This region makes for an ideal day trip from Reykjavík or anywhere within reach. The highlights listed below follow a circular route up the northwest side of the Þjórsá on Route 32, and back down the southeast side on Route 26. No bus tours cover the area, so you'll need a car. Come prepared for a long stretch without food or facilities. If you're planning a hike in the Stöng/Gjáin/Háifoss area, bring a map. Uppsveitir Árnessýlu, a brochure widely available in the Hveragerði-Selfoss area, is crude but adequate. Connoisseurs of unlikely bathing spots will want a suit and towel.
Along Route 32
Þjórsárdalslaug (tel. 898-3763; admission 500kr/$8/£4; discounts for children; June-Aug Wed-Fri 11am-7pm; Sat-Sun 10am-7pm; confirming the hours is advised; closed Sept-May), a geothermally heated public swimming pool, is at a wonderfully random spot in an expanse of nothingness. To reach the pool, turn left off Route 32 onto a gravel road roughly 25km (16 miles) past Árnes; the only signs are a swimmer icon and the name of the abandoned farm, Reykholt. The pool is 6km (3 3/4 miles) ahead.
Returning to Route 32 and continuing east for approximately 2km (1 1/4 miles), you'll see a marked turnoff for Hjálparfoss, a picturesque waterfall on the right. It's certainly worth the about 1km (1/2 mile) detour. Clamber up to the vantage point above the cascade.
Return to Route 32 from Hjálparfoss, turn right, and immediately cross a bridge. Within another 1km (1/2 mile) you'll come to a gravel road (Rte. 327) on the left. It's marked with a small sign for Stöng, which is 7km (4 1/3 miles) down the gravel road. The road is very rough, but usually passable -- if only just -- in a conventional car. From the parking area, look for the red-roofed building that houses the ruins. All that remains of Stöng are the simple stone foundations of a 12th-century Viking longhouse, but it's probably the most intact Saga Age building yet excavated. The ruins were preserved by ash from the first recorded Mt. Hekla eruption in 1104. As many as 20 farms once occupied this area, which is hard to believe from the bleak vistas seen today. Informative panels map the layout of the women's' quarters, central fireplace, barn, smithy, and church, which has been reconstructed with driftwood.
The lush, peaceful gorge of Gjáin, in the Rauðá (Red River), full of wildflowers and curious rock formations, is only a 10-minute walk from Stöng; the well-worn trail leaves right from the ruins. Gjáin (pronounced GYOW-in) is so lovely that several people are rumored to have had their ashes spread there.
A very short distance past the turnoff to Stöng and reached by a marked right turn off Route 32, Þjóðveldisbærinn (tel. 488-7713; www.thjodveldisbaer.is; admission 500kr ($8/£4) adults, free for seniors and children under 13; June-early Sept 10am-noon and 1-6pm ) is an ambitious reconstruction of a Viking-era homestead -- the only such project in Iceland. The longhall design is mostly based on the excavated ruins at Stöng, but is meant to represent all similar settlements from the 11th and 12th centuries. (Consider visiting Þjóðveldisbærinn before Stöng, to better visualize what Stöng once looked like.) It's striking to compare the Vikings' commodious interiors to the damp, claustrophobic living quarters in 19th-century turf farmhouses preserved all over Iceland. Settlers had more access to wood for construction and were not as concerned with insulation since Iceland was warmer before the mid-12th century. The builders of Þjóðveldisbærinn restricted themselves to the same technology available to the Vikings 900 years ago. The exhibit also explains Viking home economics, like how many kilometers a woman had to walk in circles to spin a length of cloth.
Háifoss, a slender and beautiful waterfall, the second tallest in Iceland at 122 meters (400 ft.), is reached by a very rough gravel road. The turnoff, marked "Háifoss" and "Hólaskógur," is on the left side of Route 32, roughly 10km (6 miles) past the turnoff for Þjóðveldisbærinn. (Soon after exiting for Háifoss, another road branches off to the left toward Gjáin and Stöng; this road should not be attempted without four-wheel drive.) Hólaskógur is a mountain hut 2km (1 1/4 miles) from Route 32, and Háifoss is roughly 6km (3 3/4 miles) farther. The last stretch of the road may be too rough for a regular car; stop at Hólaskógur and ask about road conditions. In any case, Háifoss is a memorable sight and worth the hike (less than 8km/5 miles) even all the way from Route 32.
Hekla & Environs
Shortly after the turnoff for Háifoss, Route 32 crosses the Þjórsá and dead-ends at Route 26. A right turn leads you back to the Ring Road, passing close to the base of Hekla, Iceland's most notorious volcano. After a few kilometers (about 2 miles), you'll pass the 4WD road F225 to Landmannalaugar on the left. About 4km (5 miles) later, look out to the right until you see Tröllkonuhlaup, a short but broad and commanding waterfall with an island in the middle; the turnoff is unmarked, but you can easily find your way to the stepladder that climbs over the fence.
At this point you're as close as the road will come to Hekla, the majestic, oblong, snow-crested peak rising distinctly from the plains. Hekla is the second most active volcano in Iceland, and its white collar masks its molten heart: Hekla means "hood," a name derived from the clouds that usually surround and obscure the peak.
For most nationalities, natural disasters are just periodic intervals in their collective memory. In Iceland's national story, Hekla and its ilk are vital players. A 1585 map of Iceland pictures Hekla in mid-eruption, with the caption: "Hekla, cursed with eternal fires and snow, vomits rocks with a hideous sound." Hekla's first recorded eruption in 1104 blanketed every farm and village within a 50km (31-mile) radius. Since then it's erupted over 100 times. Since the 1970s, Hekla has erupted about once per decade, with the last occurrence in 2000. An enormous reforestation project, covering 1% of Iceland's entire land surface, aims to surround Hekla with trees. The trees should survive the acrid precipitation better than low-lying vegetation, and can even absorb the flow of lava.
Ascending Hekla -- Hekla remained unclimbed until 1750 -- perhaps because in popular mythology, it was the gateway to hell. (The rumblings heard for months after each eruption were tormented souls.) Climbing Hekla is no piece of cake: A round-trip hike to the 1,488m (4,751-ft.) summit takes at least 8 hours. A trail on the north side is well-marked, but don't attempt it without a good map and expert advice on current conditions. One good source is the Hekla information center (tel. 487-8700) at Leirubakki Farm on Route 26, near the mountain. Another is Ferðafélag Íslands (tel. 568-2533; www.fi.is), Iceland's premier hiking organization, which leads an annual overnight climb to celebrate the summer solstice. Hekla is usually capped in snow, but the summit crater formed in 2000 is still hot.
Toppferðir, at Gistiheimilið Brenna in Hella (tel. 864-5530; www.mmedia.is/toppbrenna), ascends Hekla by snow tractor from December to mid-June for around 10,000kr ($160/£80) per person. Mountain Taxi (tel. 544-5252; www.arcticsafari.is), based in Reykjavík, leads a 10- to 12-hour circuit of Hekla in Super Jeeps, with a stop for a dip in the Landmannalaugar hot spring.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.