Hiking in Iceland: When to go and the Best Short Hikes
Updated: Aug 25, 2019
Iceland’s incredible landscapes can be explored in so many different ways. From sightseeing bus tours in the summer months to skiing in winter. The country just has so much to offer outdoor enthusiasts. Hiking in Iceland has to be one of our favourite ways to experience the island though.
When you’re hiking you get to enjoy the countryside at a different pace. Moving more slowly you can really appreciate the unfolding of the landscapes. From distant mountain views to the intricate patterns of moss over stone. You’ll get to see the weather rolling in on the horizon and the light changing as day moves towards night. So get out there, breath deep and simply ‘be’ in the magnificence of Iceland’s great outdoors.
The different types of hiking in Iceland
On a city break to Reykjavik many visitors might not manage much more than a tour of the Golden Circle. But there are some fantastic day and half day hikes within really easy reach of the capital. If hiking is your thing then you can easily get out of the city and into nature. You’ll be able to appreciate the restaurants and bars even more after a full day of fresh air and walking.
If you are visiting Iceland for longer then many more hiking options open up to you. From shorter hikes to multi-day treks Iceland is a fantastic hiking destination with plenty of variety. Hiking also compliments a self-drive tour of Iceland very well. After a few days in the driving seat it is wonderful to get out into the elements, breath and stretch your legs.
In this article we will take you through the practicalities of when to go hiking in Iceland. We will also run through our favourite hiking trails within easy reach of the capital. We will explore longer treks and multi-day hikes in another article coming very soon.
When is the best time of year to hike in Iceland?
Every season has its particular beauty in Iceland and you can hike here year round. There are of course certain constraints in the winter months due to weather and access.
Hiking in summer in Iceland
The summer high season from June through August is the most popular time to visit Iceland. It is also when most hikers set off on their adventures. This is the warmest, driest and most settled month in terms of the weather. Of course Iceland’s climate is famously unpredictable. So you could still see wild weather and storms at this time of year. Statistically speaking though you are much more likely to enjoy settled weather and hiking conditions should be good.
At this time of year you will also have the benefit of the midnight sun. You will be able to walk well into the evening without worrying about nightfall. In summer you will also be able to access all of the hiking trails. Many of the more remote highland paths are closed outside of the summer months. Snow and ice make the roads and the trails inaccessible.
In summer the landscapes are full of the beauty that sunshine brings. Mosses, grasses and tiny arctic flowers bloom. Free roaming sheep will meander by and there is an abundance of birdlife especially in coastal areas. With the milder weather and all those daylight hours this is the perfect time of year for multi-day treks. So keen walkers should definitely visit the island in summer to experience these lengthier treks in the beautiful highlands.
Hiking in winter in Iceland
Winter is a very different time in Iceland. The days are short and the snows lay heavy on the ground for months. Winter starts in October when the highlands will already be blanketed in snow and inaccessible for walkers. When the snows arrive at lower altitudes depends on the year. Winter then lasts all the way through to around April or May.
In the darkest months there are only around 3-4 hours of daylight. So short hikes are the way to go. Seeing the landscapes under a twinkling carpet of snow is an absolutely stunning sight though. Also, it is not as cold as you might think. Average temperatures are about zero degrees Celsius at lower altitudes. So it is a perfectly reasonable temperature for walking if you have the right gear. Of course this is the prime time of the year for spotting the Northern Lights in Iceland too.
Obviously caution must be exercised in winter as conditions can make hiking dangerous. You will need to the check weather vigilantly in advance and set out with the right gear. You must also make sure that you have a charged telephone and know the emergency number to call. In certain cases you will need crampons to negotiate the terrain.
One really good option for hiking in winter is to join a guided tour. Especially if you are unsure about winter hiking and the potential hazards. That way you will be able to relax and enjoy the experience knowing that someone else is keeping tabs on routes and timings. It is also great to find out a bit more about the area you are exploring from a knowledgeable guide. You will be able to ask questions and maybe hear an Icelandic folktale or two.
Hiking between seasons
The shoulder season months can be some of the best times for walking. That is if you are lucky with the weather. When we say shoulder season we are talking about late April and May as well as September and early October. At these times of year the weather in Iceland can be mild and summery or it can be wet, wild and stormy. It really is impossible to predict too far in advance.
If it has been a harsh winter then there will be snow on the ground well into May. So this might not be the ideal time if you are hoping for summer like conditions. There is however plenty of daylight in May so it can be great for long day hikes if the snows have melted a little.
Moving on to the other side of the summer high season and into September and October. There is sometimes really good weather in September but it is just as often quite wet. As ever the Icelandic weather offers no guarantees. It is an incredibly beautiful time of year in Iceland though. Autumn colours start to drift across the land decorating it is fiery orange and umber hews.
