As Mark and I were planning our most recent visit to Iceland, we knew we wanted to venture beyond Reykjavik. We started pricing out day trips – the most popular being the Golden Circle. We were, frankly, shocked at just how expensive some of the day trips were. Some of the basic, 6-hour trips started at around $95 Canadian per person, and prices only went up from there.
We also had tickets for the Blue Lagoon. Prices for a round trip bus ticket started at about $55 CDN. Factor in the airport shuttle bus from Keflavik airport to Reykjavik and back ($38 CDN one way)…well, it started to add up pretty fast. Once we priced out all of these transportation costs, then compared them to the price of just renting a car for the 5 days we were there (approx. $250 CDN) – the choice was obvious. We decided to rent a car.
The weather in Reykjavik in early November is a dog’s breakfast of atmospheric unpredictability. One minute the sun is out, then it’s windy, then, rainy, followed by sun again. So when we got in the car that morning for our road-tripping adventure, we were thrilled by the good weather. We could only hope that it would hold up!
The primary roads in Iceland are relatively smooth and well-maintained, although some stretches have almost non-existent shoulders, should you suddenly need to pull over. They also drive on the right side of the road, which is great for us North Americans. They do, however, have a great love of roundabouts, which might stress out some drivers. But with the combination of good signage and a trusty GPS, this shouldn’t be a concern for most seasoned drivers.
We hopped onto Highway #1, then #36 to start our sightseeing journey of the Golden Circle.
Thingvellir National Park
This was our first stop along the Golden Circle. Thingvellir National Park is not only picturesque, but it’s an incredibly important historical site for Iceland. There are numerous sights to stop and explore here, including waterfalls, viewpoints, and a historic church.
The first Norse settlers came to Iceland sometime in the second half of the 9th Century AD. As more settlers arrived, the need for laws and a system of common rules increased. Over time, district assemblies were created to create and enact laws. But sometime after 900 AD, the need for a larger, general assembly, or Alþing, arose.
Thingvellir (Þingvellir in Icelandic) is the original site of the first Icelandic general assembly, held in 930 AD. This site was chosen for its easy accessibility for most people from the different regional assemblies to attend; plus there was water, firewood and good land for grazing animals. People from all over Iceland met here for two weeks every June to settle disputes and listen to the laws being read out. It was also a meeting place where vendors sold their wares, people played games, and potential love matches were made.
From this first general assembly, the Icelandic Commonwealth was born. It was also here that Icelanders chose to abandon their old Norse pagan belief system in lieu of Christianity in 1000 AD. All of these historic events are explained along the trail in detailed interpretive plaques, written in both Icelandic and English.
During the Commonwealth (930-1262), there was no central authority to uphold judgments, so extreme punishments such as executions were rare. If someone was found guilty of a crime or other injustice, the punishment had to be carried out by the person or persons who made the accusations and filed the grievance.
This changed after 1262, when Iceland came under the authority of the King of Norway. By 1281, the Jónsbók, or Book of Law was approved as the main foundation of Icelandic law, despite opposition from locals. It wasn’t long before punishments for crimes became more severe.
In fact, some of the punishments were pretty gruesome. After the changes to the laws in 1281, one of the new forms of sentencing was execution by drowning. However, there aren’t any written cases of this form of punishment actually being carried out until after the Reformation in the 16th Century. That’s when things really took a dark turn.
Punishments came in various dreadful forms, depending on the crime. Corporal punishment came in the form of whipping, branding, or cutting off limbs/fingers. Execution covered larger crimes. Thieves were hanged, while murderers and male adulterers were beheaded. Then there were the witch hunts in the 17th Century, when numerous people were burned at the stake for witchcraft.
This is Drekkingarhylur – the Drowning Pool. Eighteen women were drowned here for various crimes – typically for “loose morals” – between 1618-1749. It doesn’t seem very deep, but then it didn’t need to be. Condemned women were forced to wear a wool sack over their heads, and once deemed guilty, they were pushed into the water and held under with a stick until they stopped moving.
