The Golden Circle is, without a doubt, Iceland’s most popular tourist route. It covers about 190 miles and can be done as a day trip from Reykyavik.
It is ideal for those who want to experience the raw nature of Iceland in a short period of time.
My husband and I were able to experience the best of the Golden Circle during a short layover we did on Iceland last May.
We ended up amazed since we had the opportunity to see a lot without feeling rushed. We saw things we have never seen before and at the end of the day, we were ready to see more of Iceland.
This is the Golden Circle from my perspective. Remember what I repeat over and over, even though this is a popular route, it is still a route full of remarkable natural wonders. Own your trip, move at your own pace and dare to see these places from different perspectives!
And, before venturing deeper into the country, make sure you read my article about 25 Things I Wish I Knew Before Visiting Iceland.
Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park (also written as Thingvellir) was founded in 1930 as a protected national shrine for all Icelanders. The natural and historical characteristics of this area where reason enough to obtain World Heritage Status in 2004.
A lot of people know about the park but, in my opinion, there is not a lot of information about what you can see and do in the park.
Here are some ideas:
Junction of Tectonic Plates
The park lies within a belt of volcanic activity and fissures which passes across Iceland, a part of the mid-Atlantic Ridge, the junction of the American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
Over the past 10,000 years the earth’s crust has been subsiding and diverging in here. The plates move at a rate of 3mm annually.
Hard to believe but it is happening! And, you can walk between the areas that are “separating.”
Logberg (Law Rock)
After Iceland was settled, plans were made for a formal government structure. The first general assembly came together during the first time at Þingvellir in 930 AD. For many years, this assembly was Iceland’s legislature and highest court. Because of that, Logberg is considered the place where the first legislature or parliament in the history of humanity took place.
In 1622, Iceland submitted to the Kingdom of Denmark. They gained independence in 1944 and the moment was marked at Logberg.
The Oxara (Ax) River crashes into a waterfall before moving towards the main areas of the park. The waterfall is located about 2 km from the park’s entrance. The walk is easy and well worth the extra minutes. Plus, it gives you more opportunities to appreciate the park’s beauty (and more of those awesome tectonic plates).
To make things more interesting, there are several legends of how the spot got its name. Some say bandits and law breakers were executed (by decapitation) in here. Others say a terrorizing troll was killed in here and that is the reason why the water turns red once a year.
Ok, so you can walk between tectonic plates but you can also swim between them. Silfra is a rift located in the lake in the park. Several companies take visitors to enjoy the excellent underwater visibility (with a dry suit, of course).
This famous, little church is visible from many parts of the park. You can walk to it while passing through fissures and rock formations.
- There is no entrance fee to visit the park
- A visitor’s center is located next to the main parking lot. It has information about the park, restrooms and a small area selling sandwiches, yogurt, drinks, etc.
- Do not expect to have full services (restaurants, gas stations) within the park
Haukadalur Geothermal Field
The name Haukadalur may provoke some blank stares but this is the actual name of the place where the famous geysers are located.
Well, it is not all about geysers (even though they may be the coolest folks in here). This field has mud pools, fumaroles, hot springs and colorful earth tones.
You know you have arrived at the area since you start to see massive clouds of steams (and that rotten egg smell).
This is the place where the famous Geysir lies. He can spray water up to 70 meters and the English word “geyser” derives from his name. There is only a problem. Geysir has been dormant for decades. It would be a miracle if you see him erupting.
But, you do not have to worry because a geyser named Strokkur is in charge of putting up a show every 10 to 12 minutes. Seeing him making an eruption was my favorite experience of the day.
My camera is able to take 3 pictures per second. Using this feature, I was able to catch several eruptions. It is not easy to show the entire sequence in here but I am presenting some photos so you can get the idea. Sadly, I was not able to catch the geyser’s bubble before it exploded (in my photos, you can see part of the bubble surrounding the water spray).
Try to ignore Strokkur for a bit (very difficult) and take a look at the other features of the field. There are other geysers with names such as Sódi, Smiður, Fata Óþerrishola, Litli Geysir (the small Geysir) and Litli Strokkur (the small Strokkur).
Do not miss the beautiful hot spring called Blesi.
- There is no entrance fee for this geothermal field
- Across the field, you will find a gas station, small market, souvenir shop and restrooms. There is an area to sit down and relax
- There are several restaurants and hotels located nearby
Tectonic plates. Geysers. How can this part of Iceland get better? Well, what about a massive waterfall.
Gullfoss (Golden Falls) may be Iceland’s most famous falls. Once you have seen it, you will understand why.
The Hvítá River rushes southward, and about a kilometer above the falls it turns sharply to the right and flows down into a wide curved three-step “staircase” and then abruptly plunges in two stages into a crevice 32 meters (105 ft) deep. The two stages of the waterfall and the crevice can be seen from several viewpoints along the massive water flow.
You can get close, very close. I have discussed many times how I am afraid of almost anything. After seeing the power of the water from afar and taking into consideration the thick spray and strong wind, I decided not to get close.
My husband decided to go and then, I decided to follow him. It wasn’t as scary as I thought but I was very impressed by how much water was rushing into the crevice or canyon.
Then, it was time to walk towards the highest viewpoint of the area. The wind was crazy strong (my eyes and mouth got so dry!) but I was able to get some good shots.
- There is not entrance fee to see the waterfalls
- There is a café and restaurant on site. Restrooms are located on site too
While in the area, I will recommend visiting Kerið, a volcanic crater lake located in the Grímsnes area. Some consider the crater part of the Golden Circle while others say it lies outside of its boundaries.
Either way, I believe it is a great place to keep feeding the volcanic fascination of visitors. The crater was probably formed by a small magma chamber beneath the crater being emptied towards the end of the eruption, resulting in a collapse.
Beneath a certain level, cavities and fissures in the rock are filled groundwater and rises and falls according to changes in that groundwater.
You can walk along the crater rim and descend to the water area.
- There is a fee of about three dollars / two Euros per person to enter the crater
- You enter at your own risk
- There are no services around (but the crater is located very close to the city of Selfoss)
How do you access the Golden Circle?
Rent a car or take a guided excursion. I recommend renting a car since you are going to be able to set your own schedule for the day.
How about directions to reach these stops?
People tend to start the day at Þingvellir National Park and continue moving clockwise (in the circle).
The most “complicated” part will be reaching the park from Reykyavik. Once at the park, there are multiple signs directing visitors to the next attraction on the circle.
Things will be piece of cake if you have a GPS. If you choose not to use a GPS, drive from Reykyavik to Mosfellsdular. You can rely on a combination of directions extracted from Google Maps and an actual map (bought beforehand). Do not rely on Google directions alone (I did it and it ended badly).
What are other stops on the Golden Circle?
Jeannie from Life With a View has an excellent article on off-the beaten-path stops on the Golden Circle.
What else I should know before embarking on the journey?
Because of the popularity of the route, you will be able to drive around (or somebody else may be making the driving) without any major preoccupations.
Once again, I will recommend you read my article on 25 Things I Wish I Knew Before Visiting Iceland. It will really prepare you for Iceland in general.
Have you experienced the Golden Circle? What are your recommendations?
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