Hear anyone talk about excursions in Iceland, and it is more than likely that they will bring up the Golden Circle. It features near the top of almost every top ten list of things to do in the country and is listed as a sightseeing tour on nearly every tour provider's website. But what is the Golden Circle, and why is it so popular?
The Golden Circle consists of three equally stunning locations in southwest Iceland: Þingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal Area, and Gullfoss waterfall are sites renowned across the world and are all as spectacular as they are unique. None of them is further than a two hour's drive from Reykjavík, and thus all three can be visited within a day.
Only the city of Reykjavík and the Blue Lagoon compete with these destinations in terms of popularity, and the reasons for their fame are manifold. Read ahead for all you need to know about each of the incredible locations on the Golden Circle and the best way to go about seeing them.
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Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park is an amazing site, steeped in history and folklore, and surrounded by incredible geology. It has the honour of being the first of Iceland’s three national parks to be established, and it is the only one that is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Considered to be the first stop on the Golden Circle, the park is located only about 45 minute’s drive away from Reykjavík.
The roots of both how this island formed and how its civil society was created can be found at Þingvellir. It is a place where dramatic geology meets a millennium of fascinating history, and where visitors can while away hours learning about the processes of the earth and the roots of democracy.
- See also: National Parks in Iceland
The incredible geology of the park comes from the fact that it is situated directly between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, in the rift valley that runs all the way through Iceland. This is the only country where this valley, the Mid Atlantic Ridge, can be seen above sea level, and nowhere is it more visible than in Þingvellir.
When you enter the park from Reykjavik, you drive towards a sheer cliff that is, in fact, the corner the North American continent. The Eurasian continent is several kilometres away, on the far side of the park, and is equally dramatic to look upon once you get to it.
It was a pocket of magma between these plates that rose as they moved apart which began the creation of Iceland millions of years ago. Their continued separation is the reason that Iceland has such fascinating volcanic activity; the island is still very young, and still very much in the process of formation.
Evidence of this process can be found all across Þingvellir. The area consists of long stretches of lava rock, and many volcanoes surround the park, rising above Þingvallavatn, Iceland's largest natural lake.
There has, however, not been an eruption in the area in the past 2000 years, and the park has grown very verdant as a result. The unique, haunting moss that creeps over the Icelandic landscape now covers the lava fields, and many parts of the area are forested with native birch trees and imported pines.
There are still regular earthquakes in the area, accommodating for the fact that the distance between the plates widens 2.5 centimetres (one inch) a year. The ravines opened by these quakes are filled with fresh water, which melts from the glacier Langjökull and travels underground through the porous lava rock towards the lake Þingvallavatn.
This long filtration process means that when the water emerges from springs in these cracks, it is devoid of any sediment and thus crystal clear. The visibility exceeds 100 metres (328 ft), which not only makes walking through the area that much more scenic but opens up opportunities for diving and snorkelling.
While these activities do not seem befitting of Iceland’s climate, advancements in dry-suit technology mean that the 2°C (35.6°F) water is more than accessible, even throughout the winter. Qualified guides take groups multiple times a day on this increasingly popular adventure, through the most beautiful of these ravines, Silfra.
While the scuba dive can be rather challenging and requires some level of previous experience, the snorkel is accessible to everyone over twelve years of age, as long as you know how to swim. The dry-suits are buoyant enough to act as a life-jacket, and Silfra has a gentle current helping guests along their way.
The underwater world here is incredibly beautiful, and the fact that the tour is conducted between the tectonic plates makes it all the more exciting.
- See also: Diving and Snorkelling in Iceland
Silfra is regularly voted one of the top ten dive sites in the world; it is not, however, without its dangers. There have been injuries and deaths within its waters, so only those who are qualified and confident in their abilities should take the dive, and only those who are physically fit and calm under stress should partake in the snorkel.
If you wish to see where the earth is tearing apart, but intend on staying fully dry, then it is possible to walk in the Almannagjá gorge, against the North American tectonic plate. This stunning valley displays how the geological processes in the area work, and leads to a lovely waterfall, called Öxarárfoss.
When taking this hike, fans of the HBO Series Game of Thrones will find it very familiar. This is the shooting location for the path up to the Eyrie, as well as where Arya Stark and Sandor Clegane journeyed through the Riverlands.
The incredible location and fascinating geology of Þingvellir, however, have nothing to do with why it received National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The reason it was able to claim these titles is due to its past; to follow Þingvellir’s history is to follow the history of the Icelandic people.
The first permanent settlers to Iceland came in the 800s and were largely vagabond clans who refused to bend a knee to the new High King of Norway. In 930 AD, however, they decided that some sort of collective government could ease disputes on the island, and each of the thirty or so groups present sent someone to represent them. They deemed their meeting place ‘the fields of parliament’, which translates to Þingvellir.
This first parliament was such a success that the tradition continued year after year, decade after decade, century after century. The institution endured even after the Icelandic Commonwealth was taken over by Norway in 1262, and after it transferred into the clutches of the Danish crown in 1380.
