The Golden Circle is one of the most popular sightseeing routes in Iceland, boasting three unique attractions on the south-west of the island. The route is named after the Gulfoss (‘golden’) and can be completed in one day as the highlights are within two hour’s drive from the capital, Reykjavik. Enjoy our Golden Circle Travel Guide, then rent a car or join a tour – because you won’t want to miss this golden trifecta in person!
Thingvellir National Park
Located just 45 mins from Reykjavik, Thingvellir National Park is usually the first stop on any Golden Circle Travel Guide. The oldest of the island’s National Parks – its the only one designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site! Thingvellir is a volcanic area with long stretches of lava. Its situated in the rift valley that runs across the island, created by the movement of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates which meet in this area. The sheer cliffs that great you on arrival at Thingvellir are the extreme corner of the North American continent.
There have been no volcanic eruptions in the area for more than 2,000 years, so much of the rock is now covered with moss and trees. The tectonic plates are continually on the move and growing further apart at a rate of about 2.5 cm each year. The ravine that separates the plates is filled with fresh water, where you can go diving or snorkeling with an experienced guide in the Silfra Fissure. The ravine is filled with melt-water from the Longjökull glacier, and is amazingly clear with visibility of more than 100 metres! The water in the ravine is 2 degrees Celsius throughout the year, so dry suits are required. Unsurprisingly, this location is listed as one of the top ten dive sites in the world!
Thingvellir is just as important historically, as it was home to the first settlers in 800 AD. By 930 AD, the first government had been formed there, and each of the 30 communities that inhabited the area were represented by one person at the government. In fact, ‘Thingvellir’ means ‘fields of Parliament’. The meeting of this assembly (known as the ‘Althingi’) soon became an annual event, held in the area for hundreds of years until 1844, when it was relocated to Reykjavik. This parliament remains the longest continuously running parliament in the world!
Geysir Geothermal Park
A popular stop on the tour is the geothermal park – a highly active area covering about 3 km with more than a dozen geysers and numerous pits of boiling mud. Geysers are hot water blow holes that shoot a plume of boiling water into the air – often 30 metres high or more. The term ‘geyser’ comes from the Icelandic word ‘gjósa’ which means ‘to erupt’. Interestingly, the geysers are situated broadly in a zone measuring about 100 metres in width and 500 metres in length, running south-west and mirroring the tectonic line.
Geysir is the most famous geyser in the world. In 1845 the height of its plume of water was recorded at 145 metres. The geyser would erupt multiple times during the day and the eruptions would last up to one hour. Geysir stopped erupting in 1911 but was reactivated by an earthquake in the area in 2000. Following that, Geysir continued to erupt for another few years, but now lies dormant. Skokkur is situated close by and is the most impressive geyser that can be seen today, as it erupts every 5-10 minutes, shooting water 20 metres into the air. This looks particularly dramatic on a cloudless day! For the ultimate experience, explore with a snowmobile adventure!
Quite possibly the crown of our Golden Circle Travel Guide is Gulfoss Waterfall. Its name means ‘golden waterfall’ and refers to the colored hues of its glacial waters. Or does it? There is a popular Icelandic legend that tells of a rich farmer called Gýgur who had so much money that he could not bear the idea of anyone else having it after his death. Gýgur carefully filled a large coffer with all his money and threw it into the waterfall – giving Gulfoss its golden name!
The Gulfoss waterfall is listed as one of the world’s best waterfalls. Unlike many other waterfalls, its viewed from the top at various view points – including one that is situated at the side of the waterfall. The Gulfoss Waterfall is on the Hvítá river (‘Hvítá’ means ‘white’) and comprises of two waterfalls which have a combined drop of 32 metres. The larger waterfall tumbles 21 metres! The Hvítá flows south-westwards through a canyon and is fed by the melt waters of the Langjökull (Long Glacier). During the summer months, the melt waters are at their greatest and the waterfall has its highest flow rate – an impressive 2,000 cubic metres per second.
The first tourists visited the waterfall in 1875. A popular character whose name has long been linked with the falls was Sigriòur Tómasdóttir (1871-1957) who lived with her farming family close by. She was one of ten children and, because early tourists found access to the falls difficult, Sigriòur and her siblings would act as guides. Together they created the first trail for visitors to follow. Sigriòur always fought for the preservation of the waterfall she loved. In 1979, the Gulfoss and its environment became a nature reserve to protect it for future generations. A memorial stone was erected in honor of Sigriòur, close to her beloved waterfall. There is great debate in Iceland as these powerful waterfalls have great potential for producing hydro-electricity, but many Icelanders want them to be kept just as they are.
The Gulfoss Falls offer the perfect photo opportunity – one word of caution: the rocks can get wet and slippery from the spray, so its best to wear shoes with non slip soles!