Day 2: Waterfalls and rainbows as we drove the famous Golden Circle.
Up and early we had breakfast and were out by 8 with our first stop: Þingvellir (Thingvellir in English) National Park, just a short drive away.
When most people hear about this national park they automatically think of Silfra, the popular diving spot where you can actually swim or snorkel between the Eurasian and North American Tectonic plates. We weren’t brave enough to don the dry suit for a swim in there but we didn’t want to miss out on not only the cool geology of this national park but also the HISTORY.
Þingvellir is the only UNESCO World Heritage site in Iceland, and that isn’t due to geology folks! This place has some rad history to it since it was the seat of Iceland’s parliament since its establishment in 930 AD all the way until 1798.
The settlement of Iceland began in AD 874 when the Norwegian chieftain Ingólfur Arnarson became the first permanent Norwegian settler on the island. Early on, district assemblies were formed, but as the population grew, there was a need for a general assembly to limit the more powerful families in SW Iceland.
Grímur Geitskör was allotted the role of rallying support and finding a suitable location for the assembly. At about the same time, the owner of the Þingvellir region was found guilty of murder. His land was declared public, and then obligated to be used for assembly proceedings. The Þingvellir area was chosen for this reason and for its accessibility to the most populous regions of the north, south and west. The foundation of the Icelandic parliament is said to be the founding of the nation of Iceland, and the first parliamentary proceedings in the summer of 930 laid the ground for a common cultural heritage and national identity.
Katie and Braden walking through a fissure down into the park
History of the park:
The Alþingi (assembly) at Þingvellir was Iceland’s supreme legislative and judicial authority from its establishment in 930 until 1271. The Lögberg or Law Rock was the focal point of the assembly and a natural platform for holding speeches. The Lawspeaker, elected for three years at a time, presided over the assembly and recited the law of the land.Inauguration and dissolution of the assembly took place at the law rock, where rulings made by the Law Council were announced, the calendar was confirmed, legal actions were brought and other announcements made which concerned the entire nation. Anyone attending the assembly was entitled to present his case on important issues from the law rock.
The Law Council served as both parliament and supreme court. Laws were passed and approved there, and rulings made on points of law. The Assembly was Iceland’s legislative and chief judicial authority for the duration of the Commonwealth, until 1271. Executive power was in the hands of the chieftains and parties to individual cases.
In the final decades of the Commonwealth, there were clashes between chieftain families, which resulted in Iceland coming under the Norwegian crown. Executive power was strengthened under this new order, while legislative and judicial authority at first remained in the hands of the original assembly, but even that was gradually transferred to the Norwegian and later the Danish rulers, until in 1662, the King of Denmark became the absolute monarch of Iceland.
The continental drift between the North American and Eurasian Plates can be clearly seen in the cracks or faults which traverse the region. The largest one, Almannagjá, you walk through after the main parking area into the trail system. (what all the pictures above are of) This also causes the often measurable earthquakes in the area. Some of the rifts are also full of clear water like the Silfra, but not all of them can you dive. Several of the bridges in the park traverse the fissures so if you too do not wish to go for a swim, just cross a bridge and look down and you’ll be looking down between 2 Tectonic plates. The park also borders Iceland’s largest natural lake Þingvallavatn.
Looking out over the old parliament buildings that are still standing in the park
Moss covering some of the cool rock. There is moss EVERYWHERE in Iceland.
New travel head shot! Thanks Braden 😀
Looking at the walls formed by the Almannagjá crack with the Öxará river flowing through
The Öxaráfoss (waterfall of the aforementioned river)
Looking at the Öxará river as it flows down into the Almannagjá crack
Iceland’s flag at the site of the Law Rock where parliament met each year
All in all an easy, quick stop with great paved trails to stretch your legs and learn some history! The Visitor center also has multi media and a video that is 40 min long if you watch the whole thing, but you can select specific parts for whatever interests you.
The park and Visitor Center are FREE
Parking however costs 500 ISK ($5) for a day pass that you must display in your car window at all times. The machines on site were pretty easy to use.
