intense heat of geothermal features, with warnings signposted in many areas. Colors on signs indicate the difficulty level of each trail. The 100 square kilometer area is the one of the most extensive natural geothermal areas in Iceland. It is best not to hike alone here. The last eruption here was in 1789.

See more photos from this hike
See maps and hiking details in Icelandic
Download a brochure in English

Trailhead map Hengilssvæðið
Trailhead map