In fact, since its establishment over a millennium ago, it was only interrupted for one spell, from 1799 to 1844. After that, it was relocated to Reykjavík, but its function remained the same.
This history makes the Icelandic Alþingi (parliament) the oldest, still ongoing, representative parliament in the world. While the populations of Christian Europe endured feudalism without a thought to any democratic process, the ‘heathens’ of Iceland were creating a representative system that would act as a model to the many that followed it.
Because it was the most important site in Icelandic history for centuries, Þingvellir witnessed many of the major changes that the nation went through as it developed. It was, for example, where the country converted to Christianity in 1000 AD, fearing the violence threatened by the pious monarch of Norway, King Olaf I. It was also the site of many witch-trials, and many of the dramatic events detailed in the Icelandic sagas.
Even after the parliament site moved to Reykjavík, the area retained a great emotional value to Icelanders. It was here, therefore, where the nation chose to declare and celebrate its independence from Denmark in 1944 after the Nazis invaded it and the Allies took control of Iceland. The confirmation of the nation's first ever president, Sveinn Björnsson, was also held here on this momentous day.
The history of Þingvellir, in combination with its beauty and geology, make it clear why the park is such a popular destination. It is, however, but a third of the overall appeal of the Golden Circle.
The Geysir Geothermal Area
The second stop on the Golden Circle is the Geysir Geothermal Area, within the Haukadalur Valley. It is approximately a fifty-minute drive from Þingvellir, and en route, it is possible to see the volcanic activity of the earth grow more and more intense.
Steaming vents and chimneys are dotted along the way and notably concentrated in the village of Laugarvatn, located halfway between the two locations. This settlement has a spa that is heated by the currents of hot water beneath the surface of the ground, even having steam rooms that are situated right on top of bubbling hot pots, which reach a sweltering 60°C (140°F).
At the Haukadalur valley, however, this geothermal activity becomes even more intense; the steam rising from it is visible from miles away. The area is dotted with many hot pools, clay pots, and fumaroles, and the hills and soil are coloured vividly by the minerals of the earth. It would be a fascinating enough site even without the two geysers that make it famous.
The first of these is the one which gave all others their name: the Great Geysir itself. This is the earliest documented geyser in European literature, and its name comes from the Old Norse verb ‘to gush’, geysa. Geysir erupts rarely, but its neighbour, Strokkur, goes off every ten minutes or so, throwing water from 20 to 40 metres (66 to 132 ft) into the air.
The reason the original Geysir is mostly inactive these days is because of the tectonic activity in the area, as well as intrusive human intervention. Studies show that it has existed for about 10,000 years and that it tends to erupt in cycles; usually, a large earthquake will trigger it to start off, then it will slowly peter out.
Even when it is erupting, however, it is unpredictable in its timing and consistency. For example, in the early 1910s, it was known to erupt every half an hour, yet its activity had almost ceased altogether by 1916.
Tired of the fact that their country’s most famous landmark was so inconsistent, Icelanders dug a channel into the silica rim around Geysir’s vent in 1935, to lower the water table and encourage it to go off again. While it worked for a short period, the channel became clogged, and activity ceased once more.
In 1981, this channel was cleared, and it was found that Geysir could be forced to erupt on occasion by pumping in soap. There were many concerns about the environmental impact of this, however, thus it was stopped in the 1990s.
Geysir has been largely dormant since then but has gone off occasionally, so the lucky still have a chance to catch sight of it. When it does erupt, it is much greater than Strokkur; in 2000, it threw water to a height of 122 metres (400 ft). The only time it was recorded blasting higher was in 1845, where it reached an estimated 170 metres (558 ft).
Geysers are a rare natural phenomenon, and part of what makes the Golden Circle so incredible is that there is one so active and reliable somewhere so accessible. The reason for their rarity is because of the specific conditions required for their formation. For a geyser to exist, it requires the following circumstances:
An intense heat source: For geysers to erupt, there needs to be magma close to the surface of the earth to heat the rocks enough to boil water.
A water flow: There must be a source of flowing underground water. In this case, the water is what has melted from Langjökull glacier and runs through the porous lava rock into the area.
A plumbing system: There must be an underground reservoir for this water to gather, and a vent, lined with silica so that the water cannot seep out of it, which rises from the reservoir to the surface of the earth.
Walking around the Geysir Geothermal Area is a fascinating and rewarding experience, but its appeal goes further than these exploding hot springs. The Geysir Centre, just opposite the geysers, has a large, boutique shop with many handcrafted and locally made Icelandic goods. The centre also has several restaurants, serving traditional Icelandic food made from locally sourced ingredients.
The Haukadalur Valley is an incredible place to stop and marvel at the nature. Just ensure that you respect the area, and do not throw anything into the hot springs or geysers. This should go without saying, but since an 'artist' filled Strokkur with (thankfully all-natural) food colouring to see what it would look like pink, it seems to be a point worth reiterating.
The third and final stop on the Golden Circle is one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Iceland, Gullfoss. It can be found less than ten minutes down the road from Geysir. Located in a plunging, ancient valley, this powerful falls tumbles down two drops, from an overall height of 32 metres (105 ft). At its heaviest flow during summer, an average of 140 cubic metres (459 cubic feet) of water pours down it every second.
