300km of easy to drive, gently curving roads surrounded on all sides by wild, desolate scenery – the Golden Circle is understandably Icelands’ most popular day trip. Though it is a long day trip, it an easy circular route from Reykjavik and manageable in one day. Leaving Reykjavik is essential to appreciate and enjoy the natural beauty and stunning scenery of Iceland and this simple route gives you the fire and ice Iceland is famous for; The Golden Circle encompasses volcanic activity, glacial flows and jaw dropping waterfalls.
Car Hire In Iceland
Like most things in Iceland, car hire is not cheap. You can hire a car direct from the airport or use one of the sub offices in the city. If you are visiting Reykjavik first, I would recommend hiring a car from the city after you have done your city sightseeing rather than from the airport on arrival. Parking is expensive and limited in Reykjavik and it is easy to navigate the compact city sights on foot.
We hired our car from the city centre from SADcars. Like the name suggests, the car was a bit ‘sad’! It had no mats, sun visors, air conditioning and was scratched with the odd dent. But it was roadworthy, safe, warm and had the all important radio. More importantly, it was one quarter of the price of other car hire companies!
When To Go
Winter is undeniably a beautiful and atmospheric time to visit Iceland but challenging, cold weather conditions and short, dark days hamper sightseeing (and sometimes, the enjoyment of it). There are stunning views on this route which would be tragic to miss due to rain, snow or fog! Summer brings long, bright sightseeing days and more touirsts but less chance of the elusive Northern Lights. We visited in October – days were shorter but we managed to do the entire Golden Circle route in daylight. It was cold, grey but dry. And we saw the Aurora Borealis!
Driving the Golden Circle
Whatever the time of year, check the weather conditions before leaving Reykjavik and prepare accordingly. Make sure you set off with good road maps or downloaded directions and have researched local rules and driving regulations.
Set off early; the ‘main’ sights take time to explore but you also want to leave enough time to be able to stop at empty parking bays -free of coaches and tourists – to get out of the car, wander around and enjoy the vast emptiness, peace and beauty of Iceland.
It is easy to self drive in Iceland. Icelands’ roads are a joy to drive; quiet by any countries standards and in great condition with good signposting. Icelandic drivers are, on the whole, careful and courteous. It is worth adhering to the one way sight seeing driving route suggested for The Golden Circle – though this may mean being stuck behind the occasional coach, it is much better than meeting one coming towards you on a bend.
The first stop on this infamous route is just a short distance from Reykjavik. The atmospheric Pingvellir National Park (free entry and parking) is a UNESCO site where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet.
Dark grey, imposing, cuboid shaped rocks stack like building bricks creating impenetrable sheer walls on each side of the rift. Dislodged rocks tumble over each other covered with contrasting, vivid green moss. You need to get down into the clear divide amongst the rocks to appreciate their size.
There are several walking paths to explore this area including a flat, short walk through the rift to the glass clear, piercing blue glacial waterfall Oxararfoss.
Scenes from The Game of Thrones were filmed here and it is easy to see why.
A long, winding drive through the Haukadalur geothermal valley leads to the popular stop at Geyser to see the active geysers. A comprehensive visitors complex includes a large restaurant and public toilets – use them, toilets are rare on this route!
The distinctive – and at times overwhelming – smell of sulphur hits you as soon as you leave your car. Free to enter walkways lead around boiling, bubbling pools, steaming vent holes and multi coloured sulphurous smeared rocks.
Geyser itself is no longer regularly active but the impressive Strokkur erupts every few minutes. Heralded by a swelling bubble, Strokkur shoots skyward with an impressive, vibrating force. It is captivating and you will want to watch it over and over again. It is possible to climb the hill behind the geysers for a sweeping view of the geothermal valley.
Continuing on, driving along roads cutting through a desolate, sparsely populated landscape of black rocks and lime green grass, you eventually arrive at the stunning 105ft high Gullfoss waterfall.
An Icelandic masterclass in how NOT to spoil a natural wonder, you can feel this powerful waterfall before you see it. No boat trips, no overhanging restaurants or hotels, no zip lines, no jutting out platforms – this is how to present natures beauty (and long may it stay this way)!
