For visitors based out of Raykjavik and only staying in Iceland for a few days, the most common route to see a lot of what the country offers is the Golden Circle.
In a relatively short drive from the capital, you’re able to see cliffs, waterfalls and geothermic areas. That checks off many of the boxes people look for from a trip to Iceland so the sites along the route are also the most famous tourist attractions in the country. For those who don’t have a car, it’s a popular route for tour companies who make it a day trip with set times to spend at each location.
Since we had a rental car, we took the Golden Circle route as our exit from Reykjavik and the beginning of our exploration of southern Iceland. The driving time for the circle route is a little over 3 hours, but it takes most if not all of the day, depending on how much time you spend at each site and if you add in any stops.
Once you get out of the city, the scenery changes drastically.
If you explore the sites clockwise, your first stop will be Þingvellir National Park, pronounced ‘Thingvellir.’
This park is a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its importance in Iceland’s history.
Þingvellir (Thingvellir) is the National Park where the Althing, an open-air assembly representing the whole of Iceland, was established in 930 and continued to meet until 1798. Over two weeks a year, the assembly set laws – seen as a covenant between free men – and settled disputes. The Althing has deep historical and symbolic associations for the people of Iceland. The property includes the Þingvellir National Park and the remains of the Althing itself: fragments of around 50 booths built from turf and stone.
However, most visitors aren’t there for the history. They want to see the natural beauty of the area. Be aware; this is one of the locations in Iceland where you’ll have to pay to park, which you do at a kiosk inside the visitor center.
A path from the visitor center leads down the valley into the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. This is where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet and is the only place where the cliffs are above water.
Walking around, the area wasn’t anything like I’d imagine Iceland to be. It reminded me more of Ireland than anywhere else. Between the numerous lakes, cliffs and rolling green fields, it’d be easy at a glance to confuse the two landscapes.
There’s a ton of stuff to do at Þingvellir. By walking down the path a while, you’ll eventually get to Öxarárfoss waterfall. While we could have done the hike, we had a full schedule and it takes us significantly longer than some guests to take even a moderately easy walk. So we missed a waterfall. Good thing there were plenty of them left to see on our trip to make up for it.
If you’re interested, you can also go SCUBA diving at the park. At Silfra, you can snorkel or even dive into the glacial water between tectonic plates. It’s considered by many to be one of the top 10 dive sites in the world.
You can easily spend hours here, but we didn’t want to fall way behind schedule as we had a time-sensitive stop. So after a short walk into the gorge and back up to the visitor center (and a stop at the restroom), we were on our way.
We set our sites for a totally different landscape.
Our second stop on the trip was the Geysir geothermal area. This is the granddaddy of them all. The one that all other geysers are named after.
The first documented geysir is simply named Geysir. While it was the center of activity for centuries, it’s now dormant and only spouts water after significant seismic activity, and even then only for a few weeks or months.
The current star of the show is the nearby Strokkur. This geyser erupts every 10-15 minutes and can spray water up to 40m (131 ft) into the air.
We stayed for a while and saw several spouts shoot into the air. Some of them were misfires but two of them were crazy. This is the smaller of the two events.
We had a great time here and could have spent more time watching the bubbling mud pots and smaller geysers. However, this was also when the skies decided to open up and deliver the closest thing to a downpour we experienced for several days. This was also when we learned that the rain in Iceland almost always comes from the side, not from overhead. One of our hotel hosts said that’s why you’ll rarely see a local with an umbrella; what’s the point?
Despite our somewhat waterproof clothing, we were getting close to resembling drowned rats so we headed back to the car, which was thankfully just a short walk away. We turned on the seat heaters and headed to our third and final stop on the Golden Circle. FYI, the drive between these two locations is incredibly short.
One reason we didn’t want to spend too much time hiking to Öxarárfoss was that we knew this was also on the schedule for the day. And boy, it didn’t disappoint.
We parked and walked to the overlook and just WOW!
Next to Niagara Falls, this is the largest waterfall I’ve ever seen. We stood and watched for a while as the weather cleared. We never got any sun, so no rainbows for us. Then we walked down the path and we’re glad we did. I can only imagine the number of people on tour buses that only see the view from here.
To get a sense of the size of this waterfall, just look at the walking path and the people standing on the observation platform. The two drops fall a total of 32 meters (105 ft). Speaking of the walking path, we gave a good thought about walking down the steps to the path and walking right up to the falls. However, time was not on our side.
Tip: We learned that here, as well as at other locations, there are often multiple parking lots. There’s the main one where all of the buses and tourists park and other lots for the different areas. At Gullfoss, there’s a lower parking lot that lets you get to the falls without having to walk down and then back up a large staircase. Just type Gullfoss Lower Parking Lot into Google Maps and you’ll get there. If you want to use the bathroom or buy some snacks, you can drive to the upper parking lot when you’re done.
Kerið Crater is the last attraction on the Golden Circle if you’re headed back to Reykjavik. While we’d usually stop, here’s where we strayed from the path. We ended up hitting two more spots before setting our sights on the Hotel Laekur for dinner and to get some rest after a long day of sightseeing and driving. That’s the freedom of renting a car and heading wherever you want—more on our extra stops in an upcoming post.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary