One of the most popular trips to take inside of Iceland is driving the Iconic Golden Circle. Starting and ending in the capital city of Reykjavik, it is a great way to see some of the natural wonders of this amazing country. At just over 300 km you will be amazed that all the different types of geography will see including waterfalls, geothermal activity, hotspots, volcanic craters, lagoons, and even a world heritage site.
One of the top reasons the Golden Circle is such a favorite tourist destination is even if you’re on a short trip or attending a business conference, in a single day you can pack in this incredible scenic adventure.
What is the Golden Circle in Iceland?
The Golden Circle is a circular tourist route in southern Iceland of about 300 km. It is the most popular tourist destination in Iceland, and a safe bet in every best things to do in Iceland list, because you can see so much in a single full day, or use it as a starting point for a longer trip to Iceland as you may want to travel the entire country on the Ring Road.
The name Golden Circle comes from one of the major attractions on the route. The word Gullfoss, one of the major waterfalls you will see on the Golden Circle, means Golden Falls in Icelandic.
Can I self-drive the Iceland Golden Circle?
Yes, you can self drive the Golden Circle. Total drive time would be about four hours without stopping, so you’re going to want to plan a 6 to 10-hour day to take in the many natural wonders available for you to enjoy. The route is an easy to drive and navigate, with roads that are well maintained and always have some traffic on them.
If you're planing on visiting the Golden Circle, you'll find many organized tours online, including one-day tours from Reykjavík. While this can be handy if you’re not a good driver or don’t feel like driving, renting a car in Reykjavík allows you a lot more freedom and to avoid the hustle and bustle of being packed on a tour bus with a large group of sightseers.
If you plan to stay on the main road, any rental vehicle will be fine, so match it to your comfort depending on the group size. If you are a large family or group of friends, renting a minivan like the Renault Trafic might be the best option for an Icelandic road trip.
However, if you plan to do a bit of off-road travel, like heading out to the Langjökull base camp, renting a 4X4 car with high clearance is mandatory. This is not really something you want to do by yourself if the only experience you have is driving on city streets. 4X4 driving is a different set of skills, and you also want to be a little mechanically inclined in case you encounter any difficulties while off the beaten path.
Always check the weather conditions before heading out, especially if it is winter time in Iceland. During winter, the road conditions can be challenging, and you want to make sure you are prepared for the journey ahead. If the thought of driving on slippery roads in windy conditions makes you uncomfortable, then one of the tours out of Reykjavík may be a better choice for you. That being said, having your own vehicle offers you a lot more freedom to stay longer at certain locations that you are finding the most interesting while you travel.
What are the top stops on the Iceland Golden Circle?
If you’re pressed for time, the three top stops that all tourists want to see our:
- Thingvellir National Park
- Geysir Geothermal Field
- Gullfoss Waterfall
Thingvellir National Park is home to the oldest still operating Parliament in the world and was founded in the year 930 A.D. It is also world-famous for its geology because here you can see the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates grinding against each other as they slowly move apart.
The plates are in constant motion and drift apart about 2 cm per year. It is this slow but violent process that has made the entire nation of Iceland what it is today. As you explore the area, you will see many newly formed lava field caused by the high concentration of volcanic activity common to Iceland.
The Thingvellir National Park visitor center is a must stop if you want to learn more about the titanic forces that have shaped this country and continue to work on it daily. From the visitor center, there are many footpaths leading down to fissures between the plates. It is a highly unique opportunity not available almost anywhere else on the planet.
Thingvellir became a national park in 1930 when a law was passed which stated Thingvellir "a protected national shrine for all Icelanders, the perpetual property of the Icelandic nation under the preservation of parliament, never to be sold or mortgaged."
Thingvellir was also nominated for the UNESCO World Heritage List on July 2, 2004. The nomination stated that the site is of outstanding universal value and should be preserved as a cultural site as well as for its natural environment.
If you like the water, a very interesting activity for the day is to visit the Silfra Fissure and do some diving or snorkeling in the purest natural freshwater on the planet. The fissure opened in 1789 when a major earthquake struck the area. The fissure then filled with meltwater from the second-largest glacier in Iceland, called Langjökull.
What makes this experience so unique is that the meltwater is crystal clear and allows visibility underwater up to 100 meters or about 300 feet.
Geysir Geothermal Field is world-famous for the geothermal hot springs caused by the movement of the tectonic plates. The majority of the springs follow the tectonic plate lines and run from the South to the Southwest. As you explore the area, you will notice the smell of sulfur in the air and steam rising from the ground.
Exploring the Geysir Geothermal Field you will see the incredible power of mother nature displayed in boiling hot Springs, steaming ground covered multicolored minerals, bubbling hot part, volcanic fumaroles and frequently erupting geyser that shoots boiling hot water high up into the air.
The Great Geysir in the Golden circle
The Great Geysir was formed in the 13th century, at around the same time as the eruption of Mt. Hekla and is the oldest documented geyser in Europe. In fact, the word Geysir comes from the Icelandic verb 'geysa,' meaning 'to gush.' Many other languages, including English, have adopted their own version (geysir, géiser, gejzir, etc.) to explain this natural wonder.
The Great Geysir has gone through different periods of activity. From extremely active to almost completely dormant. Currently, at the time of this writing, The Great Geysir is almost totally inactive. So if you want to see an active geyser, want to visit nearby neighbor Stokkur. Strokkur geyser, Iceland’s most active geyser and shoots boiling hot water into the air about every 5 to 10 minutes. On average, the water reaches heights of about 10 to 20 meters, but can also get heights up to 40 meters.
