Iceland - Babes in the Dirt
By: Ashmore Ellis
“Do you want to rip dirt bikes across Iceland?” It was June 17th, 2021 and every fiber of my being screamed, “HELL YES I DO!” CC’d were 6 other gals, and within 20 minutes everyone was in with no questions asked.
Anya had included a link to a company called Ride with Locals Iceland run by a true Viking-looking guide named Skuli. The website bulleted out a multiple day tour with names of waterfalls and glaciers we’d see and the fleet of bikes we’d be riding. As I scanned the bike list and required “expert” off-roading qualifications, I knew I had work to do to make this trip a reality. As the rider with the least experience in the group, I decided to dedicate the year ahead of the trip to training. I enrolled back into Motoventures (a motorcycle riding school in Southern California), started hitting the gym, and signed up for a desert race about 6 months in to see if the training and increased time on the bike would make a difference.
My first day back at Motoventures, I had the pleasure of spending some time with Gary LaPlante and told him about my overseas goal; not only planning on surviving it, but having the time of my life. His advice, which will stick with me for the rest of my riding career, was to make it a priority to be on my bike at least 2-3 times a month and practice the drills I was learning every time I rode. In doing so, my ability would be where it needed to be by the trip’s start. I won’t lie and say that it was easy though. I work full time, run 3 small businesses, and have an extremely active 2-year-old. With the help and encouragement of my husband Mike, friends who would skip work to ride with me, and a couple more skill classes, I was starting to see a major shift in my abilities and confidence. Before I knew it, the halfway point quickly arrived and it was race day. Seventy-five miles of chasing my friends through the desert proved to be one of the best ways I could measure the growth. I was psyched to see I shaved a full hour off my previous race time and felt pretty damn good physically. I was making progress, but was I ready for Iceland? With 6 months to go I kept making it a priority to get on my bike, do the drills, and commit to the fitness plan. No matter how hard I trained, however, if my gear selection for the trip ahead wasn’t right, I’d be ill-prepared for my time overseas.
Iceland sounds cold... period, so I started to accumulate more layers and waterproof everything, as I was told to expect 40-degree weather and wet conditions for most of the adventure. Our group continued to email each other on best reviews for waterproof items and, of course, a strong debate on over-the-boot vs in-the-boot pants (of which our group was split 50/50). As I overstuffed my gear bag before the trip, I wondered if I really needed all of the specialized hydrophobic materials and thermal layers. I would soon find out the answer was YES, I did need it all!
As the date for departure arrived, the energy within the group was palpable. Not only were we heading out to ride dirt bikes across the southern fjords of Iceland, but the Fagradalsfjall volcano was erupting and making headlines here in the states. No flights were canceled so I hugged my daughter and husband, said goodbye for the next 2 weeks, and boarded a plane to Minneapolis to rendezvous with the other riders before we headed to Reykjavík. Two flights later we arrived at 6:30AM and the jet lag was inescapable, as no one was able to get sleep on the packed flight. Within 30 minutes we were through customs and standing curbside with our car service ready to roll towards the city center. We stashed our bags at the hotel, which was conveniently located in the center of Reykjavík, and noticed a row of city scooters across the parking lot. In a matter of minutes we were experiencing Iceland, deliriously cruising along the coastline with the sun and blue skies above. Coffee shop stops, scenic paths, and dodging buses took up the day, and sleep came to us quickly that night after being up for 24 hours. Thank God.
We woke up to another gorgeous day and I began to question if it was just myth that Iceland is always cold and rainy. Even letting this notion enter my mind would soon curse us. We decided to rent a car and tour the famous Golden Circle. I’ve seen a few waterfalls before, but holy hell, nothing prepares you for Icelandic waterfalls. They are everywhere, coming from every crevasse and sometimes in the middle of a crevasse! Since the entire country is vastly lava, much of the ground is not porous, so water finds a way through the rock instead of being absorbed into the soil. It’s not uncommon to see multiple falls over five stories high with crystal clear water bursting through at various heights, and they are all drinkable, which was even more remarkable. We didn’t follow TLC’s rules at all and spent the day traversing the falls while looking for horses and sheep to feed along the way. We decided on an early night because the next day we were going to hike to the Fagradalsfjall volcano, a 10-mile brutal climb on sharp lava deposits, slippery terrain, and we were going to do it in the pitch black of night.