Entry and parking is free and the car park is kept well away from the waterfall. Boardwalks with simple, sympathetic rope barriers lead you down to the edge of the thundering waterfall offering many different angles and viewpoints. The rocks can be slippery and the drops high so watch your step and keep a tight hold of young children.
The colour and force of the water and the ever changing shape of the resulting spray is mesmerising. Be prepared to get wet from the spray! The ‘wow’ shouted by my nine year old over the deafening roar of the water will be an abiding memory for me.
Returning to Reykjavik there is the option of stopping at the Kerio Crater, surprisingly skipped by many tours. The crater is definitely worth the small entrance fee for adults to admire the myriad of colours and pure shape of the 6,500 year old crater.
The walk around the rim is not for the faint hearted (or for very small children) but as the sign at the entrance says, the crater was here before we were so why should it be spoilt by fences?
If, like me, you do not have a head for heights, head down to the opaque green blue waters edge; standing at the bottom of the crater gives you a completely different sense of scale to viewing the crater from the top. The walls of the crater are huge and it is eerily silent at the bottom. You can walk along a deep red, rust coloured, rocky path around the entire crater lake.
Kerio is a very different sight to the waterfalls and glaciers you will see elsewhere on The Golden Circle; it is well worth leaving time to stop here.
From the crater, is an easy return drive to Reykjavik through tiny, A framed hamlets. If you are lucky enough to catch the setting sun, the colour changes are breath taking.
In addition to these principal stops, there are countless parking bays to pull into so you can walk around, explore and savour the peace. The quiet and stillness is incredible.
However, Iceland is currently being challenged by large tourist numbers and visitors lucky enough to visit this stunning country have a part to play in adhering to the rules and regulations regarding outdoor activities such as hiking, off roading and climbing as well as other environmental concerns such as removing litter and recycling.
The Golden Circle With Kids
I frequently see the question asked as to whether The Golden Circle is ‘doable’ or suitable for children. If your children like exploring, having lots of space to run around, seeing amazing natural sights – as all children do! – then the answer is an overwhelming yes! Plus, apart from the Kerio Crater, all the sights are free with free parking making The Golden Circle a great value day out!
There are numerous tours on offer from Reykjavik and several companies offer discounts to children under 12 – some are even free for children. A tour allows the parents/drivers a chance to enjoy the views as well as the passengers and will usually include lots of historical and geographical information about the sites visited. However, tours operate on a schedule and time spent at the main sights is limited. This is often a challenge with children; a long queue for the toilet may use up most of your allotted time at a stop site! As we usually spend a good proportion of our day either searching for or waiting for toilets, we chose to self drive.
The main sights on The Golden Circle are at regular intervals so it never feels as if you are spending too long in the car. Even children who get fed up getting in and out of the car will be engaged by this route as no two stops are the same; from tectonic plates, to bubbling exploding geysers, to thundering waterfalls to a textbook volcanic crater – it is a perfect day trip for inquisitive, active kids. The longest stretch of the journey is from the Kerio Crater back to Reykjavik and after a full day of exploring, children will sleep!
Pass the time in the car with Icelandic I Spy games or Window Bingo, engage the children in map reading and in practising reading Icelandic road signs. Our three children spent a long time working out what family and friends names would become using the Icelandic familial name system; it amused and perplexed them for hours!
Be prepared to get wet at Gullfoss and, due to the simple rope barriers and how close you can get to the water, watch children carefully. Keep a tight hold of child hands at Kerio – we opted out of the rim walk with our children. Dress in layers to avoid overheating in the car and wear sturdy, good gripping footwear. Bring waterproofs whatever the weather forecast and a change of clothes for more ‘adventurous’ children!
Use the facilities and toilets at Geyser and Gullfoss- there are no other public toilets. Bring plenty of snacks, water and a flask for hot drinks. Leave as early as you can to allow for a long, full day.
As we hope to return to Iceland to drive around the whole country I would love to hear your tips and advice on places to visit or general comments on this post and The Golden Circle.