Svalvogar: encircling the dream

Svalvogar is the dream road that promises to take your breath away with its sheer beauty and natural bounties. Its rugged charm is not for everybody.

For those with an appetite for adventure, often along abandoned and uninhabited terrain in a super jeep or mountain bike, the Svalvogar route is straight out of a thriller. Sometimes called the Kjaran’s Avenue, or Vesturgatan (the western road) the Svalvogar circle is only accessible during the summer.

A 49 km circular route between the fjords of Dýrafjörður in the north and Arnarfjörður in the south, most bikers usually start and finish in Þingeyri. The coastal route comes back along Kaldbakur, past the Westfjords’ tallest mountain in the so-called Westfjords Alps.

Top tip: Svalvogar is not meant to be negotiated by small cars and is best enjoyed by mountain bike. For those who prefer a drive, the one lane track is best undertaken by professional drivers in 4×4 mountain cars.

Forewarned is forearmed

The rule that holds true across the board in Iceland is this: get full information on weather and road conditions before you start off. Parts of this narrow coastal track get cut off at high tide, and all of it necessitates steady nerves and careful navigation.

After the risk, the rewards are not long in coming: the majestic silence and rugged elegance of your surroundings have to be experienced to be understood and savoured.

Much of ‘Kjaran’s Avenue’ is carved into the sheer cliffs and the road is literally on the edge of the mountain.

So daunting was the task of carving a worthy road, in fact that the Icelandic Road Administration directed its workers to stop trying. One man then took it upon himself to make history.

A man, a bulldozer and a few tonnes of grit

It is said that the Vestfirðingar¬ (people of the Westfjords) are made of sterner stuff than everyone else: tenacious, undeterred and hard-working, they have a long history of making the toughest conditions work out in their favour.

In 1973, Elís Kjaran Friðfinnsson (1928-2008), bulldozer driver from Kjaransstaðir farm in Dýrafjörður, proved this beyond doubt when he took it upon himself to build the road round the mountain, using nothing more advanced than his 70 horsepower bulldozer – mockingly dubbed Teskeiðin or ‘the Teaspoon’.

In his task, he was ably assisted by his son Ragnar. They worked in their spare time and own expense, given that the Icelandic Road Administration wanted no part in it. He succeeded where they had given up: successfully carving out a road that’s still in use decades later.

He first completed the first part of the road in 1975, after two years of daunting work. That part of the road leads from the Keldudalur valley in Dýrafjörður through Svalvogar cove in the west towards Lokinhamradalur valley.
Then, in 1985, Elís managed to open the connection to Arnarfjörður – making it possible for the first time to go around the mountains popularly known as Vestfirsku Alparnir or the Westfjords Alps. This is what we today call the Svalvogar circle.
Elís’ road did not eliminate all danger, however, and rocks still regularly fall from the cliffs above—like the one that fell on the road at Hrafnholur in 2008, shutting it down. The rock weighed a few tonnes and could have had nasty consequences if anybody had been nearby.
Elís has written a book on his experience: Svalvogavegur (or the Road of Svalvogar) for those wish to know more.
Kjaran’s Avenue as we know it today is 24 km long. To the west lies a breathtaking view of the mountains. The route includes trolls, hidden coves, abandoned farms and the Svalvogaviti light house.

A tale of two farms

From Svalvogar, the road goes via Lokinhamradalur valley and finishes in Stapadalur in Arnarfjörður fjord. Two farms hold pride of place here: Lokinhamrar and Hrafnabjörg. Life on these farms is demanding and arduous, but a fine example of teamwork and community living. In fact, the noted poet Guðmundur Hagalín (1898-1985) wrote several stories on life in this remote area thereby giving the reader a closer look at the lives of the farmers.

Before the opening of the road, all transport happened by sea, by horse or on foot, which obviously means the road came as a boon.

The Svalvogar Circle at a glance:
• A 49-km circular route between the fjords of Dýrafjörður in the north and Arnarfjörður in the south, it is open only for a few months every year.
• It is colloquially called Kjaran’s Avenue or Vesturgatan
• Built by Elís Kjaran Friðfinnsson, a bulldozer driver from Kjaransstaðir farm in Dýrafjörður, who undertook the project at considerable risk and expense when the Icelandic Road Administration gave up.
• The tricky terrain is best undertaken by bike or 4×4 mountain car.

If you’re the person who prefers the road not taken, this trail is just for you!

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