The Golden Circle is a 300 km long tourist route in southern Iceland that covers some of the most famous natural attractions in the country. It is extremely popular with tour groups from Reykjavík, as it can be covered as a day excursion. On the way back to Toronto from our Faroe Islands trip, our 2-day transit in Iceland naturally meant that the Golden Circle tops the list of must-do activities.
With accommodations in conveniently located Selfoss town (so we didn’t need to drive the entire loop), we set out in our rental car and visited the popular sights. The three primary stops on the route are the Þingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss waterfall, and the geothermal area in Haukadalur.
Our first stop is the Kerið volcanic crater lake, one of several located in the Grímsnes area. The perfectly formed caldera is composed of red volcanic rock, contrasting with the aquamarine water. A path leads down to the edge of the shallow lake.
Next stop, a visit to Skálholt cathedral. Through many centuries, Skálholt was an important political and cultural centre of Iceland, and a source of religious authority. During the middle ages, it was a place of pilgrimage. The present cathedral is the 10th church built on exactly the same site as the original from 700 years ago.
A few kilometers north of Skálholt, the beautiful Faxi waterfall spans the Tungufljót river. Also called Vatnsleysufoss, a viewing platform is located just off the highway and is a popular stop on the Golden Circle. It is possible to get right up to the edge of the falls, and with the great weather we were lucky to get some nice photos here.
Haukadalur Hot Springs
Haukadalur valley is one of three prime stops on the Golden Circle. Here is the home of many geothermal features of which the Geysir and Strokkur springs are the most famous. Geysir is of course the origin of the word geyser, and while it no longer erupts regularly, adjacent Strokkur is quite dependable, sending superheated water and steam into the air every couple of minutes. It’s a great show, and free to boot!
Gullfoss, the “Golden Falls”, is possibly the most iconic of Iceland’s many waterfalls. Spanning the width of Olfusa river, the cascading flow is spectacular, and that’s before dramatically dropping into a 20m deep, 2.5 km wide crevice. Viewed from certain angles the water seems to simply disappear into the earth’s crust. No wonder this is one of the most popular attractions in the country.
Þingvellir National Park
Our final stop on the Golden Circle, we visit Þingvellir National Park early on the following day, having run out of time on the previous evening.
The area is geologically significant as it lies at the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the boundary of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Some points in the valley are narrow enough that you can jump over the rift – effectively moving from North America to Europe in one little skip! Þingvellir is also culturally significant because the Alþingi, the Icelandic parliament, was established here in 930AD before moving to Reykjavík in the mid 1800s. To its south lies Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland.
The national park was established in 1930, on the 1000th anniversary of the first Alþingi. It is today also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.