Trip Report: Iceland

Ripple Road

Landing in Keflavík, my excitement was palpable. From the plane the island seemed unnaturally flat with infrequent mountain tops peaking out in the horizon. Coming from a toasty +20C in Canada to a +6C in Iceland I was wide awake to begin the adventure upon landing at 0600h.

The first hurdle was retrieving my bike and hoping that it had safely made the trip alongside me. After collecting the bike box I was directly outside a small shelter that had the words BIKE PIT scrawled across it. This was where the putting together of the bike would take place, with access to a variety of tools to use courtesy of the airport.

Wheeling the box inside I almost ran over 3 cyclists nestled inside their sleeping bags dozing off. Despite it being very early in the morning, the sun was already high in the sky. As I started pulling out my gear I came to a heart-stopping realization. I'm missing a pedal! I started coming up with possible solutions, maybe I could build the bike with one and pedal to the capital which was 40km away. Instead I ran back into the terminal and purchased a ticket aboard one of the shuttle buses that run 24/7 between Keflavík and Reykjavík (the capital).

I arrived in Reykjavík at around 0800h and left the packed bike at the bus terminal to walk into town and find a bike shop. It's a Saturday morning and no shops open until 1000h. I waited around for an hour and then got impatient. I decided to build the bike and wait with it so I can buy pedals and jet off right away.

As I built up the bike I had my second revelation. I'm a bigger idiot than I thought, the pedal was there all along. It had slid to the opposite side of where I'd stored it and wedged itself between two of my bike bags...Now the second hurdle to overcome was my phone had not been able to get a GPS lock. Again I started to worry that I'd have to cancel all interior treks since without a GPS lock I'd be completely lost.

At 1100h a shop called ELKO opens and I managed to purchase a Garmin eTrex 20 for almost 400CAD. They said I have 30 days to return it which is perfect because I know I'll be back in roughly 3 weeks.

Reykjavík exposed rock
Exposed earth on the city limits of Reykjavík

At this point I'm itching to start the damn trip already and so I head out on the winding streets of Reykjavík avoiding major roads. On the outskirts of the capital I ran across a fully loaded American from Wisconsin who offers me some words of wisdom. He passes forward the common advice of avoiding the Route 1 anywhere on the west side of the island and warns me that the beer stores close early so I should try to buy in bulk. Once I cross the Route 1 my wheels touched gravel roads and the adventure finally begins.

Jumping onto the 435 I followed a gas pipeline for about 14km. The side of the road was dotted with trios of sheep feeding near and far in the vast emptiness. Just before going east onto the 360 I came across some steep climbs before reaching Lake Þingvallavatn. There were plenty of signs on the side of the road warning cars of the grade percentage of the hills. I saw signs for 15%, 16% and 18%. The climbs were tough but I was still fresh and eager so I made quick work of them and continued around. Looping underneath Úlfljótsvatn and turning north on the 36 I got back on flat and well paved road.

Steep hills
The start of the day with big percent rolling climbs

At this point I became very familiar with the idea of two lane highways which run as the standard road layout throughout Iceland. The roads are not heavily trafficked so the cars could usually move over to the oncoming lane when passing me. The wind starts to pick as I get near my turn east onto the 365. Some large hills mark the intersection and I began my ride on what is dubbed the Golden Circle of Iceland. A hugely popular tourist day loop consisting of the Þingvellir, Gullfoss, Selfoss and back to Reykjavík. I avoided the national park to not have to deal with weekend traffic and instead planned to the end the day at Gullfoss.

On the way under Úlfljótsvatn
Anticipating some climbs in the distance

On the 365 I made excellent time and got to the first large town of the day around 1800h, Laugarvatn. I'd mapped a restaurant by the name of Lindin in the area, with food on my mind I was in a hurry to sit down and chow down. I rode by a huge procession of cyclists preparing for what seemed to be a race. I asked a local and he mentions that I was about to see the kick off for the yearly Golden Circle race! I didn't wait but instead kept going, getting some weird looks for the bike bags and mountain bike. The fans alongside the road waiting for the race to start gave me some shouts of encouragement as I passed on through.

