Iceland is an incredible place for a road trip. You can’t beat the scenery, the ever-changing weather, or the easily navigable roads.
We fit a daylong trip of the Golden Circle, a loop that takes you through a tourist route in southern Iceland, into our second day of our stopover in May 2016. I talk more about our time in Reykjavik and why Iceland is a great stopover destination in my post Stopover in Reykjavik.
The late spring and summer seasons afford you almost endless daylight to make the most of your roadtrip around the Golden Circle. You could technically drive to all the attractions in about four hours, but if you want to linger at all you will want to build in more time. Not to mention that you will want to stop every few minutes to take a photo of mountains, waterfalls, geysers, or maybe even a horse or a sheep.
We only had one day to do our self-guided tour, so we chose the three most popular destinations that are the closest to Reykjavik: Þingvellir National Park, the Haukadalur area, which contains the geysers Geysir and Stokkur, and the waterfall Gullfoss. We also decided last-minute to add on two stops on the way back to Reykjavik: the Kerið Crater, which turned out to be my favorite spot along our route, and a town called Eyrarbakki, a small fishing village along the southern coast of Iceland.
These were also all places that we were within 100 km of Reykjavik and could get to with our 2-wheel drive rental car. The Golden Circle is named aptly because, well, it’s a circle that leads you back to Reykjavik, and because “golden” just sounds catchy. If we had planned to traverse any of Iceland’s F-roads, such as those along the Ring Road, we would have needed a more suitable vehicle. As it was, our tiny Opel Corsa did just fine for our chosen route.
Let me stress that we only scratched the surface of Iceland’s road-tripping opportunities. The roads are in great shape, the attractions are well marked, and the (few) other drivers were courteous and well-behaved. The main attraction, however, is the journey itself. To experience it, you only have to look right out your window.
Before starting out, COFFEEEE: If you are based in Reykjavik, before starting your drive I would highly recommend fueling up at either Reykjavik Roasters or Cafe Haiti. But anywhere you choose will be great — Iceland produces some amazing coffee!
With a full breakfast at Grái Kötturinn and a second cup of coffee at Reykjavik Roasters in us, we began the journey along the Golden Circle. Only a few minutes outside of Reykjavik we stopped to drive up the hill to see the view from this small church with fascinating architecture.
It didn’t take long for us to be awed by Iceland’s landscape.
The day was cloudy and it rained off and on throughout the drive. There were times that the cloud cover was so thick that it covered the whole base of a mountain.
Midway to our first stop, we had a first sighting of the famous Icelandic horse.
Icelandic horses are usually small, almost pony-sized, and have heavy winter coats to keep them warm. They have been carefully bred since the early 1900s and rarely have diseases since they cannot return to Iceland once exported.
If you find a pack (or whatever you call a group of horses) that is close enough to the road, you should pull off and get closer. I have heard that Icelandic horses are very friendly and love to be petted!
I love this quote by Jules Verne in the Journey to the Center of the Earth: “There is no more sagacious animal than the Icelandic horse. He is stopped by neither snow, nor storm, nor impassable roads, nor rocks, glaciers, or anything. He is courageous, sober, and surefooted. He never makes a false step, never shies. If there is a river or fjord to cross (and we shall meet with many) you will see him plunge in at once, just as if he were amphibious, and gain the opposite bank.”
About 45 minutes into the drive you will make it to the first stop along the Golden Circle, Þingvellir National Park.
Thingvellar was Iceland’s first national park and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. It’s most famous for the site of Iceland’s ancient parliament and the location of two tectonic plates. It’s also a nature preserve and a sought-after tourist destination for its striking beauty.
We didn’t really feel like the guidebook did a great job explaining the attraction of the park, but once we got there we felt a magnetism to the gorgeous landscape. As with most Icelandic attractions, seeing it with your own eyes is the best part.
It was a steady rain by this point. Back goes on the hood! You gotta be prepared for any weather in Iceland. Thankfully I bought this scarf before we left France!
