The first images that come to mind when thinking of the Golden Circle are this:
Strokkur geyser in the geothermal area in Haukadalur
And even this.
Þingvellir National Park
The renowned Golden Circle gathers three of Iceland’s most spectacular natural wonders, attracting hundreds of thousands every year, conveniently looping from Reykjavik into the southern uplands of Iceland and back, for the short distance of 300 kilometres between the three attractions. But many people ignore that just a few kilometres from Geysir, Gullfoss or Þingvellir, lie other stunning locations, and exciting adventures to spice up the day. Time to give the traditional Golden Circle Route a twist!
1. Þórufoss Waterfall
When visiting the Golden Circle, Gullfoss Waterfall is stealing the show, overshadowing other waterfalls in the area. But you don’t want to miss Þórufoss no matter the small detour on your way to Þingvellir National Park. Here the headwaters of the 25-kilometer Laxá í Kjós River, renowned for its population of Atlantic salmon, cascade down into the Mosfellsdalur Valley, revealing this beautiful 18-meter high waterfall to our eyes. These same falls stay frozen most of the winter. Þórufoss made an appearance in HBO’s series Game of Thrones, in Season 4, as the home of the Children of the Forest. A beautiful waterfall located in a pleasant and peaceful landscape to start the day.
2. Snorkelling Between Two Continents
There you are. Þingvellir. As fascinating by nature as it is rich of history, Þingvellir marks the separation of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates crossing Iceland. If you are amazed by the textures and colours you see around you, just imagine what it is like underwater. Silfra Fissure is filled with glacial water that has been filtered underground by lava for decades, making Silfra one of the clearest bodies of water on earth with up to 120 meters of visibility. Pull on your wetsuit and join a snorkelling tour where the earth drifts apart, an experience revealing an astonishing hidden world, not everyone can say they’ve ever seen.
3. Laugarvatnshellir Cave
With a landscape carved and shaped by an unrelenting volcanic activity, Iceland is home to many remarkable caves, some of which can be visited. But rare are the caves in which people actually lived, caves being usually reserved for outlaws. Until less than 100 years ago, two families have succeeded each other in Laugarvatnshellir, with the bearing of two children in the cave even. While the origins of the cave are not clear, the assumption was made that it was initiated by the Irish monks, thus prior to the Viking settlers. The inhabitants of the cave led a relatively normal life, tending the vegetable gardens, and selling refreshments and pastries to the passers-by.
4. Efstidalur II Farmstay
Efstidalur is a farm hotel surrounded by lush hills and mountains, located right at the heart of the Golden Circle, making it a great base for exploring the region. From the farmyard is an unobstructed view over the region to the iconic volcano Hekla in the distance, and all the way to Eyjafjallajökull, on clear days. The hot tub makes for a relaxing experience in the middle of the bright summer nights or under the northern lights in the winter time. A café was built as an extension of the cowshed, letting you watch the cows being milked or cared for. Needless to say, the local menu includes the freshest and tastiest dairy products, and other products straight from the farm.
5. Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Baths and Bakery
Laugarvatn Fontana is a natural pool located midway between Þingvellir, Gullfoss and Geysir, taking full advantage of the geothermal activity of the area. In these thermal baths, designed to foster physical and psychological wellbeing, the healing powers of water are combined with majestic views over the beach and Laugarvatn Lake. From the steam baths, you can hear the boiling natural spring beneath your feet as the steam rises from the earth. You can also get a sneak peek at the geothermal bakery and see how the rúgbrauð, rye bread, is dug out of the hot black sand, and of course taste it. Courtesy of the ground!
6. Brúarárfoss Waterfall
Brúarárfoss (also named Brúarfoss), the bridge waterfall, is a relatively small but photogenic waterfall formed by the river Brúará falling into a narrow canyon. What it lacks in size, Brúarárfoss surely makes up in beauty, being an intense blue, probably the bluest you have ever seen. Brúarárfoss takes its name after the natural stone arch bridge that crossed the river before it collapsed. In the early 20th century, the decision was made to build a bridge over the canyon and use it for the royal visitors on their trip to Gullfoss and Geysir, starting with the Danish King Frederik VIII in 1907. The “Golden Circle”, you said?
