The Golden Circle is perhaps the most touristy part of Iceland. Three loops of highway– connecting a ton of highlightable sites in a region that is within a couple hours from Reykjavik by car– make up the backbone of the Gold Circle. When so many stunning geological features get compacted in a small region, it is no surprise that this area became so popular.
Thingvellir National Park
Our journey in the Golden Circle began in Thingvellir National Park. Thingvellir (or Þingvellir) literally means “Assembly Plains.” The national park is both a geological phenomenon and carries historical and cultural significance for Iceland. The park is part of a fissure zone running through Iceland, being situated on the tectonic plate boundaries of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. This was also the location established for general assembly since 930 AD. The general assembly aggregated here until 1798 AD.
Silfra, a fissure between North America and Euroasia tectonic plates, is a popular spot for divers and snorkelers within the boundaries of Thingvellir. The water in Silfra is fed by a glacier and the underwater visibility can be up to 300ft. I didn’t take my parents on a diving trip here but it’s something I’d be interested in if I was here on my own.
I had a hard time imagining a geyser until I visited Yellowstone National Park a few years ago. As pressure increases underground when water gets heated by geothermal forces, the water eventually look for an outlet above ground. The result is a natural fountain, where water is forcefully sprayed into the air through a small portal, creating an extraordinary spectacle.
I remember watching the Old Faithful, one of the most reliable geysers in Yellowstone National Park, and the 5 minute long release of a 100 feet tall water column was unreal.
Comparatively, the geysers in iceland are smaller. But the Strokkur Geyser makes up the smaller stature by more frequent eruptions, bellowing up water and stream every 5-10 minutes. The eruptions are very brief, last seconds like a hearty sigh from an underground dragon. It was raining when we made our way to Geysir, but that did not seem to thin the crowd gathered around the perimeter. People waited patiently, holding up cameras ready to capture the magical moment. I counted silently under my breath. When I got to 250, just before I was ready to give up holding my camera, a column of water shot up into the sky. The crowd wow’ed and oo’ed. I clicked the camera trigger furiously, hoping to capture a clear photo. As abruptly as the water column appeared, it disappeared, as if the force holding up the column had been instantly drained. A puff of steam lingered in the air and slowly drifted to one side following the breeze as it fell back to earth. The eruption was done.
Some people started to step away leaving holes in the human wall around the perimeter, which was quickly filled by another tourist holding up a camera ready to capture another magical moment.
Secret Lagoon Hot Springs
This was one of my favorite features of the Golden Circle. We stayed in an airbnb nearby and visited this hot springs in the evening. Despite the name Secret Lagoon, it seemed no secret anymore. I didn’t feel cramped in the swimming pool size hot spring, but it also was not desolate at any point.
A wooden boardwalk was built around the far side of the perimeter, cutting through the ground where boiling hot water bubbled up to the ground. Some of these little pools of bubbling water actually have small eruptions like a geyser. Every twenty minutes or so, we heard hissing and rumbling noises from these springs as water sprouted up a couple feet into the air. Some people bought beer or wine from the front desk, adding some extra peripheral vascular dilation to the well dilated vessels.
Kerid Crater is a unique geological feature in the south end of the Gold Circle. It looks like a giant hole in the ground, like a crater created by a large meteor crashing into the ground. But Kerid Crater was actually a volcanic creation.
A turquoise pool sits quietly at the bottom of the oval shaped Kerid Crater. We walked around the crater on the top and descent down to the pool on a path on the north end. Since the ground was quite slippery, covered with small gravel, not many people were willing to walk the circle along the pool side.
Geothermal Energy Exhibition
The exhibition is in the Hellisheiði Power Station, which is the third largest geothermal energy station in the world. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I pulled up into the parking lot, but my dad was for some reason very excited about this tour.
The architecture was modern with glass walls and high ceilings. The exhibition explained how the energy was harvested, and how hot water was supplied to the residents in Iceland, etc. It was informative but not overwhelming. When we were touring the power plant, we learned that almost a third of electricity in Iceland was generated by geothermal harvest, while almost all energy in Iceland was from a renewable source. Hooray, Iceland!
One of the turbine electricity generators was on maintenance, so I was able to snap a photo from the observation deck.
There were so many waterfalls in Iceland, from Selfoss on the south to Gullfoss to the north, from Thingvellir on the west to Hjalparfoss to the east. If you are a fan of waterfalls, Iceland is your place to see them.
We didn’t tour many waterfalls in the Golden Circle, but we did visible two notable waterfalls outside of the Golden Circle, Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss.
Reykjanesfólkvangur (Nature Reserve)
This reserve, located to the southwest of the Golden Circle, is a peculiar part of Iceland. Like much of Iceland, the land is basically lava fields. We went into the reserve to check out Thrihnukagigur Volcano, where an Inside the Volcano Tour takes place. The tour takes you 400 feet down into the center of a dormant volcano. It sounded pretty awesome but there was a catch. It was $350 a person. We ended up going on a hike to the volcanic entrance without joining the tour.
Aside from the volcano, this natural reserve is huge and practically deserted in comparison to the touristy sites in the Golden Circle. We drove by Kleifarvatn Lake, where a filming crew worked on a secret project. There was a hot spring in the natural reserve and a bunch of cool geothermal sites.
Everyone who has gone to Iceland had visited the Blue Lagoon, which made it my least favorite cool place in Iceland. The silica rich groundwater was pulled up by a nearby geothermal energy plant. Silica precipitated at the bottom of the pool leaving a cushy layer of mud, which people rub on themselves while bathing. The water temperature was comfortable. The color of the pool was a unique milky blue, hence the name Blue Lagoon.
I booked the tickets in advance. Because Blue Lagoon was so popular that many time slots were sold out. The ticket price varied depending on the popularity. I booked three basic tickets for $80 each. The purchase also came with a free drink and an application of silica mud. We lingered in the pool for about an hour and a half that evening.