The Golden Circle is the beginner’s territory for exploring Iceland. If you’ve never been to this wonderful country before, the Golden Circle is likely going to be the place that you start your journey outwards. Though I would argue that there are plenty of more incredible locations in Iceland, the Golden Circle is definitely a must-see, and your best bet to start with if you’re a newbie.
Cliffnotes Version: The Golden Circle starts with a volcanic crater, goes to a geyser, and caps off with a monstrously powerful waterfall. It is amazing. Period. You must do this once in your life. It is a full day experience, but well worth it as you will be seeing some of the best of what planet Earth has to offer in terms of scenery. It’s tremendously fun. Bring a camera, take tons of pictures, and plan to bring food with you! There isn’t exactly a grand selection of food out in The-Middle-of-Nowhere, Iceland. Also be prepared to get wet at Golfoss, the waterfall. All in all, you HAVE to try this adventure!
Drive to the Golden Circle
The day began in Reykjavik, but as soon as we woke up, we were off to the road. As soon as you exit the main populated portion of Reykjavik, you hit roads that look like this, and it will look like this continuously for hours. You never tire of watching landscapes roll by in this place. It’s a steady movie of God’s greatest hits of creation.
Every five minutes, without fail, you will find something new and fascinating to stare at in amazement. Waterfalls that would make a Top 10 List of waterfalls in the US were a dime a dozen in this countryside. There were waterfalls without any tourists around them! The people are so used to their powerful cascades, that they don’t even look twice at the smaller ones that inhabit little creeks and cracks in mountains everywhere.
When you’re on the road, make sure to stop just once in a random place on the road. You won’t even have to pull over, you can just stop in the middle of the street because Iceland is so scarcely populated that a car is only going to pass by once every 10 to 15 minutes once you’re outside of Reykjavik. That kind of non-traffic is perfect to nab the kind of zen-style picture we have shown above.
The mountain ranges are plentiful here, but if you go during the summer, you won’t find many snow-capped mountains in the part of Iceland where Reykjavik resides. Even though it’s not snowing, it’s still moderately cold outside, especially for a kid out of Miami, Florida. It was consistently in the 40’s and 50’s, but the weather was incredible. It rained a few times, but nothing too major. Overall, the weather is comfortable and the mood is very solitary out here. That is, until you get to your first destination:
That’s my wife and I on the top of a relatively small mountain, overlooking a volcanic crater with a very cool, blue lake on the bottom. The water there has collected over hundreds of years, and the original crater itself was caused by a volcanic eruption that blasted that entire part of the mountain clean off. It’s quite the sight because the lake is such an odd color for water. A pure mix of blue green that is not transparent at all. Very strange.
I should mention that we had some trouble trying to find Kerid. It is the first stop on the Golden Circle tour, but as you will find out if you take this tour, if you’re not going with an official tour guide, you’re going to need a reliable GPS, and our GPS was the most unreliable hunk of garbage money could buy. While we were searching for this place it led us through an off-road expedition up a mountain. We had rented a Subaru, so it was able to handle the brunt of the work with that handy 4-wheel drive, but eventually the road that this GPS took us on became so unsustainable with potholes and rigid inclines that the car nearly got stuck. We decided to trek the rest of the way on foot and we couldn’t find the freaking Kerid.
Sure enough, when we gave up on searching, we drove out of the off-road site and decided to try to find the next spot on the tour, and instead, while we were driving we saw around fifty people congregated at the top of a mountain. Two seconds later, there’s a giant sign that reads “Kerid”. The moral of the story? Don’t trust your GPS if it takes you down terrible off-roads. If the road isn’t paved, it’s not part of the Golden Circle tour. All of the Golden Circle attractions are near paved road.
Anyway, the Kerid has one lonely bench to sit at near the lake, and a beautiful pathway around the lake that you can walk across. It’s very serene and relaxing, but be careful on the walk into the crater! There are hardly any supports and the incline in certain places is steep!
