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The Golden Circle: Day 4, Multigen Iceland/Norway Trip

Iceland is a big island. Like the Big Island of Hawaii. Except, 10 times bigger.

This is an important distinction to keep in mind when you plan any adventures around the island. Like, in Hawaii, adventurous day trippers might want to drive the Road to Hana and loop back, a 115-mile, five-hour trip. And if you liked that, you might think that when you go to Iceland, you’ll drive the ring road that loops around the entire island.

Nope. You won’t. Not in a day, at least. Because Iceland’s ring road is 825 miles. That’s like 24 hours of straight driving, without stopping to see anything.

Instead, visitors with only a day to see the island are encouraged to tour the Golden Circle. That’s what we did for the day after our Reykjavik day. Whether you board a tour bus or drive yourselves, the Golden Circle allows you to see Iceland’s Greatest Hits: a geyser, an impressive waterfall, and the historic and stunning Thingvellir National Park, all in about eight hours. You’ll spend three and a half to four hours of that time driving the 150 miles of rural road.

Most tourist itineraries send you on the Golden Circle clockwise, starting with Thingvellir, continuing to the Gullfoss waterfall and the Geysir Hot Springs, and hitting a small crater lake called Kerid on the way back to Reykjavik, if you have time.

We decided to be contrary and drive it counterclockwise. Why?

I thought the attractions might be less crowded if we visited them in the opposite order of most tour buses. I also liked the idea of the trip starting with the least impressive sight (Kerid) and working up to the most impressive, Thingvellir. Finally, our family loves national parks. I wanted us to feel free to spend as much time as we wanted at Thingvellir without feeling rushed to get on with our day. I’ll let you know at the end whether this strategy turned out to be a good one.

At first, we were planning to book a bus tour for the Golden Circle, instead of renting a car and driving ourselves. In some ways, I think being on a guided tour would have made our day better, but in other ways, not so much. I’ll revisit that decision at the end of this post.

Driving Iceland’s Golden Circle was one of the most spectacular days of our trip. It gave us just a taste of this country’s beauty, and left me excited to visit again and see more. On the other hand, I think this day was not a favorite for some other family members, becaues the car time ran a bit long and our small car was not a comfortable fit for five.

Hitting the Road

No one in our group complained of much jet lag, so we were able to get up and ready to go by 8:30 a.m., as planned. We dressed warm. I had synthetic Uniqlo long underwear underneath my jeans, a long sleeve shirt, a hooded fleece, waterproof haking boots and my raincoat. And of course, I brought my Red Cross store beanie.

Yesterday’s pastries had been so delicious that Erik tried to get more, this time from the bakery on our block. However, it wasn’t open when he went down at around 7:30. So we breakfasted on fresh blueberries (imported from Portugal), Skyr, cheese and crackers. We threw some CheezIts we’d brought from home in the car along with a couple liter of bottled water, and we were off. Toth was still coughing and sneezing a bit, and felt a little warm, but he said he didn’t feel too bad.

Our first stop was the Orkan gas station, where we were supposed to get a discount using a fob on our rental car keys. We were a little confused about fueling this car. First of all, the key fob said the car was bensin, or gasoline, but the gas tank cover said diesel. The day before, I had emailed Golden Circle Car Rental, and the owner, Gunnar Gunnarsson, had promptly replied that he car was definitely diesel. But we still had another problem: The gas gauge wasn’t showing any decrease in available fuel at all, even though by now we had driven about 40 miles. Erik is paranoid about running out of gas under normal circumstances, and we’d been warned that gas stations are spread out once you leave Reykjavik. So you better believe my boy was goig to fill up before we left town. The car took about 2 gallons, for $18.32. We don’t think the discount key fob worked this time around.

Kerid CRater

Our drive to Kerid Crater took just under an hour. It’s easy to get through Reykjavik and onto the highway, as long a you don’t mind roundabouts. It was another gray day with intermittent rain.

At first the scenery wasn’t much, just more lava. But eventually we began to see little clumps of horses as the landscape changed to grassy meadows. Purple lupines lined the roadside. Mountains began poking up in the distance, below the heavy canopy of clouds.

