Driving Iceland's Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is the famous loop road in Iceland where the bulk of things to see and do can be found. It is also where the bulk of tourists spend their time. And for good reason. Many people book tours of The Golden Circle attractions, but if you have rented a vehicle, it isn't really necessary. It is convenient because the first stop on the loop is approximately 45 minutes outside of Iceland’s capital of Reykjavik and it can also be completed in a day trip at your leisure. We opted for the self-guided tour - no bus drivers rushing us along or corralling us like cattle to the next destination.
We rented a small car called a Duster with 4- wheel-drive and drove not only The Golden Circle but also the full Ring Road around the entire island. In Iceland, you drive on the same side of the road as in America, thank goodness! It was a fairly painless experience with only one-car bridges being a challenge as well as sheep-jams which is Iceland’s equivalent to traffic jams. Not joking about that.
More often than not, we stopped for sheep on the road, who are in no particular hurry to clear the pathway. It's hard to get mad about it when they're so cute (I snapped several pictures of fluffy sheep butts along the way) and we were never in a hurry to get anywhere so no instances of road rage here.
One thing we did learn is that food isn’t all that easy to come by, so definitely pack snacks and a couple of sandwiches and water in the car if you go it alone. We got in the habit of stopping at local bakeries in the morning and buying several sandwiches and croissants to bring with us on the road. It saved our butts several times.
Also, side note, breakfast is not really a thing in the land of ice. If anyone wants to open a burrito shop, I can foresee that being a very lucrative business with all of the tourists that come through.
Our favorite things from the Golden Circle in Iceland:
1. Snorkeling in Silfra
Hands down, the coolest (literally) thing we did in Iceland was go snorkeling in Silfra.
I know, I know – snorkeling in Iceland? YES. The reason this is so cool is
because you actually get to snorkel between two tectonic plates, the North American and Eurasian plates. How badass is that? The great thing is that you can stay completely dry and mostly warm in the 35 degree water while doing it thanks to the nifty invention of dry suits. Be forwarned, they’re tight- extremely tight.
In fact one woman couldn’t handle it and bailed. There's a legit reason for the near strangulation of the suit; they need to be tight to seal off and restrict any water from entering inside. Just think of it like getting a giant body hug that's going to save your life from getting hypothermia.
There is a staging area across the street from where you enter the water and the guides help you put on your suit, mask and flippers. One suggestion – definitely go to the bathroom BEFORE you get suited up. Don't want to learn that lesson the hard way.
After you’re all sealed in, you waddle together over to the site. It was a little nerve-wracking taking that first step into the water, but true to their word, I was warm and the suits are buoyant so it’s easy to stay afloat on the surface. We also read there's a bit of a current that helps snorkelers move along the channel.
We were in the water for a total of 30 minutes. Even with the dry suits, you can only stay in the water so long (about 45 minutes total) before the temperatures will take it’s effects. Your guide takes you through the channel and offers information about the geological site and there’s another assistant along on the trip taking pictures to document your watery adventure as you go along.
The water is direct runoff from a glacier so if you're like me, you tend to suck up a decent amount of water through your mask when snorkeling, and luckily in this case, it's totally ok. It’s actually some of the cleanest, most pure water you can drink.
When you come out of the water, the guides assist with suit removal and then everyone is treated to hot chocolate and cookies and a chance to ask your guide any additional questions you may have had. Oh, and you can also dive here, but you need to be certified!
2. Thingvellir National Park
This area is where Iceland’s first Parliament started in 930 AD. It’s a beautiful area to take a leisurely stroll and take in the regal natural landscapes of Iceland. It is also an educational site where you can learn quite a bit about their history and folklore. In fact, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Game of Thrones fans will also appreciate this spot because there is a hike here where you can explore some of the shooting locations for the show which include the path up to Eyrie and the area which is seen as the journey through the Riverlands.
We explored this area while waiting for our scheduled time to snorkel and it was a lovely walk filled with rolling hills, wildflowers and historical tidbits about the culture, early civilizations and politics of Iceland. It feels like the sort of place one would take a field trip of eager young minds to for an afternoon of outdoor learning and a picnic lunch. In fact, that’s a great idea – pack a picnic lunch! This would be the perfect spot for it.
3. The Geysir
I’m of the mind that once you’ve seen a Geysir, you’ve seen them all, but this was something different.
For one, it’s not like Yellowstone. When you visit Yellowstone National Park, you are roped off from the geyser a fair distance away from the eruption. But in Iceland? Oh no. You can get right up next to them (yes, there's multiple) as they erupt and you can enter the “splash zone." Depending on which way the wind shifts, that part may not be so voluntary. We got sprayed a few times when we weren't anticipating it.
The original Geysir, the ‘Geysir to name all Geysirs’ as we like to say, doesn’t erupt anymore after a large earthquake, but there are two others that still do. The eruptions occur at pretty regular intervals so visitors are guaranteed a good show if you hang out and wait a few minutes.
You’re also probably going to leave smelling like sulfur - a little perk of the experience. If you are planning on grabbing dinner after this experience, you may be advised to pack an extra change of clothes in the car.
4. Gulfoss Waterfall
Gulfoss is also on this loop, located a mere 10 minutes away from the Geysir. It is one of the biggest waterfalls I’ve ever seen. The fall is most powerful in the summer months due to the melting and it is also the most easily accessible during the warmer seasons. The waterfall goes over two summits and is over 100 ft tall. I felt dwarfed by its monstrous size.
This was one of our three favorite waterfalls in Iceland.
The sheer power of this waterfall is impressive.
On a normal day more than 3,800 cubic feet of water falls per second about100 feet over the waterfall's two tiers. On sunny days the guidebooks say you can see a rainbow but it was cloudy when went.
This is one of the big, don't miss sites to see along the Golden Circle and it was one of the busier places we visited that day.
Make sure to try the lamb soup in the cafeteria. It was a hearty and warm addition to our visit.