Photograph by Imagebroker, Alamy
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A hiking trail in Hornstrandir, in Iceland's Westfjords region, leads to cliff-dwelling seabird rookeries.

Photograph by Imagebroker, Alamy

Unexpected Adventures in Wild, Rugged Iceland

Ski down volcanic mountains, surf the North Atlantic swells, and hike over tundra in search of Arctic foxes in the far corners of this ancient island.

A handful of farmers picked their way along the shore on the far western fjords of Iceland, shepherding a score of sheep down from the highlands for the winter. Their wives stood in a meadow rolled in winter coats, peering through binoculars to see whose sheep had been found, calling out and contradicting each other like sportscasters. The small flock stalled at a rocky crag and turned back in search of a path, the last mile of their journey lengthening. In Iceland, brief distances and small spaces have a way of turning large.

Like my trip, for example, to the Westfjords from Iceland’s international airport. The tiny rental car wobbled north against the wind for several hundred kilometers on the Ring Road, a well-traveled highway that circumnavigates the island. In the last five years, the island has seen an incredible ballooning of tourism: Since 2010, the number of foreign visitors has more than doubled. But after we turned west, the pavement quickly gave way to gravel. After days of rain, the road was splattered with potholes and the car veered from side to side like a slow-motion version of Mario Kart. Rolling hills plunged into valley after valley.

Though most visitors rarely stray from increasingly crowded tourism circuits, the less-frequently visited Westfjords and East Fjords exemplify the country’s true wonder—it’s everything between the named attractions that give this place its sense of overwhelming beauty.

Arriving in Isafjordur, the Westfjords’ largest town at 2,600 people, we saw a ragged coastline swooping into a quiet bay where a tiny runway had been scratched into the rocks; air service here is weather-dependent and non-reliable. A trading post since the 16th century, Isafjordur is still a working fishing town. Trawlers dotted the harbor, where a sharp easterly foreshadowed the long winter.

The burst of warmth inside Braedraborg, a colorful cafe on the main street, came as a welcome surprise. A handmade kayak frame hung over the expensive espresso machine—the owner, Runar Karlsson, is an avid outdoorsman and runs the tour company Borea. “I love all sports where a helmet is an essential part of the game,” he says. His favorite local destination is Hornstrandir, a nearby nature reserve reachable solely by foot or by boat. “It’s the only place in Iceland where you can paddle along the shore for days without seeing anything man-made,” Karlsson explains.

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Arctic plants cover the rolling hills in Westfjords, Iceland.

A sweeping expanse of mountains tucked behind the west’s biggest glacier, Hornstrandir is also home to one of the world’s densest population of Arctic foxes. As the only mammal on the island to survive the world’s last climate change event—when melting ice left Iceland geographically isolated—the foxes here frequently have an unusual gray-brown coloration. Hornstrandir is one of the best places in the world to see the elusive fox in the wild. That’s why the Arctic Fox Center is working with Karlsson and other local guides to educate visitors.

“Beyond the obvious leave-no-trace [principles],” says Stephen Midgeley, a director at the Fox Center, “we offer a naturalist to go out with tours,” which increases the likelihood that you’ll get to see foxes, and helps to reduce the environmental impact of the growing number of visitors.

But you don’t have to go to Hornstandir to see foxes. Around every turn in the road are flat-topped headlands, making it possible to create your own fox-watching hike from just about anywhere. On a quiet afternoon, a brown shadow materialized in front of my feet, solidifying into a fox streaking across the hill. Towering cairns, remnants of old shepherd routes from before roads connected the fjords, meander across the high plains.

After a long day of hiking across what felt like the top of the world, I camped in a quiet valley at the mouth of a fjord. Though the Westfjords are the island’s oldest geological region, there are still a scattering of natural hot springs tucked into the valley, much more private than the popular (and artificial) Blue Lagoon. As the stars slowly emerged I sank into a private pool, and the water was scalding compared to the night air. Rippling green ribbons of the northern lights rose over the horizon.