We drove our car to another lot where you can easily walk to Öxarárfoss, a small, beautiful waterfall in the middle of the Almannagjá canyon, one of the large rifts in the park. The waterfall flows from the river Öxará, and the story is that the river was moved in the 9th century in order to channel water into the meeting place of Iceland’s parliament. During the winter the waterfall is quite powerful, but since we went in May it was a steady fall that led away into the ravine.
This waterfall holds many legends, including one that claims that the waterfall was named after the knife that took down a large, murderous troll that took out its anger on innocent visitors. The valley below was where the laws of the land were decided, and the pool that tumbles from the waterfall is the place where women were drowned as punishment for their serious crimes.
Could this be the best chapel ever for a destination wedding? You tell me. I have already tied the knot.
In the valley below the canyon, you can find the church and a circle of raised ground. The stone wall behind the church are foundation remnants of the meeting place of the ancient parliament of Iceland. The old stomping grounds and outdoor courtroom of Vikings.
This meeting site, called the Alping, was the very first democratic parliament in the world and began here in AD 930. Every important decision was made here at this yearly gathering until local authority broke down and the Norwegian royalty disbanded the parliament. In the 1800s the Danish crown held power over Iceland, but in 1843 they granted Iceland their first constitution and it was voted to move the location of the parliament to Reykjavik.
Even though we were there during high tourist season, the park was incredibly quiet and peaceful. The park is surrounded by massive cliffs that resonate an environment of age and grandeur. The large cliffs also acted as a natural amplifier for the legislative deliberations.
I kept thinking that this must have been where some of the inspiration for the movie Frozen came from — doesn’t it look like little rock trolls could spring out of here at any moment? This wouldn’t be too far of a stretch, as most Icelanders believe that their country in inhabited by other races, and over fifty percent believe in elves.
You can find fissures like this all throughout the park. These are literally drifts between two different continents that are tearing away, caused by the meeting of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Iceland is still actively volcanic, so the earth beneath you is constantly moving. The results is the most clearest water you will ever see.
Back on the road, we headed towards our next stop, the hot springs at Geysir.
I know this sounds corny, but the drive really was the best part of this roadtrip. You would go miles without seeing another soul. We were driving on a road that was in a place that didn’t look like there should be a road.
I did not make any photo enhancements to this picture. The landscape really did look this otherworldly. And the clouds just made it seem even more eerie.
On the way we stopped for lunch in this little town and got a hot dog at the gas station. Don’t be jealous! It was a local Icelandic specialty. We knew we were getting close to the hot spring region when we saw this plant taking advantage of the geothermic activity.
Well hey there, Geysir. Suh, dude?
As of our trip in May of 2016 the entrance to Geysir was free. The parking was easy and the lot is right across from the walkway to the geothermal pools and hot springs. Be warned: the walk up to the main geyser is an incredible cool sight, with steam constantly rising in fumes from the ground.
But, it stinks. Literally. You might want to plug your nose.
It’s a little tiny baby geyser!
Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn, and cauldron bubble! There has to be some type of witches brew going on in there, right?
You will find the largest amount of people huddled around Stokkur, the hot spring that emits a huge eruption about every 5 – 10 minutes.
Woah! Only stand where the crowd is if you want to get a second shower.
Caleb has been to Yellowstone, but I had never seen anything like this before. The fact that the earth can produce this type of phenomenon is pretty ridiculous.
The earth is having an….eruption. (This is as about as risqué as it gets on my blog.)
The colors in some of the small pools surrounding the geysers were absolutely mesmerizing.
Our last official destination of the Golden Circle was the gigantic, double-cascading waterfall of Gullfoss.
The land and the falls were given to Iceland in 1975, but previously it was personally owned by Tomas Tomasson. His daughter is famously known as the savior of the falls, keeping them from being destroyed by a development project in the 1920s. Sigridur, Tomas’s daughter, walked to Reykjavik and complained to the extent of threatening to end her life by jumping into the falls. It never came to be, however, and one of the nation’s prized pieces of land were held intact.
