The Golden Circle is one the most popular activities in Iceland – and for good reason. This 300 kilometer driving loop starts and ends in Reykjavik and includes sights such as waterfalls, geysers, lakes, mountains, hot springs, snorkeling (!), and hiking. The best part? It’s all doable in one long summer day if that’s all you have. If you want to slow it down or if you are traveling in the short days of winter, it also works well split up into sections.
Our recent trip to Iceland took place in the winter, so we opted to drive the top half of the route (the part that includes Þingvellir National Park, Geysir, and Gulfoss) in one day and include the southernmost points of interest (Kerid Crater Lake and also the Hvergardi hot springs) on our itinerary for our roadtrip along the south coast. The pace was slow but interesting, and we had plenty of time to navigate the winter road conditions.
We left our Reykjavik hotel, Bus Hostel, in the darkness of 830am (!!!!!), and headed out into the snow and ice to our first stop – Þingvellir National Park.
[Our SADCars rental Subaru Forester handled amazingly well through the ice, snow, rain, hail, wind, sleet, and brief momentarily glimpse of nice weather. I highly recommend renting a car like this – it’s low so the wind doesn’t cause tipping problems, and Subaru’s 4-wheel drive is SOLID.]
Stop #1: Þingvellir National Park
While Þingvellir National Park (pronounced Thingvellir) has a very important place in Icelandic political history, it’s not the reason why most tourists visit. Þingvellir sits at the continental divide – where two of Earth’s tectonic plates meet. The North American plate and Eurasian plate. As such, you can see the physical drift between the two plates by walking, biking, or driving around the vast moon-like landscape. If you are feeling frisky, you can also get into the ice cold water at the Silfra fissure and go diving or snorkeling in the rift. (*IF* you dare – the water is 35-39 degree Fahrenheit year round. UUUUM OK NO THANKS. I’ll stay above ground in my down coat and fluffy new winter hat).
The landscape was beautiful and driving by the mountain viewpoints and other-worldly terrain was a cool experience, but the winter weather makes the park look bleak and a little boring. It was too icy and windy to explore much on foot. We did luck out though, with a moment in the sunshine looking out over Lake Þingvallavatn. But other than that, this was a quick and unimpressive stop for us. Perhaps had we been ballsy enough to go ice snorkeling, we would have had a better time.
Stop #2: Geysir (Strokkur)
Geysers are cool. I had never seen one before traveling to Iceland and I found them to be fun. Especially in the fog. The cold wet weather meets the warm ground and creates a thick tule fog in the air a la San Francisco. It was so thick in fact, it was hard to even see to the other side of each geyser’s footprint. But when the water blasts up into the air, it’s unmistakable. Strokkur is the biggest geyser here and is the one you’ll wanna spend some time waiting around to see.
Stop #3: Gulfoss Waterfall
This is one of Iceland’s crown jewels. A uniquely shaped waterfall that roars into a canyon below – even in the winter when much of it is frozen. Unfortunately, our visit to Gulfoss was poorly timed. We were already racing with the daylight by the time we arrived, and the rain/sleet/wind had picked up enough to make standing outside on the edge of canyon rather uncomfortable. And the ice. OH THE ICE. Every pathway was covered in a 2-inch thick sheet of slippery (thanks to the rain/sleet/wind) foreboding ice. Without crampons, walking on it was at minimum a chore and quite possibly a free ticket to concussion-ville. I had to be especially careful not to fall down being 5 months pregnant and all. Putting all of this together, Gulfoss was not a fun or leisurely stop for us. But it sure was beautiful.
The Road In Between
With daylight dwindling, we had to book it back to Reykjavik so we would not get caught driving iced-over roads in the dark with possible high winds.
These three Golden Circle sights fit nicely in a short winter’s day, even if you take your sweet pregnant-lady time like we did. And even though it may sound like the winter weather may have made the sights less interesting, I’m glad we saw them. So you still should do it. It’s iconic Iceland. And when you do, I may recommend seeing these places in reverse order so your drive is shorter in the afternoon when time is of the essence.
What did I think of the other half of the Golden Circle? That’s coming up in my post about our South Coast Roadtrip…