Gigantic glaciers, icy blue lakes, mighty volcanoes, deep craters and steaming hot geysers, Iceland has it all. And as if mother nature wanted us to be comfortable, three of the most spectacular phenomena on the main island all are very close to the capital of Reykjavik: the tectonic plates of Thingvellir, queen of Icelandic waterfalls Gulfoss and the sleeping beauty Geysir. You can easily visit them in one day, via the ‘Golden Circle’ route.
You can say a lot of things about Iceland, and at least one of those things is guaranteed: you haven’t seen anything like it! You can drive through the countryside for kilometers at a stretch, without ever seeing other people. Especially in winter! Yes, it’s freakin’ cold, but there are no waiting lines. So even though the 300km ‘golden circle’ loop takes you to three of the most visited and most popular sites of Iceland, it’s still not overwhelming when it comes to tourists. Yay!
1. Thingvellir – walking on tectonic plates
The first stop is Thingvellir/Þingvellir, one of the three national parks of Iceland. This is the exact geological point where the North-American and European continent meet. If you’ve payed attention in geography class, you’ll know that this is called the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (I had to refresh my memory, too…). Thingvellir is one of the few places in the world where you can see both plates rising above ground, with a huge gap in between (about 6 kilometers wide and 40 kilometers long). It’s an impressive collection of deep gorges, earth cracks and fractures, underground springs and waterfalls, subsidences and landslides. That whole movement of the earth’s crust is what causes a lot of the earthquakes in Iceland. Another interesting fact: Iceland has the world’s oldest democracy and its parliament (called Althing) was founded right here in Thingvellir, by Icelandic Vikings in 930!
2. Gulfoss – queen of Icelandic waterfalls
Up next is Gulfoss. Easy accessible by car but sooo darn cold , even if you only have to walk 100 meters. The view is worth freezing your fingers and toes off, though. Two windy, slippery pathways (one low and one high) take you to a viewing point and a peak where you can see the water roaring down from two huge layers of basalt, 32 meters down in a seemingly bottomless gap and into the glacier river ’Hvita’ or ‘white river’. The total depth of the gap is 70 meters, it’s 20 meters wide and 2,5 kilometers long… Gulfoss is nicknamed ‘Golden waterfall’, because of the colorful rainbows that appear above the falls when the sun shines. We didn’t see any rainbows during our visit here, but the sight is magnificent and unlike anything I have seen: huge masses of stone, ice and water forming an icy blue cascade.
3. Geysir – boiling water gushing out of the ground
There are five active geysers left on our planet and one of the greatest can be found right here in the southwest of Iceland. About 15 kilometers from Gulfoss lies the big geothermal area of Haukaladur. It’s an immense field of hot springs and steam clouds that are constantly rising from the ground and dissolving into the air. Walking around makes you feel like you’re on a different planet! Haukaladur is home of the geyser Geysir. The Icelandic word 'geysa’ means 'to gush’. The story of the 6 centuries old Geysir is a sad one: it used to erupt every half hour to a hight of up to 80 meters, but not anymore and it’s all due to man: when the eruptions decreased, people threw soap in the geyser to bring it back to life, but it had the opposite effect in the long run. Today, Geysir erupts very infrequently and sometimes nothing happens for months. When I got there, Geysir didn’t feel like blowing me away with its actions but fortunately, the neighboring geyser 'Strokkur’ had an appetite for attention. Strokkur erupts every ten minutes or so, squirting boiling water and steam 15 to 40 meters up in the air.