The Golden Circle is one of the most popular tourist routes in Iceland and no wonder, is it absolutely marvelous and offers you a chance to explore many great and beautiful attractions. Many who visit Iceland and go the Golden Circle also spend some time in West Iceland, exploring waterfalls, glaciers, hot springs and lava fields. Here’s our complete guide to the Golden Circle and West Iceland.
Leaving Reykjavik you follow road 1 east. As you drive past the last few buildings you should see to your left some strange rock formations, that are called Raudholar or Red hills, which are a part of Heidmork Nature Reserve. Raudholar er remnants of a cluster of pseudocraters and were created about 2500 years ago. If you take road 408, which is a gravel road, to your left you will find a parking lot where you can park your car and follow a short hiking trail through Raudholar. Don’t forget to bring your camera along, for there are many great photo spots there.
Follow the gravel road back to road 1 and turn right. As you head east make a note of the landscape to your left. This is the Leitarhraun lava field, which is an enormous 5000 year old lava field that came from the volcano Leiti, which is a part of the Blafjoll mountain ridge. Also a part of the same ridge is the volcano Thrihnjukagigur. You can actually go inside that volcano and see how a volcano looks from the inside. The tour takes about 4-5 hours as you enter the volcano by a cable car. Trust us, this is so worth it. Just make sure you book a tour in an advance.
As you turn back to road 1 you should notice the mountains to your right. The northern most part of the Blafjoll mountain ridge is called mt. Vififell, which a majestic volcano named after one of Ingolfur Arnarson’s, Iceland’s first settler, freed slaves, Vifill. As the story goes, once Arnarson had decided on where to build his farmstead, he set his slaves free and gave each of them land where they could build their own farms. Vifill decided to build his farm at Vifilstadir, which is at the easternmost part of Gardabaer.
Turn right on road 1. The road rises as you enter the Hellisheidi heath, an active geothermal area. Notice how the landscape changes, from wide fields of grass to moss-clad lava fields. There are many different lava fields in the heath, the youngest one being Svinafellsbruni, mere 1000 years old, which in geological sense is quite young. If you feel like exploring and going more spelunking we suggest that you make a right turn not long after you enter the heath and follow road 39 until you see a sign saying Raufarholshellir lava tunnel. This cave is one of the longest and best-known lava tubes in Iceland. Exploring the cave is something we can fully recommend for any adventurous traveler.
Hveragerdi and the hot springs
Follow road 39 down from the Hellisheidi heath and make a left turn on road 38. After a few moments a small village should come into view, this is Hveragerdi. There’s a geothermal hot spring area almost in the middle of the town, which the locals have found a great use for. They use the hot water to keep their greenhouses warm and it is so efficient that you can even find bananas that have grown in these greenhouse. Mind you, Iceland is the only European country that we know of where you can grow bananas.
We recommend that you make stop in Hveragerdi. The locals offer a few tours, where you can learn more about the geothermal hot springs or even go for a hike and bathe in one of the many warm springs and creeks around the town. Perhaps you’d rather go on a bike tour and learn about the hot springs in Hveragerdi.
We also recommend that you check out the Geothermal Park, where you can walk amidst hot springs. The geothermal park is centrally located and is open every day in the summer time. A natural clay foot bath can be enjoyed in the park and afterwards you can soak your feet in one of the hot springs. Before you leave Hveragerdi make sure you try out the ice cream, which is a local favorite and locally made.
Entering the Golden Circle
Follow road 1 east towards Selfoss. Just before you reach the town make a left turn and follow road 35. To your left you’ll see a 551 m high mountain called Ingolfsfjall. The mountain has it’s name from Ingolfur Arnarson, the first settler in Iceland, and as the story goes, he was supposedly buried in a mound in the mountain. Mt Ingolfsfjall is a steep sloped hyaloclastite mountain with strata of lava and mostly precipitous upper part. You might notice that many boulders and rock have fallen down the mountain side, but amidst them, snuggled in between some large one, is a cozy cottage.
Sogið og Kerid
As you drive on you cross a river, which is called Sogid. This river’s source is lake Thingvallavatn and the river is quite popular among anglers and fishermen. On the far bank, to the left side of the road, is a popular stop, Thrastarlundur. There’s a nice restaurant and a few trails leading to the water and the woodland behind the building.
Keep following road 35. The road passes through beautiful woodland terrain, which is a really popular area among Icelanders, and there are many summer houses here. After a few minutes the road ascends and you see the next attraction, Kerid.
Once believed to be an explosion crater formed 3,000 years ago. Geologists now believe it to be a collapsed magma chamber at the end of a volcanic eruption. It occurred more than 6,000 years ago. The crater is the northernmost one of the crater row called Tjarnarholar and the colourful crater is one of the several crater lakes in what is known as Iceland’s Western Volcanic Zone.