Not much is known about the early days of the Strokkur Geyser. Like most of the geological activity on Iceland, the events have periods of very active times and then at other times seem to go almost completely dormant. When you think it is done, suddenly these spots can become hyperactive again and start all over a process of unleashing the fury that is below our feet.
Case in point is the Strokkur Geyser. It was thought to be dormant and in 1789 an earthquake kicked it back into life. In 1815, the average height of the Strokkur Geyser was record to be about 60 meters, and now it has dropped to about 10 to 20 meters. That is part of the excitement of visiting Iceland. A new event can take place almost anytime and change the dynamics of what you are going to see. It really is a glimpse into the titanic past forces that shaped the entire planet we live on, and that continue to mold the continents in new and unpredictable ways.
You’ll also want to visit the Geysir Geothermal Field visitor center because you have the opportunity to try some of the local dishes and pick up some souvenirs made by local Icelandic craftsman. The visitor center is a great way to learn about all the different forces working on the landmass of Iceland and how it impacts all the activity of the people living in this country on a daily basis.
Gullfoss Waterfall is one of the most famous waterfalls in all of Iceland. In the Icelandic language, Gullfoss translates to “Golden Falls” or “Waterfall of Gold”. It is a 2-step waterfall with the first step about 11 meters followed quickly by a second drop of about 22 meters, where the water flows into a deep gorge. In the warmer summer months, nearly 5,000 cubic feet of water tumble over the falls every second.
As you walk the pathway along the gorge to the falls, on sunny days you often see rainbows as the spray from the falls mists the air. It truly is a remarkable place to visit for the entire family and offers a view of the raw power water has to carve even the hardest or rocks over time.
The water that plummets over the falls comes from the meltwater of the Langjökull Glacier. The water first supplies Lake Hvítárvatn which is located on the southeastern side of the glacier, then forms the Hvítá river.
The path of the river both before and after the Gullfoss Waterfall makes many twists and turns. In fact, as you approach the falls, you can’t see the gorge, and it looks like the water just vanishes after falling over the edge. It is only when you get near the falls that you can see a narrow 20-meter wide gorge that is about 2.5 km long that the water has carved out of the earth.
Make sure to read the memorial of Sigríður Tómasdóttir at the top of the falls. Gullfoss is now a protected site in Iceland, but it wasn’t always that way. Early in the 20th century, Sigríður’s father Tómas owned the falls and surrounding area. He was going to sell the falls so that the first hydroelectric plant could be built in Iceland. Sigríður relentlessly protested to her father and even treated to throw herself over the falls as she saw it as one of the most beautiful places in Iceland. You can thank her memory for protecting this national treasure and stopping the building of a huge industrial plant at this location.
Other stops on the Golden Circle route in Iceland.
As mentioned above, the top 3 places people want to see while traveling the Golden Circle are, Thingvellir National Park, Geysir Geothermal Field and Gullfoss Waterfall, but if you think that is all that is available for you to experience on the journey, you would be mistaken. Here is a brief list of some of the extra places you may want to investigate, depending on what it is you like to see the most.
The Gjabakkahellir Cave is 364 meter long, open at both ends, a lava tube that was formed about 9,000 years ago during an eruption, and is located inside the Thingvellir National Park. It is about 50 meters off the road, but a very interesting place to visit and see.
Located about a 10-minute drive from the Gullfoss waterfall, the Faxi waterfall is not as powerful, but still a great place to see. Located on the Tungufljót river, if you are here at the right time, you can see the salmon runs as they head upstream to start another generation of salmon.
Kerið Volcanic Crater
The Kerið crater is one of the most photographed craters in all of Iceland. The sharp sides, green growth and the small vivid blue lake in the bottom make for a stunningly beautiful landscape.
The Secret Lagoon
Bring your bathing suit, it’s time to visit the Secret Lagoon. Built in 1891, Secret Lagoon is one of the oldest geothermal pools in Iceland. Summer or winter, the water stays at between 38 to 40 °C year-round and is a great place to visit after the spray of Gullfoss may have you feeling a little chilled.
The Hvítá River is one of the more popular salmon fishing locations, the locals love. The milky-white waters are also a fun place for the more adventurous to go rafting or even get on a river jet boat tour. The Hvítá River twists its way through large basalt columns and rock formations that make for a very intense experience.
Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Spa
The Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Spa consists of a number of man-made pools that have been set up to take advantage of the nature views from the location. Whether relaxing in the pools and steaming in the Finnish sauna, you will be able to view the surrounding areas and kick back for a relaxing time here.
The town of Skálholt
For the traveler interested in history, the town of Skálholt offers you a peek into the past. During the Middle Ages, from around 1056 to 1785, the town was the political and cultural center of Iceland. The first school in Iceland was founded here in 1056 and was where the Episcopal Clergy went to study.
The Beauty of The Golden Circle is the Heart Iceland
Undoubtedly, the Golden Circle of Iceland has a lot for the traveler to see. We have listed some of the more famous locations above as a starting point, but there is so much more to visit and do when you are out exploring.
If you are short on time in Iceland, then the Golden Circle is the best way to see so many of the natural wonders this unique country has to share with you. Even if you have more time and decide to take the Ring Road around the entire country, you still don’t want to miss these gems found when your make the Golden Circle part of your memories.