Bikepacking Iceland Part One: Into the Highlands on a Gravel Bike

Is bikepacking in Iceland fun on a gravel bike? That’s the one question on my mind as the plane touches down for my 5th visit to the country. With “make do with what you have” as our mantra, my two friends, Daylen, Quinton and I wanted to see if the gravel bikes we already own would be up for the challenge. I found several fat bike trip reports but very few gravel bike trip reports online, so I pour over maps, make some educated guesses, and trust I’ll figure it out as the rubber hits the road.

Iceland is a playground of intersecting F-roads (the Icelandic denotation for mountain roads in the highlands) with infinite permutations to map out an adventure. Over three days, our group was about to hone our river crossing expertise, ride singletrack through otherworldly landscapes, slip ‘n’ slide through volcanic sand, and soak in the most remote geothermal pool in Iceland.

We set off on our bikepacking trip on an overcast day in late August, starting from the famous Seljalandsfoss waterfall. Heading east on flat gravel roads, the glacier river Markarfljót flows to our right. With one wrong turn, we end up at an impasse where a glacial flood had washed the road away years ago. Nature doesn’t play games here.

The landscape folds into a basalt canyon and we push through our first chunky climb up the Emstruleið (F-261) towards a curious Unicorn Peak. I’ve already burned a couple of matches in the headwind. After catching our breath, Quinton exclaims, “It’s insane how we’re only 25 miles in, but it feels like a century!”

Maefell and Hattafell loom on the horizon. Fell means hill in Icelandic, but these aren’t your average countryside hills; they rise up from the black sand and dominate the landscape. We follow the sandy, washboard gravel road that weaves between these two green giants. The flat road tempts us to pedal faster, but it’s all a gamble. One unlucky line sends us through the occasional 3″ deep sandy patch and takes us out one by one. A few scrapes aside, most of the road is rideable with our 40mm tires. We do hike a bike frequently, but it’s never for more than a few minutes at a time. Here I was thinking the flats would be a piece of cake; this is Iceland telling us: “Oh, just you wait!”

Finally, only one more crossing over the river Bláfjallakvísl stands between us and our camp at Hvanngil hut. Nestled in a lava field, Hvanngil was originally built by farmers who stayed in the highlands to gather sheep in the fall. I boil water from the comfort of my bivy sack and by 7:00 pm I am mainlining piping hot mashed potatoes into my stomach. This is my happy place.

For the next two days I built in time for side quests. On day 2 we detour to Lake Álftavatn, a popular stop in the Laugavegur backpacking trail. A fierce wind makes the lake ripple as if it were the ocean, and our sunbathing doesn’t last for long. We seek warmth inside a hut with huge 3 ft lettering on walls “RESTAURANT AND BAR” where we find hikers, but no other cyclists. The price for nourishment is steep here: 4500isk ($35) for a bowl of chili!

On day 3 we take an 8 mile out-and-back detour to Strútslaug, a hot pot (how Icelanders refer to hot springs) in the middle of nowhere. A singletrack trail takes us through orange-yellow rhyolite, fields of cottongrass flowers, and unreal mountain landscapes.

It is clear this hot pot hasn’t had any visitors in months because calcification has blocked the hot water source. We find a rake that was left behind and use it to divert the piping hot water stream to rejoin with the cold to create a perfect soak. Curious sheep stare. Not a single other person comes by. And when we think it can’t get any better, a rainbow appears from the mist—this is straight out of a fairy tale.

The next stretch of gravel road, the Fjallabaksleið syðri (F210), travels through a broad glacial plain. In this moment, I am in awe of both the micro and the macro. Rivulets of glacial melt weave delicate patterns through the sand. Then my eyes follow these details to its source: the Mýrdalsjökull glacier ice cap in the distance, a whopping 600 sq km in size. Underneath this ice cap lies the infamously explosive volcano Katla.

Desolate stretches of volcanic sand morph into new terrain of moss and washboard gravel as we headed into Katla Geopark, the first UNESCO geopark in Iceland. I pull ahead of the boys and make a solo push through endless washboard and rock gardens—again, unpleasant, but survivable with my 40mm tires. My wheels splash from one stream to the next as I wade through so many stream crossings on day 3 that I end up rotating through all 3 pairs of socks.

Daylen, Quinton, and I reunite at the intersection where gravel meets the pavement of the Ring Road. Never have we felt so desperate for smooth buttery road after that final punishing section of washboard. As we make our right turn onto the Ring Road, though, our hope is immediately extinguished by a brutal headwind. “Go ahead without us! We’ll catch up to you at the camper van!” I yell to Daylen above the whipping winds. At this point we’re at an immense calorie deficit with no food left, and I know Daylen, a roadie at heart, can get to the finish faster if we don’t hold him back.

Quinton and I stick together to form a steady paceline down this endless road. I’ve never been more grateful to tag-team and get a break from the relentless wind. I reach the point of wanting to faint and vomit at the same time, but my legs are still pedaling, and surprisingly my spirits are still quite high. Still, time is against us; we watch the sun set behind a thick sheet of angry clouds on the horizon. In my fatigued daze, I reach for a bottle from my fork and my fingers bounce off of—and thankfully not into—my wheel spokes. Shoot! My mental faculties are breaking down. In the distance, I spy the famous sea stack triad where I know our finish line is: the small town of Vík. My eyes zero in on the rock formations but it feels like a mirage, faint and far away, still…

Two hours later, three battered bodies in sweat-soaked kits slump into three wooden chairs. As luck would have it, we stumble across a hotel with a fancy dinner buffet before Vík. It was obvious in the silent looks we exchange that we are most definitely stopping here. It is an easy decision to not press on to Vík tonight; our bodies are toast. I pile everything onto my plate—fish casserole, Thai chicken, stuffed eggplant, duck, gravalax, soup, tiramisu, apple crumble—all while laughing rather maniacally, shaking both from happiness and from cold. This is the best deal I’ll ever get out of a buffet. Daylen and Quinton have already started to inhale their food. Meanwhile, I’m still laughing so hard I can’t chew. I want to forever hold this moment in my memory.

Picture this next scene: three cyclists packed like sardines across two double beds pushed together, bikes jammed into the only empty corner of the tiny hotel room. Dirty socks soak in the bathroom sink. The room is a jungle of bike kits hanging to dry from the closet, the chairs, the shower rod, the mirror, and even the lamp. The clutter screams chaos, such a contrast from our past three days soaking up Iceland’s natural beauty. Sometimes the transition back to reality isn’t so seamless, and there’s silliness and joy to this experience, too. What is important is that we have tonight to rest—bellies bloated, legs aching, hearts full.