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Touring Iceland’s Golden Circle Route from Reykajvik

by Suzanne Fluhr on September 22, 2016 · 36 comments

The flag of Iceland at Thingvellir National Park

Map of the area covered on the Golden Circle Tour in Iceland. (Credit: Google Maps and GeoIceland.)

Map of the area covered on the Golden Circle Tour. (Credit: Google Maps and GeoIceland.) With stops, our tour lasted about 8 and a half hours.

GeoIceland mini-bus

A Geolceland mini-bus.

I don’t like to drive. Mr. Excitement, my traveling companion (through life and on the road), doesn’t like to drive when he wants to be able to look at the scenery and when we don’t want marital discord about directions marring our sojourn. Therefore, whereas the word “tour” has some dismayed, seasoned travelers heading for the hills in their own or rented vehicles, we have become fans of small group tours. When I could not find any multi-day tours that fit our Iceland travel schedule, we opted for three, small group, day tours with GeoIceland from Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city.

GeoIceland’s operation is efficient, but laid back. They use 18 person minibuses. Booking is done on line and no payment is due until the day of the tour. We received a 10 percent discount for booking three tours with them. We were given a half hour pick-up window and were picked up at our accommodation in Reykjavik. The tour was properly paced with adequate bathroom breaks and a lunch stop. We packed our own sandwiches for lunch, having read that food options were limited and expensive during the tours. Two of our GeoIceland guides spoke better English than I do, and the third spoke more than adequate English. All were friendly and happy to answer questions.

We visited Iceland from September 6th to the 13th, which is considered shoulder season. Iceland tourism is booming. According to official statistics, from 2010 through 2015, the number of international visitors to Iceland grew an average of almost 22% per year, from 488,600 in 2010 to 1,289,140 in 2015. While tourism is now a year round business in Iceland, not surprisingly, many people choose to visit during the warmer summer months. I think we had a better experience without the extreme crowds of summer.

For the most part, I brought the right clothes for our tours: long pants (trousers for our British friends), long sleeves, a fleece vest and jacket, and a waterproof windbreaker. We did our walking in sneakers (trainers for our British friends). It would have been nice to have had waterproof footwear and even waterproof pants, but I wanted to limit myself to a 20 inch suitcase for my 14 day trip. Those visitors who plan to do serious hiking in Iceland definitely need to bring these items. The main word to keep in mind about Icelandic weather is “changeable”, very changeable.

Iceland’s Geology

GeoIceland is an aptly named tour company because one of the most impressive aspects of a visit to Iceland is its geology. In geologic time, Iceland is a young island. It appeared above the surface of the north Atlantic Ocean a mere 20 million years ago—give or take a few. Iceland was, and continues to be, formed by volcanic activity between the North Atlantic and Eurasian tectonic plates which are diverging (pulling apart) on a line through Iceland from the southwest to northeast. This ongoing volatility just below the Arctic Circle produces spectacular scenery, the result of fire meeting ice.

Golden Circle Tour

Our first tour was the approximately 230 kilometer (143 miles) Golden Circle Tour, probably the most popular of the tour and self-drive routes from Reykjavik. Our GeoIceland tours required some walking over uneven surfaces, but nothing too strenuous.

Hveragerdi Earthquake Town

Our first bathroom stop was at an exhibition/mini-mart in the town of Hveragerdi. People living in volcanically active Iceland know that the question isn’t whether they’ll experience a geological event, but when?  In 2008, Hveragerdi experienced a 6.3-6.6 magnitude earthquake. In rebuilding from the earthquake damage, a significant fissure in the earth was discovered beneath this site. The exhibition features firsthand accounts of that day, and thanks to a window in the floor, visitors can gaze down into the open fissure. In Iceland, visitors, like the locals, can only hope they aren’t in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Golden Circle Route Waterfalls

The Faxi Waterfall on the Tungufljót River on the Golden Circle Route.

A popular spot for salmon fishing, the Faxafoss waterfall on the Tungufljót River was our first stop on the Golden Circle Route.

During our 8 hour day, we visited two glacier fed waterfalls on the Golden Circle Tour route When it comes to waterfalls, a picture is definitely worth a thousand words. Our first stop was Faxafoss, a waterfall which we found impressive—until our visit to the even more spectacular two tiered waterfall, Gullfoss, later in the day.

Gulfoss Falls is a powerful, thundering two tiered waterfall.