7. Faxi Waterfall
Only 12 kilometers from the famous Geysir Hot Spring area, and 20 kilometers from Gullfoss Waterfall, Faxi Waterfall makes up part of the river Tungufljót, which flows from the lake Sandvatn. 80 meters wide and 7 meters high, Faxi is a beautiful and serene waterfall, although not as impressive as some of the more famous waterfall sights to some. It is possible to get quite close to the waterfall on the lower level and feel its refreshing spray. In June, the carpet of lupines in bloom makes for an awe-inspiring scenery. Interestingly, Faxi is also known as Vatnsleysufoss, the waterfall with no water, despite its ceaseless stream. Next to it is a man-made salmon ladder designed to help the fish run upriver.
8. Friðheimar Greenhouses
Behind Friðheimar is an ambitious project midway between the two passions of the owners, horticulture and horsebreeding. As a thumbing of the nose at Iceland’s long, very long, and dark, very dark, winters, Friðheimar grows tomatoes all year round under artificial lighting in greenhouses. Friðheimar places great emphasis on providing optimum taste quality while maintaining environmentally-friendly standards through clean energy, pure water, and biological pest controls. Eat tasty, eat healthy! The rural setting of the restaurant offers a family menu that will please all by its originality and freshness. Friðheimar has also an expansive experience of breeding horses, and a selection of horses displaying an outstanding tölt. Don’t miss out on their horse show!
9. The Secret Lagoon
Secret Lagoon is a secret in nothing but name, nonetheless a temple of relaxation and well-being one should not miss on the Golden Circle Route. These natural hot springs are located in the small village of Flúðir, about 30 minutes from Geysir, and are Iceland's very first public swimming pool dating back to 1891. A warm soak alongside hot springs, spouting geysers and steam rising into the air is exactly what you need in between two attractions. You won’t want to leave. In the winter time, the northern lights mirror in the Secret Lagoon, offering the most magical display and invigorating experience.
10. Kerið Crater
A stunning lake is good, but a stunning lake inside a volcanic caldera is simply better. Kerið Crater is a popular stop in the southern part of the Golden Circle, presenting sharp contrasts between the opaque blue-green lake and reddish volcanic rocks. Researchers found no evidence of a volcanic explosion, leading to the conclusion that when Kerið volcano last erupted some 3.000 years ago, it emptied its magma reserve, causing the heavy cone to collapse into the empty magma chamber. Contrary to common belief, the current pool that can be seen in the crater is not caused by rainfall but is at the same level as the water table.
11. White Water Rafting in Hvítá River
Hvítá river, the white river, flows from the glacier Langjökull towards the South, creating a beautiful series of rapids and waterfalls including the one and only Gullfoss. Just below Gullfoss, Hvítá tumbles down mostly mild rapids, making it a splendid location for river rafting. This is the unique opportunity to enjoy the outstanding landscape from a new angle and experience the rugged nature and canyons at the closest. No prior rafting experience is required as the activity is accessible to all ages, and welcomes families, first-timers, and experienced rafters seeking for a bit of adrenaline. Are you ready to jump from the cliff?
12. Snowmobiling on a Glacier
Are you planning to visit the Golden Circle this Winter? You might want to get away from the crowd and hop on a thrilling snowmobile tour, departing from Gullfoss waterfall, and taking you all the way up to Iceland’s second biggest glacier, Langjökull. On your snowmobile, experience the vast stretches of ice, snow as far as one can see, pure mountain air and feel the unique atmosphere of a glacier we don’t want to see melt too soon. The ride up to the glacier is an experience itself. The little adventure you needed on your Golden Circle trip and memories that will last you a lifetime!
And you thought one day would be enough to do the Golden Circle?