The Incredibly Scenic Golden Circle Tour in Iceland
Updated: Aug 9, 2019
Iceland is known as a supercharged landscape of icy lava fields, soaring waterfalls, and bursting geysers. Basically, a theater for natural beauty, a Nordic nirvana.
I had just landed in Reykjavik with family and friends, after cruising through Norway. Norway's natural scenery had been stunning, eliciting a bursting-out-of- your-chest feeling of wonder.
I'm not usually prone to effusiveness, but the scenery made me want to place my hands on the ground and touch the earth in a physical way. I was still buzzing with energy from the thrill of it.
We wondered if Iceland would provide the same high end infusion of magic. We suspected it would.
To find out, our first order of business was to embark on the Golden Circle tour. This tour covers approximately 185 miles, allowing you to visit some of Iceland's most lauded sights, including the UNESCO site Þingvellir National Park, the Geysir geothermal area, and the Gullfoss Waterfall.
Icelandic Horseback Riding
Our first activity, though, was some old fashioned riding on the Iceland horses at Laxxnes Animal Farm. This activity, of course, delighted the two teens. After matching us with the appropriate horses given our relative lack of recent riding experience, we were off for a 90 minute tour over Iceland's eerie, almost lunar, volcanic landscape.
Iceland horses are squat and muscular with shaggy fur. They seem more like shetland ponies than an actual horses. They are also exceedingly friendly, similar in temperament to a big dog. None of us were intimidated in the least.
Iceland horses also have a special gait called a tölt. It is:
"a sped up version of walking, but much more impressive as the horses lift their front legs up high, and only one foot touches the ground at any time. Tölt is very useful for the often uneven ground of Iceland, providing a steady ride, and was presumably especially needed back in the day when there weren’t many roads in Iceland."
To me, tölt seemed more comfortable than regular trotting.
My daughter's singular memories from our riding adventure were the "purpleness" of Iceland and the amount of poop that issued forth from the Icelandic horses. (She was even excited to be tagged as the "poop" in a horseback riding photo posted on Facebook.)
The "purpleness" of the landscape was due to ubiquitous lupines. Although the lupines looked spectacular to me, many Icelanders consider the flower an invasive plant. It threatens not only the existing flora but also the barren volcanic interior.
There are lovers and haters of the great lupine grab: some Icelanders like their barren lunar landscapes, others like the fact that Iceland is turning purple.
Þingvellir National Park
After horseback riding, our next stop was the quite stunning Thingvellir National Park, a sweeping valley surrounded by majestic cliffs. Þingvellir is pronounced Thingvellir. Thingvellir became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004 and is remarkable in both historical and geological terms.
Þingvellir means "Parliament Plains." It is the location of Iceland’s first Parliament of the Viking Age, dating back to 930 AD and continuing until the 18th century.
On the high rock wall of the Lögberg, people gave speeches about important matters and chieftains presided over court proceedings for the citizens. Relics from the time, ruins of ancient stone and turf homes, are scattered throughout Thingvellir.
It was here that the Republic of Iceland was declared independent on June 17, 1944. Icelanders thus view Thingvellir as the birthplace of Iceland, and one of its most holy shrines.
Thingvellir is also where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are slowly splitting apart from each other at the rate of 2 centimeters a year, creating deep fissures in the ground. This slow but violent process has been steadily forming the Iceland's landscapes over millions of years.
One of these fissures, called Silfra, is full of icy glacier water where some people snorkel or scuba dive. The lake is fed from melt-off from the Langjökull Glacier. Because it is filtered through rock, the water is a crystal clear blue-green.
Wanting to stay completely dry while seeing the earth tear apart, we walked in the gorge, against the North American tectonic plate, to experience Iceland's tug of war.
This hike is lovely and leads to a dramatic waterfall, called Öxarárfoss, meaning Axe Waterfall. The water is dropping off the tectonic plate into the fault line.
It is an attractive waterfall with a dark history. Nearby is a "drowning pool," Drekkingarhylur, which was used to "sharpen the axe" and drown women accused of "immoral" activities such as adultery. The spot is now marked by a memorial plaque, in honor of the abused, and sometimes perfectly innocent, women.
Game of Thrones in Thingvellir Park
On a cheerier note, the gorge hike will please fans of HBO's dramatic and bloodthirsty series Games of Thrones.
Part of the gorge, the Almannagjá fault near Öxaráfoss, serves as the road to the Eyrie. It is the shooting location for the Bloody Gate in Episodes 5 and 8 of Season 4.
The Bloody Gate is a gate (CGI'd in series) on a mountain road in the Mountains of Moon that leads to the Vale of Arryn and the impregnable Eyrie. Sansa Stark and Littlefinger and arrive in the Vale in Epoisode 5. And Arya Stark and Sandor Clegane journeyed through the Riverlands to the Vale in Episode 8.