Other side of the climbs
The other side of the hill range, more sheep to be found!

In the distance I saw a massive cloud system pouring rain over what I think was the city of Selfoss to the south. The traffic had died down and I was curious since this was a major tourist route. Checking my phone I realized it was already 2300h! I was so confused with the sun still sitting lazily well above the horizon. Upon reaching Geysir the infamous smell of the sulphur reached my nose, a smell of hard boiled eggs. There were only about 10 people around at this time waiting Geysir to blow and to snap a picture (it erupts roughly every 15 mins).

Geysir erupting
Geysir erupting in the early morning

I have high hopes to reach Gullfoss which is another 25km away before I set up camp. Halfway there I decide not to risk it with the rain clouds looming ever closer. I find a nice spot of the side of the road and make camp with the sounds of sheep and the sun shining happily down on me at 0030h. I got a little rain over night and kept waking up as the bright light made it seem like constant sunrise.

Waking early I packed everything up and made my way to Gullfoss, a popular waterfall and my destination to eat breakfast. Again I had the benefit of traveling at odd times so there was very little traffic. The waterfall is gorgeous but it was hard to make an impression since I'd seen Niagara Falls so many times as a child.

A large decision laid ahead of me for the day. It was the beginning of my first cut into the highland interior. My original plans were to follow an unmarked trail to get to Kerlingarfjöll. This trail had many river crossings and I suspected the quality of the track might still be quite damp from last night. I opted to go the safer route and take the popular F35, a gravel road conveniently starting at Gullfoss.

The road begins to disappear
Landscape shot

The quality of the F35 quickly deteriorates as you get away from Gullfoss. From pavement, to gravel, to torn up dirt and rock in a matter of kilometres. There are plenty of signs at the beginning warning tourists not to attempt taking rental cars through the highlands. I did plenty of climbing (on and off the bike) as big wheeled SUVs and tour buses drove by on the wide single lane of the F35. The the whole time I battled a very strong headwind, making little progress. 25km in or so the large and ominous glacier Langjökull to the north became visible and stalked me for the next two days. I passed by the beautiful baby blue coloured Lake Hvítárvatn whose opaque water from the rock flour of glacier melt is undrinkable.

Langjökull glacier
The view of Langjökull glacier ahead of me as I traverse the interior

I took a break in the evening at a small shelter which offers coffee and cakes. It's very quaint that such a place exists in the middle of nowhere in the Icelandic tundra. This is the only building that I'd pass by for the whole day. I briefly meet a French cycle tourist who is preparing to cross the river behind this cafe to reach a supposed mountain hut 3km away. Another passerby helps carry her bike above water as she has a dynamo set up and can't get it wet. The owner and I watch with bated breathe as they almost fall in trying to cross.

The day's end quickly approaches and I only had managed roughly 60km, no where near Afangi, which was my planned end of day 2. I decided to end the day instead at the Kerlingarfjöll campgrounds. It began to spit rain and a road sign signalled 9km to go. I made the dumb decision to only put on my rain jacket and not pants. Within twenty minutes it was pouring and I got drenched. Cursing loudly I became extremely concerned about hypothermia as the temperature began dropping quickly with nightfall.

Kerlingarfjöll mountain range
Kerlingarfjöll mountains and the promise of the camp grounds. A few 4x4s can be seen heading there.

There are many rolling climbs towards the campsite and I quickly begin to lose the will to continue forward. Going up a particularly steep climb I ended up pushing my bike, feet slipping and sinking into the mud. I checked my GPS and it said the camp site is a half kilometre away. The only thing in my field of view was a massive hill that was easily 200m higher than my current position and I could barely make out a small structure on top with some antennae. There was no way that I had the energy to make that final climb. I had passed a shed at the start of this current climb and I decided I'd try to make camp near it.

I desperately shouted to see if anyone was around but all I heard was the sound of pounding rain. I frantically started trying to find a way inside this decrepit building. A side door seemed to have been left ajar and a flicker of hope appeared. The shed is quite large but is filled to the brim with plywood, pipes and other materials. There was roughly a two-person sized area, at the threshold of the door, free of debris. I pulled my bike inside and rolled a large tire to block the door from swinging open. Shivering, I took off all my clothes and put on a dry pair of boxers. I found a tarp that was lying around, threw my sleeping pad and sleep bag down and then crawled inside. I quickly fell asleep fully wrapped up in my bag trying to stay as warm as possible. The rain pounded on the tin roof all night.

