Other than seeing the Northern Lights, one of the things I was most excited to see on my recent trip to Iceland was the Grjótagjá hot springs cave.
While you’ve probably never heard of it before, if you’re a Game of Thrones fan you might recognize it from a particular scene (insert joke here about eight inches of Snow).
The cave itself has been around for centuries and served as a popular bathing spot, but in 1975, a volcanic eruption rendered the cave unswimmable, due to an extreme rise in the temperature of the water. Thankfully, the cave has been cooling slightly every year since then, and is now tolerable for swimming (albeit still very hot).
First, I would only recommend going here if you are spending a week or more in Iceland. It is located in the less-traveled northern part of Iceland, which takes quite a while to reach by car. (Though if you only have a few days in Iceland but really want to see it, you can always book a cheap flight from Reykjavik Airport (RKV, not KEF) to Akureyri Airport).
While Grjótagjá is easier to find in the summer, it can be a bit difficult finding it in the winter, especially given that it is not listed correctly on Google Maps. The blue star indicates where it actually is; the red pin indicates where Google thinks it is:
Highway 860 is clearly marked with a sign for Grjótagjá from both the entrances on Highway 1 (the Ring Road) and Highway 848, but you’ll want to enter from the Ring Road, as the road does not go all the way through certain times of the year.
Once you turn onto the road, be on the lookout on your right for a parking lot. There will usually be a few other cars there but if not, looked for a paved/groomed area where you can pull off. It is not very well-marked.
In addition to a small sign, there are two very nondescript entrances, looking like nothing more than a crack in the ground.
Getting down there
While you don’t have to go too far down, it is still somewhat of a scramble (especially in winter conditions), and you should wear appropriate shoes with sufficient traction. Do NOT go down in just your swimsuit, as it is extremely cold. It might also help if you have a flashlight of some sort, as it can be very dark.
Once you finish getting down, you will be rewarded with a spectacular sight like no other:
Be very careful! It is very slippery on the rocks down there!
While the sign outside instructs people not to swim in the cave, this is generally disregarded. However, as I mentioned before, the water is very hot! While I did not have a thermometer with me, the temperature of the water is estimated to be roughly 113 degrees Fahrenheit, or 45 degrees Celsius. This is getting pretty close to the upper limits of what the human body can tolerate. Though I highly recommend getting in the water, you will not want to move around very much, instead just staying still and relaxing. The more you move, the more the temperature of the water will hurt.
Also, while nude bathing is generally not very common in Iceland, there is an expectation here for people to not wear any clothes into the water, solely to avoid contaminating the water with anything that might be found on a bathing suit. Obviously there is no one here to enforce this rule and no one will be stopped from entering with clothes, but it’s always a good idea to respect the local customs when traveling in a foreign country.
Follow the sunlight!