The Golden Circle (Iceland)

Peter and I were in Iceland for what amounted to a long weekend. We arrived mid-afternoon on a Friday and departed late-afternoon the following Tuesday. This left us with three full and two half days to fill with activities.

Through our years of travel, we have learned that “half days” almost always end up being wasted days. It does not matter how early you arrive at your destination or how late you depart, travel days are travel days and our two half days in Iceland were no different.

Our first half day was spent at our hotel drinking happy hour wine and beer followed by dinner at a restaurant located on the opposite side of Reykjavik. The walk to-and-from made us realize that we had not packed appropriately for our trip. There were two key pieces of clothing missing from our luggage: gloves and hats.

Our first full day was spent touring the Golden Circle in a “superjeep” and regretting not having rented a car for our stay in Iceland.

Our tour group consisted of one guide, two other tourists who delightfully did not want to chat with Peter and me, and, of course, Peter and I.

Generally speaking, the Golden Circle is a tourist loop covering about 300 kilometers (186 miles) beginning and ending in Reykjavik. It includes three main attractions which I have rated from least boring to most boring:

  • Haukadalur geothermal field
  • Gullfoss
  • Thingvellir National Park

Before setting off on this journey, I wondered how many of those kilometers Peter would spend sleeping. 100? 200? 299? I also wondered how many minutes it would take for him to doze off. The standard 5? 10? 30?

Before we climbed into the superjeep, Peter said, “You know these types of tours are really hard for me.” I assured him that I understood but made no promises about not taking photos of him sleeping like I usually do.

We were collected from our hotel in the superjeep at 8am and then driven to our first stop, Vatnsleysufoff, also know as Faxi Waterfall. I’ll use plain English when referring to places in Iceland from now on so all y’alls can follow along and not get lost in massive amounts of random letters strung together.

Peter and the tourist seated in front of him slept a good majority of the drive. I can’t blame them. It seemed like we were driving forever. There was nothing to look at aside from the occasional small herd of free-roaming sheep.

Our tour guide didn’t speak much because I don’t think there was much to speak about but when she did, she was knowledgeable and she got more sarcastic as the day progressed which I appreciated.

8:15am: “These are the closest mountains to Reykjavik. Here we go skiing.”

I learned the term “mountains” really has a wide range of meanings because the so-called mountains she was pointing to were big rocky hills.

8:45am: “When you see a car like that one on the side of the road, it is a reminder that driving can be very dangerous in Iceland and a lot of people die on the roads. You can see on the sign by the car the number of people who have died on Iceland roads this year. Do you see the sign? Six people have died on Iceland roads this year. Very dangerous.”

I learned that the term “a lot” also has a wide range of meanings. When I drove through the state of Montana in June of this year, I noticed similar death toll signs (along with an alarming number of Montana Meth Project billboard advertisements). Montana’s death toll signs had a slightly different count than Iceland’s death toll. In early June, the death toll in Montana – which has an estimated population of just over one million – was at 64 for 2017 and I just checked Montana’s website and the death toll now stands at 124 for 2017.

9:07am: “Some people who live near hot springs bury a box near the hot spring and they bake bread in that box. It takes 24 hours to bake the bread and it’s baked by the geothermal heat. Almost all of the houses in Iceland are heated with geothermal energy. The rest are heated with electricity. It costs almost nothing to heat our homes.”

9:27am: “We are going to do the tour in reverse order today to avoid most of the tourists.”

Good idea. I like smart people and companies.

We arrived at Faxi Waterfall around 9:30am. There were three other vehicles in the parking lot, one of which was one of our superjeep’s 10 identical siblings. Our guide kindly informed us that we should memorize the license plate number of our superjeep so as to not accidentally climb into the wrong superjeep and, you know, go unnoticed amongst the other 1-4 passengers in that superjeep. Safety first!

Faxi Waterfall is small but on the day of our visit, it was very powerful. It’s fed by glacial melt and it was “very hot” (our guide’s words, not mine) on the day of our visit (15.5°C / 60°F) so that meant a lot of glacial melt flowing into the river and over the cliff. Our guide went on to declare that her body was not built to handle temperatures over 15°C and that she was “melting like a glacier.”

The river feeding Faxi Waterfall is full of salmon. The “steps” seen to the left of the waterfall in the photo above is a salmon ladder which allows salmon to “jump” up the ladder and continue upstream to lay eggs or whatever salmon do upstream. Maybe party with their closest lefse friends? Don’t know. Peter did not believe me when I told him that it was a salmon ladder but our guide confirmed it and I did a small victory dance behind Peter’s back.

