The sights of the Golden Circle are so stunning that it doesn’t matter whether you visit in summer or winter, so I booked a seat on a minibus tour when I visited Iceland in early February this year. We left Reykjavik as the sun started to rise and returned as it set over the ocean. In between, we visited Thingvellir National Park, the Strokkur geyser, and Gullfoss waterfall–a circuit that’s a classic for a reason.
Thingvellir is hugely important for historic and geographic reasons. It’s both where the Icelandic Parliament was established way back in the 10th century, and it’s where the North American tectonic plate separates from the Eurasian tectonic plate. Democracy trembling in the earthquakes of the continents drifting apart.
The first assembly met here in 930, and continued to meet even as the Norwegians and then the Danish claimed Iceland for their own, until eventually the Danish king held absolute rule and the assembly was no longer allowed to serve its purpose. Today, the prime minister’s summer home sits in the valley near one of the possible locations of the ‘law rock’ from which the law was read and assembly decisions made.
While continental plates are rubbing up against one another in the Pacific and causing tsunamis, on this side of the world they’re pulling apart and causing earthquakes. Most of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge–the longest mountain range in the world–runs along the ocean floor, and the only place you can walk along it on land is here in Iceland. The Icelandic government have put a path down at the base of the ridge, so as you walk down the path you’re leaving the North American continental plate and entering a rift valley; off in the distance you can see the ridge of the Eurasian plate rising above this volcanic island. Few things in this world are singular, and I cherish those that are.
Iceland quietly has so many original and unusual natural wonders. One of those is the spouting hot spring from which we get the word “geyser” — Geysir, the first such spring Europeans learned about. Geysir hasn’t spouted in many years, but literally yards away lies Strokkur, which makes up for Geysir’s inactivity by going off every 5-10 minutes, nearly as reliably as Old Faithful of Yellowstone in America.
These two springs sit in a valley full of geothermal activity, and every family in the area either has their own natural hot spring as a source of energy, or they rent from their neighbors. Geothermal energy is also what powers the capital city of Reykjavik, although those springs are not in this valley.
By the time we got to Gullfoss, I was starting to creak in the cold wind. It’s colder in the interior of the island than it is out on the coast, so when I’d come back from the South Shore tour the day before and blithely remarked on how the weather wasn’t so bad, I was not prepared for Gullfoss. Both my camera and my phone just shut themselves down (happily, they recovered when I warmed the batteries later). It wasn’t even too terrible, numbers-wise; our guide said it was -14 Celsius, and I know I’ve been in worse in Chicago. The wind wasn’t awful and there was no precipitation. But it was still really, really cold, and I had to do some finger exercises to keep them from losing feeling.
But Gullfoss is a waterfall, so as you can imagine, dearest fellow travelers, I didn’t really care how cold it was. What a waterfall! The Hvítá River spreads wide across the landscape, and rushes down in several stages, before plunging to a much narrower space below. It’s dramatic and magnificent. The blue of the water and the white of the snow shone in the sunlight, and I had one of those moments of being aware that my eyes weren’t quite up to the task of taking in all that they were seeing.
Horses and Faxafoss
One of the reasons I booked the Iceland Horizons tour was I’d read that they made a couple extra stops that other bus tours didn’t: we stopped by the side of the road to meet some horses, and our last stop of the day was Faxafoss waterfall. Even knowing this, I hadn’t planned ahead and didn’t have any snacks to feed the horses, who were unimpressed with my lack of offerings, and who can blame them. They did let me admire them from a slight distance, though.
To end the day with a bonus waterfall, with no one else around but the people from my bus, was a pleasure.