Kerid Crater reminded Dad of a Wisconsin roadside attraction, like The House on the Rock used to be. A small parking lot, a shack with a window where a young woman collected $13.25 for our group’s entry, and not a single porta-potty. Some people recommend skipping the crater, but we liked it. The water is a pretty shade of teal, even without a sunny sky, and it’s interesting to look at the sloped crater walls and walk the path that surrounds it. Since my parents have never seen Crater Lake, it was cool to see this one, and to talk about the differences in how they were formed. Kerid is full of groundwater mixed with rain, while Crater Lake is all snowmelt/rain.

How accessible was Kerid Crater?

From the concrete platform off the parking lot, Dad could see the whole crater. But the path aroud the crater was too steep and uneven for him to safely navigate. He waited while the rest of us walked around it, which took about 20 minutes or less.

Geysir

From Kerid, you have the choice of proceeding to the geyser area or the waterfall. Both are 30-45 minutes away. One nice thing about the Golden Circle is you’re never in the car for more than an hour without getting out and stretching. This was especially appreciated since our little car was not the most comfortable for the backseat passengers. They were squeezed in so tightly they kept accidentally sitting on one another’s seatbelts, releasing them and causing the seatbelt alert to ding.

Although the driving wasn’t too difficult, there was the occasional roundabout or single lane bridge to deal with. The driver closest to a single lane bridge has the right of way. So if you are approaching a bridge and you see a car coming the other way that’s closer to it than you are, you wait. This sounds harrowing, but in reality, it played out pretty calmly. The speed limit is low in Iceland, and people follow it, and traffic was never heavy. The road was in decent condition.

Gullfoss and Geysir are close together, but we passed Geysir first. Since we all had to use the bathroom, we pulled into the parking lot next to a big building labeled “Geysir Center.” Future travelers, take note: This is not the parking lot for the geyser area itself. This parking lot is for the gift shop (where I spent $11.74 on a magnet and postcard) and restaurant. While it was OK that we parked here — we didn’t get a ticket or anything — once we emerged from the building, we were a little confused about where to walk. If you drive straight to the Geysir lot, a few yards down the road, you won’t waste time wandering around confused like we did.

What happened was, we blundered upon some walking paths that belong to the campground next to the geyser area. There weren’t any signs here pointing us down the road to the actual sight, and we wasted about 20 minutes figuring that out.

At the campground path, the only signage I saw was a warning about the water puddling on the ground being super hot. I of course immediately leaned over and touched said puddle water. It was warm, but not hot.

When we got to the actual geyser area, it was underwhelming at first, but with a sense of suspense. We had seen a large geyser erupt from the parking lot across the street awhile earlier, so we knew that something, somewhere around here, was going to spew at some point. We passed a few spots that are mostly just steam coming out of the ground. Maybe a little bubble of water that doesn’t amount to much. The smell of rotten eggs was strong.

Eventually we came to Geysir, the original geyser that the name comes from. It hasn’t erupted in years.

It’s just a pretty blue pool of water, surrounded by a rope. We wondered, if it erupted unexpectedly, wouldn’t people get burned? No one seemed concerned about that. Not sure if that was just the Icelandic nonchalance or an actual lack of danger.

Then we walked around to the currently active geysir, Strokkur. We waited there for a few minutes, then got distracted by something, and of coures, the moment we looked away, it erupted. Then we set our phone timers for five minutes, because its eruptions are usually 5-10 minutes apart. Eventually, we timed it right and got to watch the eruption from beginning to end. First, a bubble dome rises out of the bubble, then it jets straight up into the air, surrounded by steam. We enjoyed it. We saw people hiking on paths on the hills above the geysers, which looked pleasant, but we didn’t have time for that, not to mention that some of our party was not able to hike.

Overall, Geysir area = thumbs up. It didn’t hurt that this attraction is free to view.

How accessible was Geysir?

Many of the paths here were brick and level, which Dad was able to navigate. But Strokkur was a bit far from the parking lot, even if we’d parked in the correct one. Still, the eruption goes high, so you could get an OK view of it even if you never left your car.

Gullfoss Waterfall

When we got back in the car, it was about 12:30 p.m. Someone asked if it was lunchtime yet. Sorry guys, we have to see a massive waterfall first! Gullfoss waterfall is only a 10-minute drive from Geysir. We pulled into a small parking lot — seriously, like the size of the lot at a typical trailhead in California, smaller than the lots at most state beaches. All the spots were full, but after letting everyone out near the entrance to the walking path, I circled around once, and a spot opened up. We weren’t here as early as we’d planned, yet this was still not what I would consider crowded.

