How To Create Your Own Iceland MTB Vacation

As the helicopter dove off the ridge, it struck me that it should be emblazoned with Red Bull logos, what with the puckering flight that we had just completed, and the drastic maneuver that the pilot employed to exit the ridge. As we ran toward the edge of the precipice, we got a glimpse of the machine swinging through a high-G turn several hundred feet below us. Almost immediately, the chopper was just a speck, traversing the barren, volcanic landscape that makes up much of Iceland.

Magne, the owner of Icebike Adventures, was on board the helicopter, headed to the Super-Jeep, and an eventual meet up with us. But first thing’s first. We were on top of the Hengil Volcano, with a long, technical descent ahead of us.

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This was day 2 of my solo Iceland mountain biking adventure. I had decided to hook up with Icebike to ensure that I got some good riding in on my trip. I guess it was kind of an insurance policy. You see, I had struggled finding information that I could use to design my own DIY mountain bike trip to Iceland. Mine was a last-minute trip, so I didn’t have time on my side. As I scoured the web for trails to ride, I found a frustrating lack of helpful logistical information.

Going in, I knew as much about Iceland as the next guy. I knew it was the land of Bjork, gushing waterfalls, smoldering volcanoes, Sigur Ros, and expansive landscapes. And, as a mountain-biker, I also knew that it was starting to get some play on social media as an exotic riding destination. Hans Rey, Joey Schusler, and other pros were dazzling us with the images they returned with. But they were traveling on the dime of some big, corporate players in mountain biking. I wanted to see how the ordinary-Joe could swing a mountain biking trip to that emerging adventure travel destination.

Like many mountain bikers, I sort of have an intrepid spirit. I’d rather do it myself than tag along with a group tour. Maybe I’m selfish, but I want to ride the kind of trails that I like, when I want, and not be at the whim of a group of riders that I don’t know. What follows is how I ended up experiencing the amazing riding that Iceland has to offer on a DIY-trip.

I only had five days to ride, and was determined to get the most bang for my buck. However, I was also on vacation in Iceland, so I wanted to see some of this amazing country as well. As a result, I tried to find the right balance of saddle time and car time.

I was able to explore the areas surrounding the capital, Reykjavik, and found some really good trails in that zone. I also ventured out to the southeast corner of the island, and was rewarded with some incredible scenery and adventurous riding. Finally, I made it to Akureyri, in the north of the country. What I found there was an awesome enduro ride that ended in a sweet, north-shore inspired trail that led back to town. Here are the details.

Day 1

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Waking up at Reykjavik Campsite, having assembled my Santa Cruz Bronson C in the late-night sunshine of Icelandic June, I was ready to find some trails. I headed to the full-service bike shop Kria Cycles for some sealant to seat my tires, and to get some local trail knowledge. They directed me to the local trails near the Reykjavik airport. Note, this is not the Keflavik International Airport that you fly into, but the local, domestic terminal in town. Adjacent to the airstrip is a forested hillside park. Between the glass-domed Perlan and the airport is a network of fun trails with north shore-inspired features. Route finding is by trial and error, but if you know to look for skinnies and bridges, and you’re willing to explore a bit, you can get in a fun couple of hours on these trails.

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After a morning of exploring this zone, it was time to meet a local mountain biker who was to show me a trail on the Hengil volcano, located about 30 minutes northeast of Reykjavik. From a very accessible roadside pullout, we headed up to the slopes of the Hengil volcano. We ventured onto a 9.6-mile ride on varied terrain that basically did a double-lollipop. We covered mixed terrain, all with stunning, enormous views onto the broad volcanic valley below. The riding was technical–very technical at times–and included a lot of rough, loose trail bed. There were also some significant hike-a-bikes (the norm in Iceland) as well as a few snow crossings. In the end, we did about 2,600 feet of climbing, and rolled back to the truck with big smiles on our faces.

Day 2

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June 7th was the day that I had been anticipating since I began scrambling to organize my Iceland trip. Icebike Adventures was taking me and two other riders up to the top of the Hengil volcano for their “Volcano and Edge Helibiking” trip. Having dropped my bike off the night before with owner Magne, I was taxied to the airport in the morning, where I met our guide, David; Magne; and the other two riders. We loaded the helicopter and embarked on the 30-minute flight back out to the Hengil volcano. This time, though, I would ride a trail off the top of the ridge, high above the trail we had ridden the day before. After some exciting flying over the volcanic terrain, the pilot perched the chopper on the ridge, and we unloaded our bikes. After the theatric departure of the heli, the four of us were left atop the ridge in silence, staring down a gnarly drop-in to a long descent to the valley floor below.

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We descended for about an hour on a trial that was rugged and natural at times, flowy for periods, but always rocky, and always surrounded by beautiful vistas. The final descent brought us down a patch of snow, through a tight valley that led us to the world’s second-largest geothermal energy complex. This complex reportedly provides all the power needed in Reykjavik, as well as enough hot water to allow all residents of the capital to shower at the same time.

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At the bottom of the descent, Magne was waiting for us with lunch and the super-jeep that was to transfer us across the valley to the Edge Trail.

The edge trail is Iceland’s version of a flow trail. That is to say, it’s a trail with some flowy sections, between sections of sharp lava rocks. The trail is somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 miles long, and mostly flat to slightly downhill. Though the gradient is mild, it’s still a very fun ride, skirting, and sometimes traversing, a vast lava field on ribbon-thin singletrack. The views from the trail aren’t as grand as those from the ridge of the volcano, but they are no less inspiring.

The trail ended with a fun little berm section that spit us out onto a gravel road, where a smiling Magne was waiting to shuttle us into town for a celebratory beer and a well-earned burger.

Day 3

It was on day three of my trip that I started to understand that during June in Iceland, time is only used so that stores know when to close up for the night. You see, it never got dark during my entire stay. That means, you can ride anytime your legs are good for the effort. So, after an evening drive east out of Reykjavik, I set up camp at the base of the oft-photographed Skogafoss. After a brief rest, I decided to head up the Skogafoss trail for a midnight ride.

The trail up Skogafoss is actually the last part of the IMBA Epic Laugavegur Route, which begins in the highlands, some 50 miles from the cascade. This trail was not an option during the early summer month of June, as there was a 10 km section that was covered in snow, and inaccessible roads leading into the interior of Iceland. So, I settled for an out-and-back trip heading up toward the region between two of Iceland’s many ice caps.

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The Skogafoss trail grinds up an impossibly-beautiful and harshly-rugged canyon, and passes some 22 waterfalls along the way. The trail is extremely technical in places, and the views are relentless, so keeping your eyes on the trail is also a challenge. I climbed my way up the canyon about 2,000 feet before increasing winds and clouds turned me back. It was reported to me that after a bridge (that I did not quite make it to), I would encounter the first major snow crossing.

Even though it was still light out at 2am, I was out there alone, and felt pretty isolated. It was beautiful and serene, with just me and my thoughts, but wisdom told me that getting caught out here in any kind of weather would be a huge mistake.

With that, I pointed the Bronson downhill, and held on for a rocking, wild, and fast descent back to the top of the namesake waterfall. Like many in Iceland, this is a natural trail. It is not maintained, and is characterized by loose rocks, drops, off camber sections, and all the other features that we as mountain bikers seek out. The descent, that was over too soon, delivered me to the top of the stairs that I haven’t yet mentioned.

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My ride up Skogafoss didn’t start out as a ride at all. Instead, it was a hike-a-bike. My warm up was a 400+ stair climb ascending next to the waterfall, with my bike slung over my shoulder. But now, I was at the top of the stairs, and gravity was squarely on my side, or so I thought. My Icebike guide David had promised me that he’d buy me a beer if I could ride the entire stairway down. Beer isn’t cheap in Iceland, and I’m not one to shy away from a challenge, so I dropped my Reverb dropper post all the way down, tested my brakes, and began to pick my way down the metal staircase to the valley floor far below.

Things went OK, but I’ll just say that I didn’t need to hit David up for that beer. Many of the stairs are straight forward, and rideable for advanced mountain bikers. But there are two very sharp turns, and two short sections of stairs that are considerably steeper than the rest. All in all, the potential for a fall on mist-slicked, metal, very steep stairs had me dabbing a foot in a couple of places along the descent. Safe and sound, I rolled into the campsite at the base of the falls at 3:15am, just in time for a warm shower and a few hours of sleep before my next adventure.

Day 4

After a bit of sightseeing, I was ready to find some more singletrack. I had made my way back to Reykjavik, and wound up finding the Heidmork area. This area, located near Reykjavik, seems to be the go-to spot for trail activities for capital residents. There are many trails in the zone, and they are frequented by hikers, equestrians, and trail-runners. That said, I didn’t encounter more than a handful of users on my 10-mile ride.

The trail that I was seeking was used for a spring 2015 enduro race, and I located in on the website Wikiloc.com. It is listed as a shuttle ride, but since I was riding solo, I figured I’d do it as a quasi out-and-back. Since the trail crossed a small road about halfway down, I decided to park at that intersection, and first ride the trail up from the beginning, then turn around, head back to the car, and then proceed down the trail to the end, and climb back up to the car. That was the plan, anyways. The trail above the road was well-marked for the first few miles. However, after that, the trail seemed to ascend a very steep, very rugged cone of a volcano, and then it petered out.

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I searched for the trail for about 30 minutes, going this way and that, before giving up, and hoping for better luck on the bottom half of the trail. I was rewarded for my decision, because the section of trail below the road crossing was much easier to follow, and actually very fun. It went from nice singletrack in the trees, to a narrow trail through a huge field of waist-high brush that felt a little like riding through a field of lavender. The bottom half-mile of trail was a really fun, enduro-style descent that made the Bronson feel right at home. Once I reached a parking area down below, I turned around and climbed the trail I had just descended.

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After a fun climb back up into the forest, I passed another trail that I hadn’t noticed on the descent. This trail had a decidedly un-Icelandic feel to it. It was wide (about 3 feet), smooth and maintained, and it immediately got my attention. A short pedal up the trail and around the corner revealed smooth, sculpted doubles, and there was even more farther up the trail. What I discovered was a very fun, very well-built freeride trail, complete with a 180 degree wallride, multiple ladder drops, and several jumps. I spent the rest of the evening sessioning this trail, doing my best to get decent shots of the action.

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Day 5

My last day of riding in Iceland turned out to be spontaneous. Having left Reykjavik, I headed north for a trail that ascended the Glymur waterfall, I changed my mind, and kept driving north toward Akureyri. A beautiful, 4-hour drive delivered me to the end of Iceland’s longest fjord, and the picturesque, second-largest city in the nation.

Because I decided last minute to head up north, I left my camping gear back in Reykjavik. So, I spent my only night of the trip indoors. I found it very easy to book an AirBnB on my phone, and was able to roll right up to my comfy guesthouse, get kitted up, and head out for an adventure on the Hlíðarfjall trail.

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I rode straight from my guesthouse in the city center, up a steep road climb of about four miles to the local ski hill with the same name as the trail. From the parking area of the ski hill, I was able to locate some numbered stakes that the local mountain bike club in town had pounded into the ground to mark the trail. This was very helpful, as the trail was in early season conditions–meaning snow in places, mud in others, and the whole length traversing a broad valley. I followed the numbered stakes as the trail undulated, passed over newly-constructed skinnies, down into the beautiful Glera river valley, then eventually up to the Gamli hut.

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From there, the high point of the ride, the dirt dried up, and changed to more of a red clay. Some fun descending on well-maintained trails lead down to the Hjólabraut trail. Hjólabraut means “bike trail,” and is a purpose-built trail with some elaborate skinnies and a few jumps, and many other north-shore features. It was a really fun way to end a fantastic ride through the mountains above Akureyri. In the end, Strava said 18 miles, and just under 3000 feet of climbing, door-to-door.

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After a good night’s sleep (my first sleep in darkness in a week), I headed back to Reykjavik for a soak in a hot tub, and the sad task of repacking my bike. In the end, I was able to pull off an amazing solo trip, planning much of it on my own. I maximized my time in the country by getting to ride every day that I was there, and was lucky enough to find many great trails. My sense is that I’ve only scratched the surface, and when I return, I will do so later in the Icelandic summer, when I can access the epic trails in the highlands.

Basics

Here are the things that I learned that will help other would-be DIYers plan their own adventure to Iceland.

Gear

Iceland is a harsh and rugged country, so you’re going to want to take some things into account when packing and setting up your bike.

First off, trail bikes rule in Iceland. I brought my Santa Cruz Bronson C (2014) with a 1×11 drivetrain with a 34T chainring. It wouldn’t hurt to go with a smaller chainring, but you’re going to be doing some hike-a-biking regardless, so I’d say, ride what you’re used to.

Tires: On the recommendation of a local Icelandic rider that I met on Facebook, I swapped out my Nobby Nic/High Roller II set-up for full-on DH tires. I ran a Magic Mary 2.4 on the front and a Minion DHR 2.4 on the rear. The volcanic rock in Iceland is razor-sharp, and there were many times when I was grateful for the DH casings on these tires. Sure, they’re heavier, and take away some of my bike’s snappy feel, but in the end, it was a compromise I’m glad I made.

Shoes: You will shoulder your bike, and hike it up steep climbs in Iceland. A lot. So, I recommend leaving your carbon-soled MTB shoes at home, and bringing something like a Five Ten Maltese Falcon shoe with sticky rubber and clipless interface. Not only will they be more comfortable on the hike-a-bikes, but safer too, as footing can be treacherous on the natural trails of Iceland.

Weather gear: Weather changes quickly in Iceland, especially when you are near the ice caps. It is advisable to carry warm spare clothing, so that if you get caught out in the elements, you can get into something dry. I know locals who generally carry spare base layers (top and bottom), socks, and even shorts. This seems excessive, and like you’ll need a monster pack, but it could be the difference between staying warm or being totally miserable.

Sleeping

I found it very easy and generally comfortable to camp in Iceland. I brought the very basics in terms of camp gear: two-person tent, bed roll, sleeping bag, and Jetboil stove (for making oatmeal, soup, and coffee). All of this gear either fit into my bike bag, or into my second checked bag, along with my clothes and riding gear.

If you decide to camp, I recommend Reykjavik Campsite. There, you’ll find flat, grassy, comfortable sites; hot showers; a fully-stocked kitchen (including pots, pans, and utensils); wifi; laundry; and many other services. You’ll pay just under $20 per night. I also camped at Skogar Camping Ground, right at the base of Skogafoss. While it’s not nearly as stacked with amenities as Reykjavik Campsite, it’s comfortable, has warm showers (pay), and the setting is second-to-none, right at the base of one of Iceland’s most picturesque waterfalls.

Reykjavik and the entire country is covered by a vast network of guesthouses. Lodging is very easy to find online. The problem will be deciding which option to go with. My limited experience with these suggest that they start at around $80/night/person, and range from basic to fancy. The one I stayed at in Akureyri was nice, but simple, and cost $90 for the night.

Costs

Iceland isn’t cheap. I’m not sure how the locals survive, but their wages must be much higher than ours are in the US. Bargains are hard to find, so realistically, you should plan on spending about $120 per day for a campsite, breakfast, and lunch at camp, a modest dinner out, and two beers.

Bike Rental/Repair

In Reykjavik, you will find high-quality, full-service bike shops (like Kria Cycles) that can make any needed repairs. Rates are in the ballpark of 50% more expensive than similar repairs stateside. While I didn’t rent a bike myself, I did see decent bikes for rent. I wouldn’t say high-end rentals are common, and they aren’t likely available outside of Reykjavik. Factoring in the inflated costs, it’s almost certainly cheaper to fly with your own bike.

Now that you have all of my hard-earned advice at your finger tips, it’s time for you to start planning your own DIY Iceland MTB Vacation!