After about 15 minutes (66 percent more time than is needed) at Faxi Waterfall, we climbed back in our correct superjeep and drove past the geothermal area (sad!) and onward to Gullfoss, the “Queen” of Iceland’s waterfalls.

Gullfoss’s claim to fame is that it mimics a three-step angled staircase. Gullfoss is big but not Iguazu Falls big. Those two waterfalls are not even in the same world as far as I’m concerned.

Gullfoss was the most crowded stop on our tour as seen by the trail of human ants on the left of the photo above. The trail led to the “top step” where we were able to climb on wet rocks and get stupidly close to raging water which Peter classified as “class 5 rapids.”

Again, stupidly close to the water.

After being sprayed with pristine river water for 10 minutes, we walked the long trail back to the visitors centre where we found our guide recovering from heat stroke sitting at a picnic table in the shade. As I scanned the parking lot, I found the following vehicle which left me speechless, partially because I wondered where said “mountains” were and also because, Wow.

I asked our guide about the “superbus” and she informed us that it was a renovated army bus. She then stated that Iceland doesn’t have an army or any armed forces. She was proud of living in such a peaceful country and I found myself envious because I consider my country the opposite of peaceful, especially in current times. I wanted to know from which country Mountaineers of Iceland obtained their superbus but I did not ask because I knew she was probably going to say “The USA, of course” and that would upset me for a variety of reasons so I just smiled like a good Midwesterner.

By this time on our tour, I was wondering if we would be stopping at a local village somewhere for some delicious lamb stew or if our guide would, at some point, let us know which stop would be a good stop to eat but nope, nothing. (Note to anyone embarking on the Golden Circle Superjeep tour, lunch is not provided and the best place to eat is at the visitors centre at the Haukadalur geothermal field.)

Our next stop, Langjökull, was an eternity away and down a road made of boulders. Our guide filled the drive time with some more fast facts.

1:02pm: “Iceland has a population of about 340,000 people. Two-thirds of the people live in Reykjavik.”

Hmm, so the country of Iceland has a population that is about a third of the population of Seattle. Interesting.

1:23pm: “There are estimated to be 500,000-800,000 free-roaming sheep in Iceland. People think they are cute but I only see food when I look at them.”

I wish everyone was as blunt and honest as our tour guide.

I can’t find a user-friendly plain English name for Langjökull but in Icelandic, it means “long glacier,” so that’s what I’m going with. Once we finally arrived on, yes on, Long Glacier, I was starving and ready to get out of the superjeep. Our guide told us that when a pregnant woman no longer wants to be pregnant, they drive on this road to jostle the baby out of the womb. How very Viking of them, I thought.

The road was made of rocks like these which made me feel as though I had just given birth and/or been run over by the superbus.

Let me first state that standing in front of (and on) Perito Moreno Glacier was one of the highlights of my life. The striking blue color of the ice is a feast for the eyes, so I was a bit let down by Long Glacier. It was white and “dirty.”

I learned that the “dirt” is volcanic ash from the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull. You got it. The same jerk volcano responsible for inflating the prices in Iceland is also responsible for making the glacier “dirty.”

The volcanic ash was very fine and felt like it would be a great body scrub. I wanted to take some volcanic ash but refrained and that is one regret I have from our trip to Iceland.

Once we understood that the molehills on the glacier were volcanic ash and not dirt, then the glacier seemed less dirty and way cooler. Oh, and I dunked my water bottle in the stream in the photo below and drank the water. It was as ice-cold and delicious as it looks – glacial melt filtered by volcanic ash, homies!

Global warming and the ash (which retains heat and causes the snow to melt) are the two factors attributed to the glacier shrinking. Scientists estimate that all glaciers in Iceland will have melted in 50-100 years. The effects of global warming have never been so evident in our travels as they were in Iceland.

We could talk to any local resident who has lived in Iceland for any period of years and they could tell us exactly how [insert whatever thing/landmark/Earth component here] was 10 years ago compared to what it is today, why the hotter temperatures are to blame, and where [insert whatever thing/landmark/Earth component here] is headed in the future. For example, they have noticed within recent years that evergreen trees used for Christmas have been growing faster due to the warmer temperatures.

Icelanders really give Seattleites a run for their tree-hugging title.