We were at the lower of Gullfoss’ two parking lots, connected by stairs to the upper lot. Here, you can get a good view of the waterfall right from the parking lot, then walk down a path to get closer and closer, until you are standing on wet rocks and the spray is hitting you in the face. It’s wonderful. This is probably the biggest waterfall I’ve ever seen, crashing and foaming, and it filled me with wonder. Seeing Gullfoss also made me want to return for a longer tour of Iceland, so I could hike around a lot more of its spectacular waterfalls. One quirk of this particular waterall: it’s sideways. The water crashes down the rocks and then the river flows on perpendicular to the fall. I’d never seen anything like it.

As you walk closer to the waterfall, more parts reveal themselves: the churning river running over rocks before the dropoff, and the river at the valley floor, flowing away at a 90-degree angle.

Next, we walked up the stairs to the upper viewing area, which allowed you to see the whole area from a birds eye view. There’s also a souvenir shop up there and free bathrooms. (I spent $21.42 on a magnet and gifts). Seeing Gullfoss, as well as parking there, are free.

How accessible is Gullfoss?

The path from the parking lot to the waterfall is asphalt, which Dad should have been able to manage, but it slopes a bit, and to get to the part where you can feel the spray on your face, it’s a pretty long walk, like 15 minutes at a typical pace. And then if you want to get really close, you have to scramble over wet rocks.

This photo was taken near the lower parking lot. So obviously, you can see the waterfall from there. However, I would recommend driving straight to the upper lot if you need to limit walking. From the upper lot, you get a birds eye view of the whole waterfall, although you’re farther away. However, there is a long, sloped path from the upper parking lot to these sidewalks.

Lunch at Efstidalur II

As I was reading about the food options along the Golden Circle, Efstidalur II, family farm serving its own beef and ice cream, stood out as the obvious choice. I was a little worried that it would be mobbed with tourists in big buses. But it was already 2 p.m. by the time we pulled into the small parking area. We didn’t see any buses, only a few cars.

The restaurant was practically empty. There was a crowd in the ground floor ice cream parlor, though. Pro tip: If you need to use the restroom at Efstidalur II, go upstairs to use the one at the restaurant. Unfortunately, Dad used the one on the ground floor, where he had to wait in line about 15 minutes. Not realizing this, the rest of us stood at the restaurant counter, wondering what had happened to Dad. We actually started ordering without him, then when others came in to order behind us and he wasn’t there, we suggested that the cashier cancel out our order and let them go ahead. But like all the other Icelanders we had met, the cashier was extremely patient. She waited, and soon Dad showed up.

The restaurant is mostly windows, with both sides looking out at the farm — nothing incrdibly scenic, just a farmyard with trucks, etc. One end of the room is a window looking down into the cow barn. We chose to sit with the cows. Our mealtime entertainment wa watching the ladies pull hay out and chew, lick one another, flop on their sides with their massive bags lolling — you know, cow stuff. Most of us had ordered beef — burgers, beef burgandy, chili con carne. Did we feel guilty eating their sons while watching the mama cows? Only a little, because we are monsters.

The food was pretty good. My beef burgandy could have used more seasoning, even salt, which was not on the table. Dad’s chili was delicious and tasted like it had plenty of green peppers in it. Erik and James had burgers which looked wonderful, and my mom had trout, which she said was great. Afterwards, we trooped dowstairs to wait in the long line for house-made ice cream. We all had salted caramel, except Toth, who had Oreo. It was great, but so was almost every other ice cream cone I’ve ever had. Lunch cost $156.81 for five people, and ice cream for five was $27.98.

Thingvellir National Park

One more hour of driving. By now we were seeing sheep as well as horses in the roadside fields. I reminded Erik that hitting a sheep was not covered by our rental insurance. We were now heading to the main attraction, Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage sight, and on track to arrive at the visitor center by 4 pm, which would give us ample time to tour the exhibition there before it closed at 5. The park never closes, and it wouldn’t be getting dark out tonight, so after the exhibition, we could stay as long as we liked.

