To truly appreciate Iceland, you must go beyond urban Reykjavik and experience the natural wonders which make this country so unique. After a few days in the capital city (read my recent article “Best of Reykjavik”) with a side trip to the Blue Lagoon (check out my article “Iceland’s Surreal Spa”), we spent a day exploring the Golden Circle — this island nation’s most popular sightseeing route. It’s chock full of historic sites, stunning scenery, and amazing attractions all linked together by a 300 kilometer looped road through the heart of the country. A full day excursion, up to nine hours, is required to absorb it all.
The three main locations included in all Golden Circle Tours are Pingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, Geysir Geothermal Area, and Gullfoss Waterfall. Want to enjoy a more personalized and unique experience? Schedule a private tour and go off the beaten track and seek out the area’s hidden gems.
Thingvellir National Park is where the country’s original Viking chieftains first assembled to forge their national identity and laws. This UNESCO World Heritage site presents a mix of historical weight and serene natural beauty. Geology buffs (like my boys) will recognize that this rift valley is where the two halves of Iceland (the Eurasian and North America tectonic plates) are slowly drifting apart – two centimeters per year – forming the Mid Atlantic Ridge. Time spent in Thingvellir will provide insight into not only how the island was formed millions of years ago, but also how its civil society emerged.
The Geysir Geothermal Area, located within Haukadalur Valley, is the site of intense geothermal activity. Dotted with hot pools, clay pots (acidic hot springs), and fumaroles (openings in the planet’s crust), the resulting minerals of the earth create a colorful palette in the surrounding hills. The Great Geysir, first to be discovered, lends its name to all other geysirs around the world – the word comes from the Norse verb which means “to gush.” Although Geysir now rarely erupts, nearby Strokkur releases its steam approximately every ten minutes and throws water from 66 to 132 feet into the air, so keep those cameras handy.
The iconic Gulfoss, or Golden Falls, is where the Hvita River, fed by Iceland’s second biggest glacier, the Langjokull, thunders down 32 meters into a rugged canyon with walls that reach up to 70 meters in height. The falls come with their own history – early 20th century foreign investors tried to harness its power to produce electricity, which fortunately never came to fruition.
The perseverance and legal wrangling of a local farmer’s daughter (who even threatened to throw herself into the falls) helped bring attention to the importance of preserving natural resources. Since 1919, Gulfoss has been permanently protected by the Icelandic government. There are two viewing areas for the falls: the flat rocky platform that projects out into the river right above the falls, and the top of the canyon where you get a broader view of Gullfoss and the river. When conditions are favorable, you just might spot a rainbow…or two.
On a private Golden Circle tour you will have the opportunity to experience other amazing sites besides the big three. Visit historic and cultural Skálholt, with its iconic wooden cathedral, home to numerous music festivals; Laugarvatn, a spa town with natural hot springs; and Kerid, an ancient (and stunning) collapsed crater lake surrounded by red volcanic rock – its bright spectrum of colors look positively unearthly. Join a river rafting expedition through the canyons of the glacial Hvita River, Iceland’s largest. Stop for lunch at Efstidalur, a 17th century “farm-hotel” and restaurant. A delicious meal here comes with a view overlooking the glass enclosed cow barn (source of the milk that goes into their heavenly homemade ice cream). At the end of a long day of touring, stop for a cup of the best hot cocoa at cozy Golden Circle restaurant Mika — famous for their handmade chocolates. (We loved sitting out back at one of their garden picnic tables).
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