If you feel up to it, make the hike down into the crater. The sloops are a bit steep and can be slippery in wet conditions, so be careful.
Leaving Kerid you keep following road 35. After a short while you reach a small place called Minni-Borgir. There you can find a small and nice swimming pool, one with a single slide and a few hot tubs. If you are travelling with children this does make a nice stop. At the gas station is a tiny shop where you can buy groceries and serves the many summer cottages all around.
Our next stop is Skalholt. You keep following road 35 for some time now, until you cross river Bruara. There you make a right turn and follow road 31 for a few minutes, until you see a majestic white church rise to your right.
After Christianity was made the state religion of Iceland in 1000 AD, the very first bishop of the country was ordained. The bishop settled at Skalholt in 1056. Of the bishops residing there in the middle ages, Thorlakur Thorhallsson (bishop 1178-1198), Iceland’s only saint, is perhaps the most famous. People came on pilgrimage from all corners of Iceland to visit his relics in Skalholt. During those times huge wooden cathedrals were built there.
Today guests can visit the church built from shiploads of Norwegian timber in the 12th century. There you find a museum and the sarcophagus of bishop Pall Jonsson carved from a solid block of sandstone that was unearthed in 1954. Since then archaeological excavations at Skalholt have revealed many interesting finds that can be seen and studied there. We fully recommend that you make a stop by Skalholt and enjoy the serenity of this beautiful place.
Once you’ve explored the Skalholt church keep following road 31. Not far from Skalholt is a small petting zoo, Slakki, which has many cute animals to pet, puppies, kittens, rabbits, pigs, ducks, parrots, artic foxes and much more. You can also find there a mini golf course and outside playground for kids and a restaurant. The zoo is open every day during the summer, but only during weekends in September.
Keep following road 31. You cross yet another river, this time river Olfusa. Once you reach the crossroads, make a left turn and follow road 30.
Fludir and the Secret Lagoon
After short while you should see to your right a soccer golf course at Markavollur. If you haven’t tried soccer golf this is the perfect opportunity. Soccer golf is like any other golf, except you only get a soccer ball instead of a golf ball and you use your feet.
Next up is Fludir village. Fludir is an agriculture center and there are many greenhouses there. We recommend that you make stop in the village, especially where you can find farmers selling their products. If you get a chance to try out Icelandic strawberries, make sure you do. There are also a few restaurants in Fludir and if you feel like trying something new, there’s a small Ethiopian restaurant, Minilik, shortly after you arrive in Fludir.
Not far fram Icelandair Hotel Fludir you’ll find a road on your right, road Hvammsvegur. Follow that road to find the incredible Secret Lagoon. Created in 1891, this geothermal pool with a spouting geyser offers showers, a bar & an eating area. Don’t miss out on this one.
Once you’ve bathed return to road 30 and turn right. Follow road 30 for a while, until you reach road 35. Make a right turn and follow the road until you reach Gullfoss.
Gullfoss is one of the most popular tourist attraction in Iceland. The waterfall is by many considered one of the most beautiful waterfall in Iceland. You can find the waterfall in the upper part of the Hvita river. The water cascades down in two stages, one 11 m (36 ft) high, and the other 21 m (69 ft), into the 2,5 km (1.6 mi) long crevasse below. This crevasse was created at the end of the Ice Age by catastrophic flood waves and is lengthened by 25 cm (9.8 in) a year by the constant erosion from the water.
Please stay on the trails. Due to the haze and mist from the waterfall even the paths can get slippery, so please take care. During winter the trails can freeze over, making it even more difficult to follow them. We strongly advise that you take care and stay within the path.
Leaving Gullfoss waterfall you follow road 35 back and keep following that road until you see the mighty geysers erupt to your right.
Geysir hot spring area is also one of the most popular tourist attraction in Iceland. You can expect to find this place crowded, especially during high season.
The geothermal field is believed to have a surface area of approximately 3 km². Most of the springs are aligned along a 100m wide strip of land running in the same direction as the tectonic lines in the area, from south to southwest. The strip is 500m long and culminates near what once was the seat of the lords of Haukadalur.
The newly opened Geysir Center offers exhibits and informative presentations year round.The center also has one of the biggest souvenir shops in Iceland. It offers a pleasant shopping atmosphere a large selection. The store itself was designed and built in the spirit of sustainability. The interior is made from recycled materials, diverse tools and wooden bits and pieces collected from old, abandoned farm houses. The ambiance is relaxed, allowing for a great shopping experience.
Keep following road 35, until you come to a crossroad where road 37 meets road 35. Please note, that you need to make a left turn at this crossroad, in order to keep driving on road 35.
