SEPTEMBER 26, 2013
OUR LAST DAY OF ADVENTURE
View ICELAND GOLDEN CIRCLE in a larger map
A Self-Drive Tour of the Golden Circle
The Ultimate Roadtrip Adventure
One last adventure day to cap off our amazing backpacking vacation.
Before we jet set back to Canada we planned on touring the great Golden Circle of Iceland. A day trip featuring highlights of the land of fire and ice, from jetting geysers to vast glacial waterfalls. Covering about 300 km looping from Reykjavík into central Iceland and back. Hopefully leaving just enough time to make it back to the Keflavik Airport to catch our 6:30pm flight back to Halifax. We really did use every opportunity to see as much as we could on our trip!
Everyone that visits Iceland cannot miss the Golden Circle, but most choose one of abundant group tours. Sure they offer an itinerary where you dont have to worry about getting lost or missing a landmark or two but you have to deal with crowds and rushing to one spot than another. Since we had such great success being our own tour guides during this vacation, we decided to enjoy the freedom of touring the sights on our own! We packed up our little car rental and hit the roads early morning. The grey sky and fog did not ruin the adventure, in fact the dreary weather just highlighted the rugged and dramatic landscape.
Being our own guide allowed us to make lots of pit stops along the way. There were so many perfect opportunities to stop for photos. For example, not even 30 min into our road trip we came across the most friendly Icelandic horses. How could I not stop and meet these gorgeous creatures!
Icelandic Horses are one of the oldest breeds of horse in the world, they were first brought to Iceland by the Vikings who settled the country in the years 874~930. Although the horses are small, at times pony-sized, most refer to them as a horse. The horses were toughened by harsh weather conditions, volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters. The principle of “Survival of the fittest” made the Icelandic horses very fit indeed: they are famous for their amazing strength, sure-footedness, stamina and endurance. Interestingly, the Icelandic law prevents horses from being imported into the country and exported animals are not allowed to return. The breed is still used for traditional farm work, as well as for leisure, showing, and racing and can be found free grazing in large open fields all through out Iceland.
These guys were so friendly and photogenic!
Meanwhile, Rob kept his toes toasty in the car and took these shots of me and the Icelandic horses.
The fog slightly lifted revealing more rugged scenery on our drive.
Although we had a GPS in our rental car, the route was easy to navigate. I think it would be almost a challenge to get lost along the golden circle as there is lots of signage pointing you to the major sights…. And if ever in doubt just follow the stream of tour buses.
Þingvellir National Park
Our first official stop on the the tour, Thingvellir National Park, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Not knowing the background on this stop could make you wonder what the fuss is about, as on first glance there does not seem to be a whole lot happening at this spot. With a little research done in advance we learned that it is home to the world’s longest running Parliament, first established in 930 AD, and also has a dramatic landscape formed as a result of sitting along the border between the North American and European tectonic plates. It is also home to Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland.
No Mans Land
While Iceland is technically considered to be part of Europe, physically the island sits on the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates on the the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. This is where the two continents are pulling apart and separating at 2.5 centimeters per year. This rift valley provides a unique opportunity to walk down into the fissures of the rock between the two continents… a sort of no mans land in terms of continents.
The volcanic origin of the area is clearly visible here. Hardened ripples of ancient lava flows can be seen, but watch your step as there are cracks and faults all around. Best to stay on the trails.
Game of Thrones (SPOILER ALERT Season 4/Book 3) Thingvellir National Park was used as a filming location for the upcoming season and for the first time, Iceland will be seen in its summer beauty, as it will show Arya’s and Sandor Clegane’s journey from village to village in mid-Westeros.
Oxararfoss (meaning “Axe Falls”) seemed to be more of a side attraction in the historically important UNESCO World Heritage Site of Þingvellir. While while touring the area and admiring the small falls we read about how the waterfall was actually artificially created due to water diversion that took place several centuries ago to provide better access to drinking water for the assemblies of Þing. It’s said that the drowning pool (Drekkingarhylur) was also created to drown women accused of infanticide, adultery, or other crimes.
Geysir & The Geothermally Active Valley Of Haukadalur
Iceland gave the world the word Geyser. The world’s original geyser is located in the valley of Haukadalur, a very active geothermal area. Though Geysir has been inactive for a long time, Strokkur, on the other hand, continues to erupt at every 5-10 minutes interval, making it one of the most regular geysers in the world. The whole area is a geothermal park sitting on top of a vast boiling cauldron. Belching sulfurous mud pots of unusual colors, hissing steam vents, hot and cold springs, warm streams, and primitive plants can all be found here.
