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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Golden Circle - Iceland

The Golden Circle is one of the most popular and touristy things to do just outside Reykjavik.  You get to see a whole lot of Iceland in just one day, just outside of Iceland's capital city.  You drive a big loop to see waterfalls, geysers, and craters.  With this proximity to the capital and awesome array of attractions, you will get some larger crowds. My advice is to start early and enjoy some of these spots before the busses show up. 

Touring Iceland's Golden Circle is a long day filled with important Iceland history, classic F roads (gravel roads) with potholes, and of course, waterfalls.  Keep reading to see my itinerary, where I stayed, what I ate,  which spots I loved, and which you can skip if you are short on time.

Stop 1:   Thingvellir National Park (From Reykjavik) (40 km, 30 min)
Stop 2:  Geysers at Haukadalur (60km, 45 mn)
Stop 3:  Gullfoss Waterfall (10 km, 9 min)
Stop 4:  Haifoss Waterfall and Fossárdalur Valley
Stop 5:  Kerið Crater Lake (56 km, 44 min)
NIGHT:  Selfoss Garun Guesthouses
DINNER:  Yellow (Selfoss)

Following the walkway into Almannagjá gorge

Þingvellir (we pronounce as Thingvellir) National Park is one of those iconic Iceland spots.  This area is most famous for it's geology and history (and hey, it's a National Park).  It is here in Thingvellir where if you are scuba certified, you can touch two different continental plates.  If you aren't certified or are not thrilled to jump in freezing cold water for a very touristy purpose, you can just "walk" between the two continents and call it a day.  It's also here where you really get a feel for Iceland's history and settlement.

Iceland is one of the few places in the world where you can see the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (MAR) above sea level.  The MAR is a mid-ocean ridge/a divergent tectonic plate/constructive plate boundary.  In the North Atlantic, it separates the Eurasian and North American Plates.  Iceland is literally divided, with the west fjords are on the North American tectonic plate while the east fjords are on the Eurasian plate.  You can walk through the Almannagjá gorge and stand between these two continental plates.

Almannagjá gorge

While the geology of this site is unique, this spot also holds a very historical significance for the country, making it the only UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Icelandic mainland.  This park is where the history of Iceland began.  When settlers came over to inhabit the country, it was soon clear that there would need to be some rules for all the clans to live in peace.  Thingvellir served as the meeting place for important members of each clan as it was accessible from all corners of the country.  In 930 AD, over thirty ruling chiefs met for the first time to discuss law on the island and to create a commonwealth.  They came back every year and this institution, the Alþingi was formed.  Þingvellir means ‘the fields of parliament’ and this is exactly what the area served.  It is here in Thingvellir where Icelanders adopted Christianity and almost 1,000 years later (1944 AD) where Icelanders declared their independence from Denmark and confirmed their first President.

Learn about the history, soak in the geology, and take a walk around the park.  There are walking trails and waterfalls throughout the park.  We spent the first part of the morning walking around, learning about this famous site and of course, standing between two continents.  Due to the history and the geology,  Thingvellir is a must visit on your Iceland trip.  Get there early because this is a popular spot only 45 minutes away from Reykjavik and when those buses come, the place will be flooded with people.

Information Center at Thingvellir

  • GPS:  N64°15.806 W21°07.030
  • Opening hours for visitor center April 1 to November 1: 09:00-18:00
  • Bathrooms at the car park by the Visitor center are open from 09:00-20:00. Service fee for the lavatories is 200 isk.
  • Information Center: Open everyday from 09.00-17.00.  In the peak season from May 1 to September 1 the visitor center is open 09.00-20.00
  • Parking:  P1. By the Visitor centre at Hakid next to the viewpoint at the upper end of Almannagjá. P2.  At two parking lots near the assembly fields and Öxarárfoss. P5 To the south of the assembly site. The charge for a daypass on all the parking lots is as follows:  Private Car - 500 ISK-- valid for the day at all parking lots. pay machines are on the parking lots (and take credit cards or pay cash at visitor's center).  The daypass which should be left visible on the car dashboard. website
Fall Colors at Thingvellir

Öxarárfoss Waterfall

Geyser fields

While this area was interesting to see, it certainly wouldn't be tagged as something I recommend you go out of your way for.  It is however, right on the Golden Circle and a quick easy stop to stretch your legs and even grab some lunch.  What you are seeing is a geyser area or as the Iceland spell it... geysir.  This area has three main features:

1.  Geysir- known as “The Great Geysir” or “Stori-Geysir” (dormant)
2.  Strokkur “Little Geysir  “The Churn”  (active)
3.  Blesi, a hot spring with water the color of turquoise

Map of the two different geysirs

This geothermal field has several geysirs on the premises.  "Geysir" known as the "Great Geysir" or "Stori-Geysir" is inactive (i.e won't be erupting, just steaming).  Strokkur, further up the walking path, known as "Little Geysir" erupts approximately every 10 minutes and is the only one the erupts.    Blesi is an additional hot spring further up the bath that has a turquoise/blue hue to it (cool color, does not erupt). 