I was woken up with sound of scraping wood and concrete as someone tried to force the shed door open. I heard a voice with an Icelandic accent ask sternly "What's going on here?". I peeked out of my bag and quickly stood up almost nude. I explained what led me to take shelter here and he responded bluntly with a, "Must have been a cold night" and I shook my head in agreement. He offers to drive me to the campsite, so I grab all my still wet clothes and jump into his SUV.

We climbed the same hill I gave up on the night before, travel about 100m then descend and the campsite comes into view. The realization that I was a mere five minutes away when I gave up hits me hard. I enter the main building at the site and pay for what I'd come to dub the Icelandic Breakfast Buffet . Hardboiled eggs, toast, jams, cut deli meats and slices of cheese all laid out. I started eating ravenously and a tourist jokes, "Don't rush there is always more". I laid my clothes across a heater within the building and watched my saviour work on a broken leaking toilet that was flooding the ground level. Turns out the shed I was in was his maintenance shed and he was the caretaker at the campground. I spent an hour waiting for things to dry, realizing how screwed I was if I hadn't been found in the morning by this man.

Hofsjokull glacier
The smaller Hofsjokull glacier which tails me as I head north along the F35

He drives me back to my bike around noon and I tried to offer him money but he refused. I thanked him again and headed off to try to reach Afangi before midnight. I faced a strong head wind and the road conditions worsen as the F35 turns straight north. I passed a Swiss couple and then a few hours later a Swedish couple. They both mentioned a geothermal pool at Hveravellir. I was going to skip it to reach my destination but I decided that personal enjoyment is more important than trying to kill myself to make arbitrary deadlines.

At Hveravellir I saw the steam billowing from pockets of water that are boiling at the surface. There is a building that serves food and I order a burger and fries. I rented a towel and headed to the pool. It's quite chilly outside but once dipped into the water you get to a comfortable +35C. I stayed in for about two hours until I was well pruned.

The sun still lingering as always and the time only being 1900h I decided to continue north. Before I left I chat with 2 French Canadian girls who I remembered seeing that morning at Kerlingarfjöll. They had taken a bus from the campsite to Hveravellir because the road conditions were proving too difficult for them and they mentioned they had two male companions biking up to join them. They offered to let me camp next to them but I tell them my plans. They wished me luck and I headed out.

Emergency hut
Emergency hut in the highlands

I passed tons of idle sheep and a small emergency hut standing firmly in the isolated expanse of the highlands. Continuing on, Afangi creeped nearer and I had flashbacks to last night. The GPS said it was just up ahead but all I saw was a huge climb with a structure and some antenna up top again. To my relief at the base of the climb there is a small complex with a handwritten sign OPID , I turned in.

I walked inside the tiny motel structure and let out a loud "Hello?". A minute later a girl around my age bursted in. The first thing I did was ask for food and thankfully she was selling, even though it was not designated as such on my map.

Her name is Eliza and she's from Reykjavík, spending her summer working in the highlands. She usually works back at Hveravellir but had volunteered to stay at Afangi for a few nights. I bought a Pepsi, a sandwich and a waffle as we chatted the evening away. To my delight they had a jacuzzi so I spent half an hour inside that before camping on the property for the night.

I woke up early and continued my chat with Eliza. I had skyr and a sandwich for breakfast. Time passed with good conversation and as I made myself ready to leave around 1100h I saw a group of cyclists turning onto the Afangi property. It ended up being the 2 french Canadian girls I talked with the night before and their 2 male accomplices. They mention they are just stopping in to eat lunch indoors and I asked if they don't mind me joining them. They eagerly accept and I'm excited to finally have some more permanent company.

Once we get on the bikes we had a decent climb right away. We continue northward skirting along Lake Blöndulón. My new friends told me of their travels in Europe, impossibly long climbs in Romania and about biking across Canada. All four are teachers working at a high school together. They are huge cycling advocates and even planned excursions for groups of 40+ students in Montreal.

