We take off from Reykjavík in the midst of a dour, spitting dawn. As the small propellor plane races down the runway and lurches away from the ground, the familiar colourful rooftops of the city and the graceful, snowy curve of Mount Esja vanish quickly beneath a carpet of clouds. The grey-white murk outside the window is punctuated occasionally by glowing patches of soft, pastel pink sunlight, until we finally emerge above the weather into a bright morning sky.
During the smooth 45 minute flight to the eastern town of Egilsstaðir, we’re teased by glimpses of the highlands far below—an endless, textured tundra, free from human interruption, sometimes powdered by white snow that catches the relief of the ridges, hills, frozen pools and lava fields.
Soon, the glossy ice plains and young black lava of the frigid wasteland give way to older sedentary grays and browns. The streams thaw from frosted white strands into running rivulets, combining into larger torrents that meet in lakes where swirls of silty beige mingle with currents of vivid blue meltwater. Squares of farmland appear, carved out of the burnished copper landscape. On Iceland’s east coast, it’s the very end of autumn.
Our hotel for the night, Gistihúsið, is walkable from the tiny airport. Set back from the town of Egilsstaðir on a picturesque bank of Lake Lagarfljót, it’s a cosy place—contemporary and minimal, but with Icelandic-style touches like comfortable old sofas, landscape paintings in worn frames and mounted racks of antique skis and snowshoes.
At the back of the hotel, across a lush meadow, lies the lake shore. An single white house stands by the water, dwarfed by the snow-capped mountains that cradle the wide Fljótsdalur valley. We drop our bags, pull on some boots, and head out towards some nearby hills. After twenty minutes of hiking through fields, reeds and marshland, a faint trail emerges, leading us up the hill through copses of sinewy bushes to the first humble summit. The shimmering lake snakes away into the distance below us. The sun is at its apex for the day, hanging low in the sky and setting the reddish landscape alight with a warm, enveloping glow.
We descend a gentle, rocky slope to the shore, where the opaque, muddy water laps gently against a jet black beach. A vague unmarked trail snakes back along the coast on a narrow shelf of boulders and scree that have collapsed from the hills above. By Iceland’s standards, there are no blockbuster sites on this route; no glacier tongues, bubbling geothermal vents or torrential waterfalls. But picking out a route amongst the chunks of rock peppered with bright moss, leaving footprints in glistening black sand, and striding through leafy amber foliage, this humble countryside hike feels sublime nonetheless.
Bristly and golden
The area is most famous for the many areas of woodland that surround the lake. The road that circles Lagafljót passes countless unmarked dirt tracks that disappear into either ordered forestry thickets, or “open forests”, augmented for the public with parking areas, picnic tables, maps and marked trails.
Our first stop is one of the former. The bumpy, muddy track ends unceremoniously, and we march off into the woods. The trees are leafless, skinny birches, bristly and golden. The branches curve upwards uniformly at the tips, perhaps to grasp at the thin winter light, or to pull away from the clutches of the winter winds and the weight of the heavy snow to come.
Nearby is Eyjólfsstaðaskógar, an open forest that surrounds a village of uninhabited summer houses on the lower foothills of Fljótsdalur’s eastern mountains. The air is thick with the smell of pines and the sound of running water as various streams trickle down through the woods. Knotty, gnarled silver birches give way to thickets of tall, proud spruce, with tough maroon bushes bursting out from under the forest roof.
The area has been developed to accommodate walking trails of varying difficulty that loop up to waterfalls and vantage points, as well as tucked-away barbecue areas, all completely deserted as winter approaches.
Also all-but abandoned is Iceland’s largest forest of Hallormsstaðaskógur, which is home to 85 tree species spread over a sprawling 550 hectare area, crisscrossed with promising hiking trails marked with posts of various colours. I eye the arboretum, the empty campsite, and some trail beginnings, daydreaming of returning in the summer to explore more thoroughly.
One of the most interesting spots we find is also one of the most humble. As darkness falls, we cross the bridge at the base of Lagarfljót and start up the western shore, taking a chance stop at a small lay-by marked Guttormslundur.
Down a small wooden stair, a dirt path meanders through a grove of a few hundred tall, straight, proud Siberian larch trees that, at 20 or so metres tall, seem towering by comparison to the area’s more common birches. A sign tells us they were planted in 1938 by Guttormur Pálsson, a forester who came upon the seeds in Denmark, and started the wood as a labour of love. Under the forest canopy the air seems cold and crisp, and I gulp down lungfuls, listening to the sound of the trees as my skin bristles with goosebumps.
As we head back to Egilsstaðir through the quickly deepening darkness, I doze off in the passenger seat, giving silent thanks to Guttormur, and full of that specific satisfaction that comes only from spending time amongst the trees.