Morning came and it was absolutely gorgeous once again (damn Iceland!) as we headed to Friðheimar Tomato Farm. It’s famous in Iceland for not only its tomato soup and fresh bread, but also its giant green houses that produce most of Iceland’s tomatoes. You can tour the property which includes hanging tomato gardens where you dine between Swedish bees imported to pollinate the tomatoes, horse stables, and more. Fresh pastas, tomato beer, and other delicacies were also attractions, so we carb loaded like crazy to prepare for the hike that evening. Once back at the hotel we quickly layered up and headed to the trailhead to ensure we started the hike by 8:30PM. The phrase, “Iceland doesn’t get dark,” is not true at all. As we ascended the mountain, the sky quickly turned to black by 10PM.
While we were hiking towards the volcano we noticed hardly anyone was hiking towards us, in fact, a long line of headlights that resembled ants were hiking in our direction for most of the time. Medics were on site picking people up off the trail left and right and taking them back down the mountain with broken ankles, cut hands, and breathing difficulties. We were traversing some of the sharpest lava fields, consisting of ankle twisting boulders for hours until finally a soft glow was seen in the distance and our headlights finally found some relief. We trudged up the last steep embankment and right at the crest, it appeared: millions of gallons of spewing bright lava lit up the sky and mountains before us. You could see the cone fully formed and in the middle was a sea of lava violently rolling, churning, and exploding. We all sat on the side of the mountain holding each other for warmth for 2 hours as we watched new earth forming. I hope I never forget the feeling and sound of the earth bursting and shaking at my feet. It was a peak life moment that still makes me tear up thinking about it.
The hike back down was even more aggressive in the pitch black, with only a few of us taking on the challenge of finding the tiny reflective poles that would catch the light off our headlamps and aid us in navigation. At one point, I was behind 4 monks dressed in Kāṣāya paired with hiking boots. I was dying to ask what they felt after seeing the volcano but their body language encouraged me to stay the distance and respect the silence as we descended. We made it back to the city by 4:30AM, just as the sun was rolling back on its side to greet us with a new day. The trip was life changing already, and we hadn’t even gotten on the motos yet!
We had one last activity to do before we met our Icelandic guides. The next day we got back on the scooters and headed through town in search of the Penis Museum. Between us, I really didn’t want to go but damn, if there are drinks involved, I will go just about anywhere and apparently there was quite a bit of beer on tap shaped like dicks so with a smile on my face I went. The museum was surprisingly more educational and interesting than I anticipated, as it highlighted different species, not just human, plus mythical penises (I am talking about trolls). We grabbed a beer from one of the dick taps, ordered a round of dick shaped waffles, and roamed the exhibit pointing out our favorites. We were exhausted from the hike, so we all took it easy as the next day Sculi was picking us up to head to the fishing town of Selfoss, and we’d begin our adventure on the dirt bikes from there.
Come and get us! Our crew was ready and amped at 8AM but the weather was not cooperating. Our pick-up time was pushed back a few hours due to a large storm rolling in. Our hopes and dreams of the weather staying beautiful ended here when extremely high wind kicked up and rain poured down sideways. The weather didn’t get much better but we couldn’t push back anymore, so we were swooped up and were on our way to Sculi’s ‘Ride with Locals’ facilities about an hour away with crossed fingers. Once we rolled up, we saw him… a tall, stern, viking relic. It was the myth himself, Sculi. He greeted us with the warmest welcome and instantly made us feel like we were friends from the moment we stepped out of the van. Bags were quickly arranged so we could gear up and go straight into a riders’ meeting. It was game on, and we weren’t backing down due to the conditions. Damn the weather, we had an adventure to get to.
