Highlands of Iceland: Part 1

Highlands of Iceland: Part 1

Highlands of Iceland: Part 1

Highlands of Iceland: Part 1

Riding in Iceland was more than a two-wheeled adventure through some of the most dramatic and beautiful landscapes that we are blessed with on earth, it felt like an immersive, meditative experience. Let me explain this a bit more before I get into some of the details of the trip.

For those of you who don’t know, meditation is not about abandoning your thoughts and having a still mind, it is about being able to fully present with what you are doing and create space between yourself and your thoughts.

As it pertains to our trip it felt as though there was no mental bandwidth to be anywhere but on your bike in a remote section of a remote volcanic island in the middle of the ocean; a truly immersive experience. 

The experience starts as soon as you land at Keflavik airport and exit the airplane to be greeted by winds and elements that quickly remind you that you are a mere 170 miles from the Arctic Circle. The folks directing the planes on the ground were dressed as you would expect for New England in December, a reiteration that you are not “in Kansas anymore.”

After a quick trip from the airport to Reykjavik, as you start the journey, you realize that this area is unlike anywhere you’ve been before. One of the most distinct features of the island is that there are virtually no trees. During the settling of the island, done primarily by Norwegians early on, the land was pillaged of it’s trees to build shelter and ships. Unbeknownst to the settlers the climate and ground were not conducive to reforestation and to this day the island remains largely bare. 

Once we settled into our pre-ride accommodations in downtown Reykjavik, we took a jaunt through town to get a feel for the area. I call it a town even though it is a city because it feels more like a big town. There are only about 320,000 people that live in Iceland in total and 160,000 of them live in Reykjavik. For reference, the total population of Iceland is about half that of Vermont in total! 

With a population this small, and the fact that the country is an island, there are certain considerations that we would never have thought of, one of which is human procreation. Apparently, about 80% of Icelanders are related to one another so finding an eligible partner can be difficult. Due to this fact a website has been developed where you can actually plug in the person’s name whom you are courting to see how closely you are related in order to make an informed decision as to whether or not you should date. 

During our walk through Iceland, it was clear immediately how progressive and inclusive their culture is. The best example of this was at Iceland’s largest chapel Hallgrimskirkja, an enormous cement structure that towers over downtown Reykjavik. Upon entering we took note of a gay pride flag draped over the alter, implicitly celebrating the “marriage” of religion and current social issues.  

Onto the ride….

We start the next morning weaving through the narrow city streets picking up all participants to head off to the highlands, about a 3 hour drive from Reykjavik city center. We all sat cozily in the support vehicle getting to know one another by exchanging stories, jokes and excitement for the trip that lies ahead. The group is mixed in regards to age, occupation and gender but the commonality we all have is a desire to experience something truly unique. 

As we get closer to the drop-off point the mountains get bigger, the roads turn from pavement to dirt, and the excited anxiousness to ride builds like a crescendo. As the landscapes get even more dramatic and we begin to feel even more exposed and remote, our 6’7” stoic Icelandic driver Einar pulled off to begin riding. 

The ride started off up a dirt road into probably about a 20 mph headwind with 40mph gusts, just a reminder of how serious the conditions can be. Luckily we only pedaled up this road for a minute before we quickly changed direction to have the wind at our back and have our first taste of Icelandic singletrack. Now let me clarify what the riding is like in Iceland, or at least in the highlands. First of all, compared to the US, mountain biking feels like it is in its infancy here. There are no purpose-built MTB trails in the highlands but rather singletrack that was cut in by sheep or hikers over the years. The single track varied from fun and flowy to technical to tight and sometimes clipping your pedals. Beyond the single track, there is double track and dirt roads that you ride to connect the single track. I guess what I am saying is that this is an adventure ride and to abandon any expectations of purpose-built trails. There were multiple times (sometimes a day) where we were off our bikes with our bikes over our shoulders, climbing up mountains or crossing knee to thigh-deep rivers. 

On our first day, and keeping in mind that there are no trees to help define a trail, we followed white markers or stakes in the ground, similar to what you find in desert riding like Moab or Sedona. We climbed up these beautiful rolling mountains/hills that lead us Lake Lodmundarvatn, a spectacular beautifully blue lake with a ribbon of single track carved into the mountainside on the perimeter of the lake. 

After fully immersing ourselves in the beauty and colors that this area had to offer we headed to our accommodations for the night, Landmannahellir. The accommodations in the Highlands are scarce and rustic; they were historically the lodging for sheep farmers which were converted for tourists. You won’t find your king-size accommodations with wifi and electricity, but you will find cozy and warm accommodations that tee up the perfect atmosphere to be in a technology deficit. 

Upon finishing the day’s ride, we arrived to find our stoic driver friend cooking up some of the most delicious smelling traditional Icelandic fish dishes. As we got settled into our accommodations, we cracked open some local Icelandic beers or (not local) wine and recounted the day views, riding, and challenges overcome.

Photos By Quinn Campbell, Collin Daulong, Anna Kristín Ásbjörnsdóttir