This is Part 3 in a series outlining my family’s exploration of Iceland during the summer of 2019, pre-COVID. It was a mostly outdoor experience, exploring the wild and natural sights of a beautiful country during the height of summer. For the full journey, and notes on places to go and things to see, check out the other posts in this series.
- Part 1 – Grundarfjörður
- Part 2 – Snæfellsnes
- Part 3 – Golden Circle
- Part 4 – Roaming in Reykjavik
- Part 5 – Landmannalaugar
- Part 6 – Southern Coast
- Part 7 – Jökulsárlón
- Part 8 – Departure and Epilogue
After an excellent couple days on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, we had repositioned back to the hotel Brim, near downtown Reykjavik. Still trying to adjust to the midnight sun, we were up late, and then up again early… but there was no point in lingering at the hotel, we had things to do! Our goal for the day was to hit most of the sites on Iceland’s famous Golden Circle. This is the collection of more commonly visited touristy sites just east of Reykjavik. We modified the standard route to include a couple off-the-beaten-path stops, but knew that at a few locations, we’d be fighting for space with tour buses. Yes, they were accessible to Reykjavik, but these were also among Iceland’s crown jewel destinations. These places are popular for good reason!
Out early, our first stop was at Gullfoss (Gold Falls), an enormous cascade in a steep-walled canyon that fell off a cliff into a narrow canyon oriented at right angles to the main flow upstream. The scale of the waterfall was impressive, and surprised all of us. It was made even more impressive by the fact that as it fell, the width of the river was cut almost in half, so the volume of water was forced to accelerate through the choking canyon downstream. The falls threw up a huge cloud of mist that formed rainbows in the morning sun, and the roar of the water could be heard from miles away. It was beautiful – and yes, there were buses, and many other people, but we had arrived early and had plenty of room to spread out.
Our next stop took us toward a non-descript plateau without a lot of obvious landmarks to indicate where we were headed until we suddenly arrived. Geysir is the first, the grandfather, the original…uh… geyser. It is the thermal water spout that gave other geysers their name. Today, sadly, Geysir is not very active – but its neighbor, Strokkur, erupts impressively every three to five minutes! Sometimes, a boiling plume fires 70 feet into the air and leaves a cloud of steam in the cool air. Other times, it spits and bubbles just a few feet above the mineral surface that surrounds the pool. Access is controlled by a simple rope fence, seemingly adjusted every day to account for winds and the resulting changes in boiling-water fallout patterns.
I have not yet made it to Yellowstone, in the US. But this area looks just like what I would expect there (only without the trees, or nearby mountains). Strokkur puts on a reliable geyser show, and multi-color boiling pools and springs litter the nearby landscape with lots of flowstone formations slowly building up from mineral deposits in the water. Even adjacent pools are of different colors, depending on temperature and the various extremophile bacteria that call these pools home. You can wander the area without ever losing sight of the main geyser, Strokkur, and its occasional eruptions and resulting cheers provide a steady backdrop of enthusiasm as you explore.
Leaving Strokkur, we made our way to a nearby waterfall called Faxi. This was the first area where we had to pay an entrance fee – the observation area and access lie on private property, and so it cost a few dollars to get in. It wasn’t exorbitant, and the area had been set up with a nice elevated viewing platform, campground and picnic area, and then an access to a lower viewpoint right at the foot of the falls. The drop was one wide plunge off a rock shelf, like water flowing over a natural dam. We were initially confused that the place did not contain the usual “foss” in its name, but it turns out that it IS also known as Faxafoss, so all was indeed right with our developing understanding of the language.
By now, it was nearing mid-day, so we made our way to a nearby dairy farm, Eftiđura. The farm had a great outdoor picnic area where we set up shop to eat lunches that we packed that morning. Ham and salami sandwiches with paprika cheddar really hit the spot. Our presence, and our obvious food, also attracted the attention of a border collie who, together with some cats, seemed to have their run of the place. The dog was friendly, and very attentive in its hopes for a handout, but we held firm.
After lunch, we went inside to sample the local ice cream – I cannot overemphasize the benefits of eating lunch directly outside a dairy that makes excellent ice cream onsite, where you can visit the cows that provided the ingredients. A wonderful lunch spot.
Next, the Secret Lagoon. We had wanted to participate in the Icelandic hot spring experience, but were reluctant to join the crowds at the more famous tourist spots like Blue Lagoon. While this spot was not exactly “Secret”, it is a small, family-run pool that is directly fed by bubbling geysers adjacent to a free-flowing river. The crowds were similarly diminished from the big-name springs, and this was more our speed in every respect. Essentially, a pool was dug here and lined with stones to catch the steaming water on its way to the river, and a hot-soak area was born. It was extremely relaxing, but you did have to be careful where you went – there was quite a thermal gradient in the water, and the temperature near the bubbling source was intolerable enough that fully half the pool was unoccupied, as bathers shied away into the cooler side. Still hot-tub temperatures though.