Sculi introduced our other guides, Danny and Gummi, all while telling us the “rules” of riding off-road in Iceland, which had heavy consequences for going off trail. One thing that is vital to point out is how protective this country is over its land and how much respect its citizens have for nature, recycling, and coexisting. Even if you were 2 feet off trail, it could be an environmental issue, hence, the need to book a trip like this through a local guide will ensure you are respecting their land and culture. After the clear expectations were communicated, we were on the bikes, gear loaded, and ready to start. I lucked out with a Husqvarna 450 and teetered my body onto the seat. I am used to my custom suspension and forgot how different it feels when you are on a stock bike that’s set up for a 200-pound dude. I warned Sculi that I’d probably drop it a few times but he simply laughed his deep Viking laugh and said “it’s fine!” which put me at ease. With everyone on their bike, we kicked the stands up and headed out into the downpour and heavy gusts.
Once we hit the road, the wind really started picking up and I began to understand the severity of the storm. In the first hour we rode tarmac to the dirt turn-off, and though I have ridden a Harley-Davidson in some extreme desert wind before, this was next level. We were all riding sideways to combat it as much as we could, but the rider in front of me was blown into the other lane, and while at a stop, another was tossed off her bike into a ditch and her bike slammed on top of her. It was so windy you couldn’t even stand up once we hit the first off-road section. It felt like a death grip pushing our bodies down onto the seat and we fought tooth and nail to stay upright. I started repeating my mantra out loud when things got rough, “challenge accepted, asshole”. The asshole in this case was mother nature and I wasn’t going to let her stop me from having a good time, no matter how miserable the conditions were.
Soon we were descending into a valley and the terrain changed to black lava sand so thick it looked like cake batter. It was like being on another planet and I remember wondering how anything could survive out here (nothing does actually). The rain kept coming and even with anti-rain & fog goggles, it was tough to see anything besides a florescent green rain jacket of one of the guides. At times I had to slow down quite a bit to see the tracks, ensuring I didn’t go off path. We stopped to regroup, and even though the conditions were making the ride relentless, every single person was brimming with excitement and feeling alive in the moment. No one was bummed out, as this was the true Iceland and the kind of challenge we came for, and for the first time we got off the bikes to experience the isolation of the area we were in. The landscape was so extreme with contrasting black, blue, grey and white. In the middle of this scene, 6 gals on dirt bikes huddled together & took it in. We jumped back on the motos to move onward to the first accommodation which was a glacier research cabin on the edge of the Tungnárjökull glacier. Parking the bike felt so damn good and soon we were shedding off our layers and getting into dry clothes. Sculi and the guys started up some music, opened up some wine, and began cooking for us. We were officially in heaven. Taking in this cabin on the side of a massive glacier and the conversations around the dinner table that night was something I will never forget. I felt connected, included, and a part of this magical place that was being shown to us through the eyes of people who love and care for their land, and I couldn’t believe we got to experience it on dirt bikes. As we chatted with Gummi, he showed us the travel log in the glacier hut and asked us to write our stories among the many adventurers who had stayed there before. I added our story and asked Gummi to translate the other stories to us from travelers around the world as we sipped our wine. We went to sleep exhausted, fulfilled, and eager for another day of unknown terrain and sites.
Blue skies and a double rainbow, but not for long because the damn rain kept returning. Our gear had mostly dried before Sculi announced that we would be crossing several waterways that day. It didn’t matter, we knew we’d be soaked for the remainder of the trip anyways. Locked and loaded we took off towards the glacier in search of more volcanos and hopefully to find the hot springs. I will start by saying Icelandic water crossings are wide, cold, and consequences can be severe, so I was a bit nervous since I had barely crossed a puddle thus far. Nevertheless, “challenge accepted, asshole”. The asshole this time was the water crossings and Sculi wasn’t lying, there were tons of them.
This is the day that I was finally settling into the machine. I felt confident as I zipped behind the girls, but often I fell behind as they picked up the pace to sightsee. The girls were naturally faster than me, (which I loved) but I didn’t have the urge to keep up with them for 2 reasons: First, Gary instilled in me to ride at 50-60% my capability if overseas, so I listened to that advice to keep myself safe (ride your own ride, always). Secondly, I often made the guide behind me stop and tell me about the various volcanos or rivers we were next to, or my new favorite obsession, Icelandic folklore. The area was filled with trolls, fairies, and soon Gummi and I were troll hunting across the southern fords. I saw hundreds of them in all shapes and sizes, and absorbed as much as I could as we traversed our first of many water crossings. They varied from winding rivers to going across the tops of waterfalls beside the glaciers. What I was initially concerned about became the most thrilling part of the ride, and I found myself praying for more. The crossings took us to places that not many could get to with regular cars, like secluded springs and epic backcountry trails.