Gulfoss on Iceland’s Golden Circle Route is a powerful, thundering two tiered waterfall. That’s froth from the glacially fed Hvítá River, not ice and snow.

Lower tier of Gulfoss Waterfalls on the Golden Circle Route, Iceland

The lower tier of the waterfall, Gulfoss, plunges into a canyon resulting from the Hvítá River being channeled into a lava crevice. In the 1970s, Gullfoss was saved from being harnessed for hydroelectric power and is now a protected part of Iceland’s natural patrimony.

Haukadalur Geysir Geothermal Area

Geysir Geothermal Area Iceland

We joined the other soaked people waiting for the geyser, Strokker, to erupt, but our rain gear and umbrellas were no match for the downpour we encountered. No one can accurately predict the weather in Iceland, but sudden rain squalls were present every day we were there.

Geysir Geothermal Area in Iceland on the Golden Circle Route

What part of “geothermal” don’t you understand?

Our lunch stop was at the Haukadalur Geothermal Area, home of Geysir, the geyser that gave us the English word for this natural phenomenon. Unfortunately, Geysir has been mostly dormant since 1916, but steam rising from the ground and pools of boiling water, give the area a spooky premordial look. Strokkor is a still active geyser within the park. We stood in the pouring rain with other hopefuls waiting for Strokker to erupt before bailing deciding that having already had the privilege of seeing the eruptions of Old Faithful in Yellowstone Park in the United States and the geyser at Rotorua in New Zealand, we would wait for our tour mates in the Visitors’ Center gift shop/restaurant while sipping a warm beverage.

Iceland’s Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site

eastern edge of North American Tectonic Plate at Thingvellir National Park in Iceland on the Golden Circle Tour route

The eastern edge of the North American tectonic plate at Thingvellir National Park in Iceland.

Our visit to Thingvellir National Park  indulged both my inner history and geology geeks simultaneously. Therefore, it was one of my favorite places in Iceland. (In Icelandic, the character “Þ” is pronounced like the “th” in English. Since I can pretty much only say one word in Icelandic (takk which means thank you), I’ll stick to the Anglicized spelling).

Geologically, Thingvellir National Park is the only place in the world where the divergence of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates can be observed on land as a rift valley where new crust is formed by volcanic activity as the two plates pull apart. Mostly, the divergence is underwater as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the longest mountain range in the world. Maybe I’m overly geeked out impressed by geologic phenomena, but the realization that I was standing at the eastern edge of the North American plate on the western edge of the rift valley gave me goosebumps.

eastern edge of North American Tectonic Plate at Thingvellir National Park in Iceland on the Golden Circle Tour route

Part of the eastern edge of the North American tectonic plate which runs along the western side of the rift valley at Thingvellir National Park.

The site earned its UNESCO World Heritage Site status because amidst the faults at the western edge of the rift are archaeological remains of where an open air parliamentary assembly, the Althing, took place annually from 930 to 1798, making Iceland’s parliament the oldest still existing in the world. (It is held in Reykjavik today). Thingvellir is considered the birthplace of the Icelandic nation.

The flag of Iceland at Thingvellir National Park

The Icelandic flag flies in Thingvellir National Park, original site of the Althing, world’s longest sitting parliament.

I suspect I am the only person on the planet who has not watched even one second of Game of Thrones. However, those obsessed with who do watch the series might recognize that scenes were filmed in Thingvellir National Park. If you are adventuresome enough to want to snorkel or scuba dive in frigid glacial water (i.e. not Mr. and Mrs. Excitement), some tour companies can outfit you with the gear necessary to enter the apparently amazingly clear water of Thingvellir Lake to swim in underwater fissures caused by earthquakes between the tectonic plates.

Lake Þingvallavatn, Iceland's largest lake, fills part of the rift valley formed by the divergence of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.

Lake Þingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest lake, fills part of the rift valley formed by the divergence of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The frigid lake is popular with divers and snorkelers.

If you don’t do any other travel outside Reykjavik, the Golden Circle Tour is probably the route you would want to explore for a day.

Would you consider a trip to Iceland? If you have been, what was your favorite part of the trip?