The desolate Icelandic tundra
The desolate environment of the Iceland highlands. Desert.

After the rough terrain in the highlands, the path finally became semi-paved. I decided to follow the Canadians till the end of the day instead of taking my planned route. From tundra to lush valleys, the landscape changed drastically within a few kilometres as farms started popping up alongside the road. I got my first view of the famous Icelandic horses. We ended up spooking a bunch that a young girl was trying to corral down the road. It felt like a scene from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind with the mountain walls hiding us from the rest of the world.

We end the day together just before another massive climb at Hunaver a few kilometres east of where the F35 reconnects to the Route 1. We camp on the property.

The day started with me slicing my left index finger on a can tuna. We begin cycling up a 6km long climb. At this point we were on the Route 1 and the difference was noticeable. Lots of noise with cars and trucks passing by.

We got to Varmahlíð without much excitement and I bought a bunch of food from the grocery store for a cook-less lunch. There was a French girl there who tells us she came by ferry from Denmark on her grandmother's bicycle! She was riding the opposite way to us and wanted to enter the highlands on F35 going south. We swapped advice on the route conditions ahead. I left again with the Canadians and about 5km east of Varmahlíð we parted ways. They continued north while I stuck to the Route 1 hoping to reach Akureyri by end of day.

Looking at the Norwegian Sea
Spying on the Norwegian Sea, where Iceland meets water on it's northern side

I made good time along the highway and got to ride down some massive hills. I pass 3 cycle tourists: a Spaniard and two Germans. We chatted about the interior and I asked them how the south coast winds were. I continued on and around 1700h I stopped at a hotel/restaurant on the side of the road looking for a warm meal. I ordered an expensive fish 'n chips plate and was severely disappointed. I got 4 small deep fried, what looks like microwavable, fish sticks; some fries and a very light salad.

As I attempted that last 35km or so until Akureyri I began a steady ascent. To complicate matters birds in the area happened to be very aggressive. As I pedalled along I heard the sharp cries of the birds as they raced out to meet me. Their strategy is to fly back and forth over my head chirping whilst trying to hit me with feces. Some came very close and I even managed to swat at one's feet as it dropped in. This continued for what seems to be at least 10km. As one bird would give up and another would appear to join in as I ended up doing shorts sprints to lose the tailing animals.

After that ordeal I came around a bend and Akureyri was in view. A large (in Icelandic standards) city sitting in the a valley alongside a river awaited. I found a campsite in the centre of the city and spent the night.

Leaving the city and crossing the river I began my morning ascent. It was peaceful as I strolled by a few houses until my only companions were roaming sheep. I passed by some ice tracts on the side of the hill that refused to melt. Once I reached the top I was breathless taking in the view. The sun shone brightly on the valleys down below and I let out a wild scream and began my descent. There were a ton of switch-backs and the road condition deteriorated quickly but nothing slowed me as I blazed down standing in my pedals.

Akureyri nestled in the valley
Looking back at Akureyri as I climb the mountain pass to its east side

At the bottom I turned south onto the 833 hoping to cut across below the Route 1 and once again set my wheels on some Icelandic highland gravel. I stop briefly at Illugastaðir to buy a banana and some cookies, then made my way to the supposed trail head. Three small stream crossings need to be forded and at this moment I came to realize that I was missing one of my crocs. They were supposed to be my river crossing shoes, so instead now I had only the left one on and my right foot had the pleasure of being poked and prodded by all the sharp rocks. Then a huge disappoint came to face me, the path snaked off into loose sand. I spot some small animal footprints that were fresh. Someone had recently laid down all this sand...maybe to discourage use by cyclists? I was perplexed, the trail was clearly marked on the 2016 cycling guide but there was no way I was making it through even with my largish tires and ultralight set up. I'd have to double back and take the Route 1, an extra 20km.

