Gigantic glaciers, icy blue lakes, mighty volcanoes, deep craters and steaming hot geysers, Iceland has it all. And as if mother nature wanted us to be comfortable, three of the most spectacular phenomena on the main island all are very close to the capital of Reykjavik. You can easily visit them in one day, via the ‘Golden Circle’ route. On the agenda: the natural and historical wonder of Thingvellir, queen of Icelandic waterfalls Gulfoss and the sleeping beauty Geysir.
You can say a lot of things about Iceland, and at least one of those things is guaranteed: you haven’t seen anything like it! Iceland is the second largest island of Europe, and at the same it’s one of the least populated… As a comparison; Iceland is 3,5 times the size of Belgium, but there are 11 million people living in Belgium, and only 320.000 in Iceland… No wonder you can drive through the countryside for kilometers at a stretch, without ever seeing other people. Especially in winter! I traveled there in February. Yes, it’s freakin’ cold, but there are no waiting lines because nearly every other person waits until spring to travel here. So even though the 300km ‘golden circle’ loop takes you to three of the most visited and most popular sites of Iceland, it’s still not overwhelming when it comes to tourists. Yay!
1. Thingvellir – walking on tectonic plates
The first stop is Thingvellir/Þingvellir, one of the three national parks of Iceland. It’s located about 50 kilometers northeast of Reykjavik (a one hour drive by car). This basically is the exact geological point where the North-American and European continent meet. If you’ve payed attention in geography class, you’ll know that this is called the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (I had to refresh my memory, too…). Thingvellir is one of the few places in the world where you can see both plates rising above ground, with a huge gap in between (about 6 kilometers wide and 40 kilometers long). It’s an impressive collection of deep gorges, earth cracks and fractures, underground springs and waterfalls, subsidences and landslides. Every year, the tectonic plates gradually shift a few centimeters, which makes the gap in between also sink a few centimeters every year. That whole movement of the earth’s crust is what causes a lot of the earthquakes in Iceland. It all sounds very abstract when you read about it, but once you’re there and you’re walking around, you’re very much aware of the power of nature. You can walk around by foot through the Allmannagja gorge right into the wet plains below.
The parliament of the Vikings
Another interesting fact: Iceland has the world’s oldest democracy and its parliament (called Althing) was founded right here in Thingvellir, by Icelandic Vikings in 930. Couples were married here, laws were recited, speeches were made, criminals were executed and witches were burnt. It was all done in open air so there’s nothing much left to see from those days, apart from a flag that marks the spot where the speaker of parliament stood. Which I never found! But Thingvellir is still of national importance: people gather here on very special occasions, like in 1974 when Iceland celebrated its 1100th birthday. Close to the parliament site lies a little church, a graveyard and a former farm house that now serves as a summer residence for the President of Iceland… This is also where the National Park manager resides along with the clergymen and guests for ceremonies at the church. Just imagine yourself living there…
2. Gulfoss – queen of Icelandic waterfalls
Up next is Gulfoss. Easy accessible by car but sooo darn cold , even if you only have to walk 100 meters. The view is worth freezing your fingers and toes off, though. Two windy, slippery pathways (one low and one high) take you to a viewing point and a peak where you can see the water roaring down from two huge layers of basalt, 32 meters down in a seemingly bottomless gap and into the glacier river ‘Hvita’ or ‘white river’. The total depth of the gap is 70 meters, it’s 20 meters wide and 2,5 kilometers long… Gulfoss is nicknamed ‘Golden waterfall’, because of the colorful rainbows that appear above the falls when the sun shines. We didn’t see any rainbows during our visit here, but the sight is magnificent and unlike anything I have seen: huge masses of stone, ice and water forming an icy blue cascade. A surreal and seemingly petrified landscape that gets stuck on your mind!
3. Geysir – boiling water gushing out of the ground
There are about five active geysers left on our planet and one of the greatest can be found here in the southwest of Iceland. About 15 kilometers from Gulfoss lies the big geothermal area of Haukaladur. It’s an immense field of hot springs and steam clouds that are constantly rising from the ground and dissolving into the air, as if the earth was a living, sighing creature. Walking around makes you feel like you’re on a different planet! Haukaladur is home of the geyser Geysir. If you think the name ‘Geysir’ comes from the word ’geyser’, you have it backwards: geyser is derived from Geysir! The Icelandic word ‘geysa’ means ‘to gush’. The story of the 6 centuries old Geysir is a sad one: it used to erupt every half hour to a hight of up to 80 meters, but not anymore and it’s all due to man: when the eruptions decreased, people threw soap in the geyser to bring it back to life, but it had the opposite effect in the long run. Today, Geysir erupts very infrequently and sometimes nothing happens for months. When I got there, Geysir didn’t feel like blowing me away with its actions but fortunately, the neighboring geyser ‘Strokkur’ had an appetite for attention. Strokkur erupts every ten minutes or so, squirting boiling water and steam 15 to 40 meters up in the air. You have to be quick though because the spectacle is over in just a few seconds.
If you have some time left, you can add a fourth element to your journey: iceskating on a frozen crater lake! Click here to read all about it.