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Betsy Wuebker September 22, 2016 at 5:12 pm

Wow, I am kinda geeked out by the tectonic info, too! And the site of the Parliament factoid sort of puts 1066 into a bigger perspective. I enjoyed seeing your waterfall shots on Facebook, but putting them into context with this post was even better. Thanks!


avatar Donna Janke September 22, 2016 at 8:06 pm

Very impressive. I’d love to do the Golden Circle tour. I think there are lots of spots where I’d have goosebumps.


avatar Patti September 22, 2016 at 9:22 pm

We are fans of the small group tours. Small enough so that you can actually engage in the experience, but not so small that you can hang back if you so choose. When we were in the south of France last year we were running out of time and really wanted to visit Chateauneuf de Pape and the surrounding area so we opted for a small group tour and LOVED it. In 8 hours we visited every site on our wish list with a knowledgeable guide. Anyway…. your photos are beautiful and I especially liked the two of the waterfalls. It doesn’t look as if you saw the sun, but that may have been a good trade off instead of tourists. I’m thinking maybe the deal with Iceland’s Airliner offering a stay over is boosting tourism!


avatar Javier September 23, 2016 at 5:12 am

Great article, very complete and accurate.
And great pictures also.


avatar Christine September 23, 2016 at 8:19 am

We enjoyed the GeoIceland Golden Circle tour in December 2014 and it was awesome. Your blog describes the wonder of that tour perfectly, although the weather during our tour was quite a bit nicer than yours. It was bone chillingly cold but we were rain/snow free that day.


avatar Edward Holmes September 23, 2016 at 8:38 am

Wow, awesome pictures! Makes me really want to visit Iceland with my wife Judy.


avatar Clive September 23, 2016 at 8:41 am

Wonderful article and great photos. I have been all those places twice – in 1980 and 1999 – and it was great to read about them and see the photos again. You made me feel like I was there again. Iceland is a wonderful place for a geology geek like me.


avatar Jacqueline Gum September 23, 2016 at 8:47 am

This was so impressive! Wow… those waterfalls are awesome, even through the pictures. I can only imagine seeing them live and in person. You’re the third person I now know who has visited Iceland this year, so yes, I think tourism is growing there. I can see if one is a lover of nature, the wild appeal!


avatar Nan Loyd September 23, 2016 at 10:32 am

I would consider a trip there! You always convince me in your travel posts! I’ve never watched one second of Game of Thrones, either. Or any of the other shows so popular now days (I also never watched one episode of “Sex in the City”). We’ve pretty much stopped watching television other than an occasional movie on the weekend. Real life is much more fun – I can armchair travel via your blog (smile)!!


avatar Gilda Baxter September 23, 2016 at 4:11 pm

My husband and I visited Iceland last year in September, we rented a campervan and toured around for 9 days, it was amazing. Your post brought back some great memories


avatar Linda Bergelson September 23, 2016 at 4:13 pm

I’ll second the no second for Game of Thrones. But I confess the first thing I did upon arriving in Australia was to rush up to my hotel room to see if the water flowed down the drain in the opposite direction from how it does in the Northern Hemisphere. It did and I was jumping up and down yelling “Yes Yes !!” Now I must go to see the edge of the North Atlantic plate. Hopefully it will be more impressive than the bore of the Bay of Fundy when the tide changes (you can look that one up if it doesn’t ring your natural phenomenon chime).


avatar Roz Warren September 24, 2016 at 12:04 pm

Greetings from the only other person on the planet who has never seen a second of Game of Thrones. I always enjoy reading about your travels, and the wonderful photos. Enjoyed the notion of increasingly most spectacular waterfalls. This rain-soaked post was a pleasure to read while sitting on my tushie, warm and dry.


avatar Lyn aka The Travelling Lindfields September 25, 2016 at 8:53 pm

I have read so much about Iceland lately, it is definitely piquing my interest.


avatar Leslie in Oregon September 26, 2016 at 4:02 am

I’ve been to Iceland more than a few times, and it never fails to thrill me. My favorite visit was combined with a visit to Finland. The gorgeous landscapes, the amazing languages, the mixture of a colonizing Scandinavian culture with unique native cultures, the Northern Lights, and most of all the lovely people I met, in both countries made it a fabulous trip.


avatar Karen Warren September 26, 2016 at 6:46 am

I went on a ten day hiking trip to Iceland almost forty years ago (before the country had hit the tourist radar). I loved the countryside and the history, and the fact that for almost all of the trip we didn’t encounter any living creatures apart from sheep.


