The Golden Circle.
The bread and butter of tourism in Iceland.
This popular 300 km loop from Reykjavik into central Iceland is the single most popular tour people take in the country. The route typically takes groups to Þingvellir National Park, Gulfoss waterfall, and the geothermally active valley of Haukadalur. Some tours also include stops at the Kerið volcano crater, Skálholt church, or even the Langjökull glacier if you package the Golden Circle with winter activities like snowmobiling.
I did just that.
I signed up for the Pearl Tour with Mountaineers of Iceland, which included not only the major Golden Circle sites in a super jeep, but also was supposed to include snowmobiling on the Langjökull glacier.
Yes, snowmobiling. ON A GLACIER.
However, due to a big blizzard blowing in the night before and snow still falling heavily on the morning of my tour up in the country’s higher elevations, we had to scratch the glacier and go snowmobiling in the lava fields a bit closer to Reykjavik.
I certainly wasn’t complaining, though, as this would mean more time at the Golden Circle sites later.
After a very quick lesson, we set out over the lava fields. Snow was still falling heavily — so heavily in fact that it was almost like we were on another planet.
The winter gear the company gave us to keep us warm and dry even had trouble doing its job — I spent the rest of the day with very wet jeans. But it was so worth it.
The sun even decided to peek out of the clouds by the end of our ride — a testament to just how volatile Iceland’s weather can be.
Þingvellir National Park
After snowmobiling, our next stop was Þingvellir National Park, on the shore of Þingvallavatn lake. This site is important to Iceland for a few reasons.
Firstly, Þingvellir is the site of Europe’s oldest Parliament. In the year 930 AD (less than 100 years after the Vikings settled Iceland), Icelanders held their very first meeting of Parliament, or Alþingi (Althing), in Þingvellir. Partly for this reason, Þingvellir was named Iceland’s first national park around 1930.
But the coolest thing about Þingvellir (in my opinion, at least), is that it sits in a rift valley on the Mid-Atlantic ridge, and is one of only two places in the world where you can see two of the earth’s tectonic plates above the ground. Here, the North American and Eurasian plates are moving apart from each other at a steady pace of about 2 cm per year. This constant movement only adds to Iceland’s very “active” nature geologically.
Along with oogling the tectonic plates, another popular activity here is SCUBA diving or snorkleing in Þingvallavatn lake, which is Iceland’s largest natural lake. At Silfra fissure, you can actually swim in between the two tectonic plates in some of the clearest water you will find anywhere in the world. The water comes from nearby glaciers, and therefore is very clean — and very cold — year-round.
After Þingvellir, our small group headed to Gullfoss waterfall (“Golden falls”), one of the most well-known waterfalls in Iceland. This double waterfall, with its blue-green water and multiple viewpoints, is impressive — much more impressive in person that I expected it to be.
Unfortunately, another freak snowstorm kept most of us from lingering at the falls. We sought refuge in the nearby cafe instead, warming up with some delicious lamb soup.
From Gullfoss, it was on to Haukadalur geothermal valley, which is home to the geysers Geysir and Strokkur.
It’s actually here that the term “geyser” comes from. Upon seeing these erupting pools of hot water for the first time, Europeans had no word to describe them (they had yet to see them in Yellowstone or New Zealand yet). They asked the Icelanders what they were called — and hence some form of “geyser” began to be used around the world.
Geysir actually comes from the Old Norse word “geysa,” which means “to gush.” Geysir, therefore, is often referred to as the “daddy” geyser. He used to erupt quite regularly, but has quieted down quite a bit in his old age. These days, the show is put on by Strokkur, which erupts roughly once every 4-7 minutes.
Obviously, we all stuck around to see at least 3 eruptions.
On out way out of Haukadalur, we stopped to visit with some friendly Icelandic horses. Our guide for the day, Sven, has horses himself, and was very excited to introduce us to some random horses on the side of the road. (More to come on these cuddly guys in another post.)
Kerið Volcanic Crater
Our last stop of the day was at Kerið, an impressive volcanic crater lake. Not all Golden Circle tours include a stop at this site, but I was very excited that ours did.
The crater is actually the intact caldera of a volcano that erupted about 3,000 years ago and has since filled with ground water. Its rare for a caldera to be so well-preserved after an eruption, but scientists think that Kerið was actually a cone volcano that emptied its magma, and that the cone then collapsed inward (instead of exploding outward).
The red volcanic dirt and rock here makes you feel like you’re on Mars, and the fact that the lake was frozen was an added bonus.
To Super Jeep or Not?
The Pearl Tour offered by Mountaineers of Iceland is conducted in a super jeep with massive tires, meaning your tour group is confined to about 10 or so people. Yes, these small group tours are more expensive that the Golden Circle bus tours you can book with other companies, but I would argue that they are much, much better.
Not only can you go places buses can’t in a super jeep, you also get the added bonus of getting to know your guide and tour mates much better.
Either way, though, the Golden Circle is definitely a worthwhile tour in Iceland.
Which of these sites would YOU be most excited to see in person?