Mid way through the day we reached one of the springs, which meant tossing on our swimsuits and diving into the warmest crystal-clear water surrounded by mountains and grazing sheep. This particular hot spring had a bus that was converted into a camp store that sold hot chocolate (spiked if you wanted) and other snacks. We all grabbed a hot chocolate or tea and dipped right in to relax our bodies while it rained. Back on the bikes we headed to Mt Helka, another active volcano, which was also a ski resort (yes, take that in; Icelandic people ski down volcanos for fun). I think I must have pulled over 4 or 5 times to ask about different volcanic formations and how people know to evacuate from the area when the volcano erupts mid ski. I learned it’s not just the lava, but deadly gasses that are most concerning. The last time this particular one became deadly was about a decade ago and the locals received the warning 10 min before it was spewing deadly gasses and lava. Gummi seemed unconcerned saying that the warning provides enough time. I stared at him in disbelief. It takes me 10 minutes to find my car keys and this guy could ski down a volcano and into safety in that amount of time.
An hour later we reached our second accommodation of the trip which was a bunk house with running water, a shower, and electricity (a rarity). Upon entering the cabin every single one of us lit up as we saw the largest bunk bed on earth! It was our slumber party dreams coming true, as there was room for 12 on top and 12 more on the bottom. Once again, the wine came out and the guides were making us dinner while we took turns with the coin operated shower for our only bathing experience of the moto portion of the trip. After dinner, we walked around the grounds which had a river and a few sparse campsites occupied by giant WW2 off-roading rigs from Norway. In America we go RVing, but people who come to Iceland go war-era-adventure-rig camping. We once again hit the hay pretty early that evening.
Coffee and light breakfast greeted us to start off the morning by our rig driver, Elsie. Even though the weather called for a mixture of rain and sun, it didn’t matter as this is the day we were to traverse even more waterways. By this time I was feeling great about the crossings, so I dropped “asshole” from my mantra and simple chanted “bring it on” as we got started. We climbed mountains most of the day that had lookout points resembling computer screensavers. It was unreal to be out in the middle of nowhere on a dirt bike taking in such a beautiful landscape. We kept carving through the vastness, barely seeing people unless we hopped on a dirt road to connect to another section. On one particular dirt road, we intersected with about 100 horses being wrangled and moved to another location. They didn’t seem to mind the bikes as we ran along beside them for at least 5 minutes before they were herded off into another direction. These horses were beautiful, powerful, and so majestic as their manes caught the wind and rain next to us. It was every horse-girl’s fantasy. Ever since having my daughter, I have become hyper emotional and had been crying tears of gratitude and amazement off and on the entire time. This moment struck me deep and the tears started to flow hard mixing with the rain that was coming through my helmet. There I was on a dirt bike, in Iceland, with an amazing group of women I met through Babes in the Dirt, experiencing my entire being awakened. I was given this time freely by my husband and 2-year-old daughter with no hesitation. Not only did they give me this time and space, but they highly encouraged and supported it as well. Packing in that moment of gratitude for my support system to memory, I raced on.
Within 10 miles we all came to a complete halt. Before us was the largest water crossing we had ever seen that dropped into a 4-story waterfall. I staged myself to be last and watched the gals go before me from the top of the hill. One then two, three, four riders made it through. Then rider 5 entered the water and all of a sudden low sided down into the current. She popped up, hulked the bike upright, and was able to push it out of harms way with the help of the guide. Rider 6 then took on the challenge, and with similar luck low sided into the current in the exact same spot. As soon as she popped up and got the bike cleared, I saw her running back into the water for the sheer purpose of waving directions to me from the hill. From her sign language I gathered there were some larger boulders under the water that both riders had hit and she wanted to make sure I went around them safely. She reminded me of a traffic controller on an aircraft carrier as she used her entire body to mimic the line I needed to make it through. I gave her the thumbs up and she ran out of the water to join the other gals who were cheering me on as I descended the hill with elbows up and body positioning in attack mode. Once my tire hit the water all I could think was “holy shit, it’s on”. The rocks shifted beneath my tires and water sprayed up and over my bars into my helmet. I was blinded but soon felt traction and heard cheering which indicated I had made it to the other side. This was one of many times we celebrated as a group. Helmets off and smiles blazing, we laughed and hugged and let feelings overtake us.