Suzanne Fluhr Suzanne Fluhr September 26, 2016 at 8:10 am

The Nothern Lights are still very much on my bucket list.


avatar Julie at FuninFairfaxVa September 26, 2016 at 11:16 am

We covered the Golden Circle in a rental car with our teens and loved all of the stops you mention. The next day we returned to Hveragardi for the two-mile hike to an amazing geo-thermal bathing area. If you have time and energy I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s too bad you weren’t able to catch the Stokkur geyser because of the weather. I was thrilled to get an iPhone shot of the blue bubble that emerges just before the geyser bursts. Iceland is amazing; can’t wait to visit again.


avatar Merryl Fulmer September 26, 2016 at 1:02 pm

Loved reading about your adventure! Thanks for so eloquently describing your experiences. By the way, I also have NEVER watched a second of Game of Thrones. We should form a non-fan club.


Suzanne Fluhr Suzanne Fluhr September 26, 2016 at 2:50 pm

This post seems to be bringing non fans of the Game of Thrones out of the woodwork. Maybe there are more of us than we think out there who leave the room or insist that our significant others wear headphones to watch the protagonists hack each other to pieces. 😉


avatar The GypsyNesters September 26, 2016 at 1:24 pm

Wow, incredible scenery. I’m with you on driving when there’s a better alternative. The infamous Piglet (our daughter for those who don’t know) drove this with her boyfriend a few years ago, but it was early spring and they got stuck in snow and mud. Walked to as cabin and got rescued by some guy in a truck. While it makes a god story, I’d rather not.


Suzanne Fluhr Suzanne Fluhr September 26, 2016 at 2:48 pm

I’ve read and heard some harrowing stories about “off season” driving in Iceland.


avatar Suzanne Stavert September 26, 2016 at 3:11 pm

Yes I would love to go! It seems that Iceland is the hot ticket lately! It looks so spectacular. I am so glad to have your post as a reference! Thanks.


avatar joyce September 26, 2016 at 3:14 pm

Never seen even one second of “Game of Thrones,” and don’t want to! Also, have never watched/read “50 Shades of Grey,” either!

Iceland in one word? Majestic! Absolutely majestic, and I think that if I were ever able to be there, and go on the Golden Circle Tour, I would be very humbled by the size and beauty of it.

One more thing: Who, in their right mind, would actually want to scuba dive in frigid water, in underwater fissures from moving Tectonic plates? Hellllooooo???? Underwater earthquakes? I can only imagine the horror of realizing that one was happening whilst I was under the water there.


avatar Rebecca Hall (Bex) September 26, 2016 at 3:46 pm

Earthquakes, North Atlantic / Continental Ridges, geysers, Iceland is surely a beautiful country to visit! I would love to scuba dive in that lake…it would certainly be a different experience.


avatar Paula Mcinerney September 26, 2016 at 6:17 pm

I have always read that the Golden Circle Route from Reykjavik is the best way to explore this fascinating country. I am sure that we would be gobsmacked by the scenery looking at your photos.


avatar Vicki Winters September 26, 2016 at 7:15 pm

I love the photo of all the people in their galoshes (RUBBERS for your British friends).


avatar Carole Terwilliger Meyers September 26, 2016 at 8:18 pm

Been there, done that–the Golden Circle Tour of Iceland–and enjoyed doing it with you again.


avatar Marcelle Simone Heller September 28, 2016 at 9:09 am

I love your picture of the Faxafoss waterfall on the Tungufljót River. I always dreamed to travel to Island one time as I’m a fan of Icelandic horses since I was a little girl. Maybe we should also do a tour so that we don’t fight who has to drive instead watching the surroundings 😉


avatar Irene S. Levine September 29, 2016 at 5:58 pm

What an impressive tour, especially with a 20-inch suitcase!


avatar Linda Aksomitis September 30, 2016 at 2:21 pm

Iceland is so near the top of my bucket list! Thanks for practical tips and great photos.


avatar Sue Reddel September 30, 2016 at 8:57 pm

Although I do enjoy driving and making unscheduled stops – for all kinds of things – the Golden Circle tour group piques my interest. Iceland is definitely one of those places where I wouldn’t want to miss a thing. I like the idea of visiting in the shoulder season. Seems like everyone and their brother is in Iceland lately I really don’t like crowds. Really enjoyed your photos!


avatar Sonali Chauhan November 2, 2016 at 2:44 am

Really great pictures. All pictures are too amazing & well click, I also wish to visit at GeoIceland Golden.


avatar Anita @ No Particular Place To Go November 13, 2016 at 4:52 am

I keep checking Skyscanner and Travelzoo for good deals and flights to Iceland. Seeing the Northern Lights has been on my bucket list for years but you’ve given me some other great places to visit when we finally get there! Thanks Suzanne


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