Summer Trip to Iceland: The Golden Circle

After our two days in Reykjavík, we headed out on the main purpose of the trip: renting a campervan and driving the Ring Road around the country.

Our Go Campers Campervan

When we visited southern Africa, we decided that the best way to see and experience the area was to rent a 4×4 truck for a self-drive safari. We had read of many people doing the same thing in Iceland: renting a campervan to allow them to explore the beautiful countryside at their own pace.

After a lot of research and comparison, we decided to rent through Go Campers. We chose their smallest model, the Go SMART 2-person Camper. This vehicle would be both our transportation and accommodation for the next ten days!

Included in the Go Campers rental was pickup from the main bus station in Reykjavík, which was in walking distance from our accommodations. We were happy to see that our Dacia Dokker van was quite new, with only 5730 km (3560 miles) on the odometer and not much wear.

We paid a little extra to rent a cooler, table and chairs to add to the included kitchen and camping gear. We had brought our own sleeping bags so we didn’t have to rent those, but pillows, light blankets and a mattress were included.

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Making dinner the first night using the small pullout shelf. You can also see the chairs and cooler, as well as the storage boxes in the back of the van

The Golden Circle

After acquainting ourselves with our campervan, we headed to the most popular area of the country for visitors: the Golden Circle. This is not a geographic designation but rather just a way to describe the grouping of popular tourist sites near Reykjavik which are located roughly along a circle of highways.

Reykjadalur

Our first stop wasn’t actually one of the main Golden Circle sights but was in the same area. We drove through the town of Hveragerði to the trailhead for the hike to Reykjadalur, the “steaming valley”. We had thought this would not be too popular of a spot since not too much had been written about it, but the crowded parking lot was our first lesson that nothing in Iceland in the summer is unknown.

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The hike was a little tougher than we were expecting, about 3 km with 200 m elevation gain. We also were introduced to the gnats that would pester us throughout the trip (luckily not biting). The scenery was nice but not stunning – until we got to the final part with the large mud pots and steam vents. It felt like we were walking into another world as we walking through the sulfurous steam.

The final destination was a river that we could bathe in – hot water from the springs runs down into the cold water resulting in a very pleasant temperature. We searched for a spot that was not too hot and stayed in for a while, soaking away. We dried ourselves off using the small towels we had brought and then headed back down.

Overall we spent about 3.5 hours. There was a WC at the coffeeshop at the trailhead. We thought there was supposed to be one by the bathing area but could not find it.

Kerið

We spent about 30 minutes walking around the rim of this volcanic crater and then down to the lake in the middle of it. Unfortunately, it had gotten overcast, so the reds of the rock and blues of the lake did not contrast quite as nicely as we had hoped. This was also one of the few natural attractions that we visited in Iceland that charged admission.

Þingvellir National Park

Our first visit to one of the big 3 on the Golden Circle was the Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park. This park is both of geographic and historic interest: it is located in the rift valley between the North American and European continental plates, and it was the site of the Alþingi, a yearly meeting of Icelandic clan chiefs which started in 930 AD (considered the world’s first Parliament). The site was used as a meeting place for Parliament up until 1800.

We walked around the park and saw the main attractions: Lögberg, the “law rock”, where the Lögsögumaður (Lawspeaker) would recite the laws each year (and where the decision was made to switch the national religion to Christianity in 1000 AD); the remains of búðir, meaning “booths”, the structures where the Alþingi attendees and their retinues would stay during the meetings; Þingvallakirkja, one of Iceland’s first churches; and Öxaráfoss waterfall.

Snorkeling in Silfra at Þingvellir

There are so many amazing outdoor adventures to do in Iceland, but we knew we couldn’t afford to do them all. Instead, we went with something we thought sounded pretty unique: snorkeling in glacial water in between the tectonic plates!

A company called Dive Iceland runs snorkeling and diving tours in the Silfra fissure which leads into the Þingvallavatn lake. This fissure is fed by glacial water, so the water is crystal clear… but ice cold! You may be wondering how we could snorkel in such water. Dive Iceland provides full dry suits for all of the guests to be able to stay in the near freezing water.

Since it was the summer, we were able to book a tour that left at 9 PM, and there was still a lot of light. We met up with our guide Tonya, the on shore assistant Elanora, and four other guests. We had worn a bunch of thermal layers as instructed, and they provided an additional thermal onesie. Getting squeezed into the dry suits was an adventure in itself, requiring assistance from one of the guides. Having tight neck and wrist seals was the most important part.

Diving into the cold water was a little scary, but the dry suits did a pretty good job. The gloves are “wet” gloves, so your hands did get cold after a while. And your mouth is exposed directly to the water as well. It was a bit weird to be snorkeling in fresh water after so many times in seawater.

The water was very clear, and almost blue tinted. Our snorkel tour took us through the rift in the direction that the spring water was moving, so we didn’t actual have to spend much energy kicking, as the current would move you along.

The first part of the fissure was narrow and deep, with big boulders at the bottom. Following this were a few shallow parts that we had to navigate over. We started to see interesting green kelp that looked like Silly String. The last large part is nicknamed “The Cathedral.”

We finished up by getting out of the current into a shallow lagoon. Here we could stay in as long as we wanted. Our hands had gotten pretty cold, so we didn’t linger. We did make sure and drink directly from the water – since it is straight from a glacier it is safe to drink.

Back at the meeting place, we squeezed back out of the dry suits and had some nice hot chocolate. Even then it took us a while to warm back up. We definitely enjoyed this unique experience!

Camping at Þingvellir

We didn’t finish snorkeling until late, so it was nice that there was a campground right there at Þingvellir. Earlier in the day we had paid to stay here, which was kind of a funny story. We had been assuming that there were assigned spots and were concerned to make sure to get one, but as it turns out all of the campgrounds in Iceland are basically just open fields. Once you pay for a night, you can just choose any spot in the field you feel like. We tried to pick one pretty close to the ablutions block, which had toilets, showers and utility sinks.

Setting up the campervan for sleeping was a pretty simple process. We simply moved our luggage up into the front seats and spread out our sleeping bags on the mattress in the back. We slept with our heads near the front seats and our feet near the back, with just enough room to be able to lie flat.

Geysir

The next morning we headed to one of the other big attractions on the Golden Circle, the geysers at Geysir (Geysir is where the English word geyser came from). There are multiple hot water spouts and bubbling mud pools in this area crowded with tourists. The eponymous spout Geysir erupts very infrequently currently. However, the geyser Strokkur is very reliable, erupting about every 4 minutes when we were there. We spent about 45 minutes exploring the area and watching the explosions of water. There is a large tourist center with food and restrooms here as well.

Gullfoss

The last major stop on the Golden Circle is the massive waterfall Gullfoss. It is actually composed of two tiers of massive drops. We first walked down on the lower part to get a close-up view, making sure to put on rain jackets to stay dry from all of the spray. We then headed to a nice viewpoint above the falls. We spent about an hour in total exploring here. There are bathrooms in the parking lot, but you have to pay (credit cards accepted, as everywhere else in Iceland).

Back to the Ring Road

Following Gullfoss, we headed back down on a few different highways to rejoin the Ring Road. We didn’t stop for any more attractions, other than to say hi to some Icelandic ponies.

Once back on the Ring Road, we headed east to explore the waterfalls and coastal formations of Southern Iceland.

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