Driving Iceland’s Golden Circle

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The Golden Circle is probably the most traveled route in Iceland. It’s the perfect way to see some of the unique landscapes Iceland has to offer in just a day – so whether you’re in Iceland on a stopover or traveling around the country, the Golden Circle is a must visit spot. Several tour buses drive this route every day, but if you really want to experience everything it has to offer you need to do the driving yourself.

  • Þingvellir National Park
  • Fridheimar Farm
  • Strokkur Geyser
  • Gullfoss Waterfall
  • Kerið Crater Lake

Þingvellir National Park 

I love national parks and usually they’re places where you could spend days, not just hours, exploring beautiful landscapes. Þingvellir National Park was no exception. We ended up spending more time here than expected and could have spent even more time exploring the several trails that run through the park. Þingvellir is the location of Iceland’s first Parliament, the largest natural lake in the country, and marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge which separates North America and Europe. With so much to offer, Þingvellir is one of the few places I would consider a must-see destination in Iceland. We spent approximately 4 hours exploring here.

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IMG_6825I mentioned that the Mid-Atlantic Ridge converges at a point in the park. Known as Silfra, you can actually scuba dive where the tectonic plates meet with DIVE.IS. There are steps to the water that any one can walk on and if this is something you’re considering doing, know that the water is COLD. We opted to skip diving so we could see more on the golden circle but several groups were venturing into the cold water while we were there (you can even see two divers in the water behind me below).

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Þingvellir is where we were first introduced to the beautifully blue and clear Icelandic water. What you see in these pictures is what you get in real life. If don’t know how it’s possible, but the water seems even more magnificent in person. The water is so clean that you can literally fill your water bottle in just about any stream.

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Fridheimar Farm

During our time in Iceland, we spent little time thinking about food – our M.O. was to find the best, cheapest, quickest food we could so that we could spend a much time as possible at the sites. Most of the time, we ate breakfast at out hotels in the morning, snacked on almonds and granola bars for lunch, and ate at sometimes the only restaurant in town for dinner. The only exception to this schedule was during our trip on the Golden Circle. We’d heard from a few other bloggers that Fridheimar Farm was a good stop for lunch, but we had no idea what a great experience we had in store. We arrived at 2:00 p.m. and there was a 45 minute wait for a table. We decided to wait and it was so worth it, even though it meant skipping Bruarfoss Waterfall. Fridheimar is a greenhouse that grows tomatoes and cucumbers using geothermal energy. While waiting for our table, we were able to explore the greenhouse as well as meet some of the horses on the property.

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For lunch, the menu is based on – you guessed it – tomatoes. They have a wonderful tomato soup bar as well as a few other dishes inspired by their crops. Beverages are also tomato-based, with four different types of Bloody Mary’s. As someone who doesn’t necessarily love tomato soup, trust me when I say this is the best tomato soup I’ve ever had. I even went for seconds, to Henry’s surprise. With seating in the greenhouse, lunch is a sensory experience – you smell, taste, and see tomato everywhere and get to enjoy it all in the warmth of the greenhouse – a great relief on a cold day.

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Strokkur Geyser 

Strokkur is located just off of the road. It’s location is home to several geysers that were smoking and blocked off during our visit, but Strokkur is considered the most active. They say it erupts once every 8-10 minutes, but when we were there it erupted 3 times in a row several times. As you can see from the pictures, there were a ton of people surrounding the geyser and it was hard to get a good angle. Just after we left this spot, the geyser erupted and covered everyone who was around us with hot, rotten-egg-smelling water. So use caution when you visit – nothing ruins a day like smelling like rotten eggs!

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A trip to the geyser only requires about 30 minutes but we made our stop longer by exploring some of the surrounding landscape. My favorite part of this stop was actually the mountain behind the geyser. There was a path to climb to the top where we found blooming lupine, stacked rocks, and some beautiful aerial views. I’m absolutely in love with the contrast between the red, clay-like soil and the purple flowering lupine:

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The view on the other side of the mountain was spectacular. I can’t imagine how beautiful it will be later in the summer when more of the grass at the bottom has turned green.

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On the hike to the top, there were several little geothermal areas. It was unclear whether any of these pools of water ever erupt, but with less people surrounding them it was easier to peer in and see the different colors and formations.

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Gullfoss Waterfall

Gullfoss is one of Iceland’s most-visited waterfalls and we could see why – you can get close to and have 360 degree views of this powerful waterfall. You can walk along a path at ground-level or go higher and get a view from the top. The waterfall is right off of the road, so you don’t need extra time to hike there as is sometimes the case with other waterfalls.

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I didn’t love Gullfoss – it was crowded, the water wasn’t very beautiful, and it lacked the delicate beauty of a lot of the other waterfalls in Iceland. It’s one of those places that I think everyone has to see (including myself), but it was my least favorite spot on the Golden Circle and so we cut the visit short and didn’t end up walking the stairs to the top of the nearby hill to catch the 360 views. While not my favorite waterfall of the trip, it’s power is something to witness.

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If you walk the path that goes right to the first drop in the waterfall, be sure to go equipped with waterproof gear. This waterfall is powerful and you will get quite wet on the walk down there.

Kerið Crater Lake 

Kerið Crater was one of the most beautiful sites on our entire trip. It is believed that Kerið was once a cone volcano that errupted and emptied its magma reserve, causing the weight of the cone to cave in. The water is not the result of rain, but it actually in line with the water table and is quite shallow. While Kerið Crater could easily be a quick stop on your Golden Circle trip, it really deserves much more time. We saw a tour bus stop here for 5 minutes and couldn’t help but feel like everyone on the tour failed to really experience Kerið Crater. We took more than 100 pictures here because we couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. You can walk along a path at the top of the crater as well as down below at the water level. Both perspectives are fantastic. The view from above:

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View from below:

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It was hard not to snap a bunch of pictures of this place trying to catch the best angle. It was really windy at the top on the day we went and Henry thought it would be funny to pretend we were falling into the crater…until he almost did when we snapped this picture. Don’t make your pictures this realistic when you visit…

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Most people who visit Kerið Crater focus 100% of their attention on the crater, but the view from the top is so much more than the inside of the crater (though that aqua-blue water at the bottom is mesmerizing!). Beyond the cater there are fields of trees, mountains, and farms in the distance that combined are breathtaking. A lot of the trees in Iceland are younger and more vibrant than the trees I’m used to in the States. I just love all of these shades of green.

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There is a small fee that we had to pay to visit Kerið Crater, but credit cards or cash are accepted. It was well worth the 400 ISK per person fee.

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We didn’t have time to visit all of the places along the Golden Circle route. Planning your day will definitely involve sacrafices. There was no way we could have added something else in this day. As it was, we spent 11 hours exploring before ending the day for dinner. It’s easy to keep going during the summer because the daylight never ended. As a result, we were totally wiped out by the end of the day. However, if we could have had more than 24 hours in the day, we would have added Bruarfoss to our list. Unlocking Kiki has a pretty convincing post on this beautiful waterfall.

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