If you’re planning a trip to Iceland, you’ve probably got the Golden Circle on your list. It’s a great starting point for exploring the country if you’re there for a while, or even as a day trip for shorter stays.
The beauty of the Golden Circle is that you can see three quintessentially Icelandic landmarks in one trip.
The Golden Circle was the first stop for us on our tour of the Ring Road, which took us around 10 days in total to complete. We hired a car from Hertz – a Kia Sorrento, which turned out to be fantastic – drove out of Reykjavik and on to Road 1, then Road 36 to Þingvellir National Park.
Reykjavik to Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park is situated between two tectonic plates – the Eurasian and North-American plates – which is evident in the cracks in the landscape. The past and continuing volcanic activity in the park is the reason you can see parts of the plates above land, and incredible shapes and cracks in the landscape. the larges one of which is called Almannagjá, and is the main walkway in the park. Þingvellir was the site where Iceland, and the world’s, oldest parliament was founded, and where Icelanders converted to Christianity, and where, unfortunately, witch trials were held.
Þingvellir National Park to Geysir
The next stop on our Golden Circle tour was the Geysir geothermal area. This is where Iceland’s weird and wonderful volcanic landscape gets more extreme. As you drive into the area, you begin to see spots of steam escaping the ground, which grow more frequent the closer you get. As you walk to the main attraction – Strokkur – you see rivulets of boiling hot water and mounds of steaming rock as a clue to how hot and extensive the underground geothermal system is. There a plenty of signs as warning, do not touch the water or steam, as it can cause serious burns and injury.
Strokkur geysir erupts about every ten minutes. It’s a joy to see, a fascinating occurrence that is actually quite rare – geysirs can only form under very specific conditions. Give the geysir plenty of room, and try and avoid being downwind of the steam, otherwise you’ll cop a face-full of sulfur-y dampness. It’s not hot, just smelly!
When visiting, wear shoes you don’t mind getting dirty, as the area can get very muddy, and it can be difficult to clean off.
Geysir to Gulfoss
The next part of the Golden Circle is only a short drive. As you park your car, you get out and immediately see the beauty of Gulfoss waterfall. This is good, because often in winter and poor weather conditions the path to view the waterfall at close range is closed. But it means no one has to miss out on seeing it in that case.
If you have access to the path and viewing area, you’re in luck. Make no mistake, this is a powerful and large waterfall, so be careful where you walk, as it could be easy to slip in. But that’s one of the reasons Gulfoss is so beautiful, its stepped features and pretty blue water are within close reach, allowing visitors to (carefully) view the falls from different angles.
Gulfoss to Kerið
Our final stop for the day was Kerið, a volcanic crater lake about 45 minutes south of Gullfoss. Like many of Iceland’s natural attractions, Kerið is on private land, so you have to pay a small fee to explore the area and view the lake up close.
What makes Kerið worth a visit is the stunning range of colours. When we visited there was still a little ice on the lake, so you have a vivid turquoise lake with white ice floating in it, surrounded by deep red volcanic soil and bright green moss and grass. The crater epitomises one of my main fascinations with Iceland, that such simple landmarks – a crater lake – can have so many beautiful colours and elements.
Again, the area and path to the lake can be quite muddy, so take care and wear appropriate shoes.
From Kerið we drove to Hotel Rangá to stay the night. Hotel Rangá is a fantastic hotel with a high quality restaurant and major focus on aurora watching, as well as very cosy rooms, and hot tubs – which are a treat in March’s just-out-of-winter weather. Pete and I dined at Rangá Restaurant and were treated to a fantastic meal of modern Nordic cuisine. We’re not usually ones for fancy restaurants, but were impressed with the food and service – it wasn’t cheap (and frankly, given how isolated the hotel is, you don’t really have any other options!), but we were happy to do it as we were on holiday and for the overall experience. The restaurant’s continental breakfast the following morning was also impressive.
As mentioned, Hotel Rangá is big on aurora-watching, with cold suits (like the type you would wear if you were to enter an industrial freezer) available for guests to wear and outdoor lounges for sky-gazing in comfort. We only stayed one night, but were very happy to have had such a great experience for our first night of our road trip.