Around the lagoon, a short trail leads past all the natural springs and mini-geysers, which are beautiful in its own right.
Fully relaxed and rejuvenated, we left the Secret Lagoon to head south again, toward a volcanic crater named Keriđ. Keriđ is much larger and wider than Saxhóll, and has the added beauty of having been filled with a turquoise lake. Here we took the opportunity to walk off the ice cream, and shake out the cobwebs that formed during our relaxing spa treatment, by enjoying a breezy walk around the perimeter of the crater wall. I still wonder how deep the lake is.
Mid-afternoon. We were starting to feel the effects of our short night, and getting tired, but the day was beautiful, and we pushed on – though we were starting to trend back toward the west, drawing closer to Reykjavik. We made a pretty significant detour to the north, to Þhingvellir National Park. Þhingvellir (Pronounced: “thing-vetlir”, sort of) appears, at a distance, to be merely a cliff face, similar to those that mark glacial edges all over the island. It is an impressive cliff, extending for miles in both directions, running northeast to southwest. As impressive as the cliff itself is, the place becomes much more interesting when you realize what it truly is.
The cliff marks just one of many parallel fissures, cracks in the ground that run along this area. The eastern ones are beneath a lake, where strangely linear coves and inlets indicate the presence of straight cracks that have been flooded. Atop the most prominent cliff, at the Þhingvellir Visitor’s Center, you can see the wall of stone extending far to the north, until it runs into the side of a small mountain. These cracks are part of the Mid-Atlantic rift. They are the boundary between the North American (to the west) and European tectonic plates, and they are slowly pulling apart, occasionally allowing magma to break through the thinning crust. The mountain to the north is actually a small volcano that was created exactly this way, and the fissures extend beyond it. On a macro scale, it is this volcanic activity from this tectonic movement that created all of Iceland, and that causes the continued volcanism to this day. Here, you can not only see, directly, the cracks between the plates, you can walk down between them – or in the lake, you can even scuba dive between the continents. It’s a little mind-bending to walk into a crack and realize that one continent is on your left, and another is on your right, and that such things do actually have visible boundaries.
Leaving Þhingvellir, we were really starting to wear down, but we had one more quick side trip, to Þhorufoss. This waterfall is a single, wide drop that falls within a narrow canyon bordered by grassy hills. Apparently, this waterfall shows up in Game of Thrones quite a bit, but I am probably one of the few people on Earth not to have seen it – so I can’t verify. Uniquely, though, among our many waterfall visits in this part of Iceland, there were no adjacent parking lots, no crowds. We had to pull of a road and walk about a quarter mile to the canyon’s edge before we could look upstream and see it, another half-mile away. Þhorufoss stood by itself in a wilderness with no signs of human habitation except for the single road passing by, and a few sheep grazing on the hillside across the canyon. It was a beautiful final stop.
Back in Reykjavik, we made an easy dinner decision and made the quick walk a couple blocks to Hlemmund Masthöus. This is a large indoor food court with all sorts of cuisine options. We tended to gravitate toward tacos, but also had a Thai dinner roll and a small pizza thrown into the mix.
On the way back home to Brim, we stopped at a small shop and discovered Bragđarefur, a soft-serve concoction of basic ice cream flavors with an assortment of mixed candy. The boys chose dark chocolate, gummies, caramel, some sort of non-pareil wafer. Just pure sugar goodness. And the “small” size was enormous, which didn’t bother them a bit.
It was a great day, but we were suffering from serious fatigue. The lack of a day-night cycle was playing havoc with our circadian rhythms, and with no natural cues to go to sleep OR to wake up, we’d started alternating between a night of way too little sleep (like we were dealing with now), followed by a night of way too much, where we’d recover from unintentional exhaustion. We hoped this back and forth would damp out over time, but tonight we didn’t have much choice. We were done, and we slept, hard.
Tomorrow will be ultra local – we got a call from Iceland Air telling us they’d FOUND David’s phone!! Great news! But we’d have to head out to the airport to retrieve it. We anticipated spending one day close to Reykjavik, and so this was to be it. Hopefully we could sleep in, go to the airport, spend time in town… and not have to travel anywhere.
Get Out There
3 thoughts on “Iceland 2019 – Part 3, Golden Circle”
Thanks for the tour. Definitely get to Yellowstone.🙂
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We’d been holding off til the boys were big enough that we could get into the backcountry a bit – and now college is almost upon us!
Time flies quickly. It will make for some good memories if you can make it.