The most popular day trip from Reykjavik is to the “Golden Circle” — three beautiful natural attractions which aren’t golden or even vaguely circular. The first of these is located about a one hour drive from the capitol, the farthest at least another hour further. All three sites are well worth seeing.
This is one of Iceland’s two UNESCO World Heritage Sites (the other, Surtsey, is a recently formed uninhabited volcanic island). Thingvellir is remarkable for two reasons. First, it’s a rift valley, with the opposing walls of this valley moving in opposite directions at a rate of about 8 mm a year. Second, it is the historic location of Iceland’s parliament first held here in 930 A.D.
The main attractions in Thingvellir are in the Southwest corner of the park. This area contains not only the most illustrative portion of the rift valley but also the ancient grounds of Parliament. There are no readily identifiable ruins of the old parliament; still, the site has great historic significance as it is where Iceland’s oral traditions began and were passed on, and where the rule of law was rooted. In 1930, one thousand years after the first Parliament, Thingvellir became Iceland’s first national park. In 1944, when Iceland gained its independence, 20,000 thousand people gathered here to celebrate.
The site contains a flag on the presumed Logberg (Law Rock), where the traditional laws were recited during Parliament (a written language did not yet exist). Trails lead through the rift valley, around Law Rock and along the banks of the Oxara river. There’s a pretty small church on the east bank of the river next to which is the Prime Minister’s summer residence. The island in the middle of the river (adjoining the church) was where duals to the death were held when there were serious disputes. Walk to the beautiful waterfall nearby, Oxarafoss, which flows into the rift valley. If you desire more hiking, several trails extend further east to Skogarkrot, ruins of an old sheep farm. I recommend spending at least some time walking in this historic and geologically fascinating place.
Interest in diving at Thingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in the country situated at the southern end of the park, is increasing. The lake is fed from underground springs and fissures and offers a unique underwater experience.
2) Geothermal area around Geysir.
This is the original Geysir — the one all others are named after. People were aware of its eruption as early as the 12th century. While it is no longer very active, at one time Geysir was a spectacular eruption, gushing hot water over 80 meters into the air in a fairly predictable fashion. Unfortunately the water table of Geysir has been altered by rocks and junk people have thrown into it over the years, and by earthquakes, and it now only rarely erupts and then in a not very dramatic fashion. Immediately next door is the very reliable geysir, Strokkur (the churn). This one erupts every 5-10 minutes; it’s worth watching a few eruptions as they can vary in intensity. There are also several hot pools, one a remarkable turquoise color, steaming creeks and a few smaller less predictable geysers in this field as well.
In a country with dozens of spectacular waterfalls, it’s hard to pick a favorite but Gullfoss (golden falls) was the one I liked best. The falls is associated with a magnificent two step drop and with a sharp L-turn of the Hvita river. The waterfall roars at a distance and you’ll hear it and see the mist rising from it before you actually get to see it. As you approach it you will see the upper fall first, a 33 foot drop, then the steep and powerful second 63 foot drop (the base of which is shrouded in mist). Beneath the second drop the river turns sharply at 90 degree angle to the south and flows through a narrow chasm.
After completing their “Golden Circle” tour most tourists return to Reykjavik. We began our journey around the Ring Road in a counter clockwise manner.