Where I Went:
Seljavallalaug, Kreid, Geysir, Gullfoss, Fridheimar, Thingvellir National Park, Oxarafoss
I woke up at 6am in a small farmhouse wedges between the North Atlantic Ocean and the southern slopes of the volcano Eyjafjallajökul. This was my one full day in Iceland and I was determined to make the most of it. The rain from yesterday had still not stopped.
After a brief crowd-free return visit to the waterfall Skogafoss, I set my sights to the northwest. 5km up the Ring Road and 3km inland on a dirt road, I found the trailhead to Seljavallalaug, an outdoor swimming pool built on its own in the middle of a glacial valley. The hike took about 15 minutes not including an unsuccessful (depending on your point of view) detour to try avoiding a stream crossing.
Finally, I reached the pool. Without a soul within at least 3 miles, I went for a quick skinny dip. The pool was heated by a random tube of hot water. Otherwise, it was a lukewarm temperature- probably low 80’s. While the adventure was fun, I wouldn’t recommend the place for swimming. The pool isn’t warm enough unless you’re doing laps and the changing rooms are disgusting.
At Selfoss, I cut inland onto the famed 300km tourist route called the Golden Circle. This Golden Circle is the single most popular day-trip from Reykjavík and has a nice sampler of Iceland’s geological phenomena.
The first stop, a mere 15 minutes from Selfoss is called Kerid. Just a few steps past the unassuming parking lot (and the admission booth) is a small but deep volcanic crater. At the bottom of the crater is a lake with that impressive glacial hue. Bright algae are growing on the crater walls. I walked-with the busloads if tourists- around the rim of the crater and then down to the lake.
The next stop was Geysir, an active geothermal area. The English word geyser actually originates from one particular geyser in the area called Geysir. Geysir used to be more active but in last decade has gone relatively dormant only erupting once or twice a year. Luckily, it’s neighbor Strokkur erupts every 5 minutes creating incredible 100-ft tall towers of boiling water and sulfuric smoke. If you’ve been to Yellowstone, the vibe and smell are very similar.
10 kilometers past Geysir is Gullfoss or golden falls. Gullfoss was by far the largest and most powerful waterfall I have seen thus far in Iceland. The double cascade ends in a deep mist-filled gorge. The lower falls felt like a mini Victoria Falls.
It was now lunchtime, so I headed to the highly recommended Friòheimar aka the tomato soup place. The restaurant/geothermal-powered greenhouse reportedly produces most of Iceland’s tomato crop that would not be able to withstand the harsh winters and lack of sunlight. Most of Iceland’s vegetables are grown like this or imported from Europe, which helps to justify the wild food prices all over the island.
The place was completely booked up for the day but they did have a bar where you can order various tomato products. I ordered the tomato soup (for $10) but they also have tomato beers, tomato vodka and Bloody Mary’s (for more than $10). The soup came with a large breadstick and was delicious. I would highly recommend it.
The final stop on the Golden Circle is Thingvelir National Park, which is also Iceland’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site accessible to the public. Thingvelir is special for multiple reasons. The main reason for the designation is that Thingvelir was the seat of Iceland’s parliament for almost 900 years.
When Iceland was discovered and settled by Vikings the chiefs met at Thingvelir to create laws and enact judgement through a body known as the Althing, the world’s oldest Parliament. The Althing would meet on a rock known as Law Rock. Below the rock, the people would listen and react accordingly to their judgement. One of the most important decisions made here was to make Christianity rather than Norse the official religion of Iceland.
Punishments were much more severe then than today and ranged from fines for smaller crimes up to execution for the most serious crimes such as adultery. Men were beheaded behind Law Rock while women were drowned in the nearby raging river.
Despite being ruled by Norway starting in the 1200’s and then Denmark, the Althing continued to meet and legislate at Thingvelir until 1790 when the capital was moved to Reykjavík.
Major national events, such as the announcement of Iceland’s independence from Denmark are celebrated here. The Prime Minister also has a summer house here.
The second, less obvious reason Thingvelir is famous is actually underground. The border between the North American and European tectonic plates runs right through the park and is quite visible. Some tour companies actually let people scuba dive between the plates.
Having seen all the attractions at the Golden Circle, I drove the 35 minutes into Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík.
I would highly recommend the Golden Circle for tourists. The sites are all different but still awe-inspiring. It is also very accessible as a day-trip from Reykyavik.