Golden Circle Self Drive Guide
GetLocal recently took a trip around the Golden Circle to see what all the fuss was about. We even added a few other sights in for good measure, like the Secret Lagoon in Flúðir.
As regular visitors to this page will know, I’ve lived here for a while. What you might not know is that I have been experimenting in the last few years with a car-free lifestyle. I sold my Skoda, bought a bicycle, and then proceeded to take the bus for two years. And since most of my family visited in the early years of my life here, I had taken most of my trips around the countryside in those years. More recently, I’ve left the exploring of well-known paths like the Golden Circle to visiting family to do on their own and, as a result, I haven’t really seen much of the country lately.
This year however, like a latter-day Clark Griswold, I decided that it was time to show my youngsters the wonders of their country and so we hopped in the car and made our way around the Golden Circle. I had been inspired to do so a few years back when my mother was visiting and we made our way into Reykjadalur to the hot springs. There, we met a guide who reassured my nervous 5-year-old that she needn’t be afraid of hiking or of the mountains, because they were her land and her country.
The pride in the guide’s voice was incredibly powerful and it has stuck with me. Ever since that meeting I’ve tried to get the kids out into their country as often as possible.
Þingvallavegur [Route 36]
The weather looked a bit overcast as we made our way out of the city past Úlfarsfell (a popular mountain for hiking) on Saturday morning. We decided to take the route to Þingvellir through Mosfellsdalur over Þingvallavegur [Route 36], which is an exceptionally lovely area just outside of Reykjavik where the Laxness family farm is located. They raise horses there.
I made a mental note to take the family there next. The fog slowly started to lift as we passed Skálafell which surely made for some incredible photographs for the tourists who had parked their cars on the road.
In all seriousness, this is a rather common complaint from the locals, namely that tourists in rented cars will stop in the middle of the road in the countryside to take photographs. The problem is that the roads are extremely narrow and are peppered with undulating, gravelly hills that can take you by surprise if you don’t know the area. More often that we’d like, we end up with traffic accidents due to this unfortunate practice.
That said, we did pull over at one point (safely and completely off the road) to get out and breathe in the fresh air. The air isn’t terribly polluted in the city, but it is a city and so it’s always good to feel the countryside air. Going out of the city is something that we regularly do in Iceland, just to get a break from the constant working and creating and partying that goes on in this energetic city. So I feel obliged to mention at this point that although we would do all the points on the Golden Circle trip, the family actually rented a cabin just outside of Geysir and stayed for several nights while we were exploring the area.
Þingvellir National Park
Our first stop was at Þingvellir National Park, where you can walk down through the cracks in the earth that have been created by the separation of the tectonic plates that make up Iceland. The park is situated in a seven-kilometer wide gap between the Almannagjá and Heiðargjá faults and the effect created over the last ten thousand years is pretty damn amazing. The valley is gorgeous and I can recommend the walk up to Öxarárfoss, which is very nearby - although this was a bit much to ask of my kids so early in the morning on a Saturday.
At the other end of the park, the road around Þingvallavatn continues toward the south coast and to continue on the Golden Circle road, you need to turn onto route 365, or Gjábakkavegur (literally meaning “Fault-Rim-Road”), which goes overland to Laugarvatn. This road is very twisty and peppered with blind spots, so take it slow here. As for Laugarvatn, it is a charming little town and home to the Laugarvatn Fontana Spa, which I’ve visited a few times and is featured in a few of our tours around the southern parts of the country. Laugarvatn is also an excellent spot to get gas and pick up some groceries, which is exactly what we did.
Cabins near Geysir
As I previously mentioned, the people who live here rarely just take the trip to see the Golden Circle on its own and, in our case, we decided to stay a few nights in the area. On this particular trip, we stayed in the Úthlíð Cottages just 5 minutes away from the Geysir geothermal park. I figured that we would get comfortable for the night and then head out for more sightseeing in the morning. Also, the kids were anxious to get to the playground, which I had used as the bait on the end of the walk through Þingvellir.
The Úthlíð Cottages are open for business all winter and there were plenty of other people in the cabins over the weekend. Each cabin had its own hot tub on the deck and an awesome view of the surrounding area (see the banner photo at the top of this article). I can certainly recommend them for your stay here.
