Highlights of Iceland
Trail riding is about the thrill of adventure. It’s about seeing new, exciting places while testing your riding ability. And when it comes to riding the best machines at the coolest places on Earth, Can-Am ATV riders stand alone. That’s why we followed two experienced trail riders, Minnesota natives Mike and Paula Johnson, on their epic quest to conquer the trails of Iceland. Read on to feel the first moments of anticipation, see the jaw-dropping vistas and experience the unforgettable riding as we face some of the most challenging terrain in the world.
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“I feel like I could be on the moon.”
Everyone was thinking it; Paula just said it. Standing atop Festerfjall Mountain, halfway between the small fishing village of Grindivik and the capital city of Reykjavik, the landscape is barren. Nothing but gray lava fields as far as the eye can see. And you can see far in Iceland. In the wilderness, there are no trees. Occasionally, however, you’ll run across a lush valley, filled with small mountain flowers and herds of grazing wild goats. Iceland is full of these little wonders.
When you look up at the moon, you probably wished you could ride the space rock. All those craters sure would be a fun way to test your Can-Am ATV. That’s what Paula and Mike thought. True, they love riding around their northern Minnesota home. There are hills and twisting rivers that make up miles of scenic trail. Even so, there’s something in the DNA of Can-Am ATVriders that make them reach for something more. For Mike and Paula that something more was a trip to Iceland to ride some of the most unforgiving, yet beautiful in the world. It’s true, however, this type of riding is not for everyone. Both Mike and Paula are burning with raw energy, always willing to go an extra mile to see something special. That’s a Can-Am ATV rider for you. They’re as eager to ride during the tenth hour as they are in the first.
Earlier in the day, before the mountain, our ride started with a kick. One moment we were exchanging pleasantries after meeting our local guides at ATV Adventures, and the next we’re on a whirlwind ride to the top of a volcano. The trail swirled upward as did the wind, which gusted to 30 mph and flung sand everywhere. The Johnson’s, along with guides Kjartan Sigurdsson and Kjartan Juliusson, navigate the swirling sandy path on Can-Am ® Outlander ® ATVs. ATV Adventures, which Sigurdsson co-owns, uses only Can-Am ATVs — 20 in all. So forget the marketing BS, the brand smack talk. When climbing an Icelandic volcano, only one ride will do; but don’t take it from us.
“We use Can-Am ATVs because they are the best. We never really considered anything else,” says Sigurdsson. “In Iceland, power and handling is extremely important. It’d be dangerous to use other types of machines.”
Mike and Paula are thrilled to be on Can-Am Outlander ATVs as well. It’s what they ride back home, giving them much-needed familiarity in such a cold and unforgiving place.
“This is not an easy ride,” Mike says with a smile as he stares down the side of the volcano. “But this is fun. As soon as Kjartan saw we could ride, we were off. We are not taking it easy.”
In what turns out to be a 150-mile, 12-hour ride, nobody takes it easy. Following a ride back down the side of the volcano, we ride to the black sandy beach of Sandvik, where Clint Eastwood filmed Flags of Our Fathers. It’s here everyone is able to take a breather. And by breather, it means riding ATVs in the sand while waves crash on shore and the seagulls loudly voice their opinion. That the sights on Iceland are incredible is a given. Many other movies and television shows have used the island as a backdrop because of its starkly beautiful scenery.
Perhaps nobody knows the riding in Iceland better than Kjartan Juliusson. He rides his Can-Am ATV every day of the year, to and from work, and just for fun. In Iceland, it’s legal for ATVs to ride on public roads, and Juliusson is well-known for appearing on his Can-Am Outlander 800 everywhere.
“I love my home country. Everywhere you go there is something to see, something new to discover. There is nothing like riding here,” Juliusson says. “I always say: Life is short. Ride a Can-Am.”
One of Earth’s last great challenges
If riding a Can-Am ATV in Iceland sounds like an impossible dream, we’re here to tell you it’s not. It’s surprisingly easy to reach the island, sign up for a riding excursion and acclimate with the country. ATV Adventures offers everything from 1-hour family tours to multiple-week, cross-country riding excursions. Iceland is also relatively close for many — it’s only a six-hour flight from Minneapolis to the island, which sits just inside the Arctic Circle. Plus, nearly everyone here speaks English as well as Icelandic, if not more languages. You’ll feel at home quickly.
To show that, let’s back up a second. It wouldn’t be fair to skip the beginning of Mike and Paula’s story, before we got on the ATVs. There’s just too much to share.
First and foremost, Mike and Paula were looking for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. They aspired to go somewhere most people haven’t. With a population of just 320,000, Iceland is one of Europe’s least-populated countries. It’s also home to some of the most exciting trails on the planet. With that in mind, the couple couldn’t wait to start exploring from the moment they touched down.
