Autumn leaves are not a common sight in Iceland, but there are a few great options. Most people go to Thingvellir, a national park rich in history and tourists, but the alternative is Heiðmörk Woods which is closer to Reykjavik.
There are, of course, a lot of myths about Iceland and one of the most prevalent of them all is that there are absolutely no forests on our island, and like most myths, it has some truth to it. “What do you do when you get lost in an Icelandic forest? You stand up!” is a favorite with Icelandic tour guides, and anyone who ventures outside Reykjavík will immediately note the scarcity of all things leafy. What little forested areas there are to be found fall well short of the majestic sub-Arctic pine forests of Norway, Finland or Canada, for instance.
Autumn leaves are thus not a common sight in Iceland, but there are a few options. Most people go to Thingvellir, a national park rich in history and tourists, but the alternative is Heiðmörk.
Heiðmörk is about as close as Reykjavík comes to having its own forest, and is your best chance of a serene moment with the autumn colors. The best time to go leafing would be from the beginning of September, when yellow is the predominant color of the autumn leaves, to mid October. After that the trees have either shed their leaves or have been damaged by freezing temperatures.
Heiðmörk is actually a reforestation area so the woods there are a result of more than half a century of hard work. The area was proclaimed a municipal conservation area of Reykjavík in 1950 but the reforestation had started a year earlier. Heiðmörk is situated 6 miles southeast of Reykjavík and covers 3,200 hectares in total. A few fenced-off areas within Heiðmörk provide most of Reykjavík’s pristine drinking water.
If you want to visit Heiðmörk and stroll around beautiful forests and see some wonderful autumn color combinations, you can benefit from this itinerary for an afternoon in Heiðmörk.
If you are driving your own car, the trip to Heiðmörk will take you less than twenty minutes. The most common way to drive there is to take the Ring road (route 1) to the southeast. You’ll drive on the ring road for five minutes maximum, then you exit to the right where it says ‘Heiðmörk’ on an easy-to-miss sign. You can follow the same route on a bike, but there is no public transport to Heiðmörk.
Right after you have taken the turn to Heiðmörk, you'll see big, beautiful rock formations on your right hand side. Rauðhólar are in fact pseudo-craters that were formed 5200 years ago from lava flow of a volcano nearby, called Leitin. The red color, that gives Rauðhólar its name (Rauðhólar translates to “Red hills”) stems from tiny fragments of the mineral hematite formed by the oxidation of iron. You can stop your car right besides the rocks, stroll around and snap some pictures.
Driving on for about five minutes you will reach a parking space and a large sign indicating possible walking routes. They range from 2–3 km up to 10. There is not much elevation and none of the walks are too difficult. Lake Elliðavatn is gorgeous and it’s very picturesque when the sky is clear and the wind isn't blowing to hard. Take a few moments to enjoy the lake’s beauty and snap some nice pictures.
We’re going to assume you want the full-on Icelandic experience, which leaves two options: Bring some "flatkaka" with you, sit down in the wet grass, and inhale the beauty of nature. If you did not think ahead and pack your flatkökur, the alternative is as unimaginative as it is authentic: Hot dogs. Grab some from the first kiosk or gas station you can find, and you will be closer than you think to the true Icelandic experience.
No hike should go unrewarded, and the best reward is, of course, a good soak in a boiling hot tub. We have a few recommendations. Árbæjarlaugin, located in the suburb of Árbær, is pretty close to Heiðmörk and is especially child-friendly. Laugardalslaugin is perhaps Iceland’s most popular swimming pool, and justly so. It is one of the largest in total area, with several hot tubs and an excellent Olympic-size swimming pool. Lastly, Sundhöllin is Reykjavík’s oldest pool and in my opinion by far the most cozy. For more information on Reykjavík’s pools we recommend this excellent article by the Reykjavík Grapevine.
Is the walk difficult?
No, it is not difficult at all. There is no elevation and you can actually choose from several different routes, so it’s up to you how long you want the walk to be.
What should I wear?
That depends on the weather. On a chilly autumn day, we recommend that you wear layers. A good windproof jacket would be an ideal outer layer, or a windproof parka. Underneath, you could wear a fleece jacket or a woolen sweater. Bring gloves, a hat, and a scarf. You won’t be needing proper hiking boots so if you prefer sneakers or trainers, that should be totally fine.
Will the place be crowded with tourists?
Absolutely not. Heiðmörk is not a popular tourist destination – at least not yet. You might meet some locals out for healthy exercise or families out for a walk (the area is also popular with mountain bikers), but Heiðmörk is, remarkably, almost completely ignored by tourists.
Are there any shops/restaurants in Heiðmörk?
None at all. If you get hungry along the way or really really need another drink, then too bad – one of the most attractive things about Heiðmörk is its calm and quiet, you will find no shops there.
The best travel recommendations come from locals. Check out these Wanderguides from Iceland by locals sharing their travel tips and hidden gems.