I took the opposite side of river going north on 836. Pushing hard as I rode the Route 1 east was far from exciting. I made a point of stopping at Goðafoss, another popular waterfall that I would have avoided had my original plans worked out. The area was packed with tour buses and I spoke with a few Americans from Pennsylvania. The waterfall was indeed water falling. As I turned to continue onwards a old woman approached me with 1000ISK, "Take this and buy a soda. I have a grandson your age." I told her that the gesture was more than enough and politely refused the money. She told me to be safe and reaches over giving me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. I blushed and thanked her for the kindness.

Mountain ranges on the way to Myvatn
Up high on the mountain pass from Akureyri looking at the river below. I'd end up going south and north along it because my route was blocked.

I turned south this time onto the 844 and the wind completely died down. I stopped in the early afternoon at the Kidagil Guesthouse for lunch. I had a bacon cheeseburger with a fried sunny side egg on top with fries and a dessert of a rhubarb pie. The 844 turns into the 843 and starts to sweep eastward. Along the side of the road opposite to my direction I see a man hunched over with an 80L pack. I asked him desperately if he needed food or water and he gave me a wide smile, "I've got everything I need", whilst patting his pack. The next few kilometres he stayed on my mind, putting into contrast what I was doing on the island. I ran into another backpacker, with a similarly large pack. He was unaware that he was only a few kilometres behind another fellow adventurer. He was German (like 80% of the people I met on the island) and we swapped information about the routes ahead. I finally turned north, traveling through large agricultural cuts and heard cows mooing off in the distance.

I reconnect with the Route 1 around 2130h and turn east to pass under Lake Myvatn. As I neared the body of water I began to attract a harem of bugs and the sun shone brightly in a cloudless sky. I reached the west edge of the lake and set up up camp right on it's border.

Waking up, the sky has gone from clear blue to dark stormy clouds. About half an hour into the ride I met yet another intrepid German backpacker. We shared some stories and he told me of his goal to walk from the northern most point to the southern most point of the island. I asked him about how he planned such a trip and he details for me the use of post offices to organize his food and water. He is able to carry about 9 days of supplies with him, so he has to make it to another supply point that he has schedule ahead of himself.

Continuing forward I entered the largest town alongside Lake Myvatn, Reykjahlíð with a population of about 300. I got a bunch of food from a grocery store and chatted with a Spanish cycling couple. They had recently come from Askja but had gone via bus. I ask why they didn't just cycle in and if they think I could do so. The give me an encouraging thumbs up that with the mountain bike I should be fine . I continued east along the Route 1 very slowly with wind roaring in my face. I risked taking an unnamed road going to north because there seemed to be no wind that way. I make great time to Dettifoss but once I reconnected to the main road the wind was back and vicious. The walk to Dettifoss had me spitting out black sand and holding down my hood as the wind ripped by. The waterfall roared and I spent about half an hour staring into it whilst eating lunch: some potato salad.

I take the 862 north and headed towards Asbrygi canyon. The ride passed by uneventfully and before entering the 4km to get to inside the canyon I stopped at a diner and got a burger and some fries. Entering the canyon was a magical experience. Surrounded on all sides by 100m walls of rock it felt like I stepped into Helms Deep. The canyon end is a horseshoe shaped cut, thought to have been the carved by Odin's horse taking a step on the island. I took about an hour to walk through the small forest and enjoy the view. Around 1900h I decided that I'd try to end the night at Grímsstaðir which is 56km away.

Asbrygi canyon
Within Asbrygi canyon

Taking the road this time on the east side of Dettifoss the wind became even more brutal. From where I was I could see a massive storm system rolling directly from the east as low dark clouds roll over the mountaintops and pass over above me at a quick rate. The road quickly deteriorated into what would become the worst conditions I faced on the entire trip. Marked by a road sign, the next 44km would be harsh washboarded roads. Sweeping 2inch ripples across the road with no smooth sections, my teeth and body rattled on for hours. Then came the rain. I had to stand in my seat for the entire ride to maintain some dampening of the constant bumps. I considered giving up many times to the point of tears and swearing to the empty landscape but I managed to find something within me to push forward.

At about 0200h, with six hours of riding the hellish washboards I managed to reach the Grímsstaðir farm. I knocked on a few doors but of course everyone was fast asleep. I set up my tent and promptly collapsed.

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