The Swimming Pool at the End of the Universe

Overlooking the pool at the end of the universe on the coast of Iceland

As an Amazon Affiliate, we may get compensation for purchases made through Amazon links in our articles. To learn more about our affiliation policy, please review our Ethics, Standards, and Correction Policy.

Iceland is a land of swimming pools. The locals are crazy for them. They are a neat and tidy bunch, the Icelanders, and also in winter they only have four or five hours of honest to goodness daylight, so they need something to do outdoors. Since they don’t actually have a lot of snow except on the glaciers, they can’t cross country ski like the rest of their Scandinavian brethren. Pools it is.

The source of Iceland’s pools

Because Iceland is basically one giant pile of volcanoes, there’s geothermal energy essentially everywhere, so Icelanders can and do sometimes make swimming pool sized hot tubs. They can be cracks in the ground that people have been using for a thousand years- like Grettislaug near Sauðárkrókur in the north central part of the island. Or they can be giant commercial tourist trap affairs, like the Blue Lagoon near the airport or the new Sky Lagoon in the capital Reykjavík. Or it might just be a small town with a huge steaming pool, as in Hofsós (east of Sauðárkrókur) where it’s basically an infinity pool looking out over an absurdly scenic fjord.

Image of the author in an Iceland hot put on the southern coast off the Snæfellsnes Peninsula with ocean and green hills covered by fog in the background
The author in a hot pot on the southern coast of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula (Courtesy of Tola Marts)

The Icelanders call all of these things “hot pots.” The cardinal rule is that you must, must, must thoroughly shower all parts of your body before entering. They even have varying degrees of passive aggressive public service signs and videos cheerfully but firmly reminding you of this rule.

Image of the author's son in an Iceland hot put on the southern coast off the Snæfellsnes Peninsula with ocean and green hills covered by fog in the background
The author’s son in a hot pot on the southern coast of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula (Courtesy of Tola Marts)

The definitive guide to hot pots in Iceland is “Thermal Pools in Iceland” by Jón G. Snæland, Þóra Sigurbjörnsdóttir, and Wincie Jóhannsdóttir, available on Amazon.

Why Iceland?

My family has travelled to Iceland three times- the whole fam for a three night layover to Europe in 2016, a winter drive around the Ring Road with my son in 2018, and then a summer trip to the Westfjords with my son in 2021. In all three trips, hot pots played a big part of our adventures, and in the most recent trip Aidan and I found a hot pot that was well and truly off the beaten path, more so than any place else I’ve ever been, anywhere. And I’ve ridden through the Yukon.

One way to think about Iceland is to compare it to Hawaii. The southeast bits of Hawaii are the biggest and most actively volcanic, and the northwest bits are the oldest and most eroded by waves and weather. Then you have Honolulu in the southwest, jammed full with tourists.

Reykjavík and the Golden Circle are the Icelandic equivalent of Honolulu in this analogy. The Reykjavík area has something like 3/4 of the people on the island, and feels a lot like any other European city of approximately a quarter of a million people. If you only have 12 or 24 hours to explore Iceland on your way someplace else, then by all means drive the Golden Circle and then hit the pubs in Reykjavík. But you’ll be with 50,000 of your fellow thrill seekers, and you’ll miss all the best stuff in Iceland.

So we usually get out of the Reykjavík area as quickly as possible. In my Hawaii analogy, the Westfjords are the equivalent of Kauai, and the big volcanoes of the south coast and Diamond Beach / Jökulsárlón are the equivalent of the Big Island.

The Westfjords

We usually avoid crowds when travelling and the Westfjords are the least visited part of Iceland. This is because they are relatively far away, no where near the big paved and “civilized” Ring Road (the 1000km paved road that runs more or less around the perimeter of the island with gas and food every 50 to 100km), and a bit of a challenge to drive. There are many stretches of unpaved road in the Westfjords including in mountain passes, which are not very high but because sea level is usually only a few degrees above freezing in winter, even 300 and 500m passes are often full of foul weather in winter. So tourist travel to the Westfjords is currently not recommended in winter, and all the tourist destinations are closed or minimally staffed in winter. Iceland is building an all season road to the provincial capital Ísafjörður, and one can expect that the whole area will be much more developed in just a few years. But it will still be sparsely populated and far from Reykjavík, so perhaps it won’t be ruined.

To get to the Westfjords, you turn off of the Ring Road about an hour and a half north of Reykjavík, which is itself about an hour north of the airport. The turn off is a paved but nondescript road- it’s important to remember that the entire country beyond Reykjavík only has something like 90,000 people, and the Westfjords region only has 7000 of those people, and 3800 of those are in and around Ísafjörður. And few tourists. So there’s not a lot of traffic, or need for big roads.

The road to get there

Our goal for this adventure was Krossneslaug, a hot pot built out of a geothermal spring out at the end of the Strandir Coast. The Westfjords look kind of like some giant primordial 12 or 15 fingered claw flexing out into the North Atlantic. The Strandir Coast is the eastern shore of the easternmost “finger” of the Westfjords. The dirt road Strandavegur that serves the coast is about 100km long, and there’s something like 70 people on it north of the town of Drangsnes at the southern end, a couple of hours from the Ring Road turnoff. It takes about two hours to drive one way to the end.

