After a few crazy busy days of touring Iceland, I was ready to just relax for a couple of days. Relaxation means different things to different people. For me, when I travel to a new place, relaxation means finding a way to commune with nature. Sometimes at home, even our best intentions don’t influence us, and relaxation means Netflix or novels, but when I travel I try not to waste a moment doing things I can do home. Travel relaxation for me almost always means a good hike.
I asked some locals where they would take a day hike in the Reykjavík area and was directed to Mount Esja. So many people visiting Iceland are focused on doing things like taking amazing tours to glaciers and waterfalls, puffin sighting and horseback riding, things that are so Iceland specific. This made it so the trail I chose was only lightly trekked, so I had perfect quiet time in solitude with nature.
Not having a car that day, I had the privilege to do one of my favorite activities away from home – ride the bus. I even got to transfer! After getting dropped off at the trail head, I did my best to navigate my route on Icelandic language trail maps. No easy feat! I chose the trail up to the Steinn, which translates to “the stone” in Icelandic. This put me on a four mile loop with an altitude gain of roughly 2,000 feet up to a big rock. The actual stone left something to be desired, but the views surely made up for it, and the climb made sure I made I burned off some of the ridiculous amounts of butter I had been consuming on the island.
The trail lead up to the ridge of Mount Esja, starting out winding through groves of short northern pine trees. I looked up at the ridgeline, which was shrouded in low heavy clouds, and was sure I was going to get rained on. But at an elevation of only about 100 feet on a steep hike, I started to heat up and shed layers, fully aware of the chill I’d probably catch when I got to higher and cooler elevations, with the moisture in the air to boot.
The low pines met up with a stream that I could hear before I saw. The water splashed down the mountain over rock and stone making one tiny waterfall after another. And then there were the lupine. I had been searching for fields of the violet flowers since I’d arrived in Iceland. It seemed like it was the end of the season for them at sea level, but there was no shortage of the blooms on the slopes of Esja. The lupine is a plant native to Alaska and was brought to Iceland to combat soil erosion. As pretty as it is, its very invasive and there is a big debate between the locals on whether the lupine is friend or foe. In my opinion, they are so pretty I just want to live in a field of them till I’m old.
I kept following the little stream up the mountain and the climb kept on at a steep but manageable pitch. Let me tell you, I have a much easier time with elevation gain when I have a hiking partner; this hike went slower than Christmas for me. I got passed by literally everyone – like, little old ladies and very small children. And yet, she persisted.
The trail went higher and higher and I could look back in the direction that I came from and see all of Reykjavík and Kollafjörður, and the mouth of Hvalfjörður. By that time the temperature had dropped the coat went back on my back and the gloves came on as the drizzle began. At the marker for the Steinn there were people signing the log book with their names and the places in the world that they hailed from. I was glad to join in on the ritual and add my name and locale of Monterey, CA – the other edge of the continental plate.
Incidentally, I descended Mount Esja just as slow as I ascended. Steep slopes are hard on the knees! Also, two super fit girls full on ran past me while having a conversation.
The next day I was glad to put on something other than workout clothes and actually get dressed. I spent the day exploring Reykjavík, going into little shops and visiting the town sights. And of course, treating myself to ice cream after being so active over the previous few days. Valdís Gelato came highly recommended and I was happy to visit the parlor twice during my time in Iceland.
The grandest building in town is most surely the Harpa Concert Hall. Sitting over the water next to the marina, the sun reflects against all the different colored glass panels that make up the walls of the building. At night the panels are the backdrop for a lightshow, shining like a beacon against the otherwise quaint and charming seaside architecture of the rest of the city. The lobby is also filled with artsy little shops where you can get great Icelandic souvenirs. Even if you’re not seeing a show, the building is great to walk around for the architecture alone.
Another striking building in Reykjavík is the Hallgrímskirkja. A Lutheran church standing 244 feet high in Gothic Expressionist style architecture, it is the tallest building in the capitol city. Exploring the inside of the church, you’ll find clean lines and tall windows that give a dramatic feel against the sparse decoration. There is also a very impressive pipe organ looming over the scene. Outside of the church there is a tribute statue to Leif Erikson, given by the United States on the occasion of the Iceland’s millennial celebration in 1930.
Shopping in Reykjavík gives you a strong sense of the Icelandic culture. The people of Iceland love to show off their Nordic heritage in their goods and wears. From wool sweaters and fur hats, to trinkets with Nordic symbols, to salt harvested from the western Fjords, the people of Iceland are a proud and welcoming folk, glad to share their love of the land.
Click through the gallery below for more and stay tuned for my final installment on Iceland!