Golden Circle, Iceland

The Golden Circle is a must see when visiting Iceland. Round trip from Reykjavík is about 190 miles, so it makes a perfect daytrip by bus or car to see the highlights: Thingvellir National Park, Geysir Hot Springs and Gullfoss waterfall. If you want to savor the experience, slow down to enjoy the other locations shown in this guide and then lodge for the night in Selfoss.

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1 Overview of Þingvellir Park on Golden Circle, Iceland

Þingvellir began as the epicenter of Iceland’s government when the Alþingi (Parliament) met for the first time in 930 AD. The legislative and court system continued here during the Old Commonwealth period ending in 1264. The surrounding floodplain was an assembly field plus common ground for farming and fishing. The Almannagjá ravine is also noteworthy as the junction of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. These are a few of the highlights of Þingvellir which became a national park in 1930. No wonder Thingvellir has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Þingvellir Parking P5, Iceland

2 Law Rock at Þingvellir Park on Golden Circle, Iceland

These people are admiring the Law Rock (Lögberg) at Þingvellir National Park. Every June from 930 until 1262, the Alþingi gathered on a platform similar to the one in the background. The leading chieftain (allsherjargoði) conducted the two-week parliamentary session. The assembly’s role called Lögrétta included creating laws and acting as a high court. Part of the proceedings was a reading of the country’s laws by the Law Speaker. The voice of the lögsögumaður was amplified by the high ridge at his back.

Þingvellir Parking P5, Iceland

3 Þingvellir House at Þingvellir Park on Golden Circle, Iceland

Nestled along the peaceful flow of the Öxará River at Thingvellir National Park are five gabled rooflines. Since the Þingvellir House was built in 1930, it has been the summer residence for the Prime Minister. One of the buildings serves the park’s manager and the priest of the neighboring Þingvellir Church.

Þingvellir Parking P5, Iceland

4 Þingvellir Church at Þingvellir Park on Golden Circle, Iceland

Shortly after Icelanders adopted Christianity circa 1000 AD, Olaf II, King of Norway, sent a supply of Scandinavian wood to construct a church at Þingvellir. Five hundred years later, Pingvallakirkja moved to its present location. This reproduction was constructed in 1859. Adjacent to Þingvellir Church is the Icelandic National Cemetery. Among the famous people interred here is Einar Benediktsson. During the first half of the 20th century, he was a leader of Iceland’s Nationalist Movement and an advocate for renewable energy.

Þingvallakirkja, þingvellir National Park Valhallarvegur, Iceland

5 Öxarárfoss Waterfall at Þingvellir Park on Golden Circle, Iceland

The Öxará is a tributary of Þingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest lake. The river makes a sensational splash at Þingvellir National Park. The drop of the Öxarárfoss Waterfall is 65.5 feet – hardly tall by Icelandic standards – but the staircase flow is mesmerizing. Apparently this cascade was created during the 9th century when the river was diverted to supply water to Althingi (Parliament). In English, its name is The Waterfall in the Ax River. This recounts an ancient tale of how a viscous female troll was murdered with an ax.

Hakið Visitor Center, Thingvellir, Iceland

6 Miðdalur Valley on Golden Circle, Iceland

If traveling the Golden Circle on a tour bus, resist the urge to sleep between stops. The Icelandic countryside in the Southern Region is uncharacteristically lush and dotted with rivers, mountains and quaint farms nestled in valleys such as Miðdalur. Meaning Middle Valley, this beautiful area was first settled during the 10th century.

Laugarvatnsvegur & Hlöðuvallavegur, Iceland

7 Visit Dairy Farm at Efstidalur II on Golden Circle, Iceland

For a unique Icelandic experience, stop at Efstidalur II for a treat, a meal and for the night. You can watch while the farm hands tend to their livestock while enjoying incredible handmade ice cream served in a waffle cone. After a horseback ride, savor a meal at their Hlöðuloftið restaurant where all of the ingredients are “from farm to table.” Then stay the night in one of their bed-and-breakfast rooms.

801 Blaskogabyggd, Laugarvatn, Iceland

8 Livestock Farming Along Golden Circle, Iceland

Icelandic conditions and soil are not conducive to growing crops. Consequently, most of the farms you see during your Golden Circle drive raise livestock. The lineage of these animals is traceable back to the Norse when they arrived in the 9th century. And because animal husbandry has remained isolated, there is only a single breed of sheep, cow and horse in Iceland despite their various colors.

801 Blaskogabyggd, Laugarvatn, Iceland

9 Church of Uthlid on Golden Circle, Iceland

Iceland’s countryside is dotted with humble white churches with red roofs and short steeples. They were predominately built from 1890 through 1940 and reflect the colors of the Lutheran Church and Denmark. So this blue, modern church at the Úthlíð farm is very unusual. Úthlíðarkirkja stands near the ruins of a pagan temple. The Church of Uthlid was built in 2006 by the farmer Bjorn Sigurdsson to commemorate his deceased wife. Mrs. Ágúst Ólafsdóttir died in 2004.

