South Iceland: waterfalls and a hidden geo-thermal pool

We finished Steam Valley in early afternoon and on our way to Vik, hit up some of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls. These sites were touristy but not so crowded that they weren’t enjoyable— at least, not in spring.

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Just off of Ring Road, Seljalandsfoss is 213 feet tall and sounds like the apocalypse. In spring and summer, you can walk a slippery path behind the falls and bask in rainbow-filtered spray.

Gljufurarfoss is a short walk from Seljalandsfoss. At 131 feet it’s smaller, but it may be my favorite Icelandic waterfall. I’d recommend first (carefully!) the small, steep path that takes you through a crevice, about 60 feet up. There’s a rickety wooden ladder that you can climb to lean against a rock lip, close enough to feel the spray from the falls. From there you can peer down into the hidden rock pool below. (No wonder Icelanders believe in fairies.)

After you climb down, you can follow the easier path through another crevice, beneath the falls, and stand in an enclosed cathedral of rock and water. This waterfall is so unique, in a way that really can’t be captured by photos (which is why there’s no photo here). Maybe if you had a really wide angled lens?

From the rock lip above, you can’t lean forward or back enough to get the entire falls and from below, the white sky blows everything out. Plus, the experience is about being encircled and hidden in this intimate, incredible space. Visually the dimensions are too crazy for a flat image to have much impact.

Next we hit Skogafoss (25 ft wide, 200 ft drop). You can edge near the falls, so that you’re basically hit with thunder-in-surround-sound and a drenching spray. There’s also a million stairs to the top of the falls, where you can pause halfway up, walk out onto a small cliff and admire colorful fauna and loads of white birds nestled in crevices. At the top, the trail opens into a big plain, and you can watch the Skoga river pound its way to the drop.

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You can camp in the shadow of the falls, and we considered it, but since daylight lasts forever and it was only about 9 p.m., we headed to Seljavallaug, a gorgeous geo-thermal pool in the mountains, build in 1923.

There’s no electricity, so the changing rooms are dark and damp and generally icky, the pool has some algae, and the water is really only warm in the far corner, near the single pipe from the hot springs. All of this just adds to the old world folk-medicine charm. (It reminded me of spots I’ve visited in the Czech Republic and Kyrgyzstan).

It’s free, and the pool is set amidst lush, mossy mountains. Fog collects on the dark water and the place has a Grimm brothers feel. To get there, turn at the road that says Seljavellir, off Ring Road. There’s a random building and parking lot at the end of the road, and then you hike about 15 minutes across a lava field and a stream, into the mountains.

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For us, the trek seemed even more mystical, because we found the road by following this girl on a rusty old bike, with blond strands escaping a fluffy, marshmallow of a hat. She left her bike in the parking lot and hiked ahead of us to the pool. It felt like we had stepped inside a vintage storybook.7d71a-seljavallalaug

After our swim, we talked to her. She’s tall, Russian, young (I think she said 20) and very, very pretty. She swam in her hat and told us very solemnly that she came to Iceland to work on a horse farm for a few months because she was “very sad” and “needed to think,” and that she bikes to the pool every day. She asked us to take a picture of her with her phone because after the swim, she put on an oversized band t-shirt and leggings and took off the hat, so that her hair waved limply around her high cheekbones and skinny shoulders. (She suddenly transformed from a fairytale Gretel to a sexy-frumpy supermodel).

She said she wanted to send the picture to her friend, a guy in the band. Only then did she smile, dimpling her milk-skin. When we recounted our travels later, to other travelers we met, she became “the beautifully tragic Russian.”

(FYI, floating therapy is a real thing, practiced by lots of people in Scandinavian countries.)

So on our first full day in Iceland, we had two geo-thermal floats and three waterfalls. It felt like an auspicious start.

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