Activity-wise you’re spoilt for choice in Iceland – snowmobiling, rafting, diving, caving, whale-watching, Northern Lights chasing. Iceland is an adventure travellers dream! One of the most popular island attractions is a route called The Golden Circle; a 300 km loop from Reykjavik into central Iceland and back which covers Þingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss Waterfall and the geothermal valley of Haukadalaur.
After much discussion and pouring over tour company brochures (there are loads of Golden Circle options) we decided to hire a car and tackle this right-hand-side driving thing ourselves. We booked a rental 4×4 with Budget (it snowed the night before so we figured this would be safer), who picked us up from the information center, handed us a massive map of the island, gave us a lecture about volcanic ash (!) and stone-chips and a handy GPS with a guided Golden Circle tour add-on. Sorted!
After a slightly nerve-wracking trip through the city centre – motorways are an experience at the best of times, not to mention ones in foreign countries driving on the wrong side of the road. We found the tour start point, set the GPS and we were off…kinda. Unbeknownst to us the GPS wasn’t actually guiding us step-by-step, it was just talking to us as we drove along whatever route we told it too. After a few wrong turns and GPS resets we gave up and followed the road signs towards Þingvellir, interspersed with interesting little bits of info about Iceland from our GPS tour guide.
The drive along highway 35 towards the National Park reminds me of State Highway 1 through Tongariro National Park and the Rangipo Desert, except this desert is covered in ice and snow! Like most places in Iceland, it’s awe-inspiring. Þingvellir is where the first Icelandic parliament was established in 930 and continued to meet until 1798 (making it the oldest known functioning parliament in the world).
The National Park is also home to Lake Pingvallavatn; Iceland’s largest natural lake (84km in area, and roughly 34m deep) and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (the junction of the North American and Eurasian Plates). Over the past 10,000 years the plates have been drifting apart at a rate of 7 mm per year and as a result have formed a valley of visible rifts.
Driving east on highway 365 lead us through the tiny town of Laugarvatn, home to some pretty popular thermal springs but I wasn’t too keen on getting into my togs at zero degrees, so we headed for Haukadalur, one of Iceland’s many geothermal valleys. The two geysers that reside here are affectionately known as Strokkur and Geysir (funnily enough).
Like most geothermal valleys it was shrouded in steam and smelt like eggs but that didn’t stop us from wandering around the icy pathways and standing in sub-zero temperatures waiting for Strokkur to blow. According to tourist brochures, he’s very dependable, erupting every 5-10 minutes, just not on the day that we stopped by. Almost 20 minutes passed before he finally decided to blow, and just as well too as my camera button-pressing finger was about to give up the ghost and I was not about to wait around to try to capture it again!
After successfully making it back to the 4×4 without falling over on the ice – if you know me you’ll be well familiar with my tendency to topple over at any given time and adding ice to the equation makes bruises a given. We continued along highway 35 into the Icelandic Highlands and towards Gullfoss. The further you go inland the more you realise how beautiful the country is and how isolated you are. Parts are so isolated and remote that it feels like you’re the first person to ever set foot here – obviously you’re not but it makes for some truly awe-inspiring vistas.
At Gullfoss we joined a small crowd of hardy tourists heading down the hillside towards the Golden Falls. I say hardy because it was now minus something degrees, windy and getting darker by the minute! In summer 140 m³ of water runs over these staircase shaped falls every second and on a sunny day visitors are often treated to a misty rainbow or three. In winter a large part of them freezes over creating beautiful flowing icicle patterns. The falls themselves were once earmarked for a hydroelectric plant, which would have destroyed their beauty forever. However the daughter of the falls owner – Sigríður Tómasdóttir staged a series of impressive protests (including walking 120km barefoot from Gullfoss to Reykjavik and threatening to throw herself into the falls) which forced the people of Iceland to listen to her pleas and the falls were saved. Gullfoss is now one of the most popular year-round tourist attractions in the country.
Wanna Self-Drive The Golden Circle?
We hired a Suzuki Grand Vitara with Budget Rental Cars in downtown Reykjavik for ISK 34400 (170 GBP) for 2 days. I know that looks like a lot but it would have cost us 100 GBP just to do one of the Golden Circle tours and this way we get to do a little bit more exploring and we’re not jammed into a bus! Parking in downtown Reykjavik can be a bit difficult due to the narrow nature of the streets but once you find a park it’s free from 6PM until 9AM.
If you’re looking for more Iceland itineraries, we also took a road trip from Reykjavik to Vik.
If you need somewhere stylish to stay in Reykjavik we recommend the Centrehotel Thingholt.
Have you been to Iceland or driven the Gold Circle? Let us know your thoughts in the links below.