Úthlíð & Laugarvatnsvegur, Iceland

10 Icelandic Sheep on Golden Circle, Iceland

There are about a half million sheep in Iceland. A common site is herds grazing in grasslands and occasionally sharing the road. This hearty bred of Northern European descent is typically raised for meat. The annual season of herding (smölun) occurs in the autumn when lambs are four or five months old. They also have a special, two-layer coat. On top are the water-repellant, course hairs called tog. The lower soft þel hairs are perfect for warmth. These dual characteristics are retained when spun together. The lopi yarn is what makes Icelandic wool is so popular.

Úthlíð & Laugarvatnsvegur, Iceland

11 Introduction to Geysir Hot Springs on Golden Circle, Iceland

A major attraction of the Golden Circle is the Geysir Hot Springs Area. Located in the Haukadalur Valley, this geothermal field was created in the late 13th century by devastating earthquakes and the year-long lava flow of Mount Helka, one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes. Below ground, the field measures over one square mile. The visible display is about 550 yards long. Scattered across this scorched surface are hot springs and mud pots plus impressive geysers. Admission is free to walk among these dramatic displays of nature.

35 & F333, Haukadalsvegur, Iceland

12 Smidur at Geysir Hot Springs on Golden Circle, Iceland

The hot spring named Smidur is an oddity at the park because it billows steam from the chimney of a small hut. “The Smith” is treated once a day with a soap mixture to keep its churning basin erupting. In the background is Laugarfjall Mountain. This mount’s elevation of 613 feet is easy to climb for a panoramic view of the Geysir Hot Springs Area.

35 & F333, Haukadalsvegur, Iceland

13 Litli Geysir at Geysir Hot Springs on Golden Circle, Iceland

Litli Geysir is one of about 30 small geysers at Geysir Hot Springs. The temperature range in this churning caldron is 175° to over 200° Fahrenheit. In addition to steam, Little Geyser emits a strong sulfur smell.

35 & F333, Haukadalsvegur, Iceland

14 Strokkur Erupting at Geysir Hot Springs on Golden Circle, Iceland

About every ten minutes and without warning, an impressive geyser called Strokkur hurdles a massive white plume into the air. This violent yet beautiful column of steam can reach a height above 100 feet before spraying the crowd of tourists as it collapses. “The Churn” was born and began erupting in 1789 after a local earthquake. Its performance was artificially enhanced in 1963 by enlarging the size of its basin.

35 & F333, Haukadalsvegur, Iceland

15 Great Geysir at Geysir Hot Springs on Golden Circle, Iceland

This 59 foot wide circle of aqua water is the Great Geysir. Geologists believe it may be over 10,000 years old. A powerful jet of hot water and steam used to regularly blast up to 250 feet high from this vent. In 1916, Stori-Geysir mysteriously went dormant except for intermittent displays in subsequent years. The English word “geyser” is a derivative of this hydrothermal site. In turn, The Icelandic word “geysa” means “to gush” or “gusher.”

35 & F333, Haukadalsvegur, Iceland

16 Konungshver at Geysir Hot Springs on Golden Circle, Iceland

Konungshver is the northernmost, largest and most attractive of the area’s hot springs. It does not erupt. The name means “The Royal Spring.” This moniker commemorates the visit by King Christian IX of Denmark in 1874. To impress the monarch, the locals boiled eggs in the azure water. The blue coloring occurs when dissolved silica comes in contact with the atmosphere.

35 & F333, Haukadalsvegur, Iceland

17 Tungufljót River Rapids on Golden Circle, Iceland

About five miles before reaching Gullfoss is a bridge spanning these rapids. This is the Tungufljót River. This 18.5 mile waterway is popular among fly fishermen for producing salmon and large sea trout that can weigh 15 up to 20 pounds. If you have time, it is worth taking a detour about 7.5 miles from Geysir on 35 to see the Faxi. The waterfall is 262 feet across and cascades 23 feet over a rocky ledge. It is also called Vatnsleysufoss. This means the waterfall with no water yet this seems to be a misnomer.

35 & Skyggnissteinn, Iceland

18 Panoramic View of Gullfoss on Golden Circle, Iceland

The visual climax of Golden Circle is Gullfoss, the best waterfall in Iceland and frequently rated among the world’s top ten. From its origin at the Langjökull Glacier, the Hvítá River flows for 25 miles before reaching this arrowhead-shaped fissure. This was carved by a glacier outburst about 10,000 to 13,000 years ago. Then the torrent of brown water cascades three times before seeming to disappear into the earth. This sensational view from near the visitor center is enhanced by dancing rainbows. You can enjoy this dramatic display of nature for free.