The Gullfoss was getting up into the interior of Iceland, and if you looked beyond the falls, the vast amount of nothingness was pretty impressive.
Let me tell you, it was tough to choose between the pictures we had taken of this mighty waterfall. But I love how this one shows the power of the falls.
From miles away, the falls hitting the water below sent mists of water into the air. If it had been a sunny day, we would have seen rainbows reflecting off the water.
There are several vantage points to view the falls. Since we were already wet from the rain, we chose one that was higher up and away from the spraying mists.
The visitor’s center at Gullfoss is huge, and you will likely find lots of many tempting souvenirs to buy. This is also a good place to stop, use the bathroom, and get a snack. We had heard that there was a famous organic lamb stew served here, so we couldn’t resist getting a bowl and giving it a try.
It was the perfect way to take a break and shake off the chill. Delicious, too.
This was a deserving place to slow down and pontificate on the sights and beauty of the Golden Circle.
The sights did not stop here, however. Back in the car, we began the journey towards Reykjavik.
The sheep population in Iceland more than doubles the human population, so we weren’t surprised to come across these domestic sheep and this incredibly cute baby lamb.
This little dude looked right at me for my quick drive-by shot. Not camera-shy in the least.
“Kilometers are shorter than miles. Save gas, take your next trip in kilometers.” – George Carlin
We were headed back to Reykjavik when we decided to make a last-minute stop at Kerið. It was right off the road and was relatively devoid of tourists. There was a nominal fee to enter Kerid, but just like everywhere in Iceland, they still took credit cards!
Kerið is a volcanic crater lake, also known as a caldera, that is created when the magma chamber of a volcano empties after an eruption and the volcano collapses into itself. The aqua-blue color of the water results from the minerals in the soil, creating a mesmerizing effect on the eyes.
One benefit of paying an entrance fee is receiving a pamphlet with information about the site. Wonderful Iceland, you have English literature in abundance!
Upon entering the park, the volcanic red clay invites you to tour this incredible natural phenomena with an aerial view.
There’s no railing, stairs, siding — nothing to keep anyone from slipping off the side and rolling their way down into the crater lake.
This was another change in the Icelandic landscape as you could see on the right side a forest that led off into the distance.
At the front of the crater, there is a walkway that leads down to the entrance of the lake. Have you ever seen a more beautiful, mysterious path?
Our last stop was at Eyrarbakki, a small, sleepy town that used to be a major trading route for farmers and a main port on the southern coast of Iceland. Innovations with transportation and different types of boats and better harbor options eventually left the town behind in the 1920s. Nowadays, the town is known for its prison, which is the largest in Iceland.
We didn’t see a single soul out while we were there. Apparently everyone was inside on this cold, Monday evening. My guess is that the town and visiting tourists were gathered at the Rauða Húsið (The Red House), a famous fine dining restaurant in southern Iceland. If we had time (and the budget) we definitely would have stopped to enjoy their offerings.
Eyrarbakki has the oldest timber built house in Iceland, which (we think) was this one. It was built from a kit shipped from Norway in 1765.
Not much is left to testify to this village once being a popular trading stop and important port. But there is still great views over the crystal clear waters.
The north Atlantic ocean…it even looked cold.
Our sightseeing for the day over, we followed the ocean back towards the capital.
We are avid followers and users of Rick Steves travel guides, but since that wasn’t available to us, we used a Lonely Planet guide for this trip. The style and organization of the book was not what we were used to, but it worked well enough to get us around.
Back in Reykjavik, we had a relaxing evening pizza, walking around the city, and a large ice cream cone to top off the day.
There’s so much more to explore in Iceland. We hope to be back someday with more time and a 4-wheel drive car to be able to reach some of the farther away natural wonders, ice caves, hidden waterfalls, and ancient valleys and viking ruins that inspired tv shows such as Game of Thrones.
Have you been to the Golden Circle? I would love to hear about it! Have suggestions on where we should go on our next Iceland road trip? Let me know in the comments below!
Want to read more about our trip to Iceland? Go read my post about our Stopover in Reykjavik!