Once we were finished with the Kerid, it was off to the:
This video shows my first encounter with this geyser. Imagine just casually walking by, not knowing when this ticking time bomb is going to go off and then all of a sudden: BOOM! An actual eruption of steaming hot water. If you watch the video, you can tell that for a split second I’m just in awe of what happened, and I’m admiring the sheer ferocity of this explosion, but then I realize I’m in the path of scalding hot water and I run away for cover.
This particular stop on the Golden Circle tour is on a main road, and across the street from the geyser field is a nice rest stop with a souvenir shop, food court, and full service restaurant. It’s a welcome retreat from the barren nothingness of civilization in Iceland. It’s also practically the only place on the Golden Circle where food, water and restrooms are all available, so best to take advantage while you’re here.
Now this geyser’s name is Strokkur, and she’s the most massive geyser in the entire field. If you look at the ground here, you’ll find muck, mud and dirt, and right above it a consistent sulfuric cloud emanating from the ground like a fog on a haunting day. This fog creates a very specific smell that you’re likely to never forget in addition to making the atmosphere quite strange while you’re here. There are tons of little holes in the ground where this cloud is constantly coming out from, like pores of the Earth releasing sweat. I’m not sure if these little holes count as geysers, but if they do, then there are literally hundreds of geysers in this field.
But none is more impressive than Strokkur who erupts on average once every ten minutes and is such an exhilarating sight to see. You almost don’t believe it the very first time you lay eyes on it. However, word of caution: this geyser is extremely addicting. You’re going to want to watch it explode over and over and over again. If you’re on a time budget for any reason, then you’re going to have to limit yourself. Remember, watching this thing erupt 5 times doesn’t sound like much, but that’ll be spending about an hour in this one spot! And let me tell you, you do not want to miss the next and final stop:
What if I told you that the picture above is only about 10% of this entire waterfall? Hard to believe right? I couldn’t get a good picture because it was raining decently hard and it was combining with a strong mist from the waterfall which had me worried about damaging my equipment. Even so, I’ll never forget the moment I laid eyes on the reality of this monstrosity.
This waterfall’s name is Gulfoss. Foss, by the way, is the Icelandic word for waterfall, and so as I continue to explore Iceland throughout the blog posts, you’ll notice that every waterfall ends in the suffix -foss because of this. Anyway, this waterfall is intense, a powerful engine supplying water to the bottom of this valley. I’ve seen the mighty Niagra Falls and not only is this waterfall much more beautiful, it’s much more powerful.
When you arrive to Gulfoss you’ll see what the picture shows. The top of the waterfall, the place where the water cascades off a cliff and down past your line of sight. There’s a walkway next to the waterfall that you can see on the left of the picture. Once you hit that walkway, you have a revelation: Gulfoss is massive. It’s one of the most majestic sights on the whole planet easily. When you finally peer over the cliff and see the full extent of the waterfall…woah. Just woah.
If you walk down that entire pathway you’ll reach a small ledge where the rocks meet the waterfall where you can stand and take pictures, but I’d recommend taking pictures there only if you’re camera is waterproof. There is a consistent mist rising from the fall that makes it near impossible for your equipment to not get soaked. There are plenty of other incredible picture spots elsewhere on that cliff anyways. There’s one long set of stairs that leads to the top of another mountain that has a lookout onto the waterfall. This spot is awesome for viewing the fall in all of it’s splendor, if you’re down to go up a million giant steps, that is.
Leaving the Golden Circle is sad. It’ll be one of the more memorable days of your life if you see all of these amazing sights and attractions. If you’re ever in Iceland, do not leave until you try it. I promise it will be worth your time.
As to what happens after the Golden Circle? Well after that all of Iceland is still yours to see and explore. My recommendation: don’t go back to Reykjavik. As I said in the last post, Reykjavik isn’t anything special, but driving through Iceland and seeing all of the mountains and glaciers (like the one shown above) is epic. After the Golden Circle try venturing forth into territories yet undiscovered. It’s all a part of the adventure right?
-The Wandering Toucan