I watch as my horse’s hoof comes down, slips, and dislodges a few stones. I watch as the stones skitter off the trail, down the cliff-side, and disappear into the valley far below. Before leaving on this trek, the guides assured us all that Icelandic horses are supremely sure-footed. At this moment, I am hoping this was not an exaggeration.
We are on route to the Reykjadalur valley and hot springs, nestled in the Hengill region, 40 minutes outside of Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital. Hengill is a still-active volcano; its steep ridges the source of the vertiginous trail I find myself following, and its geothermal effect the source of the hot springs I am riding toward.
It is possible to hike to Reykjadalur on foot, but my traveling companion insisted on horseback as a preferred mode of locomotion. As my mount slips again, sending another clutch of pebbles into the void, I remain unconvinced. I have to admit, though, that horseback riding in Iceland is an experience all to itself. Icelandic horses are unique to the island nation and fiercely protected as a source of national pride. They are renowned for their easy gait, called the tölt, but I have some difficulty putting my life in the hooves of an animal I’ve just met moments ago.
Eventually, the path swerves away from the cliff’s edge as we crest a ridge and the valley comes into view. Iceland’s geology is largely formed through volcanic activity. Its extensive network of caves and subterranean tunnels, for example, were primarily formed by the flow of lava as opposed to water. Likewise, Iceland’s continuous volcanic activity has produced a lunar landscape of craggy ridges and lava-bitten boulders that seems miles from civilization or any life at all. For this reason, Reykjadalur is all the more impressive, beautiful and surprising.
As we crest one of Hengill’s many ridges, Reykjadalur seems to bloom from below, a verdant carpet surrounded by walls of volcanic stone. Reykjadalur means “Smokey Valley” and its name is well-earned. Winding streams snake through the greenery while steam drifts lazily into the air.
Once we’ve reached the valley, we dismount and allow our horses to graze. There are no changing cabins in the valley, so most of us simply wade knee-deep into the nearest stream, while those of us who’d thought to pack or wear a bathing suit sink deeper into the geothermal waters.
Now imagine: the hot springs are 40 degrees Celsius, as warm and comfortable as a bath, but, rather than tiled walls and a tattered loofah, I am surrounded by an expanse of lush grass dotted with feeding horses and hemmed in by black rock mountains.
It is a quintessentially Icelandic experience, and one not to be missed.
Written by Andre Farant