The Golden Circle is one of the most popular day trip routes for Iceland’s visitors, in part due to its close proximity and also due to its interesting sights. If you don’t have the time (or energy) to drive the full Ring Road like we did, a DIY Golden Circle Tour is definitely a great alternative, especially for travellers who are simply stopping over in Iceland on their way to/from Europe.
That said, though many tour companies offer the classic Golden Circle tour, driving it yourself is much cheaper (especially when travelling with a group) and much more fun. It allows you to have more freedom with your time – i.e. you can stay as long as you want, stop for pictures anytime you want (and you definitely will want to stop every 5 minutes) and take a bathroom break whenever you want (bathrooms in Iceland are abundant, clean and FREE!).
Since we had rented a car for the entire duration of our trip, we opted for a DIY Golden Circle tour. In the following post we will share with you some tips and tricks on how to drive the Golden Circle yourself (plus we’ve even provided you with a handy map so you’re sure not to get lost on your way).
Driving in Iceland
First things first, what’s it like to drive in Iceland?
Driving in Iceland is relatively easy. Directions are very simple – all you have to do is follow the appropriate highway to where you want to go and voila! All roads/highways are numbered and easy to spot so it is basically impossible to get lost (we only did it once during the entire week and we drove through the whole country!). All the signs are yellow and will indicate the name of the nearest town in black at the centre of the sign. The number of the road will be indicated in a white box on the left of the sign and the distance will marked in black on the right (and for all our American friends, these are written in kilometres). People drive on the right side of the road here so no need to be worried about driving on the left like you would in the UK.
In terms of road conditions, we found the roads to be extremely well maintained, with all roads along the Golden Circle being paved. Just be sure to check out Iceland’s real-time weather website, SafeTravel.is, before leaving for the day as the weather in Iceland can change in the blink of an eye. We went from driving in rough winds, to heavy rain, to a blizzard all in one day!
Last but not least, a bit about gas prices. During our stay here gas was usually 196kr per litre (which is about $2 CAD!!!). That said, we were fine with about half a tank of gas in our little Ford Fiesta. Needless to say that we were extremely happy to have chosen a car that was easier on gas. When gassing up when gas stations may be closed, be sure to have a credit card with you as the outside pump machine does not take cash.
For more information, check out our post about driving the Ring Road in Iceland.
Kerið Crater Lake
Our first stop on the Golden Circle was Kerið Crater Lake. We took the 1 to get out of the city and then the 35 (take a left). The lake is very well indicated and you can’t miss it (it will be on your right). It took us about 45 minutes to get there from the city centre, and there was virtually no one on the road – partly due to the fact that we left so early in the day (7:30AM) and because traffic in Iceland is generally extremely light, even during rush hour.
As we got to the lake, the sun was just beginning to rise over the horizon (the sun rises around 8-8:30AM in October) and what a beautiful sight it was! On top of that there was no one else at the lake so we had the entire place to ourselves. We spent over an hour there, walking around the entire lake, taking pictures of it from every possible angle and then even walking down to the water. As you can see in the picture below, the surroundings are covered in snow due to the previous day’s snow storm. However, in summer months the lake is surrounded by beautiful red rocks which makes a great contrast to its deep blue water.
A few facts about this great place:
- It used to be a volcano
- It’s around 3 000 years-old
- It is composed of red volcanic rock and is around 55 m deep, 170 m wide and 270 m across
Our next stop on our Golden Circle tour was the Geyser valley at Hakadalur. To get there we simply got back on road 35 and drove 40 minutes (the destination will be on your left). Here you’ll find two world famous geysers, Geysir and Strokkur. Fun fact: the term “geyser” actually comes from Geysir in Iceland.
In the valley you’ll see various pools of bubbling and steaming water. However, be sure not to miss the large eruption by Strokkur. It smells like rotten eggs but boy is it ever cool to see! It erupts at varying degrees every 5-10 minutes, so don’t worry if you miss it or if the one you saw wasn’t all that powerful – you’ll get another chance. Unfortunately, we were unable to see the original Geysir erupt as it no longer erupts due to an earthquake.
Once you’re done marvelling at this natural wonder, Hakkadalur has a gift shop, restaurant and museum across from the valley where you can warm up with a hot cup of coco and learn all about the formation of geyser eruptions.
Next stop: Gullfoss! Again, very easy to get here, we just kept on following road 35 for around 10 minutes. Be careful when driving here as you will likely be encountering your very first one lane bridge. Make sure to yield to any cars already on the bridge and wait your turn before proceeding. Also, word to the wise, once you pass Gullfoss road 35 turns into road F35, one of Iceland’s most notorious F roads. It is illegal to drive on an F road without a 4×4 in Iceland, and with good reason. Under no circumstances should you try to drive on these if you don’t have a 4×4 as roads in Iceland can get extremely rough.
Once you get to Gullfoss’ visitors centre (where they also have a gift shop, restaurant and restrooms) you must descend a staircase where you will be hit with the impressive sight of Europe’s largest waterfall. Just be prepared for how windy and misty it is as you will likely get wet if you stand close to it. Once you’ve reached the end of the staircase you are free to explore along the waterfall, observe it’s mighty beauty and snap as many pictures/videos as you like.
Þingvellir National Park
Our last stop along the Golden Circle, Þingvellir National Park, is simply incredible to drive through. To get here, we had to backtrack trough Hakadalur and take road 37. The journey takes approximately 45-50 minutes, although this varies depending on how many times you stop along the way to take pictures with sheep and horses.
Aside from the incredible views around you, Þingvellir National Park is also where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are slowly splitting apart from each other at a rate of 2cm per year, which has created many fissures in the ground all over the park. One of these fissures is called the Silfra fissure and is filled with glacier water so pure that it would actually be unhealthy to drink as a sole source of water. Imagine that! Naturally we jumped on the chance to go snorkelling in the fissure as our last stop for the day before heading back to Reykjavík.
Overall, our Golden Circle tour took us approximately 7-8 hours (including the snorkelling we did in the Silfra fissure). It was a fantastic drive with breathtaking views all along the way and we definitely recommend you Drive-It-Yourself!
Are you travelling to Iceland anytime soon?
Been there and want to share some tips of your own?
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