Iceland's Golden Circle | A Day Trip from Reykjavik

17 August 2015

We had a lot of things we wanted to do and see in Iceland. To cram it all in, we took a full-day tour to the Golden Circle to see some of the most popular natural attractions just outside of Reykjavik.

Our original plan was to rent a car to sightsee around the island at our own pace. If you have the means, I highly suggest considering doing that, but others' accounts of the unpredictable winter weather in Iceland ultimately influenced our decision to take guided tours instead. We saw more going this route since we had several days of challenging weather, but I often felt rushed. The Icelandic countryside offers such an alien terrain; much of it surprised me, and I wanted to stop the bus to get out an explore. But the thing about taking a tour is that the trip no longer belongs to you. Your journey has an agenda, and I'm the type of girl that doesn't do very well with agendas while traveling.

Out of a handful of options, we selected the Golden Circle and Green Energy Tour with Sterna Travel Iceland. They were the only company to package this trip with a visit to an energy plant, and they also among few that offered a day trip out to the south coast during this time of year, which we were also interested in doing. 

The Golden Circle and Green Energy Tour is offered year-long, and after witnessing the rapid changes in weather first-hand, we were glad we had some experienced Icelanders transporting us from place to place. When it snows, the heat from the ground causes a thick, white haze that is almost impossible to see through. We wouldn't have gotten far if left to our own devices. 

Hellisheiði Geo-Thermal Power Plant
The first stop of the tour was to visit Iceland's largest power plant. Iceland has used geo-thermal resources to create sustainable energy for over 70 years! The Hellisheiði power plant offers an educational exhibit where you'll learn that the plant was built on plate tectonics that move in opposite directions, creating energy. This makes Iceland virtually independent from relying on expensive imported oil and fossil fuels, which are much harsher on the environment. 

I was a bit disappointed to learn that admission to the geo-thermal power plant was an additional 5 EUR on top of the already hefty price tag of the tour itself. If you book this tour, I recommend factoring that into your overall budget. There is no other option but to sit in the atrium of the plant or go through it. 

Kerid Volcanic Crater
After spending about an hour at the plant, we were on our way to the Golden Circle! We made a stop along the way at a volcanic crater called Kerid, which means "container top." The crater filled with glacial water, and since we were visiting in winter it had been frozen over. So gorgeous!

Making Friends with Icelandic Horses
As we continued on our journey, we paused to make friends with some Icelandic horses, grazing in the pasture of a farm we passed. These are the most friendly animals you will ever meet, but whatever you do, don't call them ponies! A black one approached me somewhat timidly, but after I reached out and pet its mane, it licked my face with it's rough, pink tongue! Fast friends, obviously. 

Gullfoss Waterfall
By midday, we reached our first stop of the Golden Circle -- Gullfoss waterfall! Before exploring, we stopped in the cafeteria for some delicious lamb stew, which was a nice way to warm ourselves up after being outside for so long. I helped myself to a slice of warm apple pie, as well. The cafeteria was very well priced for being such a touristy destination. 

Gullfoss is just remarkable. It is a giant, three-tier waterfall that pours into itself. With so many waterfalls decorating the countryside of Iceland, you would think their beauty would wane. But you are sorely mistaken. In the summertime, you can hike around and get really close to the falls, but since the paths were frozen over, many of them were roped off. I felt a bit rushed here and had wished that we hadn't stopped at a smaller waterfall on the way to maximize time here. Just as we were leaving, a rainbow appeared over the falls! Icelanders say this is a rare treat, and it brings good fortune to all who witness it. 

Geysir & Strokkur
The second largest attraction of the tour was to stop at Geysir. This was the highlight of my tour. As we walked up to the site of the Geysir, steaming, hot water ran along the cobblestone path. I was tempted to reach out and touch it for myself, but the path is decorated with warning signs. You can suffer severe burns from this water, so I suggest you keep an eye out for similar signs no matter where you are traveling in Iceland. 

The great Geysir itself has been dormant since the 1990s, though steam still rolls off the top of its vent today. Earthquake activity has been known to revive Geysir, and in the 1980s, stimulations of the eruption were triggered by soap, but this practice was stopped due to environmental concerns. When it did erupt, it would send boiling water about 70 meters into the air!

The nearby geyser Strokkur erupts much more frequently, ranging from every 7 to 11 minutes each day. It looks glorious when it does, sending water up about 30 meters. It is a really strange phenomenon to see such hot water erupting nearby snow covered fields and mountains. 

Þingvellir National Park
Our final stop of the day was to visit Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Þingvellir is also the site of Silfra, Iceland's most popular snorkeling and dive site where travelers can explore the deep, glacial water that pools between the split of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. It's over 100 meters long, and the water is so clear that you can see straight to the bottom. Icelanders use it as a "wishing well" of sorts. The trick is to ask the split a yes or no question, and if you can watch the coin you toss reach the bottom, the answer is yes. I really wanted to snorkel here, but I ran out of time. It will certainly be on my list if I return!

I was bummed during our van ride back to Reykjavik because I wanted so badly to continue exploring this other-worldly countryside, but I was also excited for what was to come next. We'd be heading out to hunt for the Northern Lights a few hours after our arrival back to the city center, which was something that I'd been aching to do for quite some time!

Although this route is one of the most common for tourists to take, these natural Icelandic beauties are not to be missed. I hope your trip includes a close up with some horses, too!

Real Talk
I was quite impressed that the group size of the tour gets no larger than about 12 people or so. This is nice because the areas you will visit on this tour are already quite crowded. The guide we had wasn't very clear about expectations for returning to the bus at each stop, so there was a situation where we had to wait about 20 minutes for a group of girls traveling with us to return. Given the limited time for the tour, this was quite frustrating. One nice touch is that this company drops each guest off at his or her hotel at the end of the tour. I was thankful for this after a long day of exploring.

To save some cash, I would recommend considering booking multiple tours with one company like we did. Sterna Travel Iceland did not advertise a discount on their site, but for us, it paid off to just ask!

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