Visitors’ Guide to Mountain Esja: Reykjavik’s Majestic Backdrop

  • by Yanshu
  • Reykjavik
  • 29 Apr 2024

Esjan, a striking mountain near Reykjavik, Iceland, offers captivating vistas and hiking trails. Known for its scenic beauty, especially in winter when dusted with snow, Esjan stands as an iconic landmark, attracting outdoor enthusiasts seeking memorable adventures amidst Iceland's breathtaking landscapes.

Hiking on Mountain Esja in summer evening wtih beautiful panoramic view
Hiking on Mountain Esja in summer evening wtih beautiful panoramic view

When you admire the panoramic view of Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, your attention is captivated by a prominent mountain backdrop. Especially during winter, when blanketed in snow, this mountain, named Esja, adds a special charm to the cityscape and its surroundings.

About Esjan, the mountain Esja

Mountain Esja, or simply Esja, is not just a scenic backdrop to Reykjavik; it offers a glimpse into Iceland’s fiery geological heart and its storied past.

Hiking on Mountain Esja in summer evening wtih beautiful panoramic view
Snow-covered mountain Esja’s top, Reykjavik Iceland. [Photo credit ©Yanshu Li]

How Was Esja Mountain Formed

Esja Mountain stands as a majestic part of the volcanic range near Reykjavik, with its peaks reaching approximately 914 meters (2,999 ft) high. This mountain range is primarily composed of basalt and tuff, materials that originated from solidified magma.

These geological features are a direct result of the dynamic activity of tectonic plates beneath Iceland. When you hike Esja, you traverse layers of earth history. Each step takes you through millennia of volcanic activity that shaped not just this mountain but the character of Iceland’s geology itself.

Summer evening concert on Mountain Esja Reykjavik Iceland
Attending a live music concert on top of mountain Esja in summer evening. [Photo credit ©Yanshu Li]

Esjan in Iceland’s Culture

For centuries, Esjan has been a constant presence in the history of the people of Reykjavik. It has served as both a physical and a symbolic boundary—the stoic guardian to the capital’s rugged natural landscape.

Its slopes, cloaked in folklore, echo the tales of ancient settlers who revered the mountains and the volcanoes of Iceland for their mystical properties. Today, Esjan is a beloved destination for hikers and those who seek to connect with Iceland’s rich cultural heritage amidst the stark beauty of its mountain ranges.

Hiking on Mountain Esja in summer evening wtih beautiful panoramic view
Looking at the capital region of Iceland from mountain Esja. [Photo credit ©Yanshu Li]

How Mountain Esja was Named

The Kjalnesing saga recounts the tale of Esja, a prominent figure said to have arrived in Iceland alongside Örlygur Hrappsson. Settling in Kjalarnes, Örlygur relinquished both land and farm to Esja, who resided in Esjubergi. Speculation suggests the mountain may bear her name, as “esja” could also refer to loose flour, akin to “ysja.” Norwegian place names associate “esja” with talgustein or loose stones, a feature present in Esja, echoed in the place name Kléberg.

However, the most intriguing origin of the mountain’s name lies in the spring thaw. As snow melts from the ravines, the name “Esja” sometimes emerges in runic letters, etched into the landscape west of Gljúfurdal. This ancient tradition offers a compelling glimpse into the mountain’s rich history and enduring significance.

Hiking on Mountain Esja in summer evening wtih beautiful panoramic view
The rugged landscapes close to mountain Esja. [Photo credit ©Yanshu Li]

Visiting Mountain Esja

When planning a visit to Esja Mountain, affectionately called Esjan, you’re embracing an adventure close to Reykjavík. This popular hiking destination offers trails for all levels and striking natural beauty.

Reaching Esja is straightforward. When you drive yourself there, It’s just 11 kilometers north of Mosfellsbær, a quick 20-minute drive via Route 1. Simply follow the signs through Mosfellsbær to the car park.

