The Miniature Mountain: Hiking Up Úlfarsfell

The Miniature Mountain: Hiking Up Úlfarsfell

Photo by
John Rogers for The Reykjavík Grapevine

The number 15 bus roars away and I’m suddenly alone.

To the north, Mount Esja rears up over the choppy ocean waves, still streaked with snow just a month from midsummer. Closer, it’s a less romantic view: a car park, a strip mall, trickling traffic, and some rough grassland where young lupins are beginning their annual verge domination. And then, peeking above the treeline to the northeast, I spot my destination for the day: Úlfarsfell.

Úlfarsfell is a mountain, technically. Standing at 291 metres tall, it’s visible from downtown Reykjavík, and is reachable by bus in just half an hour. It looms large over the Mósfellsbær suburbs — a picturesque, slightly forested, cliff-lined bulge of land that marks the start of countless journeys on the northbound Ring Road.

To the trailhead

Starting the hike to its summit begins with a 2km preamble to the trailhead, tracing the Route One roadside. Before long, the trail plunges into a dense forest and the sound of cars is dampened by tall pines. A small clearing marks the start of the hike, with a map that shows a couple routes that thread through the woods to the mountain.

“Preamble over,” I mutter, to myself, the map and no one in particular. “Time for the… amble.”

The forest path is well kept and I crunch up the steepening gravel trail, offering a cheery “daginn!” to a couple of locals who are walking their dogs before the rain that’s forecast later. The path splits into two, with a sign indicating steep (“brött”, in Icelandic) and easy (“létt”) routes up the mountain. I’m in no rush and choose the gentler route, following the cheerful green hiking posts that trail off into the woods.

Far from sound

A stream burbles happily at the trailside and the forest deepens. Before long, there’s nobody to be seen. The tree canopy muffles the city’s sound, casting pools of deep shade where thick, knotty roots grasp at the earth. I pause for a moment in the daytime darkness, senses bristling, and breathe in the forest deeply.

After zigzagging over a wooden walkway, the trail emerges onto the naked mountainside. Úlfarsfell looms to the left, more imposing than before. The crunchy gravel gives way to a well worn dirt trail and my boots thump satisfyingly onto the dusty ground as I start my ascent.

The trail gets gradually steeper, winding between rocky outcrops with views back to the city. Hallgrímskirkja looks tiny in the distance and the city’s smallness comes into focus, with views stretching all the way from Harpa, to the edges of Árbær and the distant Straumsvík smelter on the Reykjanes road. Out of the trees, the city sound is still a constant quiet roar — trucks, planes and the constant clangs and clanks of construction. But it feels at arm’s-length up here. It’s satisfying to have one foot in the wilderness.

The old ways

A stiff breeze is picking up. High clouds skim rapidly across the sky and a brooding grey weatherfront is slowly encroaching. That forecasted rain is getting closer, so I pick up the pace.

There seem to have been various paths up the mountain at different points, and I switch between them from time to time. The old trails are still visible from decades of footfall, intertwining at intervals with the marked route, and I wonder how long ago the very first trail was laid.

After 20 minutes, the steep part is over. The path levels out and the ground becomes rough, with banks of hard dirt slowly rending open under their own weight. Panting from exertion, I arrive on the broad, flat mountaintop, which is covered in a clattering sheet of shattered rock and scree. It’s a short walk to the top, where there’s a humble bench, an information plaque, and a tall pile of rocks left by other hikers.

Regarding Esja

The peak of Úlfarsfell is a bleakly beautiful spot at this time of the year. The rolling landscape to the south is still a rusty, autumnal brown, the vegetation not yet recovered from the thick winter snow. The twin lakes of Hafravatn and Langavatn shine brightly, while gleaming silver rivers meander across the plains towards the snowy mountains in the distance.

There’s a sole structure nearby — a lonely, weatherworn TV mast crowning a bare, reddish mound. A couple of other hikers are wandering around over there — two slow-moving dots, their bright outerwear standing out against the umber earth.

To the north lies Esja, which looks majestic from this vantage point. The 914 metre mountain is an everyday sight in Reykjavík, so much so that it can fade into the background. But from here, all of Esja’s details are visible. The rolling, lumpy foothills give way to a blackish treeline, then the sheer, snow-streaked mountainside, scored violently by the movement of huge glaciers in millennia long past. Its scale is suddenly overwhelming, snapping me keenly into the moment.

And back again

Before long, the promised rain starts to spatter the ground and the cold droplets bring me out of a trance that I didn’t realise had befallen me. Feeling fully refreshed by my time on the summit, the descent is easy. There’s a new spring in my step as I hop down slopes that had been laborious moments earlier. It isn’t far to the forest, the road and the return bus home.

There are countless amazing places in Iceland, with remarkable natural sites tracing the country’s coastline, and nestled deep in the fjords, the plains and the Highlands. But Reykvíkingur and time-poor city-breakers alike can get a tantalising taste of Iceland’s bleak beauty at the miniature mountain of Úlfarsfell.

Úlfarsfell is on the number 15 bus route. Go to or download the Klappið app to plan your trip.

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