Faxi and some river rafting
If you are feeling extra adventurous we recommend that you try river rafting in river Hvita. After following road 35 for a while you should see road 358 to your left, crossing Bruara river. On the other bank the road splits, make a right turn and a left turn almost immediately, follow that road to Drumboddstadir, where you will find Iceland Riverjet. There you can go river rafting in river Hvita. We recommend that you book the tour in advance.
Once you’ve experienced river Hvita follow the same route back to road 35. Once you’ve crossed river Bruara again make a left turn and drive for only a few moments, or until you see the parking lot by Faxi waterfall. This waterfall is not only beautiful, but also a popular spot among the many fishermen who try their luck in Bruara river. This is also a great place for a picnic and on a sunny day it is so nice just relaxing and watching the salmon jump and swim the waterfall.
Follow road 35 south. You’ll pass the small village Reykholt, where you can find a few splendid restaurants. If you are into vegetarian food we recommend that you make a stop by Fridheimar restaurant. Fridheimar has a greenhouse where they grow four different kinds of tomatoes and there are many tomato plants in the restaurant itself. The chefs specialize in using these locally grown tomatoes.
Follow road 35 for a while until you see road 37 to your right. Make a right turn and head out for lake Laugarvatn.
Lake Laugarvatn – A spa and a geothermal bakery
Follow road 37 for a bit now, until you see a large lake to your right. This is lake Apavatn. You drive on until you see another lake, this one a bit smaller. This is lake Laugarvatn, where you will find Laugarvatn Fontana spa. The spa is really good and especially welcoming after an active and long day.
Every day there is a scheduled walk from the reception at Laugarvatn Fontana to the geothermal bakery located next to Lake Laugarvatn. There guests can taste rye bread that has been baking in a pot in the warm ground for 24 hours, being dug out. After the walk, guests can taste the bread with some delicious Icelandic butter.
We highly recommend you get to experience the geothermal energy first hand with a visit to the geothermal bakery.
Thingvellir National Park
Once you’ve tasted the rye bread and relaxed in Fontana spa it’s time to move on. Turn back to road 37 and backtrack to the roundabout you passed just before. Take the first exit, road 365, and follow it, as it ascends on the heath between Laugarvatn and Thingvellir. If the conditions are good and the weather is nice, we recommend that you make a little detour. Follow road 365 you will find a gravel road to your right after a while. Follow that road until you see a sign that says: Laugarvatnshellir.
Laugarvatnshellir is actually two caves near Laugarvatn on the Golden Circle. In recent years it has mostly been inhabited by sheep seeking shelter from the Icelandic weather, but around a 100 years ago the caves were the home of two Icelandic couples, one of which had three children. The cave home has now been restored and visitors are invited to come and see how the so-called “Cave People” lived. A small café has been opened in the caves as well, in line with the “Cave People’s” history since they used to sell coffee and refreshments to passersby. You can try waffles baked using the original waffle maker owned by Vigdís, the last inhabitant of the caves. Icelandic history doesn’t get more authentic than this.
Follow the same road back to road 365 and make a right turn. Follow this road for a while, it merges with road 36 as you get closer to the park. You should get a great view of lake Thingvallavatn, as you descend from the heath. The lake is a favorite among many anglers, especially during spring before the large trout disappears into the deepest reaches of the lake.
Thingvellir is a favourite stop among travellers along the Golden Circle route. It has been a National Park in Iceland since 1930 and was named a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 2004. When Viking settlers arrived in the 10th century it was the site they chose as the meeting place of Althingi, the world’s oldest parliament.
Thingvellir is notable for its unusual tectonic and volcanic environment in a rift valley. The continental drift can clearly be seen in the cracks or faults which traverse the region. At the park center you can learn more about Thingvellir’s geology.
At Almannagja, one of these faults on the west side of the plain, you can see the easternmost edge of the North American tectonic plate. It is normally submerged in the Atlantic Ocean. On the east side at the Heidargja Gorge, you are at the westernmost edge of the Eurasian plate.
There are many great hiking trails within the park and we recommend that you make sure you have time to explore Thingvellir. If you are into diving Silfra gorge is an absolute must. The water is so clear, you will probably never experience anything like it.
Entering West Iceland
After you have spent time in the park find your way back to road 36 and head back towards Reykjavik city. You should, shortly after you leave the park, see a road to your right, road 48. Make a right turn there and follow the road to Hvalfjordur fjord. Follow road 48 until you reach road 47, make a left turn there.
Hvalfjordur and Glymur Waterfall
Hvalfjordur fjord is a deep and beautiful fjord and we recommend that you look out for a few things. First of all, you might see once you driven for a short while where ruins of an old pier stand. There were two bases in Hvalfjord fjord and you will find the ruins of the first one there. You can find a place to park the car and check out what’s left of the old base. If you are into birding, you might see many sea birds there, especially sea gulls and even eider ducks. On the other side of the fjord, where you can see old oil tanks, was the other base. Nowadays it only serves as a base for whalers.
