Guide to Iceland NOW visited the famous Golden Circle sightseeing route last weekend to get a taste of this fantastic attraction as seen in the white winter months.
Available to visit the year round, the Golden Circle is the most popular sightseeing route in South-West Iceland, comprised of three of the country’s most beloved and popular attractions; Þingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal valley and Gullfoss Waterfall.
Do you want to visit the Golden Circle in Iceland? See Golden Circle tours here
Opting for a Self Drive option, we first paid a visit to Þingvellir (“Fields of Parliament”), located approximately forty minutes from Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavík. The journey there was one of open, pure and ethereal vistas, a landscape of rolling, snow-laden meadows, frozen streams and lakes and frostbitten mountain peaks.
Thingvellir National Park in the Winter
Arriving to Þingvellir, we were immediately taken by its breathtaking aesthetic, an unforgettable view achieved from standing at the observation deck just beside the park’s modern Visitor Centre.
The national park’s named is derived from it being the founding place of the old Icelandic parliament, the Alþingi, in 930 AD. This assembly of Vikings, villagers and chieftains would gather in the rocky gorge that is Almannagjá each year to witness the latest in legislation, trials and punishments. Guests to Almannagjá will be able to witness such morbid execution spots as Drekkingarhylur (The Drowning Pool) and Gálgaklettur (Gallows rock).
Following the Almannagjá trail, the North American tectonic plate loomed over us on our left, a natural barrier of white-dusted boulders and overhanging rock. Looking across to our right, we could observe the Mid-Atlantic rift that sits between Almannagjá and the Eurasian tectonic plate, a mere black slash on the horizon line.
This volcanic no-man’s land is undoubtedly impressive and causes one to consider the peculiar position that Iceland takes geologically as half American, half European. In many ways, Icelandic culture has come to reflect the very earth it is built upon.
The rift itself is made up of countless volcanic cracks and glacial springs, including Iceland’s number one snorkelling and scuba diving spot, Silfra Fissure. Many visitors on the Golden Circle choose to add a snorkelling trip to their day’s excursion in order to not just see Iceland’s surface level beauty, but also the staggering and transparent landscapes that rest beneath the water’s still surface. Visibility within Silfra Fissure is known to exceed 100 meters but does require a drysuit for thermal protection.
Continuing along, we arrived to the national park’s most famous waterfall, Öxarárfoss. Fascinatingly enough, this waterfall is actually man-made; hundreds of years ago, the water was channelled to flow into Almannagjá so that those assembled at the Alþingi had something to drink. This was documented in the 12th/13th-century saga, Sturlunga.
This document also stipulates that the name of the feature (Axe-River Falls) is derived from an ancient weapon that was used to kill a notorious troll that terrorised residents of the Hengill area, located only a short distance from Þingvellir.
Another theory suggests that an ancient viking thrust his axe into the Öxar river, just above the waterfall, as a territorial claim. Whatever the truth of the matter, the waterfall looked truly exquistie, as though taken straight from the pages of fantasy with its glistening icicles and semi-frozen flow.
Geysir Geothermal Area in the Winter
After much appreciation, our visit to the park came to an end. However, there were still two attractions left to go on our journey to complete a decent day’s sightseeing in South-West Iceland.
Next up was Geysir Geothermal Area, located approximately an hour’s drive from Þingvellir. Famously the home of both Strokkur and Geysir hot springs, this damp and steaming stretch of landscape is characterised by countless fumaroles and bubbling mud pools, making it one of the most visually unique areas in the entire country.
See Also: Icelandic Meat Soup | Traditional Recipe
Parking up at the Visitor Centre, we first stopped for a bite to eat at the on-site restaurant where we sampled their delicious meat soup (kjötsúpa)—the perfect way to stay warm during the cold winter months.
Bellies full, our souls warmed, we stepped back into the dimming winter light to see Geysir area’s most famed spectacle, the eruption of Strokkur geyser. Approximately every five to ten minutes, this hot springs bursts from its subterranean origins in a mist of power and heat, shooting a jet of boiling water up to twenty metres into the air.
We waited patiently in the chill with other visitors, our eyes and cameras focused on Strokkur as it slowly built towards a mighty spew. When it finally did burst, its water was accompanied by a thick cloud of mist that billowed across the scene, obscuring our view of the nature and of one another for a few moments. Naturally, the first eruption we saw was breathtaking enough to wait again, pondering on the fierce geothermal forces that fester beneath Iceland’s landscape.
Gullfoss Waterfall in the Winter
The final major stop of the Golden Circle route is Gullfoss waterfall, one of the most beloved features in Iceland. This 32-metre high titan cascades water over two distinctive and cragged steps, creating an intense natural spectacle that culminates in a plume of mist that ascends spookily from the dark and twisted Gullfossgjúfur canyon below.
Looking at this wild, unstoppable waterfall, it is almost impossible to believe that it was once the focal point for an early 20th century controversy. Believe it or not, but in 1907, Gullfoss was very much sought after as a potential location for a hydro plant. The daughter of the landowner at that time, Sigríður Tómasdóttir, led the fight to save the waterfall, even threatening to throw herself into its tumultuous waters should a sale go through.
Thankfully, her efforts were enough and plans for a hydro plant at Gullfoss were scrapped. Today, Sigríður is considered the mother of Iceland’s environmental movement, and appreciating Gullfoss in these snowy conditions, one cannot be anything but thankful to her.
Despite our fingers slowing growing numb in the cold, we stood watching the plummeting water for the longest time, awestruck by the drama, intensity and beauty of Iceland’s natural forces. It being January, however, the light was quickly diminishing; soon enough, the waterfall took on the form of a rumbling shadow, an unseen powerhouse that thrashed on with a loud, yet comforting grumble through the gloom.
When Are YOU Visiting The Golden Circle?
As aforementioned, the Golden Circle is available to visit all the year round. During the winter, the route is blanketed in fresh virgin snow, creating a truly authentic ambience that cements Iceland’s place as one of the world’s true frozen paradises. The summer, however, sees the route illuminated by the Midnight Sun for near 24 hours, making it an ideal time for sightseeing.
See Also: Weather in Iceland & Best Time to Visit
Whenever you decide to pay a visit to Iceland’s Golden Circle, make sure to expect one of the most breathtaking sightseeing experiences of your life. Come rain or shine, the Golden Circle is, without doubt, the premier route for travellers looking to experience the very best of the land of ice and fire.
Did you enjoy our article, Visiting Iceland’s Golden Circle in the Winter | Photo Gallery? If you would like to find out more information, read Iceland’s Golden Circle | Ultimate Guide and Top 9 Detours and How To Drive the Golden Circle. Make sure to leave your thoughts or questions in the Facebook comments box below.