Restaurant and Coffeehouse at the geysirs

Lunch at the restaurant

Great store at the geysir gift shop

  • GPS 64.3128 N 20.3030 W 
  • This area has one of the nicest hotel, visitor's centers and restaurant we had seen.  
  • A huge store and beautiful cafe/restaurant are right off the parking lot.  
  • Parking is free and there is no cost to access/view the geysirs or use the restrooms

Everyone waiting for little geysir to erupt

Walkway to Gulfoss Waterfall

Gulfoss is a pretty impressive waterfall.  If you are like me, you will soon be underwhelmed by waterfall just due to the SHEER AMOUNT of them in this country.  Gulfoss however, is early on in the trip and I was still impressed by its size.  Gulfoss is one of the largest waterfalls in Iceland and is located on the Hvítá (White) river which is fed by Iceland´s second biggest glacier, the Langjökull. The water plummets down 32 meters in two stages into a rugged canyon which walls reach up to 70 meters in height. You follow a walking path out to the falls where you can view the fall from a view different points.  DISCLAIMER:  You will need proper rain gear as the mist from the falls is powerful and will get you wet.  The fall cascades in two stages and there are plenty of places to stop for a sopping wet picture.  The day we visited, it was (of course) raining with some intense winds.  On a sunny day look for large rainbows over the falls.

Signage at Gulfoss showing the typical rainbow

Store outside of Gulfoss

  • GPS: N64°19.508 W20°07.794
  • Free parking and free to see the falls.  
  • Short walk to view the falls from the parking lot.  
  • Pay for bathrooms.  
  • There is a restaurant and cafe on the premises.

One of the ovelooks at Gulfoss

Walkway to Gulfoss

Viewing area 

Háifoss waterfall and Fossárdalur Valley

Háifoss waterfall and Fossárdalur Valley is off the beaten path (and a detour off the Golden Circle (25 minutes each way ) but definitely worth the trek.  There are less people here than the other waterfalls due to the gravel F road to get here, and it's proximity to the Golden Circle.   The road up to the falls is definitely an F road (gravel, lots of potholes) and you need to have a capable vehicle to reach the top (with that being said, we did see low cars without 4WD accessing the falls).   There are several waterfalls and the valley itself is beautiful.  The waterfall next to Háifoss is called Granni is somewhat hidden back in a little rock bowl.  We (again) had some nasty windy rainy cold weather.  It cleared up for long enough for us to snap a few pictures and walk around the area.  What REALLY makes this area spectacular is the valley down the canyon.  Waterfalls are fun but this canyon shot? Yep... it's real. 

Fossárdalur Valley

There are no bathrooms, gift shops or anything (and no fees).  Just a parking lot, some signage, and this beautiful area.  Like most of Iceland, there are no guard rails or fencing to keep you away from the cliffs.  Watch your footing and be careful when the elements start to fire up.  Enjoy the (mostly) solitude at this fall compared to the other stops on the Golden Circle. 


Walking through the Fossárdalur Valley area

  • Road: It's 6.5km of slow driving. It took about 20 minutes. It's a normal rough off road in Iceland. Make sure you hike to the end of the trail (it's a short 5-10 minute walk down hill). That is where you get the full view of the falls and, if you're lucky, the rainbow.
  • No fees, no facilities, small gravel parking area. 

Fossárdalur Valley

Kerið Crater

In my opinion, the crater is skippable on the list of golden circle tours.  However, it is RIGHT on the circle and interesting stop if you have time.  Kerið is a 55 m deep volcanic crater and is about 3000 years old.  The crater filled with water, creating a lake with steep sides. You can walk a loop around the top perimeter of the crater, as well as around the lake below.  The color of the lake was pretty cool and this go pro shot (above) came out great to show the size and colors of this crater. 

Kerið Crater

  • N64° 2' 27.611" W20° 53' 5.599" Rd # 35
  • There is a FEE to enter and there are no toilets or cafe.   4 ISK/~4 USD per person.

Rainbow visible from the crater rim

Top walking path at Kerið

Overall, the Golden Circle was a good start to the trip.  It was full of various awesome aspects of Iceland geography and topography from waterfalls to geysirs.  It does end up being a long day trying to fit 5 stops and driving in one day.  Overall, I loved the history of Thingvellir and recommend getting there early to avoid the crowds/tour busses that arrive with loads of people.  I also loved Haifoss Waterfall and Fossárdalur Valley where the gravel road and distance off the Golden Circle means little to no people.  

Double rainbows of Iceland

Breakfast and Lunch we had on ou own with groceries we picked up at a local grocery store (Bonus or Kronan).  We stuck to basics like toast, yogurt, fruit, and sandwiches.  For lodging, we spent the night in Selfoss at the Garun Guesthouses and loved this quaint guesthouse.  It was clean with a large community kitchen and very friendly staff.  The bathrooms were also clean and updated and we were able to walk to dinner down the road at Yellow.  Yellow was one of the more affordable options where for $19 we could good food at a hip little cafe and relatively fast.  I had chicken in a satay sauce with noodles and a salad.  Your order was put together in front of you and you picked a table.  For a more local/authentic option but at higher prices (entrees $30-50) Tryggvaskali came highly recommended by the owner of the guesthouse.  Total driving:  300 km and about 5 hours.

Dinner at Yellow

Lodging at Garun Guest House 


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