If you brought along some hiking boots there’s a must-see in Hvalfjord. Glymur, one of the highest waterfalls in Iceland, is at the very end of the fjord. However, it’s a steep 2-hour walk to reach it, but, trust us, it’s more than worth it. The hiking trail is one of the most beautiful in Iceland and that’s saying a lot! If you are, however, pressed on time, please take into account that it the whole hike should take around 4 hours.
Follow road 47 for most of the fjord, but as you pass the other base, where the white oil tanks are, you should make a right turn in a few minutes. Look for road 520, which is a gravel road. Follow road 520. This is a beautiful route, where you will have a splendid view of pristine lakes and valleys. The third and last lake you pass is lake Skorradalsvatn, a long and deep lake. There are many summer cottages on both side of the lake as the valley is a popular summer resort among locals.
Road 520 merges with road 52 in Lundarreykjadalur valley, make a left turn and drive for a short while until you see road 50. Make right turn on road 50 and follow it until you see sign pointing towards Krauma and Deildartunguhver. Make a left turn there and follow the road leading there.
Reykholt and Europe’s most powerful hot spring
Situated on a beautiful farm, Deildartunguhver is the largest and most powerful hot spring in Europe with a flow rate of 180 litres (50 gallons) of water per second at a piping hot 97°C (200°F). The scalding water bubbles out of an algae covered rocky outcrop creating a steamy source of power.
We recommend that you bring your swimsuit along and try out the awesome Krauma nature baths. The hot water originates in Deildartunguhver, at a temperature of 100°C (212°F). To achieve the perfect bathing temperature the hot water is mixed with cold water which originated in the glacier Raudsgil.
Krauma has a total of six baths, five warm and one cold. The baths only feature blunted soft shapes which create an interesting contrast to the square design of the buildings. If you want to get even more relaxed enjoy the relaxation room located in the bathing area and lie or sit down while listening to soothing music and a crackling fireplace.
Once you’ve bathed in Krauma and felt the rejuvenating power of the water, find your way back to road 50 and backtrack a little. In a few moments make a left turn and follow road 518 to Reykholt, where you will find Snorrastofa center. This center was founded in the memory of scholar Snorri Sturluson. It is a cultural and medieval center situated in his ancient homestead at Reykholt. Reykholt is one of the most important historical sites of the country.
Once you’ve learned about Sturluson, keep following road 518. If you are hungry, make a stop at Bruaras geocenter and enjoy the great view of Hvita valley.
As you follow road 518 you see a strange colored mountain rise in the middle of the valley, splitting it in half. This is mount Tunga (450 m), which mean tongue in Icelandic. Rhyolite is the predominant rock, which explains the strange color. Mt. Tunga is a part of the Husafell volcano system.
As you drive on you see where Hallmundarhraun lava field stretches out on the other side of river Hvita. After a few moments you should see the parking lot for Hraunfossar and Barnafoss Waterfalls. This is your next stop.
The Hraunfossar waterfalls (Lava Falls) in Borgarfjordur are an exceptionally beautiful and unusual natural phenomena. The water seems to magically appear from the lava but is actually a clear cold spring that surges through the ground and runs in rapids down into the Hvita River.
The short, fierce rapids that cut through the narrow canyon at Barnafoss resemble a pale blue milkshake of sorts. The name Barnafoss means Children’s falls, and comes from a story about two young boys who disappeared many years ago from the nearby Hraunsas farm.
After you have explored the magnificent waterfalls you keep following road 518. Make left turn at the parking lot and follow the road towards Husafell.
Langjokull glacier and lave caves
Husafell is one of the most popular summer resort in Iceland. There are many summer cottages there, a swimming pool and a great playground for children. There’s also a superb hotel and a great restaurant, not to mention a golf course as well.
The main attraction for tourist however are the glacier and lava cave tours. You can embark on a tour from Husafell where you explore Langjokull glacier, not only from above, but you will also get a chance to enter a man made tunnel in the glacier, where you can experience the glacier from a completely unique perspective.
Make sure you book a tour in advance since this is a very popular tourist attraction.
Husafell is also a perfect place for anyone interested in exploring lava caves, since there are a few of them in the vicinity. Surtshellir cave and Vidgelmir are two of the most known local lava caves.
Time to head back to Reykjavik
Now that you’ve explored the Golden Circle and a part of West Iceland it’s time to head back to Reykjavik. Follow road 518 all the way back to road 50. Make a right turn and follow road 50 until you find road 1. Make a left turn and stay on road 1 until you are back in Reykjavik. You will pass through Borgarnes village and we recommend that you make a stop in the Settlement center, if you have time to spare.