If you don’t have access to a car, you can take the Strætó 57 bus from Reykjavík’s Mjodd bus station, which is located in the downtown area. It runs several times a day, with a fare of 1,140 ISK, and the ride takes about 30 minutes. Just tell the bus driver you’re headed to the base of Esja (Esjumelar stop), and they’ll drop you off at the car park.

The Esjan Hiking Center serves as the starting point for various trails.

Summer evening concert on Mountain Esja Reykjavik Iceland
A large group of people hiked on mountain Esja. [Photo credit ©Yanshu Li]

Hiking on Mountain Esja

Located just 30 minutes from Downtown Reykjavik, Esja offers a range of hiking options suitable for everyone. Whether you’re a beginner or seeking a more challenging trek, there’s a trail for you, ranging from a short 1.6-kilometer (1 mile) stroll to a longer 7.2-kilometer (4.5 mile) adventure. Expect stunning views along the way, with an elevation gain of 750 meters. The hike can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 5 hours, depending on the route and your pace. Best of all, it’s completely free, making it an accessible and rewarding outdoor activity for anyone exploring Iceland’s beautiful scenery.

Before heading out to Esjan, it’s essential to check the weather forecast. Start your exploration early to make the most of daylight hours. Remember to dress in layers and carry sufficient food and water, as there are no facilities on the mountain itself.

You can see Mt. Kellir when you hike up to mountain Esja. [Photo credit ©Yanshu Li]

Hiking Trails and Routes

The trail from Esja to Steinn ranks among Iceland’s most cherished hiking paths, beckoning adventurers to its scenic vistas. Starting at the Mógilsá parking lot (GPS N. 64.12.556 W. 21.42.787), the route gracefully follows the river westward, marked by clear signage guiding hikers through Esja’s network of trails.

Starting at 225 meters above sea level, the trail splits, offering options to cross a bridge eastward or ascend directly westward. Both routes converge at Steinn beneath Þverfellshorn.

The eastern route, favored for its gradual incline, often sees hikers ascending one way and descending the other. Yet, winter poses challenges with increasing ice, especially on the eastern path prone to avalanches and spring thaws.

From Steinn, a steep trail ascends to Þverfellshorn, reserved for experienced mountaineers with proper winter gear.

Staying on marked paths is vital for safety and conservation. The famed “Steinn” (GPS N. 64.13.823 W. 21.43.092) serves as a milestone, accompanied by a guestbook tradition.

Many aspire to reach Steini within an hour, a testament to readiness for further hikes. While no guarantees exist, this benchmark remains a popular goal, reflecting the spirit of adventure along Esja’s trails.

When you reach the summit of Mountain Esja, you’re rewarded with breathtaking panoramic views. On a clear day, you can gaze upon the city of Reykjavík, the snaking paths of rivers, and the distant ice-capped peaks of glaciers.

Starting your hike early in the day gives you a better chance to enjoy the vista with favorable weather conditions.

Available Activities on Mt. Esja

Helicopter tour over Mountain Esja and its surroundings
Helicopter tour over mountain Esja, Reykjavik Iceland [Photo credit ©Yanshu Li]

Esjan offers a range of recreational activities. Hiking paths range from easy to challenging, catering to all levels of experience.

If you prefer a bird’s-eye view of the mountain, consider a helicopter tour—a thrilling adventure that lifts you above the landscape for a unique perspective. Remember to respect the delicate vegetation and always start your journey from a designated starting point.

Emergency Contacts and Services

Carry a charged phone and let someone know your plan. Protect Esjan’s delicate ecology by leaving no trace and considering the environment in each step you take. For emergencies, familiarize yourself with local safety contacts.

In case of an emergency, it’s crucial that you have the following contacts readily available:

  • General Emergency Number: 112

Mountain Rescue Services: You can reach out to ICE-SAR (the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue) by dialing the emergency number, as they are trained for mountain operations.

Nearby Natural Attractions and Activities

Esjan Mountain, known to locals as simply Esjan, is a natural wonder near Reykjavík that appeals to adventurers and nature enthusiasts alike. Here, panoramic views of the capital region, including the iconic mountain Kellir, which is located in Hafnarfjardur, and diverse recreational activities await. It’s highly recommended after experiencing some of the most wonderful tours in Reykjavik.