During the snowy months, hot pools like this make a good stop after a backcountry ski tour. Above the town of Flateryi, for example, a brief skin up to the highlands affords a choice of solitary couloirs, each with a view of the sun setting over the ocean. Although Flateyri was damaged 21 years ago when two avalanches killed more than 20 people and many others moved away, the sleepy town is slowly recovering. Kristin Petursdottir, who runs a new guesthouse in town, says that many of her guests are drawn by the outdoor opportunities—in addition to skiing, there’s a fairly reliable surf break in a remote valley nearby. One surfer, Petursdottir recalled, stayed out on her mother’s farm near the break and “took home one of her border collie puppies.”

After the solitude of the Westfjords, returning to the ease of the Ring Road was a little shocking. The car suddenly reached fifth gear. Other drivers, distracted by the scenery, wandered across the center line. Tour buses lined up at named waterfalls, beribboned with safety barriers, and passengers poured out of the vehicles clutching their selfie sticks. I felt relief as I crossed the country and reached the East Fjords, and turned back onto a graveled road between jagged peaks.

As far from the capital as you can get, the center of the East Fjords’ hiking opportunities is the small town of Borgafjordur. Local legend holds that an elfin queen resides within the town’s jutting rock formation. But rather than folkloric figures, the reliable appearance of puffins each spring has put Borgafjordur on the map for photographers. Lines of drying fish heads left dangling on outdoor wooden racks swung against the tie-dyed sky. As the sun set among shipping containers, a handful of workers baited lines of finger-sized hooks with bits of fish for the next day. I bravely nibbled a small cube of a national delicacy, rotten shark, which has the texture and taste of a very smelly cheese.

Local guide Angrimur Vidar is grateful the crush of tourists have stayed away from his home town of Borgafjordur: In any given summer season, there are about twice as many visitors as Icelanders on the island. While the impact of that is already being felt in the South, “the East Fjords are trying to be sustainable,” Vidar says. He suggests visitors pick one destination and explore nearby.

“You’ll actually get to know the place,” he says.

Vidar suggested a series of hiking trails above the town that wind up towards Storud, one of the country’s most spectacular mountains. Until recently, “it was relatively unknown, even among Icelanders,” says Hafthor Snjolfur Helgason, a resident of Borgafjordur. Under the toothed Dyrfjoll peaks, the trail picks through a cirque glacier and its moraine. But below Storud, hiking along a ridgeline dotted with alpine lakes, it’s all so beautiful the destination quickly ceases to matter.

One of the most striking things about the East Fjords’ cliff-scapes are the volcanic minerals that paint the mountains rust and gold. A few fjords over, outside the village of Vopnafjordur, is one of the best places to see the colors. Vivid moss squished underfoot as I hiked along ochre iron-rich streams. Upstream, the walls of the canyon abruptly turned from muted greys to scarlet.

Just a few minutes from the painted canyon, Sigridur Bragadottir cares for hundreds of sheep and a few guests on a tucked-away family farm near Vopnafjordur. Although there are many opportunities to camp in Iceland, one of the advantages of being so far afield is that you don’t have to trade comfort for a sense of remote solitude. Over a home-grown dinner of lamb meatballs in mushroom gravy, Bragadottir said that it wasn’t just tourists who came for the nature; like many residents of Vopnafjordur, she thought the harsh northern life was worth it to be able to walk out her front door into the wilderness. After dinner, northern lights played over the valley and danced over her front pasture.

Like many small towns in Iceland, Vopnafjordur is slowly developing a network of walking and hiking trails, but you don’t have to wait for cairns to start exploring. Just a few steps out of these villages, it’s easy to feel miles from anywhere. Whether you’re on the flat-topped plateaus of the west or the crags of the east, in Iceland, there isn’t much between here and there—that’s the beauty of slowing down enough to see it.

Drone POV: Soaring Over Iceland’s Rugged Landscape In this short film, the photographic team of Tucker Bowen and Sabine Scherer pairs unique drone footage of Iceland's rugged topography with music by Doppio. The Short Film Showcase spotlights exceptional short videos created by filmmakers from around the web and selected by National Geographic editors. The filmmakers created the content presented, and the opinions expressed are their own, not those of National Geographic Partners.