We got back on the bikes and rode into rolling green mountains until we came upon a natural boulder bridge with falls on either side. It was extremely slippery and dangerous, so the guides wanted to walk the bikes across due to the higher consequence of losing the bike in the falls or possibly drowning. With all bikes across, we rolled up and down the beautiful hills until we dropped into a valley that had a river and several waterfalls moving through the terrain. And there it was, a story-book cottage next to the falls where we’d be staying for the night. As we pulled up exhausted and grateful to be there, we noticed we weren’t alone. Already parked and off-loading were 4 people who had taken over this tiny sheep herders’ cabin. We were instructed by the guides to off load and that they’d handle it. Turns out the other group happened to see the cabin from afar and decided to stay there, ignoring the fact it had been rented for the night. The other group argued they had a reservation and when asked to show it, they refused. Sculi wasn’t having it and, as the protector he is, escorted the group out with directions of a nearby hostel. This is one of many times I was so grateful to ride with the locals who know every inch of this country including customs, laws, and how things work in situations like this. No one would dare argue with Sculi, his larger-than-life persona and size is enough to simply make you agree with him. With the squatters booted, the wine and dinner commenced. Afterwards we walked to the falls and enjoyed the most gorgeous views together before piling into the sheep herder’s cottage that sat next to the falls.
We were told that this next day was most people’s favorite as the views were even more spectacular. In my mind I couldn’t fathom it being better than what we had seen thus far, but hey, the locals know best, and true to form they were right. The sun broke through and threw light across the mountains while shifting clouds cast the most remarkable shadows on the new terrain. Soon we were cresting a mountain and dropped into a valley beside yet another massive glacier. We were told the river crossings were going to be more severe in this direction due to the waterfalls mixing with glacier run off, apparently a deadly combo. As we neared the side of the glacier, you could see the dirty mixture composed of ash from thousands of years ago with the fresh river water. The speed of which it was flowing was violent and eerie to say the least. We continued through the mountains until we reached the most dangerous crossing yet. The current was extremely strong, and if you were to go down and get pinned by the bike, it could lead to a fatality. The guides were firm with walking the bikes across and not one of us even questioned it. Arms linked we crossed together with water coming up to our thighs as the guides manhandled each bike across for us. We spent the next 15 minutes dumping water from boots and wringing out gear. At this point I had officially lost count of the water crossings.
We still had quite a bit of ground to cover as this last day stretched the most mileage. I believe we were averaging about 100 miles per day, and this one was 150. One of the best parts about Iceland is that the days are so long that you aren’t too worried about time and racing the sunset. This meant we stopped about every hour or so to snack, snap some photos, or pee behind a lava rock. The pace was what we wanted it to be and we were encouraged to stop as much as we’d like, as the sweeper would stay with the last person (99% of the time that last person was me). At times it was just Gummi and me, with no one else in sight as we meandered behind the group. I had my very own personal tour guide who knew everything, and I loved that part of the trip just as much as the other aspects.
We were nearing the end of the off-roading for the day before we hit the road to head back to Selfoss. I was picking up some speed around a corner and saw one more crossing coming up, but on the other side 3 bikes laid in a pile. I got closer and saw one of the gals clutching her left hand. She was okay, just in a lot of pain with no idea if her wrist was broken. With a wrap and a couple of Tylenol, she got back on the bike unable to use the clutch, and slowly made her way through the last few miles of off-road. Now, I have to mention that this is the toughest person I know, so to see her in visible pain, I knew it must have been really bad. Nonetheless, she trudged on. Selfoss slowly came back into view and before we knew it, we were putting our kickstands down. I sat on that Husqvarna FE450 a few minutes longer not wanting to get off. This bike had taken me on an adventure of a lifetime and I was having a hard time removing myself. It was bittersweet saying goodbye to the crew, but deep down I knew it wasn’t the last time I’d see them. We loaded into the van, headed back to Reykjavik, and were checking back into the Foss Hotel by nightfall.
