Bikepacking Iceland: Life In The Wastes

Experiencing Iceland at the micro-level.

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By population, sheep ought to rule Iceland.

They almost double the human population, and they’re found roaming everywhere. Even if a sheep were crowned the new king, there isn’t likely to be much turnover; sheep are set free to roam as they please in Iceland, with no fence borders restricting them anywhere. They co-mingle with horses, cows, and occasionally vehicles; if you’re a tourist and you hit one, you’re liable for the property of the farmer, even if said sheep has wandered halfway across the country.

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That’s Iceland for you. There’s life everywhere, free to thrive, but only if it can survive the winter. In the brief growing season, the right conditions produce an explosion of color.

Kelley and I took a mini-vacation on a volcanic island chain called Vestmanneyjar. In English, they’re called the Westman Islands, and these islands are one of the most beautiful places we’ve visited on our whole trip.

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The main island, Heimaey, is small enough to be walked across in an hour or two. Formed from an active volcano, it’s one of the youngest pieces of land on Planet Earth, only 10-20,000 years old. A baby! And like most children, it’s growing fast- the newest island in the chain popped its head above water around 1963.

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In the 1970’s, the most active volcano, Eldfell, erupted, sending Heimaey into chaos. All of the townspeople were evacuated, and a lava flow destroyed 1/6 of the town before it was halted by piped-in seawater, over 6.8 billion liters of it.

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That volcanic history is evident everywhere. The land here formed in strange, liquid shapes like black frozen water, with extreme slopes and massive cliff faces that highlight just how much weathering goes on over a geologic timescale. When a landmass is 20,000 years young, everything is exaggerated.

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We stayed in a campground just to the west of the main downtown area. Located inside a U-shaped crater with unbelievably steep walls on three sides, the view from the ridge is just as spectacular as the view from your tent door. There’s a golf course here, a puffin lookout, a few traditional turf longhouses, and guest cabins that are booked up months in advance. The tent sites, like everywhere else in Iceland, require no reservation at all. See that tiny speck of orange? That’s us!

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If you hike up and over the massive ridge, there’s a small hunting cabin, the only kind of dwelling on all 14 of the other islands in the chain. I’m not sure what people are hunting out here. Sheep? Puffins?

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We found a secret beach, too, at an undisclosed location. Totally isolated from everything, without a building or other human being in sight. The ocean’s pretty cold up here, but we couldn’t resist putting our hands in. The water was crystal-clear ten feet to the bottom, composed entirely out of dark pebbles.

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When I say entirely, I mean it. No sand, no sea life, no plants. It looked like a massive birdbath, or a zen rock garden for Paul Bunyan.

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The threat of the volcano has done nothing to stifle growth on Heimaey. 4,000 people live on the island, and like the volcanic rock surrounding it, the downtown teems with life. There’s an aquarium, museums, shops, restaurants, bars, and we even heard rumors of a strip club (we didn’t try and find it).

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Heimaey resembles Reykjavik in a lot of ways, which we didn’t see in some of the other, larger cities on the mainland. There’s art and culture everywhere.

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All good things must come to an end. After three days of hiking and exploring, we headed back to the mainland. The pointed caps of the islands stick out over the coast like a distant mountain range, the edge of a vast volcanic plain.

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We skipped down Route 1 (with our beloved friends, the tour buses and fat-tired 4×4’s!) and made our way to the edges of the Eyjafjallajökull glacier, one of the smallest on the mainland. As it melts all summer, huge waterfalls plummet over the cliffs. This one in particular is unmissable; Seljalandsfoss Waterfall.

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Seljalandsfoss has a trail that runs underneath the cliff, behind the waterfall, which lands neatly in the center of a rock-ringed pool. It’s breathtaking and wild, and the constant mist from the crashing water brings life bursting out of smooth rock.

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It was crowded with tourists and my camera was soaked, but it didn’t matter. Something about this place was magical. It took our breath away.

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I shot almost nothing but macro shots. I was up-close and personal with a miniaturized Icelandic forest. The walls were crawling with ferns, bryophytes, lichens, and grasses. It evoked a rainforest more than anything else, hardly the moonscape that springs to mind when you think about Iceland’s landscape. At the macro level, life thrives.

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The cliff face itself cascades upwards, a meadow falling right into the sky before the water shoots over the edge. I wish we had blue skies; you’d be able to see the water flowing right over our heads.

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We’re really starting to fall into a routine in Iceland. We’re taking our time, seeking out less-traveled gravel routes and meandering coastal roads, with a bit of singletrack when we can get it. Town names are rolling off our tongues with more familiarity; Hvolsvöllur, Hella, Selfoss, Stokkseyri, Vik. We’re slowly making our way back west, to where we started, but a hot spring hike and some exploration of the bird sanctuary should be on our itinerary before it’s time to pack the bikes.

As the trip starts winding down, we’re missing Iceland already; we’re certain to be back to explore the North someday, though, with the places we’ve been over the past three weeks, we can’t possibly feel like we’ve missed anything at all.

Stay Alive,

Max

Bonus Photos!

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123 thoughts on “Bikepacking Iceland: Life In The Wastes

  1. you brought iceland to life with ur words and visuals. I live in a very far away land …. of heat and monsoons. This seems like a world apart. Thanks for making me see iceland through ur eyes.

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