The first morning in Iceland and with car keys in my hand I felt like a kid in a candy store. There were so many places to go and so many things to do – so little time! The most popular of the circuits came first – known as the Golden Circle tour, it comprises a National Park, an amazing Geysir, one of the most amazing waterfalls in the world, and a crater which some unworldly colors around it. The ride is about 4 hours of drive time not counting the time you could spend at each of the attractions. Given more time, I would assume you could spend an easy half-day at most of the sites, but I didn’t have that luxury, so we got done in a day across all 4 sites. There are also many smaller attractions on the way and every time you stop, you could find a majestic view or a hike.
The first stop on the journey is Þingvellir National Park about a 45-minute ride away from Reykjavik. The drive was beyond words pretty and an argument can be made that it was better than the destination or maybe any place outside of Iceland. It was hard not to stop about every 500 meters as the scenery just evolved. It was a city with snow-capped mountains to start with, then some true wilderness with winding roads and nothing else followed by a stunning lake. It rained a few minutes and then just stopped. The cold breeze was giving me chills even though it was some 6 degrees celsius outside. I stopped multiple times, at times just to stare at the winding roads ahead and at other times to just enjoy the unworldly topography. Each time I got back into the car I felt thankful for technology that warmed up the steering wheel.
While the roads were quite empty and driving was really simple, the parking lot of the National Park was a different story. It took a few minutes to find a spot in the large parking. It took a few more minutes to figure out that parking fees included the entry charges for the occupants into the park. There are a small cafe, washrooms, and other facilities in the parking lot. It has been just 45 minutes since I left, so didn’t need food, but it was good to know that good food was available on the way.
The park is quite huge and requires a lot of walking and there are quite a few sites to see. There some history besides the natural beauty – it was the place the National Parliament of Iceland was first established in 930 AD. There is a small board that talks about some more details but it is almost criminal to take your eyes off the beauty that lies just beyond including several waterfalls and just meadows dotted with lakes. You could easily spend a day here, but we spent a few hours walking around. There are a lot of hikes – depending on how much time you have. Several waterfalls usually end up being the destination of these hikes. The trails are well developed, so most are easy but long walks.
The next stop was about an hour ride further and was a geothermally active area called Haukadalur which used to be host to two natural Geysers, though one of them had become quite erratic since an earthquake a few years ago. The other one, Strokkur, erupts every 5- 10 minutes and in the 30 minutes, we spent there it gave us some 4/5 displays. The spray goes up some 50-70 feet and can be quite stunning against the beautiful Icelandic backdrop. There are also some sulfur pits, etc that add to the natural beauty some smokey effects and a mildly foul smell.
This place isn’t as crowded as the national park but you could still see a lot of people around – just to set context though, 200 people is a crowd in Iceland. There is a small self-serve cafeteria near the main parking lot and it served some pretty good fast food, bread, and soup. This made for a good lunch before we moved onto the prize attraction of the route. Warm food in the cold environment feels good beyond words.
Gullfoss is an unworldly waterfall that just seems to disappear into the ground. It is a short drive from the geysers and there are 2 parking lots – the larger one gives you a bird’s eye view of the fall but requires a 100 stair climb to get to the main fall trail. The smaller one is right at the trail and avoids the stairs. The fall itself can be quite perplexing to watch as the water seems to just disappear. Only from one side angle do you see small streamflow to the side taking a fairly large volume of water. The spray of the fall can produce a stunning rainbow at the right time of the day and can also completely drench you as you walk closer to the fall. We spent about an hour at this magical site – there is a path to walk to a point much closer to the fall and feel the spray and be a part of the magic.
There are several smaller stops all around the circle and I would recommend just stopping any place you see a few cars parked – it may be a hidden gem. We tried that and came across the fourth major stop, the volcanic crater Kerid – which doesn’t take too long to see but can be quite a site because of the fancy colors of the Earth all around. Finally, there are two roughly equal routes to get you to Gullfoss from Reykjavik – I highly recommend taking one of them on the way up and the other one on the way back – why miss some scenery and why not complete the circle!