The perfect day trip out of Reykjavik is called the Golden Circle. It has three of the most astonishing sights that the entire country has to offer: Thingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal area, and Gullfoss waterfall. It’s easily done as a self-drive tour, which is a fun and easy way to do the journey. And when you’re finished, you can loop back to Reykjavik again, or just as easily carry on for a longer road trip through this amazing country.
Driving the Golden Circle
Driving the Golden Circle is easy to do, for anyone. Here is some basic info about the route.
- The whole route is 230km (140 miles). Driving time is about 3 hours, so with stops it would be about 5 hours.
- There are many tour buses that can do the journey, but self-driving gives much more flexibility. It also lets you beat the crowds by leaving early.
- Unless you plan to drive in snow, 4 wheel drive is not necessary. We drove the Golden Circle in a rusty old Toyota from second-hand car rentals, Sadcars.
- For those undertaking a longer road trip, the Golden Circle is easily done as a one way journey, continuing on to Vik afterwards.
Thingvellir National Park
The typical first stop on the Golden Circle is the Þingvellir National Park. The Icelandic symbol Þ is pronounced like ‘th’, so this is pronounced Thingvellir.
This UNESCO site is significant for two reasons.
A meeting of tectonic plates
At one point, I likely stood with one foot on Europe and the other in North America. Þingvellir National Park lies across a tectonic plate rift, one of the only points where this can be seen on land. The North American and European plates meet here, and are slowly moving apart.
Iceland is sliced in two by this mid-Atlantic ridge, with the Eurasian Plate to the east, and the North American Plate to the west. The fissures in the earth formed here produce gaping bottomless pits and cheer cliff faces.
But is it dangerous, and does it look like Mordor? Not exactly. In fact, the whole area of fertile volcanic soil is blanketed in soft, fluffy moss. The underwater caverns here are suitable for diving and snorkelling (and popular!), and because of the filtration process through the rock, its crystal clear too.
The meeting place of Iceland’s first parliament
It is this corridor of dramatic cliffs where the first Icelandic national assemblies (AlÞingi) took place in the 10th century. The Lögberg, or Law Rock, was the place where the country’s ‘law speaker’ would stand and recite to the public the laws of the land.
However, anyone could step forward to speak, and share news and discuss events. Without any surviving man-made structures, it takes a bit of imagination to imagine the tents and stalls erected by the Icelandic Vikings lined up along the ridge.
The whole area is beautiful. Small, rushing waterfalls disappear into the crevasses and lowlands of Þingvellir, creating pure, still lakes. The water is probably drinkable, if you can pass the squawking, hissing geese. On hillsides, pretty wooden churches make awesome photo opportunities. For us, Þingvellir was the perfect way to begin our Iceland adventure.
Gullfoss, the ‘Golden Falls’ is a curious sight drom afar. Only the enormous plume of white spray jetting skywards is visible at first. Coming closer, it’s clear that this is not a normal waterfall.
The river Hvitá flows calmly along the highlands, before suddenly falling 32 metres in a two-tiered drop, at a 90 degree bend. Like a corner staircase, it drops diagonally in one direction, then in the opposite diagonal, disappearing into a crevice.
Because the river falls away into a depression, visitors have the chance to see the waterfall from a top view, unlike most waterfalls that are usually observed from the bottom.
The spray from the water being churned so violently into such a small space creates a huge mist, adding to the drama. In fact, Gullfoss is the largest volume waterfall in Europe, due to the high rainfall and glacial runoff.
There are several walking paths to take to take in the falls from different angles.
Geysir geothermal area
Geysir is the geyser that gave all others their name. It is translated from the old Icelandic word geysa, ‘to gush’.
The Great Geysir
The Great Geysir, the main attraction of the area, is in a dormant phase, and hasn’t erupted in years. But when it did, it could project boiling water from a hole in the earth as high as 70 metres. It was much more active and powerful in the past. In 1845, it fired water an insane 170 metres into the air (almost 2 statue of liberties)! By 1910, it was erupting every 30 minutes. Since, it has been slowing down, experiencing longer and longer dormant periods.
However, some smaller geysers are much more active, and make for some impressive sights. Strokkur geyser is the most impressive geyser at the moment, and frequent too. It blasts water 30 metres high every 5 or 6 minutes.
A pool of water (with a small inner pool) fills with water, superheated from deep underground. It rests for a while.
Then it pulses, water rising and falling like a breathing organism. The water rises one last time, bulging like a huge blue jellyfish – then a rocket of water fires into the air, and then dissipates. The inner pool is empty, to be refilled once more. All the people lower their waterproof cameras, happy with their videos.
There are several other smaller geysers located around the site, too, as well as bubbling pits of hot mud.
An alien landscape
The geothermal temperatures have turned the land into something otherworldly; a veritable abstract painting of trickling blood-orange streams, stinking yellow sulfur stains, slick green algae, and black volcanic mud. They are chemical deposits from the earth.
A speckling of pink-purple mountain flowers and ice-white stones complete the palette. Rising from this alien landscape were plumes of steam, each coming from bubbling hot springs and mud pits.
Þ is pronounced something like ‘th’. So many Þings to see. Ok, bad joke!