Iceland Day 1: The Golden Circle

When traveling to Iceland, the Golden Circle is one of the most popular day trips, and shows off some of Iceland’s highlights. It’s not far from the capital Reykjavik, and includes waterfalls and geysers and some great scenery. Our family was wowed by what we saw during our day trip!

For our recent vacation to Iceland (July 2021), visiting the Golden Circle was easy and low-key via an independent self-driving tour. That said, if you’re staying in Reykjavik and don’t have a car, consider going on a tour like Jeremy did in 2019.

The three main sites we wanted to be sure to visit were Þingvellir National Park, Geysir, and Gullfoss. While close together, all three are a destination in themselves!

(Note that the Icelandic character “Þ” is pronounced like a “th”, so you will often see Þingvellir written as Thingvellir.)

When considering where to go, we’d made up a list of secondary sites to consider visiting (in order of location on our route), including Faxi Waterfall (4 minute walk from parking lot), the Secret Lagoon (a good stop if you want a nice swim in a hot spring), Skálholt Cathedral (a quick stop), the Kerið Crater (a minute to walk to the edge and back or a longer hike around the rim and/or base), and Reykjadalur Hot Spring Thermal River (another nice spot for a swim and/or 3km each way hike).

As it turns out, we ended up forgetting our swim suits, and only remembered after being on the road for a while, so our top choice of the Secret Lagoon was out. And while we did see Faxi Waterfall, the Skálholt Cathedral, and the Kerið Crater, we simply ran out of steam and didn’t have time for the Reykjadalur Hot Spring Thermal River.

Depending on what you are interested, make a list of priorities and keep an eye on your watch so you can adjust to travel plans regarding what to include and what to skip. Expect about 4-5 hours of driving, plus time at each site. Since our top three activities were towards the beginning, we knew exactly how much time we had left for everything else.

Nesjavallir Viewing Point

If you are coming to Þingvellir National Park from Reykjavik, consider taking the “scenic route” through the Nesjavallir Viewing Point.

The road is a little twisty and the speed limits are slower, but you are likely to enjoy the drive as much as we did!

Þingvellir National Park

Our first real stop while driving the Golden Circle from Reykjavik was Þingvellir National Park. This is a good place to visit in the morning, since it will only get more crowded as the day progresses. One benefit we have found in mid-2021 is that the crowds are still not bad and we have been able to enjoy places that in recent years were ridiculously crowded in the summer.

Entrance to the park is free, but you pay for parking (750 ISK; about $6).

We decided to park in P1 and walk on the fairly flat path for a while. As you get into nature, the combination of rocks and wild flowers were stunning!

One of the coolest features of Þingvellir National Park is the Almannagjá Gorge. How often do you get to walk on the boundary of the North American and European continental plates and know that you are doing so?

For some reason, we didn’t walk all the way to the Öxaráfoss waterfall, but we did stop to admire these mini-falls. Blame it on jet-lag!

At this point, we turned back towards the parking lot, but decided to take the cut-off to the Þingvellir Church. While this isn’t the original structure, apparently there has been a church in this park since 1000 AD!

We then continued down the path and crossed the river near parking lot P5. This was the end of the easy path and we went up some stairs, across some rocks, and across another bridge, where we made it back to the Almannagjá Gorge and eventually back to our car.

Efstidalur II (Lunch)

Since we were had an evening arrival into Reykjavik and didn’t get to bed until after 1:00am, we got a later-than-intended start, and realized that it was almost lunch time. After visiting Þingvellir, we decided to look for restaurants and decided to take Rick Steves’ guidebook suggestion of Efstidalur II.

The hamburger and beef on the salad were quite fresh. Our kids were delighted to find a table with a window into the barn, and then they made the connection between their food and the animals… Fortunately, after that odd realization, they ran with it and we had a lovely meal followed by a delightful time at the playground.

Geysir

Our next stop in the Golden Circle was Geysir, a famous geyser, which unfortunately, rarely errupts.

While you are unlikely to see that particular geyser errupt, there is a geyser next to it called Strokkur that erupts every 5 minutes. It send boiling water 20-40 meters into the air.