Great Geysir – During the centuries after 1294 the thermal activity increased after large earthquakes, striking almost every 100 years. However, Geysir became dormant for a long while, until it woke up dramatically as an earthquake of 6.5 magnitude hit the area on 17 June 2000 – coincidentally, Iceland´s National Day. Since then, Geysir has been erupting sporadically, but when Geysir performs, it sure lives up to its name, “The Geysir”, ejecting a jet of steaming water, between 60-80 m high.
Strokkur – Another geyser located less than 100 m away from Geysir and it erupts frequently every 5-10 minutes. Strokkur is a fountain geyser, one of Iceland´s most famous, first mentioned in 1789. It is one of the very few natural geysers that erupts regularly, spouting steaming water up to about 20 metres.
The final major stop around the Golden Circle is the cascading Gulfoss Waterfall. With a 105-foot double-cascade, Gullfoss is by far Europe’s most powerful waterfall. We took the steps down into the canyon and walked along the river pathway. We could feel the cold spray from the powerful glacial waterfall as we explored the path. As we first approached the falls, the crevice is hidden from view, so that it appears that a mighty river simply vanishes into the earth. The photos and the experience of getting so close to the water, was well worth the mini-hike.
But perhaps more beautiful than the falls themselves is the story of the woman who saved them. In the 1920′s a group of foreign investors made plans to dam the Hvita River for hydroelectric power. The landowner refused to sell but the government gave special permission to the investors, inspiring the landowners daughter to walk all the way to Reykjavík (70 miles!) to protest. Her threats to jump into the waterfall were heeded and thanks to the investors allowing the lease to lapse, the falls were saved. Today, Gulfoss is part of a nature reserve and protected from development.
Back on the road following the GPS south passing by lots of beautiful and dramatic landscape while listening to the latest Icelandic music played over the radio. We stopped many times to take a photos along the way. Hard to imagine people surviving the harsh climate over decades. After seeing countless amount of sheep along the way we finally pulled over to take some photos of what seemed to be free grassing wild sheep.
Interesting Fact… I later learned that there are more Icelandic sheep in Iceland than people. Approximately 450.000 sheep, while the human population is only about 300.000! Some farmers own nearly a thousand sheep of their own. As one can easily see, the extensive farm land is full of them, and every summer they roam the highlands and mountains freely. They´re tough, sturdy little animals, and grow lots of fluffy wool that is used to make woolen goods. They are also a popular source of meat for Icelanders but I personally didn’t have any interest in trying the lamb steak on our visit.
Kerið Volcanic Crater Lake
(15 km north of Selfoss just off Route 35)
Our last stop on the Golden Circle driving tour, a 55 m deep, inactive volcanic crater, Kerid, one of the most amazing sights in the Icelandic landscape. Kerid harbours a small green lake in the Grímsnes region. It is now filled with water, creating a lake with steep circular slopes resembling an ancient amphitheater. The crater is nearly 3000 years old, and is a part of a group of volcanic hills called Tjarnarhólar. The caldera, like the other volcanic rock in the area, is composed of a red (rather than black) volcanic rock. It is a beautiful sight to visit and take photos as it displays intense vivid colors. A small entrance fee is now required to visit the site, with the proceeds helping to preserve the area and repair damage from the increased traffic to this popular tourist location.
Journey Back To Keflavik International Airport
We made great time touring the 300 km loop, but it was now time to make our way back to the car rental company and get back to the airport in time for our 6:30 flight back to Halifax. Still admiring the volcanic landscape we drove another 2 hours to our destination. Stopping along the way for a famous Icelandic hot dog. It turns out Icelanders love hot dogs. Every convenience store, kiosk, gas station, roadside stop, and eatery of any kind carries them, and they’re consumed for meals, snacks, pick-me-ups, and as late-night munchies.
ICELAND AIR & Flying Over Greenland
We returned our car without a hitch and boarded our flight back to Canada. Hard to believe our journey was coming to an end. Part way through the flight our Captain announced that we were flying directly over Greenland and noted that with the clear skys we were being treated to a spectacular view of the to see the glaciers and mountains below. We were all mesmerized by the views below, one last visual joy on our epic backpacking adventure. For almost the entire flight the sky was a rainbow of stunning colors as we flew with the setting sun.
Home Sweet Home
Our journey came to an end and we finally made it home to New Brunswick. It was a long and eventful trip, packed full of great memories and adventures. It’s hard to believe we were able to see and do so much in such short time. I am amazed how smoothing things went and how a little planning and organization can save so much time and money. Thoughts are already in the air for the ‘next adventure’….