A day trip for the ages – Iceland’s Golden Circle

Normally toward the end of a two week trip, my energy is starting to fade just a bit.  Not so on the second to last day of this trip.  I’m awake early, and among the first to grab breakfast in the dining room of our Reykjavik hotel.  I can’t get to the car rental place fast enough.  Today we’re doing a driving tour of Iceland’s “Golden Circle”

Leaving Reykjavik, there are clouds in the sky with a forecast promising a sunny day a few hours ahead.  With no trouble at all, we find our way out of the city and onto highway 36 to make our way to Þingvellir National Park.   We decided on the self-tour/rental car approach so we could do this trip at our own pace.  About 10-15 minutes after turning onto highway 36, we’re glad we did.  We pull off the highway for the first of what would be a few stops like this.  There is an open vista and a field of balanced rock sculptures done by visitors:

This is the second time I’ve crossed paths with balanced rock sculptures on my travels this year.   Here, the moon-like topography, the early morning chill in the air, and the water and mountains off in the distance combine for a tranquil first stop:

I’m already starting to feel something very different on this day trip.  A lot of the writing about Iceland speaks to its mystical nature.  Standing in this field, it’s dawning on me what draws people here.  There is magic in this place.  It really isn’t like anywhere else.

We hop back in the car, continually amazed by the views through the windshield.  The terrain is changing with each kilometre that passes.  We’re leaving the flat, barren land behind as we make our way closer to Þingvellir National Park.   This is the site of the first Icelandic Parliament from the year 930.  It’s also the place where the Eurasian and North-American tectonic plate boundaries are visible above ground.  These plates move about 2cm each year:

ÞingvellirThe views at Þingvellir are stunning.  Standing at the highest point, you have a sweeping view across the park and Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland:
ÞingvellirÞingvellirThe light on this morning is stark across the water.  Again, standing here, it’s difficult not to feel something.  It’s spiritual in the sense that the raw natural beauty of this location just washes over you.  It’s still early in our day trip and we’re torn whether to stay here longer or make our way onward.  I’m sad to leave this behind, but am excited to see what is ahead.

Back in the car, the skies really start to clear and we’re into a bright, beautiful day.  I think we made a wrong turn coming out of Þingvellir, and take a bit of an unexpected route on to Geysir.  The drive there is stunning and along the way we get a number of up close experiences with Icelandic wildlife.  First, some Icelandic horses:

Icelandic horsesA wild black sheep:

SheepMore sheep on the side of the road:

SheepOne of the sounds I’ll always associate with this day is that of the bleating of the wild sheep, always around, being carried by the light breeze.  At every stop we made, we’d hear this and as your eyes adjusted to the terrain, you’d start seeing sheep everywhere.

The drive itself on the way to Geysir was spectacular.  There were stretches where it felt like 20 minutes would pass before we saw another human being.  Here are a few views along the way:

We arrive at Geysir maybe two hours after leaving Þingvellir (the wrong turn and pulling over a few times to take in the views lengthened the drive in a good way).  Right from the road you can see the steam coming up from the ground (there are signs warning you that the water temperature here is 80-100°C):

GeysirWe settle in at the Strokkur geyser and watch it erupt a few times.  Here it is with an eruption reaching into the air:


GeysirNext, we make the short trip from here to Gullfoss.  From the road, you can’t see the magnificent waterfall.  Actually, approaching it, you’re not even really sure where to turn off the highway.   We find a parking lot and then follow the walking path down to one of the most iconic views in Iceland:

GullfossAs you’re walking toward this site, you see the Hvítá river, but it looks like it just disappears.  It’s not until you get closer that you actually see the falls.  The river’s sharp left turn and multiple falls over rock formations makes it spectacular:

GullfossGullfossHere we are with the mists of the Hvítá behind us:

Us at GullfossFrom Gullfoss you can get a view of the Langjokull Glacier.  Our rental Nissan Micra (think of taking a Toyota Yaris and making it about 2/3 the size) would be no match for the terrain of the glacier, so the view from here will have to do (for this trip anyway):

Langjokull GlacierLangjokull glacierThe last stop on our day trip is Kerið, a volcanic crater located on the drive back to Reykjavik.  The crater is about 180 feet deep and dates back about 3,000 years:

KeriðKeriðHere I am at Kerið, trying hard not to fall backwards:

Me at KeriðWe pointed the car toward Reykjavik and made the 45 minute drive back into town.  Along the way, the terrain changed back from green to barren, we drove over a mountain and the sun decided against spending the rest of the day with us.  Over this day, we saw landscapes that shouldn’t belong together – farm land, mountains, a glacier, rolling hills, barren fields, flat 360° views to the horizons, volcanic rock – sometimes it looked like we were in Arizona, sometimes it looked like we might be on the moon.   The day inspired awe.  If there’s one day by which I’ll remember my two weeks in Scandinavia, it will be this one.  So unexpected.  So beautiful.

5 thoughts on “A day trip for the ages – Iceland’s Golden Circle

  1. What great pics – thanks so much for sharing! I visited Iceland in February so it was wonderful to see places in the summer, surrounded by green, instead of emerging out of greyness! I didn’t get to Þingvellir National Park so I loved looking at your photos. The balancing rocks are extraordinary (I followed the link to your other post about them, but think these Icelandic ones are more impressive)
    Here are my pics http://loiselden.com/2012/05/16/iceland-a-wonderful-country/

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