Foreign Travel: Beyond Reykjavk

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, August 1994

Foreign Travel: Beyond Reykjavík

On foot, bike, and pony through untrammeled Iceland
By Michael Paterniti

To drive 30 miles across the black lava flats from the Keflavik airport to Reykjavík, Iceland's capital, is to realize that you've arrived in Europe's lunar outback. A stark contrast of glacier and volcano, Iceland is a great, ghost-blown emptiness that's perfect, in its primordial way, for hiking, biking, running, pony trekking, and camping.

During most of the year, ferocious winds erode and animate the landscape, shredding the flags that fly over Reykjavík. Influenced by both the Gulf and Arctic Streams, Iceland's weather is prone to drastic barometric mood-swings. In summer, however, mostly temperate conditions--as well as the midnight sun--prevail, for which makes it prime time for visiting. But even in August, when temperatures average about 60 degrees, you should come prepared for the occasional cold snap.

Whimsical weather aside, here are some of Iceland's best outdoor options:

Hiking in Snaefellsnes
From fjord and heath to geyser and waterfall, Iceland is a hiker's Valhalla, with five national parks, thousands of miles of hiking trails, and enough open, unpeopled space to accommodate the howling hermit in everyone. Some of the best roaming can be done on the Snaefellsnes peninsula, a three-hour drive north of Reykjavík. Here you can hike on the Snaefellsjökull glacier, a place thought by the Vikings to hold mystical powers and later immortalized by Jules Verne as the entrance to the center of the earth.

Start at the outpost of Arnarstapi, where only two families live in winter. The trail begins about a mile and a half east on Route 574; ask for directions at Arnarbaer, the village's only restaurant and inn. It's an easy four-hour hike to the 4,744-foot summit (bring crampons if you plan to do any trekking on the glacier). From the top you'll see the snowcapped West Fjord Mountains to the north, and lava fields giving way to electric-green pastures full of sheep. Snaefellsnes is slated to become a national park in 1996; until then you're free to camp anywhere on the glacier without a permit.

For maps, books, and information on regularly scheduled hikes, contact the Iceland Hiking Club at 011-354-1-68-25-33.

Biking the Golden Circle
Many Icelanders still believe in hobgoblins and dwarves, know as huldufolk, and in recent years the government has canceled road-building plans to avoid "dynamiting the elves." For the cyclist, this offers a partial explanation for why so few interior roads exist and why others are unpaved or in disrepair. It also serves as a warning: Ride with a sturdy bike and extra inner tubes.

A great four-day, 146-mile route begins south of Reykjavík on Iceland's Ring Road. Once beyond the capital, where half of Iceland's 260,000 people live traffic thins out and you'll find yourself riding through wild heaths and farmland. From the town of Hveragerdi, ride over a mountain pass to Selfoss, the dairy center of southern Iceland. Thirty miles farther, bear left onto Route 30 and head north along the Pjorsa River through the villages of Olafsvellir, Hreppholar, and Tungufell, and on to Gullfoss, one of Europe's largest waterfalls. Six miles up the road is Geysir, after which all the world's geysers are named. It's no longer active but nearby Strokkur is a faithful stand-in, spouting hot water up to 100 feet every seven or eight minutes. From there, ride 30 hilly miles to Laugarvatn, where you can swim in the 60-degree lake water. On your way back to Reykjavík, stop by Pingvellir National Park, home of the Viking parliament from AD 930.

For more information, call BSI Travel (22-300), which rents year-old mountain bikes for about $18 a day. The best places to stay are in family-run bed-and-breakfasts or on working farms. Rates range from $30 to $40. For a complete list, contact Icelandic Farm Holidays at 62-36-40. A camping guide is available from the Icelandic Tourist Board; call 212-949-2333. For information on outfitted cycling tours, contact Samvinn Travel at 69-10-70.

In a city with its own salmon river and perhaps the world's cleanest air, the Reykjavík marathon, held this year on August 21, may be one of running's best-kept secrets. The course is relatively flat, and if the skies are clear you'll have a constant view of Mount Esja across the harbor and the Snaefellsjökull glacier gleaming in the distance. Sea breezes invigorate the 2,000 participants on a figure-eight course that covers the whole city, taking runners past the parliament buildings and the historic town center. Afterward, drive 20 miles toward Keflavik airport and turn south on the road to Grindavik till you reach the Blue Lagoon, a surreal bathing pool next to the Svartsengi geothermal plant. Soak in 100-degree delirium for a few hours and you'll probably be as good as new. Contact ITB Travel at 62-33-00.

Pony Trekking
Equus scandinavicus, as you soon find out in Iceland, is that much-celebrated indigenous wee-horse that has served Icelandic farmers well in an unforgiving landscape. Several companies run pony treks from day rides to ten-day expeditions that canvas the countryside from highland to desert to shoreline. One spectacular six-day ride begins in Varmahlid and allows you to participate in the centuries-old tradition of rounding up some of the country's 75,000 horses. Call Hesta Sport (354-5-38021), Eldhestar (98-34-884), or Ishestar (65-30-44).

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