Iceland’s Golden Circle: Tour Bus or Self Drive?

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After a long night of chasing the Northern Lights to no avail, we wake up the following morning for breakfast around 9:00 am to darkness. Winter nights in Iceland are long. The sun does not rise until about 10:00 am and sets around 4 or 5 in the afternoon. There’s no time to waste.

So, we get ready for our day’s activities ~ The Golden Circle tour. Self drive edition.

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Armed with only two maps (the first one we bought at a local grocery store was useless according to a guy at this gas station, so he gave us a free map), a tankful of gas, some snacks and a sense of adventure, we set forth in our trusty little rental car.

The Golden Circle is another “must-do” when in Iceland, especially when you only have two days! It is a looped route that you take from Reykjavik to Central Iceland and back, hence, the term “circle”. The tour involves getting into a UNESCO world heritage site, the Thingvellir National Park, a geothermal active valley where you see a geyser erupt every 4-8 or 5-10 minutes (depending on your source of information) and Gullfoss, Iceland’s most famous waterfalls.

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Gas prices in Reykjavik
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A full service gas station
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Highway going to Thingvellir National Park
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We’ve seen a few houses/establishments along the way. Most of it is open space.

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After a few missed turns and long stretches of white nothingness, we get to this look-out. We don’t know exactly where the entrance to the park is as it has no grand signs signifying that you have reached the park, very much like our Blue Lagoon spa experience the previous day. All you see are regular road signs and then before you know it, there is this beautiful lake stretched across a white snowy landscape. We are now at Thingvellir National Park.

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Lake Thingvallavatn

Of course, we had to stop for pictures! We got lucky there were people around (that red car in the first photo) who we kindly asked to take our group snapshot. Lake Thingvallavatn is Iceland’s largest lake.

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We were also amazed at the numerous little rock piles, called cairns, scattered around this area.

So, we drive a little bit further some more until we get to the tiny visitor center. No bus loads of tourists, yay! Just a few people loafing around, keeping warm. We get a general overview of the park and head out to the rift valley. Thingvellir National Park is the site of the oldest parliament in Europe, which was established in the year 930. It is also located in the Mid-Atlantic ridge where the tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia are colliding and separating.

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At the end of this icy wooden pathway, there appeared to be a “secret” trail in between the ridges. Secret, because no one was there but us and four other people. I love off-season sometimes.

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We finally make it to the top of the ridge, after carefully walking on rocks and packed snow. As always, I get left behind because I take too many pictures!

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That’s me, overwhelmed by the beauty of it all. This is the top of the continental fault. The crack you see behind me was the trail we took. My plan was to stand in both continents at the same time but the crack was just too wide. But, hey, this is close enough. Isn’t it cool to be actually in THIS place where you ARE in both continents?

Never mind that I slipped on the ice as I was trying to walk across a small gap in the rocks. There is no glamorous way of falling on ice I tell you. I got no broken bones at least.

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Not as majestic as the Grand Canyon but beautiful nonetheless. The Grand Canyon is only in America while this one spans two continents!
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Tiny people down below!
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Warning: do not do this at home

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We were actually looking for this waterfalls that we saw as we drove down the road. It led us to that hiking trail and up here to a breathtaking surprise.

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Oxararfoss (Oxara waterfalls)
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The frozen Oxara river
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The waterfall’s edge partly frozen

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After staying on the top of the ridge for a few minutes, we hike down and look for the waterfalls (again). A different view this time.

Then we decided it was time to go, having spent too much time in the Park. We still had two more stops in the Golden Circle. Along the way, snow gave way to open grass fields with lots of farming communities.

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The Icelandic Horse, small, furry and pony-sized. They have very few diseases due to strict importation and exportation laws. We saw lots of them on the way.
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Aww, aren’t these sheep the cutest? Wish we had more time so we could pet these animals.

Next stop, the geysers. Did you know that the word geyser is actually derived from the Icelandic verb, geysa, which means “to gush?”

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The geothermally active Haukadalur valley

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The original grand daddy of all geysers here, called Geyser, is now dormant. It would take an earthquake to wake him up. It is now Strokkur who shows off every 8 or so minutes throwing a column of hot water and steam.

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First, the water starts to boil..
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And then the eruption.

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That was a quick stop. We continue on our tour as the sun was getting low on the horizon.

Gullfoss (The Golden Waterfalls) is named as such because on a sunny day, the water looks almost golden as it tumbles down different steps and into a deep crevice. It was VERY windy and cold here, which translates to LESS photos. But, the views were spectacular!

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The walkway leading to the falls
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There are several trails around the waterfalls but because it was too cold, we just stayed at the first overlook.

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Just freezing and chilling here

This concludes our Golden Circle tour, self drive edition. We did it in about six hours round trip, with much time to stop and explore the places we wanted to check out. No rushing to get back into the bus, no obligatory souvenir store stops, no obnoxious annoying tourists. You can do it on your own. Make sure you know how to read a map though to save you from headaches. Lesson learned: get a GPS next time.

19 thoughts on “Iceland’s Golden Circle: Tour Bus or Self Drive?

  1. Having been on numerous tour buses and gotten off halfway through the tour to do my own wandering, getting lost taking pictures , and finding my own way back to the hotel room…I’ll gladly take self drive any day.

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  2. Did you just go? Iceland is my DREAM vacation! I want to go now but I also want to enjoy being able to do everything and not get stuck from snow! Was it still easily drivable? I’m really wanting to hurry up and go before I get pregnant so it’d be awesome to just buy a quick ticket and head out there!

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    1. No, this was about the same time last year when we went. You won’t get stuck in the snow because Iceland’s winters are get this, milder than America’s. It was at least in the ‘teens when we had our layover in NYC but in Iceland, it stayed in the 30s most of the entire time and it snowed only once on our way to the airport. If you want to go around the Ring Road, summer is the best way to do it but we were there for the Aurora Borealis, which we never did see for the two nights tour (booo!) that we did. Oh well, another reason to go back. The Golden Circle is doable in winter though which we did on our own.

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      1. I had no idea it was so mild there! I will definitely look into this! I want to go SO BAD but I also really prefer to travel outside of tourism season, I just didn’t think Iceland was doable in the winter!

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        1. I was surprised myself too. I guess it is a common misconception about Iceland (just because it has ICE in its name), same with Greenland, as there is nothing green about it. They say the vikings did that on purpose so no one would come to Iceland. πŸ˜‰

          The only thing about traveling during winter is that the days are short so you have to really make the most of your itinerary.

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    1. I enjoyed the breathtaking, out of this world scenery as we drove the Golden Circle. And to think that was winter! I could just imagine how green and lush it will be in the summertime. We want to do the Ring Road sometime in the future, sans ice. πŸ™‚ Thanks for stopping by!

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