Was it really over? We all woke exhausted but had a hat trick up our sleeve for ultimate relaxation and recuperation. Today we’d spend the entire day at the Blue Lagoon, a gorgeous mineral spa with massages, float therapy, swim up bar, and exquisite restaurant. We had reservations for months due to this experience’s extreme popularity, and when we walked through the door I fully understood why. It was absolutely gorgeous. Glass windows overlooked lava rock and the warm bright blue mineral-enriched water which we’d soon be soaking in. The spa was flawless when it came to cleanliness and we were in our swimsuits and robes heading out to the healing baths in minutes. Once in, our entire bodies relaxed. On one end was a mask bar where you could pick out various skin treatments, and on the other a swim up bar that had champagne, beer, wine, and fresh pressed juices. We swam to the juice bar, masked up, and laid back as the sun came out behind the clouds for our first gorgeous day since we got on the bikes. An hour later, I was experiencing float therapy, an in-water massage and float in the quiet pool. A few of the gals even took in a 2-hour nap as they floated. After the massages, sauna, and steam room, we showered up and headed to our dinner reservation in a glass restaurant built into the side of volcanic rock. It was an amazing experience, and after a 4-day ride, maybe a necessity.
Feeling recovered, we spent our last day in the city souvenir shopping, sipping hot chocolate, and experiencing the best lobster bisque of my life at the Seafarer. It was a day to enjoy the town one last time and gave us ample time to repack gear bags and luggage for the trip home. Anya and I strolled out that evening for dinner and ended up at the city center where we split a bottle of Viognier, mingling with the many tourists who revolved through the bar stools next to us. It was refreshing to be surrounded by a diverse cultural mixture. We met up with the rest of the group for our last drink and toasted to friendship and adventure before we departed the land of Fire and Ice, vowing that it wouldn’t be our last.
By the time I got home I was just short of being gone for 2 weeks, the longest I had ever left my daughter. I opened the front door and there she was, smiling so big and bright. I held out my arms and she ran into them yelling “Mama, you are home!” Nothing felt more grounding than her small arms grasped around my neck as I lifted her up. My heart was bursting with love as I returned to my family, the best version of myself.
There are memories and experiences burned into the core of my mind from this trip that I will never forget. The sound of earth forming, glaciers cracking, and the laugher of my friends in moments of pure excitement. This wasn’t just a trip, but a true adventure that challenged and brought out the best of us. To be able to experience this with Anya Violet, Joy Lewis, Malary Lee, Jenny Linquist, Michelle Lewis, and Leyla Hujer was simply incredible and life altering. I am grateful to have cultivated friendships through these riders at Babes in the Dirt & Babes Ride Out where our mantra has always been to “empower women, explore the world, on two wheels”. Babes in the Dirt and Babes Ride Out have made that a reality for me, and they can do it for you. Who knows, maybe you’ll meet your best friends at one of these events and find yourself an adventure squad for life. When find yourself staring at an email titled “Do you want to rip dirt bikes through Iceland?” this year when we publicly launch our newest adventure, Babes in the Dirt Iceland Aug 17-22 2024, we hope every fiber of your being screams “HELL YES I DO”. We can’t wait to bring you with us to experience the off-road adventure of a lifetime as we join forces with Ride with Locals Iceland for this new addition to our event series. Stay tuned by following @babesinthedirt for all details and hope to ride with you soon - Ashmore
A huge thanks to www.ridewithlocals.is for being incredible guides, riders, and hosts.
For more Iceland content…
Escape to the Westfjords of Iceland in Issue 59: CLICK HERE
Video featuring Westfjords from Issue 59: CLICK HERE
The Long View - Southern Iceland in Issue 26: CLICK HERE