How to Navigate the Golden Circle Route in Iceland
The Golden Circle route is an easy day trip from Reykjavik, consisting of 3 primary stops at Thingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal area and Gulfoss Waterfall. In fact, the Golden Circle’s proximity to Reykjavik makes it one of the most popular sightseeing trips in Iceland!
The entire route stretches across 230 kilometres in a loop from Reykjavik and can be driven in just over 3 hours. However, factor in time to enjoy each stop, meal stops and photo-taking, and this classic trip can easily take the entire day! Here’s what you can expect on the Golden Circle route:
Thingvellir National Park
The first stop on the Golden Circle Route is Thingvellir National Park. The park is a majestic blend of natural beauty and Icelandic history: in the year 930, Thingvellir was where the Althing, the first parliament representing the whole of Iceland was established. Thingvellir loosely translates to mean “the fields of parliament”, as it’s where this assembly curated laws and settled conflict until 1798. It was interrupted from 1799 to 1844; afterwhich, this parliament relocated to Reykjavik and is still in implementation until today. This makes Althing the world’s oldest still-operating parliament!
The first of Iceland’s 3 National Parks to be established, Thingvellir National Park was designated to be the country’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1930 – exactly 1, 000 years after the parliament first met. ON top of this, Thingvellir was where Iceland declared and celebrated its independence from Denmark in 1944 during the second World war. Iceland’s first president, Sveinn Bjornsson, was also confirmed at the park. Naturally, Thingvellir hence holds a deep historic significance for the people of Iceland.
The National Park spans an area of 240 square kilometres, containing dramatic cliffs and diverse landscapes. The park is situated between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, and is also the only place in the world where the Mid Atlantic Ridge can be seen above sea level.
Thingvellir is also home to Silfra, which is a rift between the two tectonic plates. In 1789, earthquakes caused by the divergence of these two tectonic plates created this fissure. The resultant 600 by 200 metres passage contains pure glacial water with visibility of more than 100 metres underwater, and is now a unique and popular spot for divers or snorkellers looking to swim between 2 continents!
The park is also home to Lake Thingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest natural lake which transforms into a frozen tundra during winter.
The park is especially scenic after winter snowfall as well.
Approximate driving duration from Reykjavik to Thingvellir National Park: 45 minutes
Geysir Geothermal Area
Located within the Haukadalur Valley, the Geysir Geothermal area is a bubbling pot of steaming activity. The area contains multiple pools and fumaroles, with rising jets of steam that are visible from far.
Have a fascinating wander around the area, which spans an approximate 3 square kilometres. Feast your eyes on the various hot springs, mud pots and smaller geysers, some of which are brilliantly coloured due to the minerals in the ground. Don’t be surprised if you catch a whiff of sulfur in the air as well!
The area is home to the Great Geysir, which has been around for 10, 000 years. It’s currently inactive, with little chance of erupting.
The Strokkur geysir, on the other hand, is the highlight of the area, with throngs of people lining up just to see it in action. This geyser erupts every 10 minutes or so, putting on a fantastical display of boiling water thrown up to 40 metres in the air.
The entire place looks like a scene out of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movie!
Approximate driving duration from Thingvellir National Park to the Geysir Geothermal area: 50 minutes
The final stop on the Golden Circle Route is the Gulfoss Waterfall, one of Iceland’s most powerful waterfalls. Gulfoss looks like a golden waterfall when the sun hits the water on a sunny day, earning it the nickname of the ‘Golden Falls’. The waterfall originates from the Hvita River, which flows directly from the Langjokull Glacier.
Plunging from a height of 32 metres, the waterfall comprises two distinct drops of 11 metres and 21 metres respectively. In the summer, approximately 140 cubic metres thunder down every second; in the winter, this number drops to around 109 cubic metres of water per second.
It’s quite something to watch such roaring masses of water thunder down with such vigour into the depths below!
Legend has it that in the early 20th century, foreign investors intended to turn Gulfoss into a hydroelectric plant. These investors offered to buy the land from Tomas Tomasson, the current landowner. His daughter, Sigirour Tomasdottir, was so devastated by the prospective sale that she threatened to throw herself into the falls if a deal was made. As a result, the sale fell through, paving the way for Gulfoss to be continually protected as a natural conservation area. Sigirour was henceforth known as Iceland’s first environmentalist!
There are two main viewing areas at the falls – the first viewpoint is only open in the summer and leads right up to the falls; the second viewpoint offers a glorious aerial view of the falls.
Approximate driving duration from Thingvellir National Park to the Geysir Geothermal area: 10 minutes
After this stop, it’d take about 1 hour 45 minutes to drive back to Reykjavik. If you have the time in between the 3 stops, you can consider dropping by Kerio Crater, Langjokull Glacier, Pjorsaldur Valley and more. If you wish to pamper yourself, you can also spend an hour or two at the Fontana Geothermal Baths.
One thing to note: due to its popularity, the Golden Circle Route does attract plenty of tourists. Most of the tour groups usually visit the three spots in this order: Thingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal area and Gulfoss. If you wish to avoid some of the crowds, you can try going about the route in the opposite direction! This isn’t to say that you won’t see anyone; there’ll still be people around but markedly lesser in numbers.
The Golden Circle Route is easy, hits all the sweet spots and doesn’t take much time at all. Include this in your itinerary the next time you’re planning to visit Iceland!