Iceland: Driving The Golden Circle

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The Golden Circle is a popular 300km tourist route that meanders by three of Iceland’s natural wonders. Beginning in Reykjavik, the route loops into central Iceland and back down through the South, concluding the journey along Route 1. The tour covers Thingvellir National Park; Iceland’s greatest historical site, the hot springs in Geysir: Large erupting Geysers reaching up to 40m and finally Gulfoss; a waterfall hidden in the canyon of the Hvítá River.

The route itself is easy to navigate by car and could be completed without the aid of a Sat Nav. Each National Heritage Site can be found by the ⌘ (looped square) marking on highway road signs and as Iceland is so vast, it is hard to make a wrong turn on the straight and never ending course. The Golden Circle can be completed within a day trip, as many tour groups achieve this with the large price tag, however we struggled to dedicate as much time as we had hoped at each natural wonder. The journey itself without any stops would take you around 3 to 4 hours to complete. With at least an hour or so spent at each attraction, you will need to set aside around 6-9 hours for the day. With Iceland’s hours of light being only 9am-5pm, and dusk creeping in around 4pm, returning to Reykjavik before darkness was also of importance to us.

Route 36, Thingvellir, Iceland © Jessica Gatfield
Route 36, Thingvellir, Iceland © Jessica Gatfield

Thingvellir 

Route 36, luckily enough for us, passed all the way through Thingvellir National Park. We stopped by the Information Centre at Leirar where we abandoned the car and went for a walk. With no guidance as to where to go, we simply followed our noses to discover the nearby crustal rifts of volcanic rock. In the distance, the dark clouds covered the tips of snow topped mountains, the glistening white powder contrasting so beautifully with the rich reds and moss greens of the flora and fauna below. It was unlike anywhere else I had seen before; highways running through the pictureesque landscape, blending in with the scenery as if it was created that way by nature.

With time slipping away from us, regrettably we didn’t venture further into Pingvellir. As we had researched before hand, scuba diving between two tectonic plates was on offer within the park, a costly but once in a lifetime experience that would certainly be one to add to the bucket list. The park was not only home  to spectacular views across the top of volcanic rifts and tranquil lakes but also to horse back riding, fishing, large camping grounds and of course many a hiking trail. We felt as if Thingvellir was best explored in its entirety, dedicating a day solely to the natural wonder, as we did not determine the vast scale of things to see or do in such little time.

Geysers and Hot Springs

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Strokkur Geyser, Iceland © Jessica Gatfield

Another natural wonder that leaves you in awe is of course being a witness to the erupting Geyser at the northern edge of the southern lowlands. Situated in Haukadalur, the plain of geothermal activity is home to an abundance of steam eruptions, a shooting geyser named Strokkur and the azure coloured hot spring named Blesi. From the roadside you can see thick layers of steam bubbling upwards from the many streams of geothermal water that reach a temperature of up to 100 °C. Minus the sulphuric smell of rotten eggs, the steam eruptions are fascinating to watch as the water continues to bubble and spit. Further along and visible in the distance we find Strokkur; an erupting geysir reaching up to 40m in height spurting up every 5-8 minutes. When fixated on the hot spring itself, the water bubbles and moves in waves, almost drying up moments before the mighty eruption is released.

Located behind Strokkur, further up the slope, is the Hot Spring Blesi. The spring consists of two large basins, one possessing colourless water that reaches a boiling temperature and the other a 1m deep blue spring reaching temperatures of only 40 °C. The sky-blue is exquisite to the eye, the dissolved silica the reason for the vibrant colouring outlined by it’s crispy sulphuric edges protecting the dissolved silica inside.

The inactive Great Geysir itself could also be found on the geothermal site. Having once spouted higher than Strokkur, the now dormant geyser has limited eruptions, often hibernating for months to years at a time. The last reported eruption was said to be on October the 6th this year, in the late afternoon, documented photographically by a tour guide. We were not lucky enough to witness such a wonder, yet were extremely content with witnessing Strokkur erupt 8 times that day. Before heading to Gulfoss, we stopped in the Visitor centre for a warm cup of tea and a spot of lunch. Laden with handcrafted wooden tables and intricate light fittings, the centre embodied a unique design, modern and vibrant, that was brimming with tourists from all over the world. It was just what we needed after our second leg of the Golden Circle Tour!

Gulfoss Waterfall

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Rainbow Over Gulfoss Waterfall, Gulfoss © Jessica Gatfield

The final stop on our Golden Circle Tour was in Gulfossi to witness the enormity of the Gulfoss Waterfall. Juxtaposing beauty with force, this fierce natural wonder is located in the South of Iceland amidst the Hvítá River. The water is fed from the Langjökull glacier, the second largest in the country, descending at a height of 32 meters. The canyons either side of the falls stand at a height of 70m, allowing an elevated view over the crevice.

The car park and cafe is located on a cliff side above the falls, with a pathway leading to a stairway that takes you down onto the viewing platforms. Within minutes, as unpredictable as the Icelandic weather can be, we were caught in a vicious sleet and rain storm that left many tourists drenched having only worn sandals and shorts. Luckily for us, we were well prepared with our waterproofs and gloves, protecting our cameras as we briskly walked to the highest point, looking directly down onto the descending water. As Icelandic weather goes, the shower was over in ten minutes and to our surprise we were witnesses to a beautiful rainbow over the falls. It made us extremely thankful for the rain and made our experience a lot more exciting and adventurous.

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Cliff Faces, Gulfoss, Iceland © Jessica Gatfield

Scenic Route 1 

As dusk was drawing in upon us, we began making our journey back to Kopavogur via Route 1. The large ring road spans the whole of Iceland, covering each cardinal direction, with different scenery around every bend. Although we only drove along the route for 60 km, we definitely witnessed the exciting unknown around every bend. The landscape changed from vast nothingness to being amongst snow topped mountains within seconds. The surrounding area was covered in patchy snow, the visibility foggy at best and small icy blizzards crossed our path. It became clear that as we were inclining upwards, the more apparent the snow had fallen, benign to our knowledge the height in which we had reached. Before long we could see Reykjavik in the distance, and our descent returned the old familiar landscape to us and more visibility.

A Few Tips When Self-Driving The Golden Circle 

-1) Roughly plan time spent at each destination 

Setting off as early as possible is key to completing each section with some time to spare. Prioritise the stops that are of upmost importance to you and dedicate the most time to these. Researching beforehand is always advised and a guidebook could be useful too.

2) Bring along snacks and a packed lunch to save money 

If you are on a budget like we were, we made packed lunches for each day trip we made. Even though there are places to stop and eat at each Golden Circle Stop, the prices are sky high, some exceeding those found in London and of course options are usually limited. Plus, you cannot beat eating a sandwich in the outdoors with beautiful scenery all around!

3) Make sure to refuel at the start of your trip 

From what I recall, we did not pass any petrol stations on the route or at least any well-known service stations that we would have felt comfortable using. In our small 5 door car, the 190 mile route cost us a quarter of a tank of petrol, which was a lot less than we had anticipated.

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