Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Tour Iceland's Golden Circle: Geysir, Gulfoss, and Pingvellir National Park


Iceland is a nation full of amazing natural treasures - waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes, lava fields, and deep canyons to mention only a few. After trekking through the city of Reykjavik for a few days, my husband and I decided to book a tour to explore some of the closer must-see destinations located in the central portion of the island known as the Golden Circle. The next day we were scheduled to pick up our rental SUV and drive the Ring Road, so we felt a bus tour was the perfect thing to gear us up for our road trip. What better way than to see the interior of the island before we set out to drive around the exterior portion?

Iceland waterfall, Gulfoss Iceland, Golden Circle tour
Gulfoss waterfall, one of the sights to see on the Golden Circle tour.

I booked with the company BusTravel Iceland just the day before we wanted to go on the tour. Booking was easy-peasy - there was room on a tour, the bus arrived on time with free pick-up at our hotel, and we received a 10% discount for booking online. I highly recommend the company (you can book from their site here). We were picked up for the afternoon tour at 12:30 and were out of Reykjavik by 1:00 p.m., after scooping up all the other passengers from their respective hotels.

Our first destination was an area of major hot springs activity near Haukadalur. This area also features a series of geysers that are extremely active due to regular earthquake activity in the region - therefore the tourist name for the area is simply "Geysir". The largest geyser is named Strokkur, and is popular due to its large fountain of water released upon eruption (up to 70 feet we were told), and the reliable and quick frequency with which it does so (every 5 to 7 minutes). It is located about an hour from Reykjavik in southwestern Iceland.

Golden Circle tour driving directions
Route from Reykjavik to Geysir

The layout of the Geysir area is quite simple and easy to navigate. There is a tourist center with a restaurant, restrooms, and a shopping area. (Joey had to buy a warmer jacket while we were there - we didn't expect Iceland's weather to be quite so biting when we were packing back in Canada.) Simple shale pathways lead sight-seers towards the main spectacle of Strokkur, but also to other bubbling hot springs and the now dormant older geyser, named aptly 'Geysir' (since Iceland's last earthquake, it has not really been very active, and Strokkur has stolen the limelight).

Geysir hole, Golden Circle geysery, Golden Circle tour Iceland
The geyser Strokkur deceptively peaceful before its explosion.

Strokkur was definitely the highlight. We got to see it erupt five or six times during our little hike through the Geysir area, and twice watched it up close with our cameras out. It really is timely - every 5 to 7 minutes is not an exaggeration (and it was closer to every 5 minutes, really).Water pooled at the top of the geyser hole bubbles and steams constantly, but eventually begins to swish from side to side and then bulge outwards. The water seems to expand and become convex, straining out from the hole but never really spilling over the edges. Then, with a huge spurt of steam, it comes shooting out and high into the air, sending waves of heat towards the audience. It was very cool to experience. I probably could have watched it for hours, but we didn't have much time at each location since our tour was only scheduled for the afternoon.

exploding geyser Iceland, Golden Circle tour, Strokkur geyser
The amazing Strokkur geyser at its height.

We did hike around the Geysir area and stop to explore some of the hot springs, and just admire the flower-coated fields that innocently steamed and bubbled here and there, as if creating a sauna in the middle of nowhere was nothing new.

Iceland thermal activity, Golden Circle tour
The area around Geysir - all of it steaming hot!

Our next stop was the amazing and gigantic waterfall Gulfoss. The waterfall is extremely close to Geysir - about a 10 minute drive.

Gulfoss to Geysir, Golden Circle driving directions Iceland
The quick jaunt between Geysir and Gulfoss

The waterfall is located in a canyon carved by the Hvita river in southwest Iceland. The crevice is 105 feet deep, which makes for a really impressive sight. Not only are there tons and tons of rushing water thundering down into the valley, but the canyon walls appear to be made of columns, naturally formed by volcanic lava.

Iceland rocks, Gulfoss rocks, Golden Circle tour Iceland
The cool rock formations at Gulfoss.

Everything is impressive about Gulfoss. The lower falls drop the furthest, and are narrower, but thunderously loud. The higher falls have a much smaller drop, but are expansive and drop their waters into a pool before heading down the lower falls. A pathway leads from the drop-off parking lot along the Hvita river, up to a vantage point where you can view the lower falls clearly and see the entirety of Gulfoss, and then up to the higher falls, where an outcropping of lava rock allows you to feel as if you are standing directly in the falls themselves.

Iceland waterfall, Golden Circle tour waterfall Iceland
Gulfoss' Upper and Lower Falls

A word of warning: if you are headed to Gulfoss, no matter the weather, pack a rain jacket or poncho, for you WILL get wet if you hike to the higher falls! Both Joey and I were soaked after visiting Gulfoss, and it didn't help matters that it was raining that day. The spray from the falls is refreshing, to say the least, but incessant and quite cold. I was constantly tucking my camera into the inside pocket of my sweater, buried under my waterproof jacket, to keep it from getting fried.

