Iceland: Golden Circle

Iceland is famous for its stunning scenery and natural beauty. No one should visit without a trip around the famous Golden Circle. This is a popular route between three of Iceland’s most visited attractions: Þingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal area, and Gullfoss waterfall. It can be a day trip from Reykjavik into the southern uplands and back, or the first day of an amazing road trip around the Ring Road.


The whole Golden Circle route can easily be done in one day, as the classic loop route back to Reykjavik is 230 kilometres (140 miles). One of our guidebooks said that the drive takes just over 3 hours. We spent approximately 3-4 hours at each of the three stops, perhaps longer... we really lost track of time due to the 24 hour days. It was our first night on the road and we were quite shocked to discover the lateness of the hour when we settled into our campsite for the night.


Þingvellir

The first major stop on the Golden Circle drive is Þingvellir (Thingvellir). Thingvillir is a hugely important site of Iceland's cultural history, as well as a site of outstanding geology. The first Viking settlers arrived in South Iceland sometime in the 9th century AD. As time went on, the settlers realized that they needed some sort of group who could resolve disputes and create the rules of their society. Thingvellir was chosen as the site because it was widely known and accessibly from all the settled areas. In 930, the world's first parliament was created. Shortly afterwards, Christianity was declared the religion of the nation as a way to quell religious squabbles.


Geologically speaking, this is the location where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. This is the only place in the world where some of these formations can be seen. The entire Icelandic land mass is formed from volcanic magma and continues to be shaped by the tremendous geothermal activity, with evidence of this to be seen all over, as these two continental plates push away from each other at a rate of about 2 cm per year. For both of these reasons, Thingvillir has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We spent several hours enjoying the scenery and being introduced the Icelandic love for trolls. The day became clearer and drier as the hours passed. Much like the Irish love their faery folk, the Icelandic people have a great fondness for trolls, seeing them all around. After a visit to Thingvellir, it is abundantly clear that there are trolls watching you everywhere.


Geysir The next stop on the Golden Circle Drive is the geothermal area in the Haukadalur Valley, known as the Geysir Hot Spring Area. This is a very active area with boiling mud pits and exploding geysers. Geysir is actually the name of the original geysir, from which the term geyser originated. Geysir rarely erupts nowaways and the big attraction is Strokkur, which erupts every few minutes, sending hot water 30m (100ft) into the air. The Geysir Center offers exhibits and informative presentations year round.

The area became active more than 1000 years ago and comprises more than a dozen hot water blow holes at different temperatures and levels of activity. Eruptions occur when the ground water comes into contact with hot bedrock and heats up, building pressure. When the water has reached peak temperature and pressure it sprouts out from the geyser. The water is extremely hot and visitors are gently and politely reminded of the dangers as they arrive.


The hot spots and geysers are stretched along a narrow strip following the tectonic lines from south to south west. With seismic activity, these openings shift and change over time.


While we were there we also hiked up Geysir Hill for a spectacular view of the valley on both sides. It was a fairly short and popular mid-level hike requiring good shoes. The wind was strong at the top but the views kept us there for quite a while.


Gullfoss


The final main attraction on the tour is the biggest waterfall in South Iceland, Gulfoss. This immense cascade falls from the river into two levels before dropping into the deep crevice of the continental divide, spilling about 140 cubic metres of water per second.

In the early 1900s, local landowners signed a deal for the construction of hydroelectric dam which would submerge Gulfoss. Upset by the deal, one of the landowner's daughter, Sigríður Tómasdóttir, decided to fight the decision and sued to stop the deal. She made numerous treks of 120 kilometers to Reykjavík, (some accounts say she walked), to meet with government officials and later threatened to throw herself in the waterfalls. Although she did not succeed legally, lease contracts were cancelled and the project was never built. The land was eventually sold to the government and is has been protected since 1979. We all owe a debt of gratitude to Tómasdóttir.

When you get to Gulfoss go down the stairs and do the whole pathway to get even closer to the waterfall. Be careful as the area near the waterfall gets windy and you might get soaking wet. On a sunny day (and even on a cloudy day), there's an excellent chance to see rainbows reflected in the spray.

Iceland is a spectacular country to put on your travel bucket list. Iceland Air makes it easy to do a 3-7 day stopover between many destinations at no additional cost. Even those taking the short 3 day stopover should absolutely schedule a day to tour the Golden Circle, whether self-drive or by joining a tour group. Have you done the Golden Circle? Which was your favourite spot? Share your thoughts in the comments.


 

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