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Vail Daily travel: Iceland’s wild, lonely landscape

Matthew Cull
Vail Daily Travel Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
Special to the Vail Daily/Matthew CullVail Daily travel: Puffins at Latrabjarg, the long high sea cliffs at the western end of Europe.
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My journey around Iceland rolled north from Reykjavik along the west coast. I cycled around Hvalfjordur and over a small pass to the next fjord, Borgarfjordur, under clear skies with grand views over mountain and water. I wandered over a level landscape dotted with lakes under heavy skies in a chilly rain. I turned west and pushed into the wind along the south side of the Snaefells Peninsula. The cloud lifted, the sun returned. Beside me ran a rampart of thousand-foot cliffs sliced by waterfalls. Along their base were bucolic farms with white buildings and red roofs. Far ahead was the broad white cone of Snaefellsjokull, a 5,000-foot volcano. It was lofty, windswept and covered in permanent ice. It was also where Arne Saknussemm found his way to the center of the earth.

I rounded the end of the peninsula, crossing ragged old lava flows now covered in moss. I walked along the coast, across black pebble beaches and above dark imposing cliffs. I turned back east, along the north side of the peninsula and followed the coast below mountains freshly coated in snow.

It was beautiful and magnificent, but it was also windy. I went north, west and east and it was always into the wind. Fresh off the arctic, it bit through fleece and jacket and with high temperatures around 40 degrees F, it was a struggle to move forward and to stay warm. It’s nothing unusual, though. It always blows in Iceland. Everywhere. All the time. It is like Patagonia – you can get rained on and blown dry at the same time.



There were birds everywhere also. All the time. Every manner of sea bird and shorebird. They bobbed around in the water, sat happily on rocks, munched on farmer’s fields and flew overhead on some rustic avian mission. Swans and geese took off with honks of indignation as I approached. Eiders chatted merrily to each other in the waters below the road. Terns flew directly overhead as I rode along. There aren’t many mammals in Iceland but there’s a boatload of birds.

I took a ferry to Westfjords, the multi-clawed appendage that protrudes out of Iceland’s north east. It was immediately a different land. It is a vast undulating plateau that drops in 1,000-to-2,000-foot cliffs into fjord and sea. It is a land ground into submission by ice age glaciers, the plateau worn smooth by an ice cap that sent tongues of ice down to create enormous trenches; dozens of fjords cut deep into the plateau.



Travel in the Westfjords is either along the fjords, which makes for relatively level cycling, or hard steep climbs to the top of the plateau to cross from one fjord to the next. Either way, there are magnificent views of the wild, lonely landscape.

I went west, out to Latrabjarg, called Europe’s most western point, if it were only on the European tectonic plate. Politically and culturally I was in Europe, but geologically the west half of Iceland is North America. Latrabjarg is an eight-mile long sea cliff up to 1,400 feet high. It is home to tens of thousands of birds, including the puffin, a cute little fellow with matching orange feet and bill.

I turned northeast and crossed the grain of the fjords, around the end of one, over the top to the next. Up, down, repeat. The sun and stirring panoramas demanded one more photo. It rained as I cycled around the plateau in the soup of a cloud. There was smooth happy pavement and a mud-covered bike. I saw waterfalls by the dozen, birds by the thousand, and farms alone in the wildness.



I am now in Isafjordur, the bubbling metropolis of the north. I am almost at my furthest north, 66 degrees from the equator. The arctic circle is just over the horizon. Snow line has dropped with my journey north. It is almost at sea level now. Next I’ll ride east, across the north of Iceland to the far coast. This should keep me busy and on the streets for the next few weeks.

E-mail comments about this travel series to cschnell@vaildaily.com.

This is the third installment of Matthew Cull’s summer long series about his cycling journey through Iceland and eastern Europe. Cull has cycled through 50 countries on six continents. Visit his website at http://www.matthewjkcull.com or contact him at matthewcull@me.com.


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