Despite arriving at 6 a.m. Iceland time and catching little sleep on the flight, they decided to immediately explore Reykjavik. First on the agenda was a visit to the bustling harbor, filled with fishing boats, whale-watching vessels and anglers trying their luck from shore. Next was a trip to the Harpa convention center, filled with stunning architecture. However, the biggest buzz in town was over an Icelandic hot dog stand which claims 70 percent of island’s inhabitants have eaten there at least once. It’s possibly the longest line in all of Iceland. Fueled and ready to go, the couple decides on one last stop before turning in for the night — The Blue Lagoon, a 100-degree spring that contains minerals and algae that allegedly have skin-healing powers.
We return to the hotel at 10:30 p.m. after having been up for roughly 36 hours. The sun is still shining and the sky is a light grey, as there is only three hours of semi-darkness in July from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. Iceland has 24 hours of sunlight in June and near total darkness in January.
Fast-forward back to our ride. After riding the volcano, lava field and black sand beach in only the first few hours, you’re bound to work up an appetite. With no hot dog stands in sight, we settle on heavily salted fish and chips in Grindvik. From there, we ride through more lava fields to the literal edge of Iceland — the tip of the Reykjanes Peninsula. The rocks jut out from the water like knives in a deep blue sink.
This stop on Sigurdsson’s tour is both spectacular and intimidating, but it’s the smaller stops along the way that make Iceland unforgettable. Every few miles either Mike or Paula discover a photo-op. The breaks are also the best times to sample the small bits of Iceland in Sigurdsson’s pack – Iceland twisted donuts, salted lamb tortillas, and other traditional Icelandic treats.
Like Paula said, this is as close to riding on the moon as possible. The ride is also surprisingly varied in its terrain. One stretch of trail feels like a dirt roller coaster. Up a short, steep hill you’d ride, only to crash back down to the valley floor like a wave. Up, up, up again, and back down, faster than before. Huge boulders on either side encourage riders to pay attention and stay on the dirt trail. Speaking of rocks, there’s a plethora in Iceland. Riders weave on the trail, avoiding the two-foot rocks that had fallen onto the trail. Other times, the only way forward was to go right over them. Then there are the constant streams of mountain slopes. And when you’re riding down a mountain, there’s no hand to hold. It’s just you, your machine and gravity. No guard rails, no other people within in a few hundred miles. It’s absolutely exhilarating and a bit frightening. But considering the stunning landscape, mostly invigorating.
“Even after eight hours in the saddle today, we’re excited about getting to the boiling mud pits,” Paula says as the group stops for a drink of water beneath a pair of imposing mountains. “This entire place is adrenaline rush. I can’t get enough.”
The journey of a lifetime
After enduring high winds, an overcast sky and big rocks throughout the day, everything seemed to change in a matter of minutes as we approach the mud pits. The sun finds its way around the clouds, and lights up the colors of an Icelandic valley below. We see the steam from the boiling mud from miles away, and getting up close to the site was awe-inspiring. Only in Iceland. Only on Can-Am ATVs.
“When you’re out riding, you have the entire country to yourself,” Mike says. “There’s nobody out here but us and the machines.”
Being so far away from civilization, there’s an incredible peace that falls over the land and the riders. The only sign of human influence in the area are the rumbling Rotax ® engines beneath you. Iceland as a whole is a sparsely populated country. In that sense, it feels like it still needs to be explored. That’s what you’re able to do on an ATV that you can’t really do anywhere else.
The Day 2 highlights come just as fast and furious. One of the signature moments happens early. We climb a mountain just outside the capital, called the “Million-Dollar View” for the look it provides of Reykjavik. “Where are we going today?” Mike asks Sigurddson.
“There.” Siggurdsson points to a massive glacier off in the distance. In other places, in other countries, that means taking a bus or car or taking the long way. In Iceland, it means we’ll take a straight line towards the glacier, crossing rivers, mountains, streams and everything else along the way. Iceland is one of the last places on earth this is possible.
“I just love how he says ‘Oh, we’re going there,’” Mike says. “That means we’re riding there, and it’s probably going to take us five hours. But how unbelievably awesome is that?”
We stop near the base of the glacier to take in the sights. A rarity – there’s another group of people here, hikers. “Where are you going?” Mike asks. “Up there,” the tall, bearded man leading the hikers says. Must be in Iceland thing – you just point to where you want to go, and go there.
After doing every kind of riding imaginable – over big rocks, small stones, heavy-grain sand, fine-silt sand, lava fields and the like, the group faces another challenge – reach the Geysirarea. Most people are familiar with Old Faithfull geyser at Yellowstone National Park. Well, Iceland has one that’s bigger, better and older. It’s called Geysir, the oldest known geyser in the world, and it blasts nearly twice as high as Old Faithful every five to eight minutes.
The trip ends at the Gullfoss waterfall. Mike and Paula hold hands and talk about the trip. The Icelandic guides head inside the nearby restaurant for refreshments. The Can-Am ATVs are loaded on the truck. The riding memories will last a lifetime.
“I really can’t recommend a trip to Iceland to ATV enough,” Mike says as he reflects on the day. “ATV Adventures will create a trip however you want it. We chose to ride hard.”
Paula chimes in. “I think any vacation we take in the future, riding ATVs is going to be a part of it. You can just see so much that you would never see otherwise.”
With that, Mike and Paula turn and head to the hotel. It’s time to land on earth, back from the moon.