Hours for Visitor center: June – August 31: 09:00 – 19:00
September – May 31 09:00 – 18:30
WC: The Toilets cost 200 ISK and are open available from 09:00-18:00 daily
Next up on the Golden Circle route was Geysir… which I’ll be honest, I’ve been to Yellowstone so this was a quick stop for us. (Didn’t help that it was FREEZING at this stop) We explored the massive gift shop on site here and looked longingly at the over priced $20 bowls of soup before heading out to see some boiling water.
Nothing like some steaming hot pots and the smell of sulfur to get you excited for a GEYSER
Little Geysir… though we never actually saw this one go off
The large Strokkur Geysir reaches height of around 30 m and goes off every 6- 10 minutes. We saw it twice though the first time was very small. I didn’t get any great shots of it erupting but Braden got a video of it for me.
The area Geysir is named after the original Geyser that erupted there, consequently the FIRST geyser described in a printed source and the first known to modern Europeans. Incidentally the English word Geyser derives from the name Geysir which itself is derived from the Icelandic verb geysa, “to gush.”
The geysers in this region have been very affected by earthquakes over the centuries with Geysir once being the 2nd largest geyser to ever erupt and erupting every 30 minutes or so. Now Geysir rarely erupts but luckily there is Strokkur to keep us all entertained. Visiting Geysir was easy as the car park is free, and it is just a short walk over to view the hot pots and geyser going off.
Then 5 minutes down the road is the crowning jewel of the golden Circle: GULFOSS
Yay WATERFALLS! One of the main things that brought me to Iceland in the first place and even though the rain was coming down again and we were definitely cold, Gulfoss did not disappoint. There are 2 parking lots to visit this waterfall (both free) one that is more level with where I’m standing and with no facilities. The other one is at the top of the hill where there is a gift shop, snack bar and other facilities. We went where the GPS took us which was the top lot which meant quite a few stairs up and down.
*which careful they’re slick when wet! Braden slipped and about lost our car keys as they fell out of his pocket when he caught himself and went under the stairs. Luckily they were at an easy spot on te hill to trek up to and recover them.
Following the crowds, we walked along the narrow path in the mist to get to the center point of the falls and boy were we soaked when we did! We didn’t last too much longer after that. haha
Photo of the rushing water of the upper falls
Another photo looking at the intense mist spray coming up from the base of the falls. This was definitely one powerful waterfall! All the mist made we wish even more for a bit of sun just to get a rainbow!
Next stop was a bit off the golden circle route but easily my favorite part of the day: Háifoss.
There’s loads of debate about there on the Iceland forums… about whether Haifoss is worth the extra car time, worth the bumpy dirt road, etc… and the answer to all of this is YES. IT IS.
Not only is the one waterfall worth it on it’s own, but there’s a score of waterfalls and a STUNNING canyon to photograph and explore at the same time. It’s a win all around. We had a 4 wheel drive vehicle but not necessarily high clearance, and I don’t think we even had the 4X turned on. So even if you don’t splurge for a 4×4 car, just go slow. It’s only 7 km of dirt road, will probably take you 20 minutes and you can DO IT.
When we first got there, all of these beauties were shrouded in mist and the waterfall was very ghostly all around. Haifoss is Iceland’s 3rd tallest waterfall at just over 400 feet (122 m) of straight drop.
Within minutes, the clouds began to clear and we could get a better shot of this waterfall alley
Still a lot of mist at the bottom there. Even though it was cold, wet, and extremely windy at first, I’m glad we stuck around to experience this stunning waterfall with a bit of clear skies
even if it was for only 10 min.
A shot looking down at the incredible boulders at the bottom of Haifoss
Haifoss and the incredible valley/ canyon it flows into
Note: Visiting Haifoss is both out of the way a bit and free but because of that it lacks 2 things: facilities and tourists. Better make use of some facilities at your prior destination as you’ve got bumpy roads and no facilities for miles around once you get out here.
I had read on some reviews that there is a trail to the bottom of these falls that was only 10-15 minutes so even with the iffy weather, we headed out to explore. The trail is pretty easy to follow as you stick closer to the cliff and head out toward the valley. There are periodic orange flags that mark the way.
There was one fence we had to climb over using this ladder as we followed the trail to the bottom of Haifoss.
Since so many tourists stick to the standard Golden Circle, you won’t encounter too many people at the top and you really won’t encounter anyone hiking around. We had this incredible hills to ourselves as we walked, hiked, heck even ran with the wind feeling free as ever.