Make sure you also check out other geothermal activity. Parking is free and the walk is short, so don’t miss this exciting stop.

And if you are traveling with kids, make sure to remind them that the sulfur in the water can be a little smelly. Sometime the advanced warning is all they need to be able to cope with new odors.

Gullfoss

Gullfoss, translated as Golden Falls, was our third destination along the Golden Circle.

There are three different levels of viewing the waterfall, so if you want to just hop out of your car and walk a short distance, that option is available.

But if you want to experience the waterfall in all of its glory, plan on a somewhat longer walk that involves stairs.

On the way out, we saw some cute Icelandic horses, but they were surrounded by flies, so we didn’t stay long.

Parking is free, so make sure you stop at Gullfoss!

Faxi Waterfall

If you enjoy waterfalls, make a quick stop at the Faxi Waterfall. The lower parking lot is very close to the waterfall, so this stop can be as little as 5 minutes or as long as you want.

The nice thing about this waterfall is that you can get quite close to it, can feel the spray, and get a much better impression that you have nature all to yourself. But, to be honest, it was a bit of a letdown after Gullfoss, so I would recommend either seeing this one first, or skipping it.

There is a a parking fee of 700 ISK (about $6).

Secret Lagoon

If you want to enjoy a swim in a natural hot spring, the Secret Lagoon should be your next stop. Make sure you pre-book if you want to be guaranteed a spot! We weren’t sure what time we would be arriving, so risked spots being sold out…but as it turns out, we left our swimsuits at our hotel, so it didn’t matter that we didn’t have tickets.

Note that even though we didn’t visit on this particular trip, Jeremy had fun when he traveled here in 2019!

The entrance fee is 3,000 ISK (about $25) for adults 15+, and free for children.

Skálholt Cathedral

To break up your day with something different, stop in the town of Skálholt and visit the Skálholt Cathedral. The stained glass on the interior is quite pretty!

Kerið Crater

We still had plenty of energy and daylight hours left (it was still light at midnight the night before), so we decided to hike the Kerið Crater.

It is a 1.5 km loop around the crater’s rim, and a little longer if you decide to go down to the water and walk that loop as well.

The upper rim is reasonably easy, and if you don’t mind climbing a bunch of stairs, don’t miss the path around the lake at the bottom of the crater!

The entrance fee is 400 ISK (about $3) per person. 12 and under is free.

Reykjadalur Hot Spring Thermal River

And if you still have extra time, or you didn’t reserve a spot at the Secret Lagoon and their tickets were sold out, consider a stop at the Reykjadalur Hot Spring Thermal River. In addition to swimming in a designated geothermal river (don’t hop into any boiling water or mud on the way), there are quite a few hiking paths.

Expect to hike at least 45-60 minutes each way (about 3 km) to reach the swimmable river, so if you are traveling with kids make sure you have a handle on how much stamina they have.

If you have your swim suit on, take a dip, otherwise simply wander the hiking paths and enjoy the steam and boiling mud pools.

We were really hoping to do this, but at 5:00 PM we realized that we were running out of steam and that while it sounded really fun, a two hour hike wasn’t realistic given all we has already done. When you travel with a tight schedule, there are always going to be some disappointments.

Selfoss

Our thermal river plans thwarted, we decided to head into Selfoss instead. If it were a little later, we would have eaten dinner here, but instead we found a Bonus grocery store (one with a logo of a cute pig) and picked up some snacks and drove back to Reykjavik for a real dinner at a proper time.

In “normal” times, we might have considered staying in Selfoss for our second night in Iceland, rather than spending the night in Reykjavik. Since we were doing a road trip along Iceland’s Ring Road, it would have cut down on our back and forth driving time and would have given us an earlier start on our second day plans of visiting the South Coast.

(The main reason we didn’t was that when we booked our tickets, the covid-related rules were that one needed a covid test on arrival, and not leave the hotel until the results came back – with results expected in 5 hours but could be 24 hours. The rules have since changed, but at planning time, we thought it safer to plan for 2 nights in the capital).

In any case, our day exploring the Golden Circle was amazing! There is so much more to see than is in this post, so someday we might return and do this area more justice.

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