Golden Circle tour waterfall Iceland, Iceland waterfall
Soaking wet outside Gulfoss, but super happy!

Gulfoss also features a tourist center with a restaurant, gift shop and washrooms. The gift shop is tiny and jam-packed - definitely not as nice as the one in Geysir, which had more than just trinkets for sale. If you want some good quality items to remind you of your Golden Circle tour, use the shops at Geysir instead of Gulfoss for sure. (On a related note, Joey would NOT stop talking about the 'superior' jacket that he bought from Geysir for the rest of the trip. I wanted to burn it out of spite after about four days!)

Golden Circle tour waterfall Iceland, Iceland tours
The view of the Lower Falls and Hvita River

Our final stop for the afternoon was to be Pingvellir National Park. It was a bit of a drive from Gulfoss, and we were on the bus for about 50 minutes to an hour before we arrived at our destination.

Gulfoss, Pingvellir, Iceland driving directions, Golden Circle tour
The trip from Gulfoss to Pingvellir National Park

As we drove, the weather worsened and the rain turned from an annoying sprinkle to spikes driven by the wind. By the time we got to Pingvellir, it was raining so hard, and so blustery, that no one really wanted to disembark and explore. To make matters worse, there was a private function (we thought it was a wedding) happening inside the tourist center, so it was all closed up. I quickly ran to the vantage point and took some photos of the park from above, but in those five minutes became soaked to my underoos, and so I high-tailed it back to the warmth of our tour bus.

Unfortunately, we didn't see much due to rain, but the bus driver made up for the disappointing weather by driving us along the longer yet more scenic route through the park. She made sure we stopped to see some interesting geological features. We learned about the two tectonic plates (the Euro-Asian plate and the North American plate) that meet right smack in the middle of Pingvellir National Park. Iceland is only present on our fine planet because it is basically the plug on the end of a giant volcanic fissure in the crack between the plates. At several points in the park, you can actually see deep into the rifts and gorges that are made as the plates slide apart. (Some companies offer scuba diving tours of these fissures.) The gap between the plates is actually 7 km apart, but is constantly filling in with volcanic eruptions that occur approximately every 10 years.

Iceland parks, Golden Circle tour Iceland
Pingvellir National Park, with a clear view of a fissure.

Now, I know that going on controlled bus tours such as this is not everyone's cup of tea. I myself prefer to rent a car and explore on my own, at my own pace. However, there are some awesome benefits to taking bus tours. A big one for me was, we didn't have to learn to drive in Iceland under those nasty road conditions. Our driver was capable and experienced, and we took the opportunity to grill her about the road rules of Iceland before getting behind the wheel ourselves.

The second reason is that while on a bus tour, the bus driver typically regales you with tales of their homeland (or home state or province or region or whatever). I know a lot of people prefer to tune out the driver and instead stare out the windows at the landscape, or even snooze between stops, but I'm not like that. I am a sponge for random facts, and bus tours are a perfect opportunity to soak some up. It's even better when the bus driver has a wicked sense of humor.

Here are some random facts I learned while on our bus tour:

Random Fact 1. There are purple lupin flowers EVERYWHERE in Iceland - filling the ditches, taking over entire fields, growing along the sides of hills and valleys. However, purple lupin itself is not a native plant to the island of Iceland. It was brought in about one hundred years ago to control the nation's major erosion problem. A hardy plant that thrives in a vegetation zone like Iceland, people thought the lupin would help prevent the erosion of precious (and sparse) top soils. It sure did, but then it spread, and spread, and spread, strangling out other regional plants and taking over fields. Now it truly is EVERYWHERE. I thought it was quite pretty, but islanders have a totally different view of the purple petals.

Iceland vegetation, purple lupins, purple flower in Iceland
Fields and fields of purple lupins cover the Icelandic countryside.

Random Fact 2. There are tons and tons of cool looking stones all over Iceland. In many places, the stones are stacked like cairns or into shapes of people or animals. Other thoughtful and creative people have made little fences with the stones, or table and chair sets. HOWEVER, due to the aforementioned erosion problem on the island, removing stones from their original resting places is actually illegal. Piling stones (and therefore causing massive erosion to the precious top soil) can earn you a special place in Icelandic prison for up to the two years. As our bus driver said laughingly, but with a tone indicating she wasn't exactly joking, "Don't mess with our stones."

Random Fact 3. In the Icelandic school system, it is mandatory that school children need to learn to swim starting at the age of six and take lessons until they are sixteen. As a water-locked nation, it is considered a national imperative that all citizens know how to swim. (Makes sense.) Another school rule: all kids need to learn to speak and write in English and Danish (on top of mastering their home language of Icelandic). Once students reach junior high, they then have the option to master yet another language (favorites included French, Norwegian, and Spanish). That fact made me feel rather stupid, as I only really know English, and can maybe find a toilet or a beer in French, Italian, and Spanish.

Want to see Strokkur in action? Check out the video below!


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