We walked around the glacier a little bit and I was scared the whole time. It didn’t feel solid like Perito Moreno and there were crevasses all around and we could hear and see running water deep in the crevasses. The crevasse in the photo below was about 4.5 m / 15 ft deep and standing as close to the edge as I was in order to take the photo was terrifying.

After an overwhelmingly long time on Long Glacier, we climbed back in the superjeep and drove many more kilometers to the Haukadalur geothermal field. This field is home to two geysers: Geysir and Strokkur.

“Geysir” is from whom we get our plain English word (“geyser”) for the hole in the Earth that spews hot mineral water that, at worst, can kill a human and, at best, stain clothing. Geysir isn’t all that active but when he is, he goes big. His eruption in 2000 – caused by an earthquake – made him spew water over 122 m / 400 ft high and it is one of the highest geyser spews in history.

Here’s Geysir. He’s pretty chill.

“Strokkur” is Geysir’s very active sister. She spews every 5-10 minutes and it’s amazing and scary every time. Here she is doing a double spew.

The first sign of a geyser getting ready to spew is when the water starts moving around and creating waves in its puddle. Eventually, the water recedes slightly into the hole and then comes back out and then recedes and then comes back out and then the hole swallows the water and a big blue ball of water appears and it’s a spewfest from that point on.

Below is one of Peter’s videos which captures the moment Strokkur is about to spew, showing the blue ball of water.

And here is Strokkur in all her spewed glory.

We spent about 45 minutes at the geothermal area which was plenty of time to take multiple videos and photos. It takes about two spews to understand the warning signs of the spew and thus, get yourself and camera in position to video or photograph it. Ideally, it would have been better to be further back but everyone was right up against the rope, so if we stepped back, we’d have lost our place and would not have been able to get any unobstructed photos.

I thought our day was over after spewfest but it was not. We had one more stop, Thingvellir National Park. So, back in the superjeep we went. By the way, getting in and out of the backseat of the superjeep was a pain in the ass and I will avoid any tour going forward that is conducted in a superjeep.

An hour later, we arrived at Thingvellir National Park. Since it is a national park, I was expecting something spectacular but it looked like the rest of Iceland which is devoid of anything and everything.

One cool thing to know about Iceland is that it straddles two tectonic plates (Eurasian and North American). This is why there is a plethora of earthquake and volcanic activity in Iceland. When I first learned of this, I thought, “Oh, Iceland is going to eventually split in half and become Iceland 1 and Iceland 2.” However, after some more lessons on the topic, I learned that Iceland (which is roughly the size of the state of Virginia or Hungary) is growing, not splitting and it’s growing by about 5 cm / 2 in per year.

Here’s a plain English map I created to show the tectonic plates overlaying Iceland.

One misconception I had in regard to the split (technical term: Mid-Atlantic ridge) was that there would be a very prominent split/ravine and it would run continuously across the island but this is not the case.

In reality, the split is actually multiple splits like show in the very technical drawing below.

When you’re on the ground, it’s not obvious to an untrained eye if what you’re looking at is just a ravine or if it is one of those crazy tectonic splits.

Thingvellir National Park is an area is one of the many places where you can see a split but as proven with our visit, we still had no idea what the fuck we were looking at when we were in the park! There were ravines everywhere! Is the river down below the split? Is this wide path between two big rocks the split? We were clueless and had to ask our guide when we met up with her after our short hike.

I took three photos at Thingvellir National Park. Two of the photos were the same shot. One in portrait and one in landscape orientation. So, this nets me two photos from the park. I’m feeling generous so I’ll share both with you.

The split can be seen in the photo below and we hiked through it but had no idea we were hiking through a split. It was pretty wide and it shielded us from the wind which was nice. The wind in Iceland is ferocious and unrelenting.

The view from the other direction looked like this:

Where has thy split gone?

A bird’s-eye view of the park via Google Maps clearly shows the split.

Other than trying to figure out what the hell we were looking at, Thingvellir National Park was the most boring stop of our tour and I was happy to be climbing into the superjeep one last time and be on our way to our hotel.

All in all, it was a very long day (about 10 hours) with the bulk of it spent driving. If we had to do it all over again, we’d have rented a car and visited the Haukadalur geothermal field only.

Next up, descending deep inside a dormant volcano.

1 comment on “The Golden Circle (Iceland)

  1. We rented a car our first day there years ago and saw most of what you did. All very cool and beautiful! Was fun to see it again. Thank you!

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