Whale watching from the Old Harbor in Reykjavik

Embark on a thrilling whale watching excursion departing from Reykjavik’s Old Harbor, where the majestic Esja mountain serves as a stunning backdrop. As you venture into Faxaflói Bay, keep an eye out for magnificent whales breaching the surface waters. Witnessing these gentle giants against the backdrop of Esja’s rugged beauty makes for an unforgettable maritime adventure in Iceland.

Go on a whale watching tour from the Old Harbor of Reykjavik.

Horsebacking Riding Tours

During summer, vibrant wildflower fields adorn the landscape, while lupins blanket the hillsides, creating a mesmerizing sight. It’s the perfect season to venture into the picturesque Icelandic countryside on horseback. Nearby, horseback riding tours are highly sought-after, often offering convenient transfers from Reykjavik city center.

In winter, the mountain undergoes a transformation, showcasing a beauty reminiscent of the Ice Age. However, it’s crucial to check the local weather forecast before planning your trip, as the wind and weather conditions can shift rapidly.

Horse rising through the icelandic countryside
Go on a horse riding tour close to mountain Esja.

ATV and Buggy tours

Close to Mt Esja, you can hop on an exhilarating ATV or buggy tour, exploring rugged terrain and scenic landscapes up-close in motion. These thrilling adventures offer an unforgettable experience for outdoor enthusiasts. Conveniently, tour operators provide transfers from the city center, ensuring easy access to the excitement awaiting with Esja’s majestic view in sight.

ATV adventure close to mountain Esja.

Fun facts about Mountain Esja

It’s almost poetic how Iceland’s urban landscape is defined by its majestic mountains, showcasing nature at its most striking. Just as Reykjavik, the capital city, is framed by rugged peaks, so too is Akureyri, known as the northern capital, set against a sweeping mountain backdrop across a fjord. This commonality imbues both cities with a sense of shared yet distinct ambiance, making them the largest municipalities in Iceland.

Though situated further north, Akureyri is a significant city in Iceland known for its beautiful botanical gardens and summer concerts, which could be a potential addition to your itinerary if you’re exploring beyond the mountain.

Akureyri, the capital of the North, Iceland. [Photo credit ©Yanshu Li]

Frequently Asked Questions about Esja

Mount Esja offers a delightful and accessible hiking experience near Reykjavik. These FAQs will help you plan your hike more effectively.

What is the best time of year to hike Mount Esja?

The best time to hike Mount Esja is during the summer months when the trails are usually clear of snow and the weather conditions are more stable. Any activities on Esja in the winter season are more suitable for those who are well-equipped as the condition can get challenging. 

How do you prepare for the Mount Esja hike?

Before setting out, make sure to check the weather forecast and dress appropriately in layers.

Take water, snacks, a map, and wear sturdy hiking boots. It’s crucial to assess your physical readiness as trails vary in difficulty.

What are the main trails and their difficulty levels for hiking Esjan?

Esjan has several trails ranging from easy to challenging.

The main route to the Steinn marker is suitable for most hikers, while the path to the peak, Þverfellshorn, is more demanding and steep, recommended for experienced hikers.

Are there any guided tours available for hiking Mount Esja?

Yes, there are guided hiking tours available for those who prefer to hike with an experienced local guide, especially beneficial if you are unfamiliar with the trail or hiking in general.

What should hikers expect in terms of weather conditions on Esjan?

Expect changeable weather conditions. Even if it starts sunny, it can turn windy and rainy quickly.

Make sure to bring waterproof clothing and be prepared for varying temperatures and visibility.

Hiking starting point at the foot of mountain Esja
Parking place and the starting point to go up to the top of mountain Esja. [Photo credit ©Yanshu Li]
About the author
A journalist and photographer, Yanshu is driven by a deep passion for Iceland. She's on a mission to share her love for authentic travel experiences and exciting adventures with fellow explorers. Armed with her camera, she sets off on hikes, delving into Iceland's intricacies while mastering the art of Icelandic language whenever possible.

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