A Day from Reykjavik:
The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is a 300 km loop that usually opens and closes in Reykjavik. It covers three main locations: Þingvellir National Park, the waterfall Gullfoss and the erupting geyser Strokkur in Haukadalur.
Þingvellir National Park is a historical and geological wonder, located in fields of the beautiful vegetation north of Þingvallavatn, the largest lake in Iceland. There you will find the famous rift Almannagjá where the Eurasian and American tectonic plates are pulling apart by a few centimetres each year.
Þingvellir was the founding place of Iceland’s Parliament in 930 and the venue for annual parliament meetings until 1798. Þingvellir is also the place where in 999 or 1000 it was decided that Iceland should be a Christian nation and where Iceland declared its independence from Denmark in 1944.
There is nothing more Icelandic than Þingvellir. Even the least patriotic Icelander will experience feelings of loyalty and commitment upon walking through there. It is sacred and it is who we are.
Then we have the two attractions in Biskupstungur, a waterfall and a geyser. The waterfall Gullfoss (Icelandic for golden waterfall) is in the river Hvítá and is 32 metres high where it plunges into the 70 metre deep canyon surrounding it. In the early 20th century there were many who felt strongly that Gullfoss should be harnessed for production of electricity. This plan was abandoned when the daughter of the main advocate threatened to throw herself in the waterfall.
The State of Iceland acquired the waterfall in 1940 and it has been on the state preservation list since 1979. Nobody ever speaks with solemnity of harnessing it anymore, it is considered priceless in its natural state. This has even developed into a phrase within certain circles in the country so that when you suggest something inanely stupid you get replied to with the words: And then what? Sell Gullfoss?
Haukadalur valley, where both Gullfoss and the geyser Strokkur are located, is a very active geothermal area. In addition to Strokkur and his brother Geysir, Haukadalur is the home of a multitude of mud pools, fumaroles and algal deposits.
Strokkur erupts once every 4-8 minutes and reaches a height of 15-20 m, sometimes it goes as high as 40 m up in the air. It is spectacular, scary and very Icelandic. But then again, so are many, many, many other locations in Iceland.
We have geothermal areas and awesome waterfalls all over the place. So why is this 300 km loop such a phenomenon when it comes to tourism? Ask anybody and they will tell you that if you only have one day in Iceland, spend it on the Golden Circle. Why? It has been argued that any wonder of nature that can me fitted into a day tour from Reykjavik, has nice roads and shops and catering at the other end would become an attraction.
The argument is basically that it is simply combination of these factors that has made the Golden Circle what it is. I must admit that this is an argument that I have found myself making from time to time in pure irritation over the popularity of this particular waterfall over all the others.
But I’ve been thinking and I have a theory: When my parents were kids, people used to go for a drive on Sundays. Sometimes just within the city limits but on nice summer days the Sunday-drive concept was taken to the next level. Is it possible that this is when the Golden Circle came to be?
The trip would take the entire day and the roads were nothing like what they are now but all the same. People would make a packed lunch, eat it on Þingvellir, go to Geysir for afternoon coffee (where there has been coffee for sale since 1928!) and be back home in Reykjavik by dinner time. And now that I think about it, that is why the Golden Circle is so popular.
Because in the old days it was OUR main attraction and when the tourists started pouring in, showing interest and asking where to go we naturally told them, without even a moment’s hesitation, to go where we have been going for decades. So the Golden Circle being what it is really just says one thing about Icelanders; We are a “mi casa su casa” sort of folk and we want you to enjoy the same things we do.
So, I welcome you, no, I implore you, to go see the Golden Circle if it’s the only trip you make out of town while you’re here.