Driving the Golden Circle in Iceland

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As a big fan of road trips, I was excited to see what Iceland’s famed Golden Circle had to offer us. I’ve been on some spectacular drives in the past, including the jaw-dropping Dingle Peninsula in Ireland, and I wanted to see if Iceland matched up.

Let’s start with the obvious: The drive is so popular for a reason. Several reasons, actually.

First, its three main stopping points of Thingvellir, Geysir, and Gullfoss are all stunning in their own ways. They offer visitors insight into the Viking history and the unique geology of Iceland.

The Golden Circle is also an accessible day trip from Reykjavik. Being the country’s capital, and where half of its population resides, odds are that you will pass through this city. With airlines like IcelandAir offering free stopovers in Reykjavik that are several days in length, there’s no reason not to spend some time exploring Iceland’s southern and westernmost ends.

Driving the Golden Circle

Many different tour operators run buses along this route, and it’s easy to book one. Companies like Arctic Adentures, through which we booked our glacier hiking and ice climbing tour, run at around 135 euros a person (that’s just over 150 USD and 20,050 Icelandic Krona).

The other option, and the one that we decided to take, is to rent a car. Since we had already been on several tours, we decided to take advantage of the ability to set our own schedule. We ended up booking a Jeep rental through the company Iceland 4×4 Car Rental. This was the cheapest option we found, even with the extensive insurance.

All we needed to complete the rental was our U.S. driver’s licenses (no international license required), and at the last minute we added a GPS to our order. The employee at the rental location warned us to be careful about opening our doors. Apparently the Arctic winds have been known to lift the doors right from their hinges, disconnecting them entirely.

The Golden Circle: Complete with Arctic tundra.

Luck was with us and none of our doors flew off. The drive was rather windy, though, and drifting snow made it treacherous at times. Fair warning to anyone traveling Iceland in March or April — spring may not have sprung. It was a frozen tundra out there, and I was involved in some serious white-knuckle driving. Of course, two days later it rained and the snow all melted.

Stop #1: Þingvellir National Park

Our first stop along the way was a familiar one. Tara and I had actually been on the edge of Þingvellir (pronounced thing-veh-leer) just the day before, when we went snorkeling between tectonic plates. I was kept fairly busy trying not to get hypothermia at the time, so it was a bit of a relief to have the chance to explore more freely.

Snorkeling in Thingvellir National Park, Iceland
Looking out at our snorkeling location from the Althing in Thingvellir National Park

This particular pit stop is notable because of its historical importance. Sitting on the fault line of two tectonic plates, this is where the Viking parliament, known as an Alþing (all-thing) was established, remaining in effect until 1798. It was here that important laws were passed and norms established — including the overnight conversion of Iceland to Christianity.

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The giant basalt wall of Thingvellir that stood as the backdrop for the first Viking Parliament.

As an added bonus, this site was one of the filming locations of Game of Thrones, one of our favorite TV shows. If you’re a watcher of the show, the site is featured in the first episode of season four.

Stop #2: Geysir

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I’ve seen geysers, but I was excited to see the original, from which all others draw its name.

When we arrived, the parking lot was full of buses, and we were immediately drawn to the large lodge that serves as museum, gift shop and cafeteria to visitors.

After warming our fingers, we headed out to the hot springs.

Geysir is not the only geothermal activity in the neighborhood. This area is full of geysers and hot springs, bubbling away and reminding visitors of the island’s volcanic nature. The rotten egg smell of sulfur, never completely avoidable in Iceland, is thick here.

Swaths of steam rise from various hot springs and geysers.
Swaths of steam rise from various hot springs and geysers.

 

It's probably not a good idea to touch the water here.
It’s probably not a good idea to touch the water here.

Turns out Geysir itself doesn’t erupt on much of a schedule these days, sometimes with years between eruptions. When we visited, it was little more than  a bubbling stew of water. We weren’t too disappointed, though. There was plenty else to look at, including one particularly active geyser.

Named Strokkur, which means “churn” in Icelandic, this geyser is the main attraction. It erupts once every 10-12 minutes, spewing water high into the air.

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We stayed for a couple of eruptions, each one spontaneous and spectacular.

Stop #3: Gullfoss

Heading out of Geysir, we took full advantage of renting our own car, pulling over on the side of the road near one of the many farms. From the road’s shoulder we were able to pet Icelandic horses, offering them bits of hay. These horses are so genetically unique that their breeding and population numbers are kept in strict check.

Icelandic Horses on the Golden Circle
Just don’t make the mistake of calling them ponies.

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Our final stop on the Golden Circle was the immense waterfall known as Gullfoss. This two-tiered waterfall is known as a cataract waterfall, and the closer you get to it the more impressive it becomes.

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I’d love to see these falls during the summer months, when they are bathed in emerald. With the snow as thick as it was, we couldn’t go to the furthest viewing point. The wind whipped us around as we marched to the edge of the icy path. Still, from our vantage point Gullfoss was incredibly impressive, and it’s clear why it is one of the most popular tourist stops in Iceland. Niagara, eat your heart out!

Final thoughts about the Golden Circle

Overall, the trip took most of the day — probably around 6 hours total. On the drive back we encountered not a snowstorm, but a drive through snow-blown roads, which was more than a little terrifying. That said, I’m still glad we rented a car, even if it was scary at times.

Driving the Golden Circle is definitely fun, but it’s a trip I would like to repeat during the summer months. Much of Iceland’s stunning landscape was buried beneath snow, and the treacherous driving conditions were a little distracting. The cold was a factor too, often forcing us to run for the warmth of the car (at Geysir we saw more than one person slip in ice and fall flat on their backs).

Of course, in the summer there is the added factor of fighting the crowds. Everywhere we went had at least one or two tour buses in the parking lot, a number that I’m sure multiplies in the milder summer months.

Nonetheless, I’m glad we went, and it was definitely worth the trip.


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Gulf Coast Destinations: A Gulf Coast Road Trip Itinerary
Iceland Ice Climbing and Glacier Hike [Tour Review]
  • Ally

    This looks beautiful. I hope to visit Iceland one day!

  • Angel and Michelle

    Great post! Definitely Iceland is a beautiful country. By the way, Do you any idea if it’s common to camp in Iceland?

    • It is! Pretty much anything outdoor oriented is huge in Iceland. Our glacier hike tour guide told us about week-long camping trips he and his friends would take across some of the glaciers.

      • Angel and Michelle

        Perfect and thanks! I’ll have to go, hopefully next year =]

  • I would really like to drive the Golden Circle, but I would just as much like to go horse riding in Iceland for a week…. think the horses might win 😉

    • The horses are great, and I would’ve loved to go riding while I was there. Unfortunately we didn’t have time. Next trip!

  • Jessica Smith

    Hi Jessi, I am super jealous of your trip! Those waterfalls looked amazing and I agree, seeing them in the summer time would be awesome as well. Safe Travels!

    • Thanks for the comment! It was an amazing trip, and I can’t wait to go back. 🙂

  • I don’t care too much about traveling in the wintertime, but that photo of the erupting geyser is awesome! Since we fly to Europe regularly and Iceland Air does offer good deals, we might use the opportunity to do a long layover there some time. We did fly Iceland Air once, but only switched planes there, so no sightseeing. Up from above Iceland does look awesome, though.