After our exhilarating adventure in the lava tube cave, we were again joined by our friends Paul and Carol for another day of Icelandic exploration. Less adventurous this time but just as astonishing is our Golden Circle experience. Golden Circle is a 186-mile /300-km route dotted with amazing historical and natural sites that loops from Reykjavik to central Iceland and back. It is considered Iceland’s most classic road trip and a sort of pilgrimage for every visitor in Iceland.
We originally planned to do this road trip independently. Although not a cheaper option, we later decided to sign up for a tour as we found the winter weather unpredictable and the driving condition very challenging. And with very short winter days, we wanted to avoid the risk of getting lost and not waste precious daylight. Carol found a good company, Iceland Horizon, that caters to small group. We were satisfied with the trip – we were in a small van and not a big bus and had plenty of time to explore on our own in each stop, and we didn’t get lost!
Our first stop was Faxafoss. It’s not a typical stop for the Golden Circle tour but was a bonus side trip for us. We thought Faxafoss was a beautiful and grand waterfall, but in a country that boasts countless waterfalls this one is just considered a minor site. When we got to our next stop, we understood why.
Gullfoss (“Golden Falls”)
A short drive from Faxafoss is the immense Gullfoss, Iceland’s most popular waterfall. Dramatically situated in a canyon of Hvita River, the sight, sound and size of this double tiered cascade is absolutely breathtaking.
The spectacular upper cascade of Gullfoss.
Gullfoss as seen from the upper viewpoint. See the people walking on the ridge on the upper left side to appreciate the immensity of this site.
Can you imagine this wonder of nature being turned into a dam?
In the 1920’s a group of foreign investors wanted to dam the river and the fall for hydroelectric project. The landowner (Yes, Gullfoss was once owned by a farming family!) refused to sell to the investors but somehow got permission from the government to build the project. In protest, the daughter of the owner walked barefoot to the parliament in Reykjavik and even threatened to jump into the waterfall.
Fortunately, the investors were delinquent in paying the lease and that gave the government an excuse to cancel the agreement, thus, saving this great waterfall from destruction. The family donated Gullfoss to the country in 1975 and has become a natural reserve.
The Icelandic Horses
The Golden Circle route is dotted with farmlands grazed by the beautiful and unique breed of Icelandic horses. Our driver asked if we wanted to stop and see the horses. But the horses were too far into the field to be seen. Our driver said, “Don’t worry they will come running to you.”
And true enough, as soon as we we stood by the roadside the horses came running to us like excited children. They were beautiful.
They love to pose! Most Icelandic horses have beautiful long mane. They are are short, more like ponies in size but are very stocky and hardy and are known for their speedy gaits. They are used in traditional farm work as well as racing and leisure rides. Horse meat dishes are typical features in the restaurant menus in Iceland.
We learned that Icelandic horses are one of the oldest and purest breed in the world. They were brought into Iceland by the Vikings in 9th century. They descended from the race that is already extinct in other parts of Europe but still survive in Iceland without crossbreeding. Thanks to the very old law that strictly prohibit the import of other breeds of horses into Iceland and the return of Icelandic horses that left the country.
Haukadalur Geothermal Valley/ Geysir Area
The geothermal valley of Haukadalur is home to pools of hot springs and the famous Great Geysir, the giant hot water spout from which all the geysers in the world were named after.
Sadly, the Great Geysir that used to gush water up to 80 m/260 ft into the air is no longer active. It suddenly became dormant in 1916, showed some activities in the 1930’s and went to sleep again.
However, just a few steps away from Great Geysir is the very active Strokkur (‘to churn”). To our delight, it spouted every 4 to 5 minutes during our visit.
Strokkur sometimes gushes very shyly, sometimes modestly and sometimes very mightily. It can spout hot water up to about 130 ft/40 m into the air.
The Little Geysir.
Thingvellir National Park
Our last stop was Thingvellir (“Parliament Field”), a place of raw and dramatic landscape resulting from the shifting of tectonic plates. It is also the most historic site in Iceland; it was where the Vikings established Alping, the world’s first democratic parliament in AD 930. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site,
The park is an immense rift valley caused by the shifting of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates.
Snaking throughout the rift valley is Oxara River, a tributary of Pingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest lake where fresh water from the nearby glacier flows through. The Vikings set up their booths and shelters on both banks of the river during the parliament sessions. Small ruins of the booths can still be seen on the site.
Standing in the middle of the valley is one of the oldest churches in Iceland consecrated in the 11th century. Next to it s a five-gabled farmhouse built in 1930 to commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of Alping. It is now the official summer residence of country’s prime minister.
Paul and Carol walking through Almannagjá fissure, the most dramatic feature of Thingvellir,
Almannagjá Rift is about 4.8 m/7.7 km long and marks the eastern boundary of North American plate.
View of the fissure and the valley from the highest point of Almannagjá Rift.
Despite the gloomy winter weather, the unique beauty of the Golden Circle still shone through. We wish to return and see its glory in the summer time.
- Our friend Carol booked this trip for our group through Iceland Horizon. As mentioned, the company caters to small group. We were a group of 10 transported in a four-wheel van. We liked that we were not herded in each site as a group. Our driver gave us the information about each site while we were driving to the site and we explored the sites on our own.
- If you would like to see photos of the Golden Circle during summer time and for DYI tips, check this post from my friend Mary of The World is a Book.