Iceland is one of the most popular tourism hotspots at the moment, with 1.8 million travelers visiting the island last year alone. That 1.8 million number was 40% more than the 1.3 million visitors in 2015. For 2017, Iceland is expecting that visitor number to climb even higher. Having visited Iceland this summer, it’s easy to see why so many people are planning their holidays there. With waterfalls, glaciers, volcanos, caves, wildlife, geysers, and viking history to explore, there is no shortage of amazing things to see and do.
I spent two weeks in Iceland driving the Ring Road with my family, and felt like I was just scratching the surface with all there is to explore. To start our Ring Road adventure, we began with Iceland’s Golden Circle. This drive passes Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, the Strokkur Geysir, and Gullfoss Falls, and Kerið Crater. We also added on visits to Hjalparfoss and Gjáin. Below you will find a site map with all of the points of interest, as well as site overviews with photos and descriptions.
- Distance: 200km assuming you start in Reykjavik and end at Urriðafoss.
- Time: Total drive time is 3 hours, but plan on at least 9 hours to see the sites. Allow for at least one full day.
- Food and Gas: You can pick up food and snacks at markets in Reykjavik. There are plenty of gas stations along the route.
The Golden Circle Drive
Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park is a site that combines history, culture, and geology, making it one of the more popular tourists destinations in Iceland. When you first arrive to the Þingvellir parking lot, make your way towards the visitor center. There is a pay-to-use restroom, but parking and park visitation are no cost. Make sure to bring a pair of shoes you can comfortably walk in. We walked close to 5km exploring this park. You also need to come prepared for all weather. As you can see in the photos below, we visited Þingvellir in a light but constant rain.
From the visitor center you will instantly see the rift valley that marks the Mid Atlantic Ridge. This is where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. You will also be treated to views of Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland.
The next stop at Þingvellir is Lögberg, or Law Rock. This outcrop is home to the original national parliament of Iceland, and is known as the Alþingi. The Alþingi is the oldest parliament in the world, having been established in the year 930. There is no exact location for the original Alþingi due to the changing rift valley, but many believe it is at the Hallurinn, which is now marked by the flagpole shown in the photo below.
The next stop in Þingvellir is Öxarárfoss, a beautiful water fall along a level walking path.
After Öxarárfoss you’ll want to visit Langistigur. This is where you’ll definitely want hiking shoes with good grip and traction, as the entire path is lava that can be covered in mud when it rains. Once you’ve hiked up to Langistigur, you’ll have a spectacular view back through the rift divide to the visitor center. From Langistigur you can hike back the way your came.
On your way back to the visitor center, you’ll pass by the Þingvellir church.
From Þingvellir, drive east towards Strokkur Gerysir. Bruarfoss Waterfall is in the middle of that drive, but the rain was coming down a little to hard for us to stop. Once you arrive at Strokkur Geysir, park in the lot in front of the visitor center. The visitor center has a nice cafe/restaurant and a massive gift shop. The actual geyser is across the street.
This is a geothermal area, so be careful of your footing and keep your distance from the pools of water. The most popular geyser in this area is Strokkur, as it erupts like clockwork every 10-15 minutes.
Strokkur isn’t the only site worth seeing here, make sure to walk around and see all of the geothermal pools on view. The one shown in the photo below has water so blue I had to do a double take to make sure my eyes were actually seeing it.
Gulfoss Falls is one of the most impressive sites in all of Iceland. The Hvítá river flows and falls into a rock staircase with all steps turning at tight angles. The final fall seems to disappear into a deep crevasse when viewed from the visitor area. There is a walkway that allows visitors to walk out onto a platform near the mouth of the falls. We visited Gullfoss in a rainstorm with powerful wind gusts. I didn’t get the photos I was hoping for, but it was an incredible experience nonetheless.
The next stop on the main Golden Circle Drive is the Kerið crater. Kerið is a volcanic crater lake in Iceland’s Western Volcanic Zone. There is a hiking trail that allows visitors to walk around the perimeter of the caldera. There is another hiking trail that goes down towards the lake and allows visitors to walk around the perimeter of the lower lake.
The final stop on the main Golden Circle Drive is Urriðafoss. Urriðafoss isn’t the most beautiful waterfall in Iceland, but it is notable because it’s the most voluminous fall in the country. This fall is located along the Þjórsárhraun lava field, the greatest lava flow in Iceland since the Ice Age.
After enjoying the Golden Circle drive, you can head back to Reykjavik, stay close by in Selfoss, or continue on the Ring Road. If you have some extra time to explore around the Golden Circle, I have two more recommended stops for you listed below.
If you have some extra time on your hands, I’m going to add two additional sites just off of the Golden Circle that are worth visiting. If you look at the map above, you’ll see that these additions are best done right after Gulfoss Falls.
The first bonus stop is at Hjalparfoss, which translates to helping falls. . This dual waterfall is located in a lavafield where the Fossá and Þjórsá rivers join. There are a few basalt stacks near the mouth of the falls that make for a dramatic landscape.
After visiting Hjalparfoss there is an option to visit Gjáin and Stöng. A high clearance vehicle with 4WD is suggested for this one as the road can be very rough at times. You’ll drive through the Þjórsárdalur valley and pass the ruins of a Viking settlement known as Stöng. The Vikings that settled here were wiped away by the explosion of the nearby Helka volcano in 1104. You can see more about Stong at Guide to Iceland.
Following the dirt road you’ll arrive at the magical land of Gjáin. You may think Gjáin looks familiar, and it might be if you watch Game of Thrones. Arya and The Hound visited this place in episode 5 of season 4. Starting at the parking area, you’ll look down into a rift with waterfalls, caves, and lush greenery.
Hiking down into Gjáin you’ll get to see the falls and flows up close and personal. Make sure to wear proper footwear for this visit, a slip could cause serious trouble.
If you hike towards the back end of Gjáin, you’ll see a tall waterfall. You can hike up a use-trail here to get commanding views of Gjáin from above.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this guide to driving Iceland’s Golden Circle. Let me know if you have any questions using the comments section below!