The Iceland Ring Road Trip Part 13: The Golden Circle

THE NEXT DAY, WE LEAVE THE SNÆFELLES PENINUSLA AND HEAD TO THE GOLDEN CIRCLE. Not to be confused with the Ring Road, the Golden Circle isn’t an actual topographical area; it’s a term that refers to the a group of sites (primarily the Þingvellir National Park, the Gulfoss, and Geysir) in South Iceland that are popular day trip destinations from Reykjavik. Because they are very accessible from the capital,  they are teeming with tourists, especially those with limited time in the country. But this region is crowded for a reason – it’s not just beautiful, it also provides an integral slice of Iceland’s history and natural wonder.

Our first stop is the Deildartunguhver in the town of Reykholt, just outside the Golden Circle proper. This hot spring with a mouthful of a name is actually Europe’s most powerful, producing 200 liters of boiling water per second. A close look at the spring reveals its strength, with thick smoke covering the immediate surroundings, and the water bubbling loudly. Most of the water is used for central heating in neighboring towns.

The Deildartunguhver is considered Europe’s most powerful hot spring.
The Þingvallakirkja sits on a beautiful edge of the Öxará River in Þingvellir National Park.
Gulfoss captures the raw natural beauty of Iceland.

Later in the afternoon, we go to the Þingvellir National Park, which is also the Golden Circle’s key site and the birthplace of Iceland as a nation. The name translates as “Parliament Plains,” and it was here that the Vikings established the world’s first democratic parliament in 930 AD. It was specifically founded in Almannagjá, a massive rift valley caused by the meeting of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.

At the end of the valley is the Lögberg, or Law Rock, where members of the Parliament met and lawspeakers recited the laws of the Commonwealth from memory. A flagpole marks the possible site of the Law Rock, although the exact location is still a matter of debate among historians.

Covering a large expanse of the park is a lava field, which is bisected by the Öxará River, and at the river’s edge are a church and a farmhouse. An original church was first built on the site in the 11th century, but the current one, called Þingvallakirkja, is a relatively recent creation, having been constructed in 1859. In front of the church is a farmhouse that was built to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of the Parliament in 1930. Today, the farmhouse serves as the summer residence of the Prime Minister.

By evening, we have arrived in Borealis Hotel. The place is located in a scenic corner of Selfoss, the largest town in the area. And the name provides optimism of another night of aurora sighting. True enough, at around 11 pm, with the skies clear and the city lights far away, we see the northern lights dance again in the heavens.

Pressurized water escapes from ground vents in Stokkir.
The Kerið is one of several crater lakes in what is known as Iceland’s Western Volcanic Zone.
Clear skies and dark surroundings mean another northern light sighting.

We leave the hotel the next morning to explore the rest of the Golden Circle, starting with Gulfoss. This majestic waterfall is one of Iceland’s most iconic sights and is a testament to raw beauty of the country’s natural scenery. The falls has three levels, with the first one a raging river fed by the Langjökull glacier. The water then crashes 70 meters down into a rugged canyon at such tremendous force.

Moving on, we go to Geysir, the most famous example of the geological phenomenon and the one that lent its name to geysers around the world. However, Geysir itself is dormant and hsn’t erupted since 2005. Visitors can instead see the water eruption in the nearby Strokkir, which erupts every 8 to 15 minutes.

Making a short detour from the Golden Circle, we head to the Kerið, a volcanic crater lake in the Grímsnes area of South Iceland. The site resembles a smaller Mount Pinatubo but is much older at approximately 3000 years old. It is, however, much younger than other calderas in Iceland.

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