Autumn is possibly the shortest season in Iceland, but it’s also one of the most beautiful. As we drive north out of Reykjavík and turn off Route One towards the small town of Laugarvatn, the afternoon sunlight catches the yellow and copper grass and shrubbery of the Mosfellsdalur countryside, casting long shadows and giving the landscape an inviting golden glow.
Outside the warmth of the car, however, it’s bitingly cold. We make a few speedy stops at picturesque locations in the Þingvellir National Park, scurrying out for a wander through a craggy canyon to the frigid Öxarárfoss waterfall, and to look out over the majestic expanse of the island-dotted Þingvallavatn lake. It’s absolutely freezing, and a perfect example of what Icelanders refer to as gluggaveður, or “window weather.”
Þingvellir is a popular first stop on the Golden Circle tour, so we avoid the heavy traffic around the visitor’s centre and cruise onwards through the forest. It’s an impressive landscape with diminutive, gnarled silver birch trees growing over a rolling sea of knolls and hillocks that stretches off into the distance.
There are various laybys and viewpoints along the narrow, winding road, most of them only big enough for one or two cars. We pull over at a spot with a gravel track vanishing off into the trees, noticing a sign that tells us the road is called Nýja Hrauntúnsgata. A 1.8km hike will bring us to an the abandoned farm of Hrauntún.
Shivering even in hats, scarves, and gloves, we stride off into the network of trails that crisscross the forest. It’s a twenty minute walk to the farm during which we don’t see another soul, except for when we startle a pair of birds that squawk off into the sky in mottled black and white autumn plumage.
Hrauntún isn’t what we expect—the path ends suddenly at a tumbledown stone wall that marks the edge of a large meadow. No buildings remain, and tall strands of feathery grass sway in the chilly breeze, enclosed on all sides by the knotty trees and distant snow-capped mountains. We pace around the muddy pathways, taking in the silence. Hrauntún is an eerie and intriguing spot in the heart of the dense forest of Þingvellir.
Top of the lake
We’re just getting some warmth back into our limbs by the time we arrive in Laugarvatn. This small town of 200 people sits on the shore of a lake of the same name. The largest house in town is Heraðsskólinn, an impressive old school designed by Guðjón Samúelsson, the former national architect of Iceland whose other works include distinctive buildings like Hallgrimskirkja, Akureyrarkirkja and The National Theatre of Iceland.
Built in 1928, the house has been rejuvenated into a boutique hostel that’s full of historic charm. We’re welcomed warmly by the staff, who pour cups of hot coffee and show us around. The bright, cosy café-bar area is decorated with objects from Héraðsskólinn’s former life, including heavily-laden bookshelves, an old gramophone, and a model of the Earth that can be wound up to illustrate the planet’s path around sun.
Héraðskólinn also rents out some smart, modern apartments just across the street. After unpacking and taking in the glorious view from the balcony, we head out to explore the few streets of Laugarvatn. It doesn’t take long; there’s a market, a gas station, a municipal pool and sports hall, a lakeside restaurant and a small gallery café. The air is fresh, and we take a walk by the rippling lake as the sun sets, the open water reflecting a glorious pink sky. Life in Laugarvatn moves at a slow pace, and it’s a relaxing break from Reykjavík.
The homeward road
The next morning begins with a dip in Laugarvatn Fontana, a pristine geothermal bathing complex on the lakeshore. There are various hotpots ranging from lukewarm to comfortably temperate, as well as a sauna, and several steam rooms with varying degrees of intensity. People bask and bathe, taking in the view and sometimes taking a dunk in the freezing lake before heading back in for another steam.
After a brunch of juicy and tender reindeer burgers at the nearby Lindin restaurant, we take a drive through the rolling countryside around the lake. It’s a pastoral area, and if it wasn’t for the occasional steam plume rising from the ground and the flat-topped mountains in the distance, it could be the lush farm country of mainland Europe.
The homeward road curves gradually towards Selfoss, and we pass the vast volcanic crater of Kerið, inundated with bright anoraks even as the tourist season slows down. Soon enough, we’re driving through the more familiar lunar landscape of Iceland past raging rivers, black tundra and bumpy fields of moss-coated lava towards Route One, then Hveragerði, and then back to the bright lights of Reykjavík.