The Golden Circle might be the most popular tourist route in Iceland but it doesn’t have to be cookie cutter, especially if you rent your own car and experience it for yourself. Even though it is only about 3 hours of actual driving, be prepared for it to take ALL day. There is a lot to see and it will give you a good taste of everything Iceland has to offer including history, waterfalls, churches, craters and geysers.
This was the day our 5th travel companion arrived in Iceland. He picked up our rental car at the airport and met us in Reykjavik early. We wanted to get a jump on the Golden Circle before the hordes of tour buses.
Stop 1: Pingvillir National Park
Iceland’s First Parilment: There are two reason’s Pingvillir National Park is important. For starters it is the location of Iceland’s first parliament in 930AD. During viking times it must of been quite the party while proceedings were in session. Thousands of people came to Pingvillir, many traveling weeks on foot or by horse to get there. Laws were passed, entertainers performed, vendors sold an array of goods. There were feasts and games, and many people met their spouses here as well. In later years it was also a place for capital punishment. A bridge now resides over the “drowning pool” where many women were put to death for their crimes. Other forms of execution included beheading, hanging and burning.
Eurasian and North American Tectonic Plates: Pingvellir is also the location where these two plates are slowly pulling apart, creating deep fissures in the ground. One of these fissures, called Silfa, is a popular diving spot. The water is cold and icy, and there are no fish to look at but it is a unique chance to touch both North America and Europe at the same time.
Stop 2: Geysir
Also known as “the Great Geysir”, Geysir can shoot 100-200 feet in the air. Geysir, which is Icelandic for “to gush”, is also the inspiration for the english word, geyser. Although its spray is taller than Old Faithful in Yellowstone, it isn’t nearly as regular. In fact it hardly goes off naturally at all. Fortunately it’s neighbor Strokkur does. . . about every 8 minutes or so. Then there is “Little Geysir”, which constantly gurgles and bubbles.
This stop also has a nice cafeteria area and some shops, which makes a perfect place for lunch.
Stop 3: Gullfoss
Gullfoss means “Golden Falls”. This was our first of many Icelandic waterfalls we experienced while in Iceland, each one with its own unique characteristics. Gullfoss is fed by run off from Iceland’s 2nd largest glacier, Langjökull. The water travels down the Hvítá (White) River, and takes two steps before plummeting down in to a narrow canyon. Wildflowers grow along the trail and on parts of the trail leading down you get drenched by the falls massive spray. (It’s always good to bring a rain coat near Icelandic waterfalls)
Stop 4: Skálholt Church
Skálholt Church was our quietest stop on the Golden Circle. I don’t think there were any other tourists there besides us. When we snuck into the church through an underground passage we found a beautiful choir rehearsing. We quietly snuck back out the way we came not sure if we were supposed to be interrupting. It didn’t seem many people stopped here on the Golden Circle even though a quick wikipedia search showed “that through the eighteenth century, it was one of the most important places in Iceland.” The church that stands today is not the same one from the eighteenth century, but it is still worth a detour to see.
Stop 5: Kerið Crater
Kerið Crater was our last stop. It is believed that this crater was once a volcano that collapsed in on itself after spewing out all its lava. The water in it’s lake remains the same as the water table.
On our drive back to the city we could see smoke far off to the distance…so of course we went to investigate. Those emergency vehicles mean business!
Driving in Iceland
We found driving in Iceland to be enjoyable and easy. Like in the USA, the driver is on the left side of the car, and cars drive on the right side of the road. Road signs are easy to interpret even though they use kilometers per hour, instead of miles.
Our rental car company would only allow one person to drive our rental car, with an additional fee for added drivers. For this reason we chose only two people to drive the car. Most rental cars in Iceland are manual, so make sure you specify if you need an automatic. We were also forbidden to take the car on any F-roads which are usually only driven on by 4X4 vehicles. Off-roading in Iceland is VERY illegal and can result in some stiff fines. This is to protect the delicate landscape but you should always know the driving laws before you set out in another country. Our trip took place in the summer and we experienced no ice on the roads, but driving in the winter can be very different with even some roads closed.
I think renting a car if you want to see more than just the surrounding area of Reykjavik is a necessity. We did see a few people hitch-hiking the Ring Road but it seemed difficult for them. Towns are small and far apart with not too many cars on the roads. For this reason it is also good to be aware of how much gas you have because you could go miles before reaching another pump.
For us renting a car was never a question because getting out of the main city and seeing the smaller parts of the country was really what drew us to Iceland.