There are also plenty of hours of darkness in these pre-winter months. This means that the Northern Lights may well put in an appearance. You will also enjoy some lovely sunsets at this time of year. All in all it is a good time for hiking unless you are hoping to head into the highlands or for any of the multi day treks. The highlands trails are only really accessible in the summer months.
The best short hikes near Reykjavik
Here we take you through a range of our favourite South Iceland hikes within reach of Reykjavik. These hikes can be easily completed in a full day or a half-day.
The Mount Esja Hike
Mount Esja is visible from Reykjavik and lies just 15km from the capital. As such it makes for a really popular day trip from the capital. It is always nice to look out across the city you a visiting from a high point. Summiting out at 776 metres Mount Esja is the perfect place for seeing Reykjavik from on high. The Mount Esja hike can be undertaken at any time of year. However in winter when there is snow on the ground you will likely need crampons to ascend safely.
During summer it is a pretty accessible hike for most people. This is owing to the fact that there are a few different ways up. There is a longer winding route that is much easier walking. This one takes you through areas of woodland and you gain height to the peak gradually. The second option is a harder slog but you will reach the summit much more quickly. You’ll also burn off a fair few more calories along the way so take some energy snacks. Depending on your pace and fitness the hike takes between two and four hours to complete. This means that you can easily walk it in a half-day trip and be back in Reykjavik for lunch or dinner.
Summary: An easy to moderate half day walk with expansive views across Reykjavik to the sea. Can be completed year round but is best in summer or during shoulder seasons after the snow has melted or before it falls.
The Reykjadalur Trail
This is another really popular day trip from Reykjavik. It is less challenging than climbing Esja as it mainly on flat or gently undulating terrain. The trail begins close to the small town of Hveragerdi on the Ring Road. This is about a forty-minute drive from the capital so this hike can be easily achieved as a daytrip.
It is easy walking through a lovely valley amidst the Smoky Mountains. It should take most walkers about 3-4 hours in total. What makes this hike doubly special is the thermally heated hot spring river that flows through the lovely valley. Here walkers can soak their feet or go for full immersion in one of the hot springs river pools. It is a popular hike but even so there is plenty of space for all here. You will of course see plenty of other hikers but it is spacious and beautiful and well worth it.
Summary: An easy 3-4 hour hike through gentle hills. Can be completed year round if the weather behaves.
Glymur Waterfall Hike
The Glymur Waterfall trail is a beautiful full day hike through some lovely South Iceland scenery. It is a moderate walk of about 4-6 hours depending on your pace and it can be challenging in parts. Factoring in lunch stops and breaks it is a good idea to set aside most of your day for the hike. The way up from the parking lot is indicated with yellow markers and cairns. They can be a little confusing in parts as there are several interlinking trails. So do keep track of where you are and pay particular attention at intersecting paths.
The trail winds its way up through a steep canyon so those with vertigo might find it too difficult in parts. Hikers will be rewarded with breathtaking view of the dramatic Glymur Waterfall. This is one of many lovely waterfalls in Iceland. Glymur plunges 198 meters down into a steep sided fjord. The views are spectacular and the landscape here is really unique. This is a great day hike to do on your way from Reykjavik to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.
Summary: A moderate full day hike with access year round depending on snowfall in winter.
Snæfellsjökull National Park Hiking Trails
The Snaefellsnes Peninsula is a great place to spend several days and it is just a two-hour drive from Reykjavik. There are some fantastic landscapes to explore here with a real variety of sights and we highly recommend it. In fact it is often referred to as Iceland in miniature. You’ll be able to roam across lava fields, explore caves, glaciers and volcanoes. All this within really easy reach of Reykjavik.
There are many short and interesting hikes to enjoy in the national park. One of our favourites is a coastal walk of about 1-2 hours. It is an easy cliff path between the small towns of Arnarstapi and Hellnar. The route takes in lovely sea views decorated with basalt rock formations of all shapes and sizes. Pillars and arches, sea columns and caves can all be spotted along the way. You will also enjoy views across the ocean to the Snæfellsjökull glacier in the distance.
Summary: An interesting area to explore with many short and moderate hikes to enjoy. An excellent year-round destination for motorhome rental trips of 3-4 days. Hikes are many, easy and accessible to all.
So there you have our pick of the best day hikes within reach of Reykjavik. If multi-day hiking in Iceland is on your bucket list then we will be posting another article very soon. In this upcoming piece we will look at some of the further flung hikes in Iceland. We will explore longer hikes around the Laugahraun Lava Field andthe Hornstrandir Nature Reserve way up in the north. We will also cover multi-day treks such as the famous Laugavegur Trail.