If there’s one thing everyone should do in Iceland – other than take a tour with Auđunn from Goecco – it’s drive the Golden Circle. Plenty of tour companies offer guided trips, so you can easily go that route if you so choose. But, since the route is extremely well-documented, we decided to rent a car and make the trek on our own.
Things to note
Expect crowds. Most of Iceland’s natural attractions have parking lots, and those lots are likely to have at least a bus or two in them at a given time.
The weather changes drastically and on a dime. We thought Virginia weather was crazy, but in the span of about 5 hours, we experienced several flurries, ice pellets, rain, a brief white-out snowstorm, brilliant sun, menacing clouds, and more than a few heavy wind gusts. If you’re not comfortable driving (or saying you need to pull over) in schizophrenic weather, you should probably opt for a tour.
Iceland is effing gorgeous. The terrain is downright otherworldly, and you absolutely need to take your time to admire it in all its glory.
Boyfriend Perspective: For those with photographing passengers or driving photographers, there are more than enough places along 86 that you can stop for some unreal views. Meagan was flipping out almost the whole way. You could kill an entire trip if you stopped at every single one for pictures. Photographers will love it, everyone else…. ehhh. Be patient #forthegram.
I Heart Reykjavík is a lifesaver when you’re planning your Iceland trip, and their map of the Golden Circle – intended for self-drivers and embedded below – is perfect. I was literally up at 6am the Monday we were supposed to drive, staring at this map and putting finishing touches on our route. Visit their amazing blog for more detailed Reykjavík recommendations!
Boyfriend Perspective: Driving the Golden Circle was much better than driving one our first day in Iceland (thank you, sweet sleep!). Plus, I had gotten used to the roads and signs. You can’t really gawk at the view around you, but it’s easy enough to drive in the direction of wonder so you can enjoy the view while watching the road.
We started at the far end of the Golden Circle with Gulfoss, a lovely waterfall that cascades down into a surprisingly wide canyon. This is one of the few falls we visited that you don’t approach from ground level. When you walk up to the guard rails, you’re face to face with the water as it pours over cliff face.
Of course, tourists with tripods abound. But you’ll find it easy enough to get close to the guardrails to admire her beauty.
Despite the fact that being near a big body of water lowered the air temp – AND the fact that it had just started to snow – I decided it would be fun to climb further up to get a higher view of the falls. After all, this was my first Icelandic landmark!
Let me tell you. When you’re at elevation, wet snow is pounding you in the face, and the wind will. not. stop. You start to regret choices like this. I snapped a few shots from the top, and returned to the car as quickly as possible. With completely numb hands.
Boyfriend Perspective: Honest to god, unless you are bundled up like the Michelin man, don’t plan to stay out here very long in winter. Non-photo people, take a quick look around then get back to the car and keep it running for the photo people. They will appreciate it.
We also started the trek to Öxarárfoss, but were running close on time, so only got a view of its lovely spray in the distance.
The Secret Lagoon
After having luxuriated at the Blue Lagoon the day before, Luke and I decided to make a stop at the more modest and historic Secret Lagoon. Locals bathed in this naturally occurring – and as-yet undeveloped – spring for decades. Happily, though, you no longer have to change in non-climate controlled stone huts (holy god, I might reconsider my life choices), as the site now hosts a pretty nice bathing facility.
Find your way to the front door from the gravel parking lot (dodging neighborhood dogs, mind you) and pay at the rustic-looking front desk. Then, head into the locker rooms, but not before removing your boots, per Icelandic custom. Also per custom, shower sans bathing suit with a bunch of other chilly ladies, get suited up, and power walk to the pool.
The water is far warmer than the Blue Lagoon’s, perhaps because it’s smaller and closer to the original source. In fact, if you get close to the left side, you’ll start to feel a little like a lobster in a pot. The water itself is a dark teal color and, if you look closely, does have a bit of organic sediment floating around in it. This is obviously to be expected since you’re hanging out in an outdoor, chemical-free pool!
The atmosphere here is far more relaxed than the more party-like atmosphere the busloads of tourists bring to the Blue Lagoon. It’s just a bunch of folks floating on pool noodles and soaking up some geothermal warmth.
Other natural wonders
- Rock cairns. They may not be the pyramids of Giza, but rock cairns are really pretty cool. They actually reach peak cool factor when you’re walking through a pretty nondescript landscape and happen upon a seemingly random stack of lava rocks, outlined against the horizon. They’re a hallmark of Iceland (among other countries) and not to be missed when you visit!
- Geysers. The term for these beauties actually comes from Iceland’s frequently-erupting Geysir, a large geyser that pops up probably every 10-15 minutes. A few other smaller geysers and hot springs sit nearby, as well. The springs are a gorgeous, brilliant blue, but they’re cordoned off for a reason – some of them could easily boil an egg! They’re also a little tough to get great shots of unless you’re insanely patient, since people constantly mill about.
Boyfriend Perspective: Speaking of eggs, you’ll notice something… pungent about Geysir. It’s just under my nose… ooookay, who ripped one?
- Horses. One of the best parts about driving the Golden Circle is seeing all the horses hanging out in their pastures.
Boyfriend Perspective: You can spot herds of horses grazing or scratching their chins on the fences of almost every field you pass. If you haven’t seen pictures of Icelandic horses, just put Fabio’s hair on a horse. For a wintery look, picture the horse with a beard. They’re a little friendlier than I imagine Fabio being, though…
I’m super happy I persuaded Luke to pull over for us to get up close with them. Since they have no natural predators, they don’t spook like the horses I’ve known. Instead, they’re in your face, asking for pets and treats. It’s the best!!
While I’m happy we booked tours for most of our other explorations, we definitely made the right choice in driving this particular part of Iceland ourselves. We got to take our time, see what we wanted to see, and leave when we wanted to leave. Plus, there’s nothing like having a front-seat view of this amazing place on your first full day in the country. Highly recommended by both Restless Homebodies!
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Also published on Medium.