Vatnajökull is the largest glacier in Iceland, and at over 3,000 square miles, covers more than 8% of the country. In the south east, between the towns of Skaftafell and Höfn a portion of the glacier (large enough to have its own name: Breiðamerkurjökull) flows down towards the ocean where it has formed a giant glacier lagoon.
The glacier can be seen from miles away as one travels the main highway, but the lagoon itself (Jökulsárlón; literally “Glacier Lagoon”) is hidden until you finally reach the point where it empties into the ocean, flowing underneath the Glacial River Bridge.
Turning off the main road, parking the bikes in a small dirt lot and walking over a gentle rise, the lagoon comes into view in an utterly surreal sight.
The still waters of the lagoon mirror the clouds in the sky and the massive icebergs, calved from the glacier, alternate in color between a milky white and a luminous blue as the light strikes them at different angles.
It is an absolutely breathtaking sight and as we stood in that surreal location, enjoying some of the most amazing riding we’ve done, it was amusing to look back on the random chain of events that brought us there in the first place.
Two months earlier we had just arrived back in a town with reliable electricity and internet after spending 3 weeks trekking through the Nepalese Himalayas. Wanting to buy tickets for what was going to be our flight home before they got too expensive I did a little internet searching and had the following exchange with Anjel:
“Hey, check this out! The cheapest flight home from Paris is actually on Icelandic Air. And we’ll have a layover in Reykjavik!”
A little more research and I found that because Iceland is eager for tourists it’s possible to extend a layover for several days without any additional airline charges. Our budget was pretty tight at that point, but how often does one find oneself in Iceland – and how could we not take advantage of it. We quickly found a motorcycle rental company online and booked ourselves a pair of BMW GS650s for 3 days.
What was the secret to finding such a good deal on airfare? Three words: volcano, volcano, volcano.
Because we’d spent the last 3 weeks in the Himalayas without any contact with the outside world, we had completely missed the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull and the subsequent shutdown of global air travel. It wasn’t until we told a fellow traveller that we were going to be heading to Iceland that we heard someone say “hopefully you won’t have any problem with that volcano.”
The good news for us was that we weren’t going to be arriving in the country for another 8 weeks – plenty of time (we hoped) for the dust to settle (literally).
The good news kept getting better though. Reykjavik lies at 64°9′ North of the equator, just a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle (66°30′N). Between June and August, the sun only sets for about 3 hours a day. For the 5 days we were there, the sun “set” about 11:00pm and rose again at 3:30am. But even though the sun “set,” it never went below the horizon enough for things to get completely dark. This was 10:13pm:
But I’m digressing. The morning after we arrived in the country, we were picked up from our Hostel by a driver from the bike rental company and after some paperwork and trying on some gear we were on our way.
Apparently there aren’t many women riders that come through, so Anjel had to make due with some oversized gear including these “hulk hands” style gauntlets:
Reykjavik is not a huge city and before long we’d gotten off Highway 1, the “Ring Road” that winds around the entire country and were exploring small winding roads with altitude changes like a roller coaster. Hwy 435 led us across some pretty flat, open plains before winding its way up into some rolling hills.
Anyone who’s done any touring knows there’s a balance between photographing and enjoying the ride. I wish I’d taken more photos of the first part of the day, but we were just so excited to be riding and the roads were so great that I didn’t want to stop, or even take a hand off the bar to snap some photos.
One of the amazing things about Iceland is how geologically active it seems. In all the places we’ve been, only South Island New Zealand has offered such an amazingly diverse landscape – and Iceland definitely gives it a run for its money. In the countryside around the capital city there are few trees or bushes growing, but the hills are covered with either lush green grasses or small flowers and mosses.
But in terms of geological activity, it was hard to beat our first stop of the day: Þingvellir National Park (Icelandic pronunciation is ridiculously difficult. I’m not even going to try to explain how to pronounce most of these names, but for example the “Þ” in “Þingvellir” is a “th” sound, so it’s basically pronounced “thingk vet lir” – and yeah, where’d the “t” sound come from?…).
