Spectacular waterfalls, erupting geysers and dramatic volcanic landscapes – there’s no wonder Iceland’s ‘Golden Circle’ is at the top of many travellers’ must-see lists. Many companies run tours along the route, but you may find it far more enjoyable and cheaper if you drive it yourself. This allows you to set your own schedule and stop whenever you want – including whenever you spot something amazing from your window, which happens frequently.
At the start of December, four friends and I explored the Golden Circle in a (bright orange) Jeep Renegade. The short daylight hours at this time of year gave us less time to see the sights in the sun, but the snow-topped mountains and frozen lakes made the winter trip worth it.
We drove out of Reykjavik just as the sun was rising, at around 10.30 in the morning. Not that we could see it – the sky was too cloudy. However, that didn’t make the landscape any less amazing. We were all transfixed by the snowy, cloud-draped mountain range that emerged once we left city limits, and desperate to find a place to pull over to admire it.
We eventually parked at a spot overlooking a giant lake and surrounded on every side by bumpy volcanic land, covered in every type and colour of spongy moss. We all piled out of the car to take in this new unfamiliar landscape, but there were far more impressive sights still to come.
Thingvellir National Park
Thingvellir National Park is the first of the Golden Circle’s three key sights, and although it’s the least well-known you shouldn’t miss it. It’s the perfect place to appreciate Iceland’s unique volcanic landscape and all its quirks; and if that’s not enough to convince you, it was also a filming location for Game of Thrones!
The first car park you come to, at the visitor centre, is beside a viewpoint that provides a stunning panorama over the park. From here you can spot several cute little houses and a church studding a vast patchwork of lakes, rivers and frosty ground.
Walk to Öxarárfoss
There are signs here telling you the distance to various landmarks. Öxarárfoss waterfall is less than 1.5km along the path from the visitor centre, so it’s well worth walking to (there’s also another car park closer to it). The walk begins with a descent into and through a steep-sided rocky crevice that is becoming wider each year with the movement of the tectonic plates.
It continues past torrents of icy rushing water, sheets of metres-thick layers of snow and more desolatedly beautiful vistas.
Öxarárfoss is so powerful that you see its towering cloud of spray long before you lay eyes on the waterfall. It crashes down from the black rock ledge above into fast-flowing rapids that continue beyond the path, creating a stunning spectacle. We all agreed it was worth the walk.
The frozen lake
We saw a lot of stunning scenery between Thingvellir and Geysir, but nothing as awe-inspiring as this frozen lake. There wasn’t space to park but there was no-one around, so we stopped at the roadside to go and explore. We walked down the grassy verge and right to the lake edge, where we tested the ice’s thickness with tentative toes. It was the most beautiful lake I’d ever seen.
After a few minutes the tranquility was broken by other people arriving, clearly having seen our parked car and followed our example. By the time we left again there were about seven cars parked up, one of which was on the opposite side of the road to the rest and causing other motorists to toot their horns!
Geysir and Strokkur
The ‘Geysir’ geyser in Iceland’s Haukadalur valley was the first geyser known to modern Europeans, the first described in print, and consequently the one after which all other geysers are named. Its name derives from the Old Norse verb ‘geysa’, meaning ‘to gush’. How interesting is that?
Geysir sits among several other geysers in a truly surreal field, where the air is opaque with steam and sulphurous gas. You can barely see further than a few steps ahead. The rocky ground is stained with acidic colours and streaked with steaming 100°C streams and bubbling pools. Feeling the rising warmth, smelling the sulphur and seeing barely anything but white mist everywhere, it feels like you’ve been transported to an alien planet.
The main attraction here is the Strokkur geyser, owing to the fact that it erupts every 5-10 minutes. Its sudden eruption when I was walking nearby genuinely made me jump! I didn’t have long to wait until the next eruption, and it was amazing to stand behind the rope barrier and watch the large round pool bubble until it erupted loudly into a towering fountain.
By the time we’d found our way out of Geysir’s mist it was about 3.30pm and the sky was pretty dark, so we piled back into the car and drove to Gulfoss waterfall as quick as we could.
Gulfoss – meaning Golden Falls – is one of Iceland’s best-known landmarks and tends to be thought of as the Golden Circle’s crowning glory. There are three main viewpoints to choose from – two in-front of it (low and high) and one directly above it – and all are good in their own way. The high one in-front of Gulfoss, along a purpose-built wooden walkway with information boards, was the busiest and my favourite.
It was disappointing that we didn’t get to see it by daylight, but the twilight didn’t prevent us from experiencing the waterfall’s immense scale and power. When it was finally completely dark (unfortunately it was too cloudy for any kind of sunset!) we wandered through the gift shop and became a bit perturbed by all the real fur for sale.
Driving back took about an hour and a half, with the dimly reflective posts guiding our way. Once back in town we found a Bonus supermarket (the cheapest option by far) and bought the ingredients for a simple pasta dinner along with other supplies. At home we made and ate dinner, then wasted no time in getting in the hot tub – the perfect way to end any active day in Iceland!
All text and photos (c) Juliet Langton, December 2016. All rights reserved.