Öxaráfoss waterfall is also featured before Arya’s departure to Braavos. She then sails from Lake Þingvellirvatn.
The stone fissure of the continental divide is where Ygritte and Tormund Giantsbane meet Styr a group of cannibal Thenns. Thingvellir is also the site of Brienne and the Hound’s fierce battle.
Iceland's Elf Obsession
On the way to our next stop, the Geysers of Haukadalur, our tour guides regaled us with animated tales of the elves, or Huldufólk, of Iceland.
Huldufólk means "hidden people."
Icelanders have strong folk beliefs. The hidden people are supposedly mysterious and mischievous creatures, similar to humans, who live in the rocks or small wooden huts that cover the spooky wild land. They are described as beautiful beings, 36 inches high, and dressed in colorful old fashioned clothes. They live happy ideal existences, immersed in nature and rarely have contact with humans.
But there are Icelanders who claim to have seen them.
In fact, 54% of Icelanders say it is possible that elves exist. There are tales about how elves have derailed construction projects that encroach on their territory.
There is now an elf lobby, protecting enchanted elf spots from development. You can even go to elf school, at the Álfaskólin in Reykjavik, and become an expert in elf mythology.
Elves are definitely not just for kids in Iceland. Elf culture is real. If you gave an Icelandic adult a hammer and told them to crush an "elf rock," they likely wouldn't do it.
To the Icelanders, it seems, elves embody nature. In a land of mystical and magical stony landscapes, where natural cataclysms occur, it is perhaps not terribly illogical that supernatural tales persist.
Iceland is a land where:
"the wind can knock you off your feet, where the smell of sulphur from your taps tells you there is invisible fire not far below your feet….Everyone is aware that the land is alive, and one can say that the stories of hidden people and the need to work carefully with them reflects an understanding that the land demands respect."
Sadly, we did not have the opportunity to meet any supernatural creatures during our stay in Iceland, but we were all entertained by the legends.
Geysers At Haukadalur
After some lengthy and hypnotic storytelling, we arrived at our next stop on the Golden Circle road trip. Haukadalur is a geothermal area about 40 miles from Thingvellir National Park.
There you'll see pink and purple fauna, boiling mud pits, and exploding geysers. Geysir means "to gush" in Icelandic and is the derivation of the English term geyser.
The two most famous geysers are called Geysir and Strokkur. Geysir is the oldest documented geyser in Europe, formed in the 13th century. It once shot up to 200 feet, but is now mostly dormant.
But Strokkur spouts water 100 feet in the air every 4-10 minutes like clockwork.
The sight of Strokkur bubbling, roiling, erupting, and then pouring back into the hole is truly unique. Depending on the wind and the geyser's trajectory, you may be hit with a plume of scalding white spray.
It's not as big as Old Faithful, to be sure, but Strokkur is a much more intimate experience. You can get quite close, smell the sulphur, and see and feel the heat and steam of the geyser.
This was definitely a highlight for my daughter. She was riveted by the geyser, and didn't mind at all the slight soaking she received.
Here is my video of Strokkur exploding:
Ten minutes down the road from Haukadalur is the Gullfoss Waterfall, one of the most famous and spectacular waterfalls in Iceland. Gullfoss means “gold waterfall” in Icelandic, named for the glow of the mist during sunrise and sunset.
Here, the fast moving Hvítá River turns a corner and abruptly falls 100 feet into a crevice in the earth, producing thick mist and frequent rainbows. Dramatic scenery indeed.
After descending a long staircase, we walked along a concrete pathway near the edge to look down into the roaring cascade of water. You can stand right on the very edge, and you likely will get wet.
During the summer, an average of 140 cubic meters of water pours down Gullfoss every second.
Kerið Crater Lake
While not visited as often as the big three Golden circle stops, the Kerið Crater Lake is a striking site.
Formed 6500 years ago, Kerið is believed to be a large scoria crater, which is a small volcano that does not give off ash, but just fragments of lava. Once a typical cone volcano, it was formed when the magma in the center simply depleted itself, and the empty chamber beneath caved in.
The bottom is filled with a deep blue shade of water that sets off the crater's vibrant red and green colors. Its bright rainbow of colors looks slightly other worldly, in keeping with the vibe of Iceland.
Kerið is over 180 feet deep. There's a walking path at both the top of the lake and at the bottom, for different vantage points.
It's a peaceful place; you can almost lose yourself in its blue eye.
The End of a Long Day
The Golden Circle is truly an area of tremendous natural beauty. You will see nature in its purist form, unlike anywhere in the world. It certainly didn't disappoint after Norway, as you can see from the smiles on our faces. Now, we just need to go back to see the Northern Lights. And perhaps chase more waterfalls.
But after a day of horseback riding and touring, some of us were tired. Others, like me, were energized and uplifted by the fantastic scenery and ready to try the famous cocktail bars of Reykjavik. Onward!
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