The park was founded in 1930 to protect the historical site where the first parliamentary proceedings were held, back in 930, which effectively represented the founding of the nation of Iceland.
Even cooler though, is the fact that Þingvellir is a place were the continental drift between the North American and Eurasian plates can be clearly seen – creating large cracks or faults where the plates are pulling apart.
That walking path is going down through one of those faults. There’s even a point where on one side of the path you’re on the North American plate and on the other you’re on the Eurasian plate. Geologically active indeed.
From there we wrapped around Þingvallavatn Lake and headed east on 365 towards the town of Geysir. As you might guess, Geysir is home to a geyser; in fact it’s home to the geyser. The Geysir geyser is the first one ever described in a printed source, and the earliest geyser known to Europeans. The English word is obviously taken directly from the Icelandic which translates literally as “to gush.”
Though famous, it’s not nearly as reliable as “Old Faithful” and in the last hundred years has had eruption time tables varying anywhere from once every 30 minutes to once or twice a year. Luckily right nearby is the Strokkur geyser which fires off every 5 minutes or so (pictured above).
About ten minutes up the road from Geysir is the Gullfoss waterfall, one of the biggest tourist destinations in the country.
Though it was overcast when we were there it’s a stunning sight as the wide rivers stair-steps its way down the valley.
This is probably a good time to bring up weather. Look and the blue skies in the geysir photo, and then the overcast waterfall. Those were taken about 30 minutes and 10 miles apart. Weather in Iceland is fickle and it was not uncommon be riding through a long stretch where one could see a rainstorm ahead. It would be perfectly sunny, then a downpour for 20 minutes as we rode through, and then sunny again on the far side. Rain gear is a must and easy-on, easy-off layers are definitely the way to go.
From Gullfoss we headed south, through some generally flat but still stunning landscapes:
Hjálparfoss was another waterfall viewing spot, this one much smaller and with fewer visitors than the last. If you think double rainbows are awesome, how about a double waterfall?
It just happens to be a point where the Fossá and Þjórsá (Iceland’s longest river) cross. It also happens to be the place where, after 341 days of travel, I lost my damn glasses.
My prescription sunglasses had been an early causality on the trip, getting destroyed somewhere in New Zealand; so from there, with the help of some clip-ons, my regular glasses did the work. Until that day. We have no idea where they ended up, we only know that I was wearing them when we arrived and they were nowhere to be found when we left.
As with all good stories though, the tale evolved, and after telling my uncle about seeing glaciers and waterfalls and then losing my glasses, his retelling of the story had me first dropping and later throwing my glasses into a glacier. Which is certainly more dramatic.
From Hjálparfoss we passed through Hella, Iceland – which led to countless “Dude, I’m in hella Iceland” jokes, inspired in no small part by our local “I hella ♥ oakland” movement.
We ended the day by getting as close to the recently-erupted Eyjafjallajökull as we could, but to be honest, there wasn’t much to see. The mountains in Iceland are massive, but generally low and rolling; so Eyjafjallajökull wasn’t all sheer cliffs and ominous smoke like we’d been hoping. If we wanted Mt. Doom, we needed to catch it in New Zealand.
At this point we were getting a little tired. All told it was a 200 mile day and we’ve found that 250 miles or so seems to be a common casual touring distance for us. That assumes breakfast before we head out, a stop for sightseeing /lunch and probably 1 or 2 other sightseeing stops. It’s possible to put in a lot more miles, but there’s always that toss up between being on the bikes and actually stopping to look around.
The other thing is that we didn’t have any reservations and at some point we were going to need to find somewhere to stay. Thanks to the almost 24 hours of daylight, there’s not the same sense of urgency about finding lodging before it gets dark, but as 9:30pm rolled around we realized that places were going to start closing for the night at some point.