But turns out the trail was quite a bit longer than expected as it took us at least 15 minutes to get to this spot where you loop back toward the base… but the clouds were rolling back in.
So we posed for a photo op at our turn around spot with the waterfalls in the distant and prepared to hike back up the hill to rejoin our friends and the warm car that awaited us.
And apparently the weather agreed with us turning around because I kid you not, there was maybe a 1 minute between when my photo was taken… and Braden’s photo above. haha The weather can change on you VERY fast. ALWAYS bring a rain jacket.
Our last stop of the day before reaching our hotel in Selfoss was the Kerið Crater which is back right on the Golden Circle.
The Kerið crater is a 3,000 year old volcanic caldera that is approximately 55 m (180 ft) deep, 170 m (560 ft) wide, and 270 m (890 ft) across. The lake itself is fairly shallow (7–14 metres, depending on rainfall and other factors), but due to minerals from the soil, is an opaque and strikingly vivid aquamarine. Also interestingly enough, the majority of the water in the crater is NOT from rainfall but the water table as the base of the crater is on level with it.
Our 2nd complete rainbow of the day
Some theorized that like most volcanic craters, the Kerið crater was formed by a huge explosion as the volcano erupted. However, there’s a large lack of evidence of a large lava explosion so the more likely theory is that a Cone volcano formed and a smaller eruption drained the magma reserve. Once the magma was emptied, the top of the cone caved in on itself into what would’ve been the magma chamber.
Either way what was left is steep red rock walls covered in moss making this one colorful crater you don’t want to miss.
There’s an easy walking path on the more sloped side that allows you to walk up to the water’s edge, relax on the VERY dirty bench that’s half sunk and you have to climb onto, or take a short walk around the lake. Once again there are no facilities at this crater’s parking area but you are very close to Selfoss (10 min away). Also important to note is the owner’s of the land charge a 400 isk (about $4) pp charge to enter. It takes maybe 20 minutes to walk around the top and another 20 minutes to go down and walk around the lake.
Unfortunately a don’t quite recall when we drove over this bridge (especially seeing the blue sky accompanying it since we didn’t see much of that on our first day) but including it since it is such a striking bridge. It also shows one of the most EXCITING driving challenges in Iceland: 1 way bridges. The roads are narrow and 2 way everywhere but 95% of the bridges you will cross (varying fro short to pretty long like this one) are 1 way with no lights and only 1 sign or indicate the road narrows. Be aware as you enter these areas to keep an eye on incoming traffic. Basically whoever is closer and will likely get to the bridge first gets to cross first. The other car will need to stop and wait their turn.
Selfoss as we rolled in. We stayed this time in an adorable guesthouse that was one of our cheaper stays on the trip. Guesthouse Garun Skolavellir which was right in town. We had a seperate room from our friends and from what I could tell really only shared the bathroom with them as the 3rd room on our landing had their own. There was also a great little kitchen for preparing your own meals and a hot tub which we didn’t make use of on this night but I imagine would be really nice. Def. recommend this place: Guesthouse Garun
After washing up and putting on clean clothes, we walked the short distance to the main town where we checked out their charming church and ate at a great (affordable!) restaurant called Yellow. This place had amazing Asian style bowls where you could choose a base from rice &beans, noodles, or sweet potato mash. Then a protein of chicken or beef. And lastly a sauce between green Thai curry, a peanuty sauce, or Indian style curry. It was pretty delicious and probably the cheapest night eating out we had. Last stop of the night we grabbed some groceries for sandwiches the next day.
All in all our Golden Circle was less golden and more rainy but some major highlights of the who trip for me still happened. Haifoss captured my heart with it’s incredible beauty.
Total Drive Time Day 2: Roughly 300 km at 4 hr 45 min.
Day 2 costs:
Breakfast and lunch for the most part- groceries from previous day
Parking at Thingvillir National Park $6.50 for all day pass
Gulfoss shop sandwich $7
Kerið Crater admission: $7.50
Dinner at Yellow $36.20
Groceries again for potentially next couple of days: $21.86
Garun Guesthouse $113
Rental Car breakdown for 2 people per day cost: $66
Total gas breakdown for 2 people/ day: $18
Day 2 Total: $276 for 2 people