While not a part of Iceland’s main Ring Road: Route 1, the Golden Circle contains some of Iceland’s most famous sights. Tours out of Reykjavik are available and will take visitors to the three main sights along the route: Þingvellir National Park, Gullfoss waterfall, and Strokker geysir. Preferring the flexibility and freedom to explore on our own, we rented a 4wd Subaru and did our own self-guided tour of Iceland’s Golden Circle. Driving in Iceland is quite easy as there are only a few main routes and even the unpaved gravel roads are well groomed.
Þingvellir National Park
We began our tour at Þingvellir National Park, a site of historical and geological importance in Iceland. The Alþing General Assembly was first established at Þingvellir in 930 and remained there until 1798. The Alþing played a large role in passing and approving laws in Iceland and most of the major events in the country have happened at this location. Þingvellir National Park was founded in 1930 to protect the land of Parliament and was the first established National park in Iceland. Today, Þingvellir National Park is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The major significance of Þingvellir National Park is that its situated where the North American and Eurasian continental plates are being pushed apart by volcanic forces called the Mid Atlantic Ridge. The outcropping of rocks, faults and fissures of the area remind us that the earth is still continuing to move as scientists measure a growing distance between the North American and Eurasian continental plates over the years. These rifts are filled with crystal clear water allowing the adventurous visitor to snorkel or scuba dive in Silfra and Davíðsgjá.
Silfra is one of the best diving spots in Iceland due to the unparalleled clarity of the glacier water and the ability to swim between the cracks in the submerged continental plates. Because Iceland sits at the northern end of the mid atlantic ridge–when you are snorkelling in Silfra you are literally swimming between two continents!
While we were waiting for our snorkeling adventure we decided to take a short drive around the National Park. Immediately, we spotted a waterfall across the way and hiked over to check it out. The waterfall, Öxarárfoss, is formed from the river Öxará as it crosses through the National Park and decends into one of the parks rifts.
Geysir is the name given to exploding water spouts that occur all over the world. The Great Geysir, or Stori-Geysir, was one of the first documented geysirs sometime during the 13th century. Sleeping since 1916 (well, except for that one time in 1935) the Great Geysir used to reach astonishing heights of 200 ft. Luckily for visitors to Iceland, the Great Geysir’s neighbor, Strokker geysir (‘the churn’) erupts and blows its boiling hot water every 8 minutes or so. The reliable Strokker geysir is located a close 100 meters from where the Great Geysir remains sleeping and can be easily spotted by the large groups of visitors surrounding the bubbling crater waiting for its inevitable eruption.
We stood behind the roped off areas and waited with our cameras steadied, watching the water churn and anticipating the initial moment when the boiling cauldron starts to form its bubble. Just as suddenly as the turquoise bubble forms, the geysir bursts into a column as high as 20-30 meters of piping hot water. It is quite a sight to see and we stayed to witness the geysir burst at least four or five times.
The entire surrounding area is geothermically active with small pools of boiling sulphurous mud pots, vegetation, and billowing steam vents lining the marked walking trails. Along the paths there are signs advising visitors to refrain from touching the hot streams of water to test their temperatures, I can’t say that I wasn’t tempted to dip a finger or two into the water myself!
A couple minutes down the road, a short walk and we were at Gullfoss waterfall. Even before you approach the falls, you can hear the powerful crashing of water. Gullfoss, meaning Golden Falls, is Europe’s most popular waterfall; partially due to its location along the Golden Circle. From the visitors center, the canyon is initially unable to be seen, but as you continue along the misty path towards the falls you will begin to see the first level of the mighty Gullfoss. As we made our way down to the lower path the second level appeared and we were stunned at just how enormous Gullfoss actually is.
Spanning the entire length of the river Hvítá, Gullfoss’ double-cascade plunges 105-feet into the ravine below. There are paths all around the falls allowing you to get within an arms reach, but make sure to wear waterproof clothing as you and (if you’re not careful) your camera will most likely be soaked!
If you are lucky enough to get blue skies and sunshine, the mist coming off of the falls creates a beautifully photogenic rainbow.
Kerið is another stop along the Golden Circle and was our last stop before continuing on towards Sellfoss. Turning off of the main road, the small sign pointing to Kerið is hard to see (we had to double back).
The volcanic crater lake blends into the surrounding flat plains until you get closer. Approaching the 180-foot deep crater the red rocks of the caldera and aquamarine lake water appears exposing the grandeur of this collapsed volcano. The majority of the walls that surround Kerið are quite steep but there is one spot where you can carefully climb down to the lake. While we didn’t attempt the climb to the lake we did walk around the entire circumference of the crater from above. During certain hours of the day there is a 350 ISK or €2 fee to enter, otherwise you can enter for free.
Tips Before Your Trip:
1. We rented a Subaru Forester 4wd from Reykjavik Rent a Car in order to explore Iceland on our own. However, if you do not wish to do a self-driving tour there are Golden Circle tours offered out of Reykjavik. English tours are offered every day, last about 8 hours and costs 9.500 ISK per person.
2. We also snorkelled Silfra, a crack between the North American and Eurasian Continents where the water is crystal clear but also freezing! Read more about our Adventure Snorkelling Silfra here!
3. We recommend water proof jacket, pants and Gortex hiking boots. The mist from the waterfalls will drench you as you approach and it’s nice to zip up your camera into your jacket when your not taking your photos. Also, hiking pants dry quickly so you’ll be ready go at your next stop!
4. Since we were circumnavigating Iceland’s mainland we decided to continue on towards Selfoss after our visit to Kerið. We stayed at Fosstan Apartments and shared a room for four. Fosstan Apartments was centrally located in town, had a friendly staff and included a nourishing breakfast where we could even make our own waffles! For dinner that evening we went to Katti Kraus and enjoyed some deliciously juicy hamburgers.