Your Guide to Iceland‘s Hot Springs
Iceland is a remote island in the north Atlantic Ocean, not easily accessible via boat and notorious for treacherous weather. So why on earth did the early Viking settlers find this a preferable place to live?
There is of course the vast and glorious wilderness, magnificent natural wonders and otherworldly contradictions in nature but essentially there’s one good reason that makes Iceland not just habitable but is still considered one of its main attractions. This is the natural geothermal heat or as they’re popularly named in their most practical form: hot springs.
What is a hot spring?
A hot spring is place where the underground geothermal water rises up to the surface and forms a pool of warm water or runs through the landscape losing some of its temperature along the way. These can be small holes the size of your fist, full of water with steam rising out of them, large warm lagoons, hot spots in the middle of cold lakes or the sea, warm rivers that vary in temperature depending on how far from the source you go and even hot waterfalls that work like nice showers on hiking trails. We’re not making this up. Most people probably think of geysers when they hear of hot springs and that column of water rising up from the boiling pool underneath. But imagine sailing out of a fjord to what seems to be the middle of the ocean with a knowledgeable captain that stops at a certain point and offers you a nice relaxing soak in an invisible “hot tub”. Because of Iceland’s extreme geothermal activity, these openings of hot water can be found anywhere, that includes the sea, the bottom of a freezing cold lake and in the middle of the rugged highlands.
What causes a hot spring?
Hot springs are usually formed when groundwater is heated up by pockets of magma on its way to the surface or when traveling through fractures or faults in the Earth’s crust. The composition of the water is therefore often quite different from fresh water although the actual composition varies greatly from one hot spring to the next. The same goes for their temperatures that can range from a few degrees to boiling, depending on their travels, location and activity.
Why does Iceland have so many hot springs?
Iceland lies on top of and is part of the Mid Atlantic Ridge, the line of boundary between the North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian one. There are places in Iceland where you can visibly see the two tectonic plates, visible evidence of their slow movement apart and even stand between them. This makes Iceland geologically active in almost every sense of that word. This island has numerous active volcanoes, frequent earthquakes and an abundance of hot springs. They all stem from the same source, the fact that the tectonic plates are shifting apart, creating geological tension with earthquakes, build up of magma from the movements and hot pockets that result in volcanic eruptions and finally, a shallow crust and short distance to the magma or lava that heats up groundwater.
What are the benefits of soaking in a hot spring?
The waters in hot springs differ greatly in their composition of minerals, depending on their source and their underground travels. This means that while some might be extremely acid, others are very alkaline and everything in between. The mud that often accompanies these hot springs is likewise full of minerals and often considered to have extreme healing properties. The silica mud of the Blue Lagoon is a good example, known for its dermatological wellness properties. Aside from the healthy skin treatments, a soak in 42°C or 108°F is a dream come true for cold, tired and stressed bodies and nothing in the world feels as good as a hot spring when you’re in the middle of a strenuous hike in the highlands.
Can you swim in Iceland’s hot springs?
Yes, if you can bathe in them, you can swim in them. The popular ones are however usually hotter than your average comfortable temperature for exercising. Most people reserve their swimming for the pools, kept at a significantly cooler temperature and widely available all over Iceland. The hot springs are primarily for soaking, for wellness and above all, for relaxing.
Are hot springs in Iceland free?
The natural baths you’ll find in the wilderness usually are. You might have to pay a fee at the most popular parking lots or for man-made facilities that accompany them. Some are on private property and with landowners struggling to accommodate visitors to the most popular sights, they sometimes try to fund basic accessibility facilities like walkways or parking lots with a small fee. Keep in mind that if you are on private property, you need permission and in Iceland, we ask first and don’t really have to apologize later.
How hot are the hot springs in Iceland?
Don’t forget that geysers are technically hot springs and those erupting columns of water have reached boiling temperatures before rising. Don’t take any unnecessary risks if you come across a steaming body of water in the landscape, and never, ever jump in without checking to see if its safe first. Also keep in mind that a body of water can vary greatly in temperature from where you stepped in and in other parts like the bottom or near the source where the temperature could be scolding. The most popular baths are the ones that vary between 38-44°C, much like the hot tubs you’ll find at every swimming pool in Iceland.
Are hot springs in Iceland safe?
That’s a very appropriate question and the answer isn’t as obvious as you might think. The most famous natural hot springs known for bathing are quite safe, with a consistent temperature and at least some man-made facilities. Other hot springs are definitely not safe for bathing as their temperatures are near boiling and serious accidents have occurred when people have fallen into these geysers or springs. Then there’s the ones that are generally regarded as safe, but everyone should exercise caution. These are, for example, Reykjadalsá near Hveragerði, a popular river for bathing at the hiking trail in Reykjadalur valley. The bottom of the river can be muddy, and the temperatures vary from point to point in the river so people have burnt their skin when sinking into the muddy bottom at a place that is unusually hot. These are natural phenomena, and the temperatures usually aren’t regulated by human technology. Be careful, remember that you’re not in a regulated pool and you should be alright.
Are hot springs healthy?
Some are considered very healthy with stories of miracle-like healing from their mineral rich mud. The silica mud of the Blue Lagoon and the Mývatn Nature Baths is renowned for its healing properties, especially for people suffering from psoriasis. The temperature of a hot bath and soaking in hot water is known to soothe sore joints, muscles and arthritis and the relaxing ritual of letting it all go in a soak of warm water is, in our humble opinion, the best stress relief and wellness remedy available. At its most basic function, natural hot springs in the highlands are a popular part of hiking trails and nothing really beats the feeling of stripping down to be renewed and invigorated in the perfect temperature of a hot spring.
Iceland's most popular hot spring spas
In its most luxurious form, the hot springs have been turned into wellness spas and lagoons. These are the high-end experience of Iceland’s geothermal heat. While some are completely man made, such as the Blue Lagoon and Sky Lagoon, others are originally a rustic hot spring experience that has been slowly upgraded throughout the years, such as the Secret Lagoon. We’ve written a special blog about our luxury lagoons but we highly recommend both the wild natural baths and the luxury spa treat version of our absolute best resource. If you’re in a rush, here’s a short list of Iceland’s most popular hot spring spas:
- Blue Lagoon
- Sky Lagoon
- Secret Lagoon
- Laugarvatn Fontana Spa
- Mývatn Nature Baths
- Vök Baths
Geothermal pools in Iceland
There are geothermal pools all around Iceland. It might come as a surprise but indoor pools in Iceland are an exception and to most Icelandic children, they’re a great and exotic treat. The more common outdoor pools are open all year round and heated with geothermal water. The exception to this is the colder areas of Iceland in the West and East. By colder, we mean geothermally colder. Iceland’s oldest parts are the Westfjords and the East fjords and they are geologically cooler than their younger and more active South and North counterparts. That’s why you’ll see fewer outdoor pools in the West and East and more modest indoor versions. Nearly every town and village has a pool though and every pool is accompanied by a hot tub or hot tubs in various temperatures. These hot tubs have a social function in Iceland, not unlike the pubs in England. This is where you stop on your way home from work or after dinner to relax, hang out and catch up with your neighbors, friends and family. It’s a casual affair but a great source of the town chatter or to just feel out the current atmosphere of your community. Check out our blog about Iceland’s Swimming Pools with tips on our favorite pools all over Iceland.
Photo: Seljavallalaug hot spring
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