Gullfoss is not only known for its breathtaking power but also the rainbows that are thrown from its spray on a sunny day. These only add to an already beautiful sight; other than the dramatic valley and falls, the area looks over rolling fields, right up to the magnificent ice sheet of Langjökull. Like with the springs in Þingvellir and the water at the Geysir Geothermal area, the river that flows down Gullfoss comes from this glacier.
The river is called Hvíta, and it is the best place for rafting in the southwest of Iceland. Accessible for newcomers, but still appealing to experts, the rafting tour takes you on an adventurous ride with the powerful currents, down an ancient valley dotted with fascinating geological features. For anyone who doesn’t mind getting a bit wet and having a little bit of a workout, this is an exhilarating excursion.
This tour is only accessible during summer; this is also the best season to visit Gullfoss. When there is no ice on the ground, a walkway opens that takes you right up to the edge of the falls, close enough to feel the spray on your face. The photo opportunities here are incredible, and one could spend hours marvelling over the awe-inspiring power of the water.
That is not to say, however, that Gullfoss is any less spectacular in the winter. While you cannot get as close, seeing it partly frozen, carrying chunks of ice into the abyss, is mesmerising. If you visit in winter, be sure to wrap up warm; the winds coming over the glacier are notoriously sharp, and you don’t want them to shorten your stay.
Gullfoss today is an attraction that lures people from across the world, and Iceland’s tourism industry would not be the same without it. It is incredibly fortunate, therefore, that it has remained preserved, and has not been meddled with in any way. After all, keeping it natural was once not everybody’s intention.
In the early 20th Century, foreign investors saw a huge amount of opportunity in damning Gullfoss and turning it into a hydro-electric plant. The owner of the falls at the time, Tómas Tómasson, had indirectly leant outsiders the right to do what they wanted with it. These plans, against his wishes, started to go ahead; but were incredibly difficult to enforce with Tómas’ daughter around.
This iconic woman, called Sigríður, refused to let the natural wonder she loved so much be destroyed. She did everything she could to preserve it, from threatening to throw herself into the falls, to walking the 200 kilometres of unpaved road to Reykjavík and back again multiple times to rally a legal case in Gullfoss’ defence.
Although her actions did not directly save the waterfall, they drew national criticism of the plans and ensured that the process of damning it was delayed. Eventually, the lawyer she enlisted in her protests managed to work with the investors, who were lacking in money to take action, to annul the contract. This lawyer, Sveinn Björnsson, may sound familiar; he was the same man who chosen as Iceland’s first president.
Sigríður has been immortalised in a stone memorial on top of the waterfall and is remembered as a hero for her efforts to save it. As a poor, uneducated woman fighting a capitalist, patriarchal society in the name of the beauty of nature, she helped pave the way for both feminism and environmentalism to prevail in Icelandic culture.
The best way to see the Golden Circle
As the most popular tourist trail in Iceland, many different ways to see the Golden Circle have emerged. There are hundreds of different tours, from dozens of different providers, that combine your Golden Circle with extra activities or more sightseeing locations. Some even allow you to see it in an entirely unique way, such as by helicopter or by plane, or underneath the midnight sun.
Of course, it is possible to rent a car and drive from point to point, in your own time without the hassle of departure times or other group members. Doing it this way allows you to take as many detours to lesser-known, nearby locations as you like.
- See also: Top 9 detours on the Golden Circle
For those who would rather avoid the pressure of driving in Iceland, there is a vast array of guided tours from which you can choose. Some are very simple and efficient, taking you to the three locations then straight back to your accommodation. Others make more of the day, and also take you to popular sites such as the beautiful crater lake Kerið and the Blue Lagoon.
As the Golden Circle can be completed in around six hours, including driving to and from Reykjavík, many combination tours have cropped up. The Golden Circle and snowmobiling tour, for example, whisks you around all three sites, then from Gullfoss, you are driven up to Langjökull glacier for an exhilarating blast across the ice.
- See also: Golden Circle tours
It is even possible to combine this excursion with a culture tour. For example, you can enjoy sightseeing for the day, then go to taste traditional Icelandic cuisine in the evening. Another option is to finish the tour with a visit to a local power plant, to understand how Icelanders utilise the geothermal forces shaping their country for energy and food production.
There are even multi-day tours, both guided and self-drive, that centre around, or at very least feature, a trip around the Golden Circle. Those with a short amount of time, for example, may enjoy the guided three-day south coast tour, which takes you along this trail, up to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, and, weather permitting, into an ice cave.
Those here for several weeks, meanwhile, could do anything up to a 14-day self-drive that takes them not only around the Golden Circle but to almost every other point worthy of note around the circumference of Iceland.
No matter your time in this country, your budget, or your agenda, it is nearly always possible to fit in a trip around the Golden Circle. With an incredible diversity of scenery available within a simple drive, it is an almost essential Icelandic experience for any traveller. Þingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal Area, and Gullfoss Waterfall are natural wonders; do not miss your opportunity to fall in love with them.