The Golden Circle

On Tuesday, Michael and I woke up bright and early to get started on our Golden Circle adventure. Our first stop was Thingvellir National Park. Our trusty Nissan zoomed down the deserted highway, winding through small mountain passes and transporting us safely through the elements. Rain, light snow, thick fog - you name it. We were lucky to get an automatic transmission from Go Iceland. It was slightly more expensive than a manual car, but it was worth it. Neither of us knew how to drive stick, and with Iceland's abundance of roundabouts and tricky traffic patterns, we would've seriously struggled. Something we quickly learned while driving through Southern Iceland is that literally everywhere in the land of fire and ice is breathtakingly beautiful. The snow-capped mountains are beautiful. The rock formations are beautiful. The streams and waterfalls are beautiful. Volcanic rock, white sand, mossy hills, snow-covered fields and gushing rivers dotted the countryside. There was never a dull landscape on our road trip. In fact, many describe Iceland as being "otherworldly". This is the only adjective that could possibly describe our drive to Thingvellir. We found ourselves in the midst of a snow-covered mountain, and the skies were eerily gray. We were lost in a white haze of clouds and fog; it literally felt like we were at the end of the world.

After arriving at Thingvellir, we spent a few minutes inside the Visitor Center before walking along a pathway that led between two giant rock structures. One side dipped to reveal a massive rift valley. This area is where the North American tectonic plate is slowly separating from the European tectonic plate. This continental drift can be seen in the cracks and fissures that cover the region, some filled with crystal clear water.

Widespread volcanic activity causes measurable earthquakes in the area, but we were lucky to avoid any of that. Speaking of "lucky", I was surprised to hear about Mount Hekla's potential eruption after we returned to the states. Michael knew about it but didn't tell me because he thought I would chicken out of the trip. He doesn't know me very well, obviously. Volcano chasing? I'm down. Maybe. Alright, maybe not, but I still would've gone!

The view from the park was incredible. Several trails led to different overlooks of the rift valley. Bright green evergreen trees lined the continental drift, and rocky streams and waterfalls filled the region. It was a geological paradise.

It started raining midway through our walk, but fortunately we had rain jackets. It also helped that I was wearing about seven layers of clothing. I'm always cold, so dressing warm was my biggest priority during the trip. We managed to stay comfortable with several layers, wool socks, pocket hand warmers, and thick gloves. 

We spent over an hour admiring the sights at Thingvellir before heading to Haukadalur Valley to see the magnificent geysers. But first, we stopped at a convenience store to chow down on delicious pylsurs. (Side note: If you see a gas station or a convenience store while driving through Iceland, STOP. Even if your tank is full, even if you don't have to go to the bathroom, even if you're not hungry. Stop anyway. You might be traveling through vast, empty landscapes for hours and hours without a single sign of civilization.) I knew we were nearing the geysers when I noticed steam rising from the fields around us. After parking, we paid 600 krona to enter the park and spent some time walking around the paved pathways. Litli Geysir was the first hot spring we encountered. The boiling water was bubbling and steaming. It resembled a spooky witch's cauldron, churning and gurgling chaotically. The movement of the hot spring was entrancing.

While snapping a few photos of Litli Geysir, I jumped from a sudden eruption about fifty feet away. Steam billowed into a huge cloud, filling the valley and sweeping away in the wind. We soon discovered Strokkur, one of the most active geysers in the park. We stood around patiently, watching the water (which was eerily still between bursts of steam) and trying to figure out where to stand so we didn't get soaked.

After a moment of reckless abandon, we found ourselves standing right next to the roped fence. We were as close as we could get to they geyser's eruption, which took me by surprise the first couple times. Strokkur erupts every 5-15 minutes, so I had no idea when it was going to explode into the air. I posed my camera with my index finger ready to "snap" on command, but after several uneventful minutes, my hands felt like they were going to freeze right off. Every second spent shivering, however, was worth the end result. Strokkur's eruptions were incredible. Right before bursting, the geyser's blue water would swirl around, retreat deeply into the hot spring and burst forth with astonishing intensity. The "roar" of the eruption took everybody by surprise. Several visitors visibly jumped backwards and covered their heads. It sounded just like standing underneath a huge, crashing wave at the beach.

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Haukadalur Valley was unlike anything I've ever seen before. The geothermal activity was fascinating. I was surprised to learn that Iceland's energy and heat are provided solely by steam power. The island doesn't need to rely on fossil fuels since there's such an abundance of geothermal heat. Crazy, right?

With destination number two of The Golden Circle complete, we headed for our third stop: Gullfoss Waterfall. The falls appeared to be a river, but on closer inspection, the water plunged into a deep crevice below. We walked down a long pathway and up a few steps to view the waterfall from a tall, overarching standpoint. Afterwards, we descended to the bottom of the falls and took a few photos of the majestic wonder before us. It was beautiful.

Gullfoss is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland, and for good reason. The waterfall is absolutely stunning. Snow covered the banks of the falls, adding an icy chill to the view. Visitors swarmed the area, hiking closer to the Hvítá River and snapping photos. 

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We realized we were hungry while we were at Gullfoss, so we headed back to Reykjavik shortly after walking around the area. Overall, our drive around The Golden Circle was incredible. Renting a car and taking the tour at our own pace was a great decision. We were able to stop as often as we wanted, whether it was to play with a pack of wild horses (the CUTEST!), grab a quick snack, or take pictures of a rocky stream on the side of the road. After renting a car for the very first time in a European country, I don't think I'll ever go back to crowded bus tours. The freedom of creating our own schedule was great. It also helped that we were in a gorgeous country. It was easy to find ourselves reveling in the magical landscapes of Iceland. We could've stayed at each stop forever.