This past January my husband surprised me with a trip to Iceland for my birthday – way to set the bar, Jared! We only had a few days in this storybook country, but each day was better than the last. We spent our first day driving the Golden Circle, one of the most popular tourist routes in southwest Iceland.
Driving the Golden Circle
The sites along the Golden Circle are one of the main reasons people are drawn to this unique country. The route is a 190-mile loop through southwest Iceland that can be driven in about 3 hours but plan on 5-8 to account for road conditions and the time spent at each location.
Iceland is notorious for sudden changes in weather conditions, particularly in winter. For this reason, we debated whether or not to rent a car or take a tour bus. After a lot of research and pep talking, we decided that the most enjoyable way to explore the Golden Circle would be at our own pace – therefore we went with the rental. Fortunately, the day of our drive – also my birthday – couldn’t have been more perfect, and we got around without any issues.
*Insider Tip: Download Iceland’s Weather App Veður, and frequently check the weather updates for the areas you plan on driving in. It is common for the weather to change quickly and it can vary drastically from one location to the next. Also, be mindful of the daylight hours. Visiting in January, we had about 5 1/2 hours of daylight, making planning and time management somewhat important.
Stops Along the Route
There are many landmarks along the Golden Circle, the three most popular being Gullfoss, Þingvellir National Park, and Geysir. We were able to see all of these and even sneak in a couple other quick stops along the way.
Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir is the first stop along the Golden Circle and is located about 40 minutes outside of Reykjavík. When you first arrive, you are immediately taken aback by the scenery, but there is much more to this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Þingvellir is home to Iceland’s first parliament, which convened here from 930 – 1798. Significant events, both good and bad, took place throughout the centuries, and because of this, Þingvellir has played an integral role in the country’s history and continues to be a place of great significance for Icelanders.
In addition to its political history, Þingvellir is also a geological wonder. Located along the Mid-Atlantic Rift, here you can walk (or swim) between the North American and Eurasian Tectonic Plates. When you first arrive, you can immediately see the edge of the North American plate and the rift valley below (the Eurasian plate being on the other side of the park).
I was in awe at the massive rock formations protruding from the ground, and just thinking about where I was actually standing – in between two continents! Þingvellir is the only place in the world where the rift is above sea level, so this was an extraordinary experience.
*Fun fact: Scenes from HBO’s Game of Thrones were filmed here!
Hours: June – August: 9:00am – 7:00pm September – May: 9:00am – 6:30pm
Cost: Free admission, pay to park and use the restroom
There are more than 10,000 waterfalls in Iceland, and although I only saw a few, I am positive Gullfoss has to be one of the most impressive.
The drive leading into Gullfoss is somewhat deceiving. The surrounding landscape is quite flat, minus the mountains in the distance, so when you first arrive you can’t see the river or waterfall, they are down below. It almost seems like natures way of dramatically revealing this massive waterfall – SURPRISE here I am in all my glory!
Gullfoss is powered by the Hvítá (White) River, which is fed by Langjökull, Iceland’s second largest glacier. The dramatic falls plummet over 100ft in two stages into the massive canyon below. If the sun wasn’t setting, and it wasn’t 19℉ with the wind picking up every minute, I could have stayed and watched the waterfall for hours. It was one of the ‘take my breath away’ moments of the trip.
Hours: Waterfall: 24/7 Gullfoss Shop/Cafe – 10:00am – 7:00pm
Geysir and Strokkur
The last of the major attractions along the Golden Circle is located in the geothermal area of the Haukadalur Valley. Here you will find the world’s first known geyser, Geysir (gay-zeer). This massive geyser once spouted water over 230ft in the air but has been dormant for many years.
Luckily, just a few steps away is Strokkur, a smaller, but much more active geyser. You can see Strokkur blast off about every 10 minutes, and the water shoots to heights well over 100ft. We were lucky to see it go off twice in a row right when we arrived, which was both startling and impressive.
The sulfur smell was something I could have done without, but it was mesmerizing to watch water boiling in the ground as pockets of steam rose from the Earth all around us. Standing on top of this geothermal hotspot, anticipating the next eruption, was one of the most thrilling, non-physical things I have ever done!
Hours: Geyser Area: 24/7 Geysir Shop/Cafe: 9:00am – 6:00pm
Located in Iceland’s Western Volcanic Zone, Kerið is a lesser known stop along the Golden Circle. Like Gullfoss, it is another hidden landmark. From the parking lot, you walk up a slight hill to a seemingly flat surface, only to be surprised at the massive crater that suddenly appears. At 180ft deep, 560ft wide, and 890ft across, this gigantic hole in the ground really puts into perspective just how small we humans are.
There are ever-changing theories on the caldera’s formation, but it is agreed to be over 3000 years old. One of the unique characteristics of Kerið is its red – rather than black – volcanic rock, and aquamarine colored water at is base. These colorful characteristics are best seen in the summer, as the winter ice and snow mask its true beauty.
Cost: 400 ISK ($4 USD) to landowners
While researching our trip, I had read about Icelandic horses, and how you could see them roaming freely throughout the Golden Circle. Luckily for us, this was true and we were able to see quite a few along our drive.
Aside from their overwhelming cuteness, what makes Icelandic horses so special is their purity. Brought to Iceland by the Vikings in the 9th and 10th centuries, no other breed is permitted in the country, and exported horses are not allowed to return. This has kept the Icelandic horse pure and relatively free of disease.
Another unique characteristic of the Icelandic horse is its gait. Along with the typical walk, trot, and canter/gallop, they can perform two additional strides, the tölt, and skeið or “flying pace.”
Our day cruising the Golden Circle was an experience I will cherish forever. The geology of this Arctic country is beyond compare, and the vast, open road seems so remote compared to anywhere else I have traveled – yet we were back in Reykjavík by 6pm!