In the small town of Fljótshlíðarvegur we found a place with private little cabins to rent. We unloaded the bikes, made some dinner and sat on the porch enjoying a bottle of local Viking Lager.
Also, just to be clear (again), this was 10:13 at night.
I have to include something here, and Anjel has been a great sport about it. As I mentioned, the rental gear was way too big for Anjel. It didn’t really matter, but it wasn’t until we were looking back over the photos realized how ridiculous she looked. In her own riding gear she looks like this:
In Iceland she looked like this:
“Who’s that fubsy guy in the photo? …oh”
The good news is that she knew it and before we hopped back on the bikes, would usually break into the Caddyshack Gopher dance, which never seemed to get old.
The next day we headed out, spending most of the day riding east on Hwy 1. It may be the main highway, but it’s still just a 2 lane undivided road and there was plenty to see.
We started with another waterfall visit (I know, there are a lot of them) where there’s actually a walking trail up and behind the falls.
The general terrain was changing and for most of the day we road with the coast on our right and stunning mountains on our left.
About an hour down the road and we neared the town of Vik where a short detour down roads like this:
brought us to some of Iceland’s gorgeous black sand beaches.
The cliffs around the beaches are home to a number of Puffin colonies. The birds are wonderfully awkward in their movements but are amazing to see.
From there we hopped back on the main highway:
and about two hours later arrived at Skaftafell, Iceland’s second largest national park and home to (surprise!) another glacier. Following another dirt road, and then walking just a little ways down a trail brought us right up to the edge of the glacier.
Though it was impossible to see it moving, the constant groans and booming cracks echoing through the ice gave an awesome sense of the massive forces at work. Then we turned around and saw this cloud formation to the east.
Also, Anjel demonstrates the (apparently) correct method for traversing a glacier:
Just 30 miles down the road, we came to what was probably the highlight of the trip, that stunning glacier lagoon:
We stayed here for probably an hour, just watching. There are boat tours that take tourists around the glaciers, which must be amazing. We were perfectly content to just stand and stare… and have some coffee, it was a little cold there.
From there we traveled another 60 miles east to our final destination, the town of Höfn where we found a good looking hostel which happened to be a block away from a restaurant known for its langoustine dishes. It was a bit of a splurge, but in 2 days we were going to be back on American soil, and, being a huge fan of lobster, it seemed like an appropriate “last meal.”
The next day we basically retraced our path back to Reykjavik. With only 3 days we had decided that we’d explore as much as we could the first two days, making sure that we didn’t go too far to make it back on the third. So while it was a lot more road time and a lot fewer sightseeing stops, it was well worth it.
We arrived back in Reykjavik in the early evening and since the rental company offered to pick the bikes up from our Hostel (very nice!) we just showered and headed out to spend our last night exploring the downtown.
Thanks to a tip from the “Best of Iceland” newspaper issue that just happened to be out, we tried out the restaurant voted “best” in all of Iceland: this little hotdog stand:
And enjoyed a pint of Iceland’s best at a local pub.
We had been on rental bikes and so were hesitant to do any significant off-road exploring (cosmetic damage on rental bikes gets expensive fast), but if you want to really experience iceland on a bike, it’s obvious that off road is the way to go. If we were to go back, it would be on lightweight, dual-sport bikes; and it would be amazing!
The entire country is about 60,000 square miles, roughly the size of Iowa (or Ireland) but with a population of only 300,000. A third of those people live in and around Reykjavik which gives it almost the lowest population density of any country we visited.
Most of the country is just remote dirt roads and about half the vehicles you see are beefed up 4x4s with massive tires and snorkels for crossing rivers. In Iceland Unimogs aren’t just awesome, they’re actually a practical mode of transportation.
If you’ve ever considered going to Iceland, GO. If you’ve never considered going to Iceland, but are looking for an adventure destination, GO. Every photo you’ve seen here was taken in only the roughly 600 miles we covered traveling from Reykjavik to Höfn and back.
… you’ll love it.
In closing, here’s a link to a Google map of our basic route