Image of the Strandavegur road on the Strandir Coast with hells to the left and some grass before the water on the right
Strandavegur north of Drangsnes (Courtesy of Tola Marts)

The Strandir Coast is famous/infamous for being associated with witchcraft. In the old days the Icelanders were just as ignorant as anybody else, and they sometimes accused their neighbors of witchcraft. It could get you killed, but if you were lucky you were just exiled to the Strandir Coast. Which probably meant a slow death by starvation. We did not see any witches.

A word about dirt roads. Icelanders really don’t want you taking garden variety rental cars on their remote mountainous roads. The main reason is that it’s easy to get stuck on either boulders or in rivers, and the general rule in Iceland is “we let you do what you want, but if you get in trouble you’re going to have to pay for it.” Tourists get mad when they hydrolock their Peugeots in a river and there’s a $5000 bill to fix it. So the serious roads (called “F” roads) are only open in summer, and only open to 4×4 vehicles- the higher the clearance the better.

All this to say- Strandavegur is not an “F” road. It’s closed in winter, and it’s dirt with sharp, probably fatal dropoffs, but it’s relatively flat and well graded with minimal debris, and no river crossings. So you can take your whatevermobile all the way to the end, assuming it’s open. Again, there are only something like 70 people on the 100km road, with large sections of no cell service, so if you break down or go in a ditch you’re going to put a serious dent in your schedule and your wallet. There are also places where you’re running along the base of a fjord wall- best not to think about the 300 to 500m of loose rock directly above you.

Image of logs resting above a gray gravel beach
Logs on a beach that sit on the Strandir Coast (Courtesy of Tola Marts)

One of the things you will notice along the way are logs on the shore. This is weird because there are almost no trees on Iceland. When the Vikings arrived a thousand years ago, something like 30 or 40% of the island was covered in forest, but the Icelanders had not evolved the intense environmental sensitivity they now possess, and they chopped all the forests down to make more room to graze sheep. (Sheep now graze every patch of the island that has grass.) So where did the logs come from? Biologists have matched them to trees from the Yenisey River in Siberia! The trees die, and the logs come down the river to the Arctic Ocean, and the currents pull them west to Iceland.

You weave in and out of a whole bunch of fjords on the way north. One of the few human structures you come across is this enormous abandoned herring factory in a hamlet called Djúpavík:

image of an abandoned white factory and surrounding two to three story buildings on the Strandir coast in a hamlet called Djúpavík with cliffs in the background
Abandoned herring factory in Djúpavík (Courtesy of Tola Marts)

This location would make an excellent chapter in a future Half Life release. In fact, all Iceland would be good for Half Life or Left For Dead. But this place in particular. Just off to the left is a giant fjord wall with a sublime 300+ meter series of waterfalls.

Image of a waterfall surrounded by green landscape coming down one of the fjord walls
Waterfall on the fjord walls (Courtesy of Tola Marts)

Eventually you get to the end of the road, where “most” of the 70 people live. Here’s a map of the area- Icelanders love maps:

Map of the Árneshrepper region with the various towns and villages on the Strandir Coast
Map of the Árneshrepper region in Iceland (Courtesy of Tola Marts)

If you look closely on the right, you can see a little fishing village called Norðurfjörður, and then around a point of land is the swimming pool Krossneslaug.

All of Norðurfjörður including Kafi Norðurfjörður is only open and accessible in the summer months- not sure what the locals do in the winter (Reykjavík?) but we got basic hearty Icelandic fare at Kafi Norðurfjörður, including the ubiquitous fish pie, which is basically fish hot dish (“casserole” if you’re not from Minnesota…)

Image of the author and his son eating at Kafi Norðurfjörður
The author and his son at Kafi Norðurfjörður with the marina breakwater beyond (Courtesy of Tola Marts)
Image of fish casserole served at Kafi Norðurfjörður
Fish pie (fish casserole) is probably the second most common dish in Iceland after lamb stew (Courtesy of Tola Marts)

After lunch it’s on to Krossneslaug:

Image of people in the Krossnelaug pool with the ocean and hills in the backdrop
View of the Krossnelaug Pool (Courtesy of Tola Marts)

The pool at the end of the universe

You have to hike down from the parking area, watching scalding hot water bubbling out of the hillside. Water is cleaned and cooled and pumped into the pool. Attendants appear to be college aged kids brought in from… Reykjavík?… to be bored out of their minds for a summer of reminding the locals and tourists to wash properly before entering the pool. They live in tents out behind the main building. I can only imagine what young bored teenagers do to keep themselves occupied during a summer in the middle of nowhere.

From here you lounge in the pool and try to look across the Húnaflói to see the Icelandic “mainland” to the east. When we were there in July 2021 the Icelanders had just lifted the travel restrictions for tourists a few weeks earlier, and almost everywhere we went in the Westfjords it was 100% locals talking in Icelandic. They were not rude, but they did not generally offer conversation, unlike the chatty European, Asian and North American people found further south.

Mission accomplished

So there it is. Three hours on the big roads, and then two hours on the regional roads, and then two hours on twisty dirt roads the Swimming Pool at the End of the Universe.

Image of the Strandir coast with flat brown in the foreground and mountains in the background under partly cloudy skies
Strandir Coast (Courtesy of Tola Marts)

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: