Iceland Divide (North-South)
344 Mi.(554 KM)
% Rideable (time)
The Wild Side
Halfway between Great Britain and Greenland, Iceland is a volcanic island characterized by a deserted and uninhabited plateau in its inland, accessible only during the short window of the year when it isn’t covered by snow. The idea behind this route is to cross Iceland from the north coast to reach the south following the fault line of the mid-ocean ridge that crosses the island—hence the name “Divide”.
The Iceland Divide leaves the city of Akureyri in the north, located on Iceland’s longest fjord and follows doubletracks and gravel roads as it passes through lava fields, beside volcanic glaciers, and some of the most remote areas of Iceland. Make sure to read the Trail Notes below for a full route description…
The Iceland Divide has a difficulty rating of 9, mainly due to extreme weather conditions. Rain and wind are almost constant, and at higher altitudes and on mountain passes it’s not uncommon to encounter hail storms and snowfall, even in the summer months. No doubt, the brutality of the storms is the real danger in the Highlands. They can be strong enough to lift even the fully loaded bikes like twigs and to knock riders to the ground. In these conditions, moving is often impossible. Powerful storms can last several hours, with wind speeds reaching 60 m/s (135 mph – 225 km/h), and gusts of up to 75 m/s (165 mph – 270 km/h). The other factors that contribute to the route’s 9 rating are the lack of food resupply opportunities and the presence of some river crossings that, due to the depth and the strength of the current, can require considerable effort to be overcome.
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- Desert areas that look like those of the moon for their colors, desolation, and absence of vegetation. There are other places quite like these anywhere else in the world.
- Wonderful waterfalls of Aldeyjarfoss, characterized by black basalt columns.
- Riding through the solidified lava of the Frambuni lava field, the gateway to the Highlands.
- The impressive silhouette of Krakatindur volcano, east of the Fjallabak Nature Reserve, and the primordial environment that surrounds it.
- Views of Mount Maelifell, an almost perfectly conical volcano that stands alone in a black sand desert. It’s a stunning natural masterpiece and one of Iceland’s most iconic landmarks.
- The tomb of Hjörleifur Hróðmarsson (killed in 875 AD), one of the first Viking explorers, located on the summit of the Hjörleifshöfdi promontory east of Vik. The tomb can be reached on foot through a path that climbs 200 meters along the west side of the promontory.
- Hjörleifshöfdi cave on the black sand beach near Vik, with the silhouettes of the sea stacks Reynisfjara and Dyrhólaey standing out on the horizon.
- The access roads to the Highlands are closed for most of the year due to snow. The period during which it’s possible to ride the route is thus reduced to about three months, from the beginning of June to the end of August.
- Bring clothing for cold weather, including a rainproof and windproof jacket.
- We recommend a freestanding tent that can withstand strong winds, as the ground is mainly lava sand and doesn’t offer solid anchor points. Use your bike when rocks aren’t available to anchor the tent.
- Bring a head net with you. The area near Lake Svartárvatn, gateway to the northern part of the Highlands, is infested with midges.
- Public buses offer a valid and cheap connection between the Reykjavik and the towns of Akureyri (start) and Vík í Mýrdal (end). The buses are equipped with bike racks.
- When crossing rivers, always look for the best passage at the moment, given that the flow and the course of the river can vary. The “classic” line for crossing using by 4×4 is often not the best choice for a crossing on foot or by bike. The tires of motor vehicles dig into the bottom of the river, increasing its depth.
- River crossings can become dangerous during or after rain, and, in the case of glacial rivers, during warm periods. You may have to wait until late night or early morning to crossing certain glacial rivers during the summer.
- In Iceland it’s strictly forbidden to leave the gravel and doubletrack roads, even by bike.
- This route is best experienced on a fatbike.
- In the Highlands, you have permission to pitch your tent anywhere for one night. #leavenotrace.
- If you wish to camp near fenced off farmland, you have to ask permission from the landowner before you set up your tent.
- There are some mountain huts along the route (see map). You’ll encounter the first two during the initial part of the route, about 8 km apart from each other. The first one is quite spartan and has 16 beds. The second one, Botni hut, also has 16 beds and a kerosene operated stove for heating and gas cooker for cooking. The third one, the Kistufell hut, is located at 1000 m altitude on the slopes of its namesake mountain, in one of the most remote areas of the route. This is a private hut that still remains open and available to those who may need it.
- There are also staffed huts along the F26 and F210 where you can eat and sleep (very expensive), or camp in their campsite by paying a fee. There’s no possibility of food resupply here.
- Water is almost always available thanks to the many rivers and springs, except in the most desertic area between the Askja volcano and the Dyngjujökull glacier. The Kistufell hut has tanks of water inside that are available to those who need it. If these are empty, you must walk to a spring about 1 km southeast (see map).
- Never take water from areas downstream of farms or fields. Instead, visit the farms and ask for the tap water.
- Water from glacial rivers should be filtered.
Leaving the city of Akureyri in the north, located on Iceland’s longest fjord, the route goes inland along a gravel road and then follows doubletrack just beyond the last human outpost, a farm near Lake Svartárvatn. From here, the green of the vegetation becomes sparse as you proceed, and the predominant color fades to the black of a huge stream of solidified lava mixed with lava sand. The desert views in the Suðurárhraun are impressive: devastation, desolation, and loneliness intermingle with an unmistakable feeling of disorientation.
To the south, the scenery becomes gloomy where a doubletrack sneaks along the Askja stratovolcano, over the mountain range Dyngjufjöll, and across the lava field of Frambuni. On the horizon, some lava formations stand out against the whiteness of Vatnajökull glacier, an impressive ice cap and the fourth mass of ice in the world. This is the most remote area of Iceland, and one with environments similar to those of the moon, so much so that in the ’60s, NASA chose this area to prepare the Apollo Astronauts for lunar exploration.
Passing the volcanic glacier Tungnafellsjökull to the north, the route intercepts the F26, a gravel road leading south through the Sprengisandur plateau, a black desert located between the east side of the Vatnajökull glacier and the subglacial volcano Hofsjökull. From the plateau’s 800 m elevation, you descend on a comfortable doubletrack to 250 m where the trail intercepts the F225, a gravel road that returns gradually to the mountainous region of Landmannalaugar in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve, a place known for its multicolored rhyolite mountains and its hot springs.
Back up at 600 m, you leave the comfortable gravel road for a doubletrack that rolls up and down before it reaches a desolated area in the direction of the Hekla volcano. Here, the wide expanses of black sand give way to mountains and volcanic formations like Krakatindur, a mass of rock that emerges from the Nyjahraun lava field like a ship’s bow. The view is breathtaking and the strong contrast between the black of the solidified lava flow and the bright green of moss that climbs up its slopes makes the landscape extraordinarily unique and unreal.
The route continues along doubletrack, sometimes using only the yellow posts stuck into the ground for reference, as the tracks are often erased by the floods coming from Mýrdalsjökull glacier, Iceland’s southernmost ice sheet. Continuing on, the trail encounters the distinct shape of Mt. Maelifell, majestic pyramid covered with green moss, sitting in the middle of a black desert. It serves as the exit from the otherworldly Icelandic Highlands. The final stretch of the route rolls on until it reaches the black sands and black pillars emerging from the sea in Vík í Mýrdal, the southernmost village in Iceland.
- Road conditions and weather in Iceland: www.road.is
- Iceland Public Bus Transportation: www.straeto.is
- Weather forecast from Icelandic Meteorological Office
- Excellent camping and cheap option to stay in Reykjavik
- Visit MontanusWild.com for the full set of photos from this trip
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