The next morning, we all woke up bright eyed and bushy tailed to get on the road and check out Geysir and Gullfoss before the rush of tourists (i.e. you) would arrive on the tour buses. It was a good plan, one that we would repeat several times over the course of the long weekend, but one that would ultimately not be very successful due to the popularity of Iceland these days. Geysir and Gullfoss are, by far, the most popular places to visit in Iceland after the Blue Lagoon and so there are now always a lot of people there. This does not, however, detract from the experience of going to see them. In fact, in the case of Geysir, the effect is the opposite.
There must have been about 500 people at the hot springs when we got there and the feeling I got was of being at a rock concert. Except instead of a band, it was a field full of hot water and steam. People were standing around (rather close to the geyser, I noticed) and when he went off (I say “he”, because his name is “Strokkur”) the whole crowd went “ooooooh” at the same time and then the wind promptly picked up and drenched everyone in sulphury wetness.
My girls, who are quite clever, had already moved back away from the crowd at that point and were spared the indignity of the smelly shower.
The word for Geysir comes from the Old Norse verb geysa, which means “to gush” and the English word comes from the Old Norse, like many other words in English. We know how the geysers work because of research that the German chemist Robert Bunsen did in 1846. He also designed the gas burner that is used in chemistry labs. I wanted to stay for a few more explosions and tell my children all about these things, but they were anxious to escape this particular part of the nature, which seemed quite reasonably to have it in for us.
I thought of the guide again and what he said to my oldest on that trip to Reykjadalur. “You don’t need to be afraid of the nature. This is your home.” Perhaps. But nature provides no towels.
Just a little further down the road from Geysir, we got to Gullfoss. The girls eyed this massive waterfall, hurtling from the Hvítá river at 140 cubic meters per second. “Does this one spray us?” the youngest asked in that adorable way she speaks that reminds me that I am raising children whose first language is not the same as mine. “No,” I lied.
The mist that rose up from the falls did make it seem like it had started to rain and from the looks on their faces I could tell we wouldn’t be getting much closer. “Look at those people! They are so close,” she said, pointing at about 100 people who were following the walkway down to the falls. The paths along the side of Gullfoss are slick during the winter, so caution is advised.
The sheer numbers of admirers standing along the edge of the cliffs was staggering. It really is a beautiful waterfall, falling down into this gorge in a way that is obscured from our vision, giving the impression that it might go on forever. I took some pictures of the kids in front of the falls from a very safe distance. Proof for them for later, I thought. They may not realise it until afterwards, but they’ll be glad they were here.
We departed and within ten minutes they were asking to go back and proceeded to talk about the waterfall for days afterwards. After a morning of sightseeing, the kids were ready for lunch, so we went back to the cabin to barbecue and for some rest and relaxation in the hot tub.
Flúðir and the Secret Lagoon
One might question the secrecy of a pool that has existed since 1891 and indeed that has become so popular in the last few years, although the Icelandic name for it “Gamla Laugin” is more accurate as it means “The Old Pool”. Not quite as romantic, but more accurate.
The website for the Secret Lagoon helpfully suggested that we shouldn’t plan to be at the pool between the hours of 14:00 and 17:30 since that’s when the tour buses arrive. It takes about two hours to get to the town of Flúðir from Reykjavík, so we assumed that we would get there well before anyone else. However, our trip happened to coincide with a school break in England and it seems that this year, Iceland was on the menu for British school children, and so we got to meet a bunch of other kids and the girls practiced their English.
The pool is very relaxing and there are walking trails all around the surrounding lands. It’s a excellent place to take spooky photographs with all the steam that rises up from the pools. In particular, there is a old hut on the hill that would look great in a music video.
Swimming in Selfoss
We are avid swimmers in our family and we make frequent use of the public pools in the city. For some reason, my kids absolutely love the swimming pool in Selfoss and haven’t stopped talking about it since we went there a year ago, so our return to the city absolutely needed to include a trip to the pool. It is a very nice place and if you feel like fitting in a trip to the gym, there is a World Class attached to it. They also have a little slide inside something that looks like a block of Gotti cheese, which is one of those inscrutably Icelandic things that I will probably never really understand.
After the swim, it was time to head back to the city. The kids wanted to spend another few days in the countryside but school and work beckoned and so we drove the part of the ring road that connects Selfoss to Reykjavik. As we did so, the weather abruptly changed and we were hit with an incredible snowstorm that reduced our visibility on Hellisheiði to almost nothing. It had the effect of changing what is usually a 45 minute drive into a 2 hour ordeal, but luckily my snow tires are in good shape and we made back safe and sound.