Updated: Sep 12
If you are strolling in the Old Harbour area of Reykjavik you will have seen the mighty Mount Esja. Rather than a single mountain, Esja is in fact a chain of mountains. These basalt and tuff peaks stretch out across Faxafloi Bay beyond the capital city.
The layered mountains here were formed by volcanic activity beginning some 3.2 million years ago. The oldest area in the western part of the range. They rose up around the beginning of the Ice Age. The highest peak tops out at 914 meters and the range is crisscrossed with hiking trails.
Hiking Mount Esja makes for a great day trip out of the city and it is a popular place to visit in Iceland. From the top the views out across the city and the bay are spectacular. On summer weekends Reykjavik families and groups of friends will hike and picnic here. In fact, it is possible to hike Mount Esja year-round. So if you are visiting the capital in winter you can enjoy snowy scenes too. In this article, we shall explain all you need to know about exploring Mount Esja.
How to get to Mount Esja
Mt Esja is just 20km from the capital and you can easily reach the mountain by public transport. However, you will need to keep an eye on the time so that you don’t miss the last bus connection. If you are hiring a camper van or car then it makes things very simple. There is a large parking lot serving the area with a restaurant and information boards. This is the point from which all the hikes start and there are several options open to you.
Mount Esja hiking trails
This is a really popular hike and very well marked. So as long as the weather is settled the hiking here is safe and easy. There is a grading system ranging from the difficulty of the trails. They range from one boot for easy to three boots for the more challenging routes. The route to the highest point takes between two and four hours to complete. It all depends on your fitness level and pace and which route up you choose to take.
The more difficult route is the fastest one and takes you straight up on a much steeper angle. The gentler one-boot trail takes a winding route up through pretty grassland and wooded areas. A good option is to make your visit a round walk. You could ascend on the steeper path and enjoy the expansive views. Then descend on the longer path at your leisure. Perhaps enjoying snacks or a picnic lunch along the way.
Whichever route you go for at around 200 meters from the actual summit there is a natural pause. A big rock called Steinn marks where the path is divided. For most hikers, this is as far as they will go. Above here the path becomes increasingly more treacherous. It is steep and rocky with exposed areas and should only be attempted by experienced climbers. The Steinn is quite far enough for most. There is a viewing area here where you can enjoy splendid views out across the city and bay. There is really no need to conquer the summit.
Climbing Mount Esja year-round
In theory, it is possible to climb Esja throughout the year. However, you should, of course, exercise caution and common sense. Especially in winter when the tumultuous Iceland weather is at its wildest. If there is a storm then snow and winds will buffet the mountain paths. It wouldn’t be in the least bit enjoyable to take on the climb in these conditions. And once more it would be dangerous. So do check the weather forecast and plan accordingly.
In the winter months, you will also need to be sure to set off early. At this time of year, nightfall comes in the afternoon. So you will want to be safely back at the parking lot well before dusk falls. Don’t let this put you off though. Getting out of the city and into the snowy landscape is a wonderful experience. It just takes a little more planning.
In summer you should also check the weather forecast. Storms can still blow in and if it is really windy you may prefer to save the outing for another day. There is plenty of light at this time of year so there should be no worries about nightfall. When the Midnight sun is in the sky you could even head off on your hike after dinner!
What equipment to take
This question very much depends on the time of year. Whatever season you are hiking in though you should make sure that you have sturdy hiking boots with good grips. This is vital in winter and much preferable not to mention more comfortable in summer too.
In winter, crampons and an ice axe are necessary if you are planning on going to that tricky summit we mentioned. The same goes for late autumn and early spring when wintery conditions prevail. This is only for experienced climbers who are up to the challenge though.
Whatever your plans you should always take a daypack with some extra layers to keep you warm. Wind and waterproof jackets are essential and waterproof trousers stashed at the bottom of your pack are a great idea.
Even in summer take a pair of gloves and a woolly hat for those chilly Arctic breezes. Lastly, take a supply of drinking water and snacks to fuel your adventure. For more Iceland hiking ideas visit our article Hiking in Iceland: When to go and the best short hikes.