Gullfoss, 801 Selfossi, Iceland

19 Two-tier Plunge of Gullfoss on Golden Circle, Iceland

The descent of Gullfoss begins in two stages. The first drop is 36 feet followed immediately by a 69 foot plunge. The people huddled along the observation deck put the enormous Golden Waterfall into perspective. You are more impressed when you learn 4,900 cubic feet of water cascade over these edges every second during the summer months.

Gullfoss, 801 Selfossi, Iceland

20 Close Up of Thundering Gullfoss on Golden Circle, Iceland

It is impossible to resist racing along the trail towards the face of Gullfoss for a closer look. The approach is rocky and treacherous, made more so by the wet surface. But after you hoist yourself onto a ledge, the crashing water provides an overwhelming display of raw power. It is easy to understand why foreign investors wanted to harness the waterfall for a hydroelectric power plant in the early 20th century. Fortunately, Iceland purchased the property in 1979 and declared it a nature reserve.

Gullfoss, 801 Selfossi, Iceland

21 Crevice Plunge at Gullfoss on Golden Circle, Iceland

The zenith of Gullfoss is when a torrent of white water catapults over a 66 foot wide, perpendicular ridge. As the rapids freefalls into a 230 foot canyon, a wall of mist and spray swirls around the crevice. Then the churning Hvítá races along the 1.6 mile Hvitargljufur river gorge. This scene is spectacular!

Gullfoss, 801 Selfossi, Iceland

22 Hung Towels at Secret Lagoon on Golden Circle, Iceland

You have spent a day or longer exploring the fabulous sites offered by the Golden Circle and are ready to “throw in the towel.” Set your GPS to the small town of Fludir. By the time you hang up your towel here, you have showered and are about to enter the relaxing waters of Secret Lagoon. Gamla Laugin was founded in 1891, making it Iceland’s oldest geothermal swimming pool.

Hvammsvegur, 845 Flúðir, Iceland

23 Socializing While Soaking at Secret Lagoon on Golden Circle, Iceland

A time-honored tradition in Iceland’s culture is soaking in a geothermal pool like Secret Lagoon. Some people claim they have medicinal value. Others seek relief from sore muscles and tension. The children love to splash and play. But the majority of Icelanders go to socialize in the soothing waters and environment. Slakaðu á og njóttu (relax and enjoy).

Hvammsvegur, 845 Flúðir, Iceland

24 Hot Springs at Secret Lagoon on Golden Circle, Iceland

Surrounding the Secret Lagoon is a short boardwalk where you can enjoy a close up of the hot springs named Básahver and Vaðmálahver (pictured here). These boiling cauldrons often exceed 200° Fahrenheit. They are the source for keeping bathers warm all year with a constant water temperature ranging from 100° to 104° Fahrenheit. The property also has a small geyser. Litli Geysir erupts every few minutes.

Hvammsvegur, 845 Flúðir, Iceland

25 Landscape at Secret Lagoon on Golden Circle, Iceland

The Secret Lagoon is located in Flúðir, a small town of less than 800 people. The Litla-Laxá river bubbles past geothermal features as it winds through lush countryside. Walking paths are available near the thermal bath and in town as far as the 520 foot summit of Miðfell hill. This is a scenic place to stretch your legs or commit to a longer hike.

Hvammsvegur, 845 Flúðir, Iceland

26 Þorláksbúð at Skálholt on Golden Circle, Iceland

In 1056, Bishop Ísleifur established his episcopal see at Skálholt. For the next three hundred years, this became the center of Iceland’s Christianity. In 1550, Catholicism was ousted during the Reformation and Bishop Jon Arason was beheaded. Thereafter, it served Lutheran bishops until 1801. The surrounding area was one of Iceland’s largest and wealthiest towns. Today, the Skálholt Cathedral – built in 1963 – stands among the mostly unexcavated ruins. Several relics are on display, including a sarcophagus from 1211. This turf house named Þorláksbúð is a reproduction of how the community’s buildings once appeared.

Skálholti, 801 Selfossi, Iceland

27 Kerid Crater Lake on Golden Circle, Iceland

Your last stop on the Golden Circle is Kerið. This cone volcano erupted in 3500 BC. After cooling, the dome collapsed into the empty magna reservoir and then filled with water. The red-rock cavity measures 885 feet across and is 180 feet deep. Kerid is surrounded by 21 square miles of lava fields named Grímsneshraun. This marvelous crater lake is worth the small admission price. Kerið is located less than ten miles north of Selfoss on Highway 35 in the Western Volcanic Zone.

35 & Vaðnesvegur, Iceland