Iceland’s stunning day trip – The Golden Circle

Iceland has so many Þings to see! (It’s a joke. I’ll explain later)*

We had a car, and all of Iceland lay ahead. We were excited to see everything. First up, the Golden Circle, an easy day trip from Reykjavik that has some of the countries most spectacular sights. Here are some of the highlight of the Golden Circle.

a field in iceland with piles of stacked rocks
Small piles of stones stacked on the fields

The summer manifested as icy winds. We could see distant rainfalls showering faraway lands. Reykjavik, barely twenty minutes behind us, seemed a million miles away. This was horse country now, and tourist country too – a convenient string of local roads and attractions named The Golden Circle.

a field of rocks and a distant lake in iceland
The distant lake and mountains near the Golden Circle

Þingvellir

The typical first stop on the Golden Circle is the Þingvellir National Park, a curious geological landmark, and ancient site of Icelandic parliament of Þingvellir (pronounced thing-vel-eer, as the Icelandic Þ is pronounced). At one point, I likely stood with one foot on Europe and the other in North America.

In tectonic plate terms, that is; Iceland is sliced in two, with the Eurasian Plate to the east, and the North American Plate to the west. The fissures in the earth formed here are from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and produce gaping bottomless pits and cheer cliff faces. 

At this geological junction, high volcanic rock cliff faces rise up, creating a stark rift valley, falling down into vast green fields below. Sheltered by these features is a grassy lane of some historical importance.

It is this corridor 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.

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. For us, Þingvellir offered a few easy trekking paths to take in the fresh air.

a shallow valley in iceland between tectonic plates
The rift between tectonic plates
Reflection of the sky in a shallow pool filled with coins

Gullfoss

Gullfoss, the ‘Golden Falls’ reveals itself from far away; that is, the enormous plume of white spray jetting skywards from it’s furious drop. Seeing the scene of the falls for the first time is breathtaking. At first glance, the river seemed to just disappear into smoke.

a river turns into a waterfall surrounded by green fields
Gullfoss, flowing down a crevasse in the earth

Calmly flowing along the highlands, the river suddenly falls like a staircase, diagonally in one direction, then in the opposite diagonal, disappearing into a crevice. Closer inspection reveals the destination of the torrent, a sheer drop in the rock, the point of fall hitting the crux of an L-shaped river bend, where the river plunges into a canyon.

Standing down by the lip of the falls, where the water thunders so powerfully into such a small crevasse, the rebounding spray seems to lift impossibly high into the air, carried away like a cloud. I find that the word ‘awesome’ is often incorrectly used. But in this case, in the sense that the Gullfoss is awe-inspiring, the word fits perfectly.

an icelandic waterfall sprays water up
Gullfoss sends up a huge mist of water

Geysir

A geothermal area close to the Geysir

Geysir is the one that started it all; as the name suggests, it’s the namesake of all other geysers in the world. 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.

a huge jet of water shooting out of the ground
The Geysir explodes

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.

The main attraction bursts into view, literally. Roped off from the public are the Geysir and Strokkur geysers. Geysir remains dormant most of the time, but the Strokkur explodes every five minutes or so. A pool of water (with a small inner pool) fills with water, superheated from deep underground. It rests for a while.

a geysir hole refills after an explosion
The empty Geysir hole after the eruption

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, boiling water projected 15 metres upwards, and dissipates. The inner pool is empty, to be refilled once more. All the people lower their waterproof cameras, happy with their videos.

Morale was high in the camp. We had seen some pretty amazing things today, all within a few kilometres of each other (by the way, this route is highly recommended for those looking for a kick-ass day trip!)

Cindy, in charge of the action-packed itinerary, had planned the day to perfection, and would continue to do so for the days to come. But tomorrow night would be the first major breakdown in our group. Sandra, our fourth member, had started to get on our nerves…

Þ is pronounced something like ‘th’. So many Þings to see. Ok, bad joke!

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