At least 72 people were executed at Thingvellir between 1602 and 1750. That’s a sobering thought as you walk along the trail and boardwalks, overlooking some deceptively beautiful landscapes.
This is Öxarárfoss waterfall, which is fed by the Öxará river. In the 9th Century, locals moved the Öxará river in order to channel the water into a ravine. This was done so that fresh water was available for those attending the parliamentary Alþing. The diversion created this man-made waterfall.
The walking trail in Thingvellir is well laid out, but I would recommend good hiking boots with grippy treads. I found that my hiking shoes weren’t quite right for all of the path sections, especially on the slippery wooden boardwalk portions!
This flag marks one of the potential historic locations of the Law Rock. This was the place where the Law Speaker would have stood to proclaim the laws of the commonwealth at each assembly. The role of the Law Rock essentially ended when the Icelanders plead allegiance to the Norwegian king in 1262. Therefore, it’s exact location isn’t certain.
This is the impressive volcanic Almannagja rock wall, which marks Thingvellir’s western boundary. It’s also the second most-likely location of the Law Rock. The responsibility and power of the Alþing diminished over time, until the last general assembly meeting, held in 1798.
In the distance stands Þingvallakirkja, or Thingvellir church. This particular church dates from 1859, although there has been a wooden church at this site since Iceland adopted Christianity in 1000 AD.
Geysir Geothermal Area
Our next stop along the Golden Circle route was the Geysir. This is a geothermal hot spot which is affected by earthquake activity.
There are two primary geysirs here: the Great Geysir, and Strokkur. The Great Geysir is sporadic in its activity, and sometimes won’t erupt for years at a time. Interestingly, soap used to be added to the geysir to stimulate its eruptions. Eventually in the 1990s, soap stopped being used due to environmental concerns.
The Strokkur geysir, on the other hand, is much more active and consistent, usually erupting every 5-10 minutes.
Here is Strokkur as it starts to churn and bubble:
And thar she blows:
Then it goes silent again, until the next time. Strokkur usually shoots up to between 10-20 meters each time, though it’s been recorded as high as 40 meters.
The water is ridiculously hot when it shoots out, and there are warning signs everywhere not to touch the water or stand too close to the bursting water and subsequent steam. There’s also a lot of sulphur in the water, so there’s that pleasant rotten-egg scent lingering in the air after each eruption.
It was cool to watch it go off a few times, but then the novelty of it wore off. So we hopped back into the car and back on the road.
By the time we reached Gullfoss Waterfall, it was bloody cold. And windy. And damp. There were much better viewpoints of the falls than this one, but frankly, it was so cold that we basically went “point-click-shoot-get back in the car”.
The falls are fed by Iceland’s second largest glacier, Langjökull.
In the early 1900s, some investors decided they wanted to harness the power of Gullfoss to create electricity. The falls were owned by a farmer named Tómas Tómasson at the time, and he declined their offer to purchase the falls. He told them, “I do not sell my friends.” Eventually though, he agreed to lease the waterfall. But Tómas’ daughter, Sigriður Tómasdóttir, disagreed with the leasing of the falls.
Building a hydroelectric power plant here would have changed the waterfalls and surrounding land irreparably. In fact, to show the people just how serious she was about protecting the falls, Sigriður walked 120km from Gullfoss to Reykjavik barefoot. She even threatened to throw herself into the waterfall if a power plant was built. Eventually her protests were heard, and the plans were scrapped.
After her death in 1957, a memorial plaque was placed here to remember her fight to protect and conserve Gullfoss.
She looks quite formidable, doesn’t she?
Once we were done at Gullfoss, we drove back to Reykjavik. It’s a long drive, but one that we felt was best enjoyed by renting a car rather than going by tour bus. It allowed us a lot of freedom to spend as much (or as little) time at each attraction as we wanted. It also saved us money in the long run. Plus, it was pretty cool to see the landscape (and weather!) change along the way:
So, I can say without hesitation (as a passenger that never got behind the wheel once) that driving the Golden Circle is the best way to go while in Iceland!