Figuring out where to enter the park was confusing. We had set our GPS for the vistior center, but as we approached, a sign reading Thingvellir pointed in a different direction. If we had done more research in advance, we would have understood that the park’s many small parking lots are spread out in a sort of circle, and not connected to one another by roads inside the park. Inside the park, you can walk from point to point in an easy hike, but to drive from lot to lot, you need to leave the park and go out to the main road, basically circling around the park.

We ignored the signs and followed the GPS to the visitor center, but soon faced another challenge: The parking lot right next to the center was marked as open only to tour buses and handicapped people. Since we didn’t have special license plates or a handicapped placard on our rental car, we parked instead at the regular lot, which is maybe a 10-minute walk from the center. There are bathrooms at this parking lot, so the family used those while I waited in line to pay for parking. The person in front of me was having trouble with the machine, so I was still waiting when the family was done with the bathroom. I waved them ahead. When I finally got to pay, I had to walk all the way to the far end of the lot to put the receipt on the dashboard. Also, I think I may have accidentally paid twice, $5.50 each time for a total of $11. I decided to move the car closer to the beginning of the walking path so at least Dad wouldn’t have to trudge across the parking lot on the return trip.

We later found out, from the ranger inside, that we could have parked in the disabled lot without any special ID. I really regretted not doing this, because once we now that we were at the national park — the main event — Dad said he could not possibly walk any more today. We had squandered his walking tolerance on so many things, like parking too far away from the geyser and now not parking in the lot reserved for the disabled.

So I asked the ranger for advice on what Dad could see without walking much. The ranger showed me a map — he couldn’t give me one because of a printing problem — and recommended we drive around the park to the P4 parking area, by the Flosagja Gorge, where the parking lot is open only to the elderly and disabled. He explained that here, just steps from your car, you could look down into a deep fissure full of very clear water. I really wish he could have given us the park pamphlet with the map; it would have avoided much confusion later.

The park entrance is free, but the visitor center exhibit cost $22.09 for two seniors, two regular adults and one child. The exhibit was interesting, with both historical and geological info about the park. After about half an hour, we had to drag Toth out of it. He wanted to look at every single display and do every activity, but since Dad was already tired, I knew we were working on borrowed time, and we needed to see this once-in-a-lifetime park.

The Viewing Platform

First, we all went to the viewing platform outside the visitor center, where you can sit or stand and see a deep, skinny fissure running through part of the rock you’re standing on, then look past that into the valley below, upon the various branches of the Axe (Oxara) River, and upon all the walking paths snaking through the valley. To your left, a boadwalk leads into the gorge, the actual split between the European and American tectonic plates. Without walking at all, Dad was able to get a pretty good overview of this beautiful park.

We could also see a parking lot down in the valley, so when I relayed the ranger’s advice to Erik, we figured he’d been talking about that lot. Erik took a few minutes to walk along the boardwalk through the gorge with Toth and me, then set his GPS to parking lot 5, a 10-minute drive out to the main road and around the valley. The plan: He’d walk back to the parking lot, drive here to pick Mom and Dad up (now that we understood that picking up and dropping older people off here was allowed), then drive them around to P5. Toth and I would walk along the trails through the park, and eventually meet up with them.

Into the vally

I’ll post a detailed review of Thingvellir later, but suffice to say, Toth and I saw spectacular sights as we walked through the gorge and valley. We saw the hill where the Islandic legislature met for a thousand years, a pool where supposedly criminal women were drowned, and another waterfall.

By the time we’d seen all that, we knew we should really be getting to the parking lot where we were supposed to meet the rest of the family. So with the help of GPS, we headed back down the middle of the valley, toward Flosagja Gorge. To remember it more easily, I pronounced it as if it rhymed with “lasagna.” I texted Erik to see how they were doing, and he replied that they were walking around and checking out the church.

That’s odd, I though. The ranger had said no walking around was necessary at Flosagja Gorge. And Rick Steves had said the church wasn’t really worth stopping at. But now that we knew they were near the church, we used this as a visual aid as we scurried down the path through the valley.

In fact, before we knew it we had walked all the way to the church, with no parking lot in sight. But we didn’t see our family anywhere around.

We backtracked to the path and finally found the Flosagja parking lot. Only problem was, it was completely empty. I called Erik and learned they were at a different parking lot. After some back and forth, Toth and I figured out how to walk to the lot they were at. Apparently, we had miscommunicated. Trying to follow my instructions, Erik, Mom and Dad had gotten out of the car there and walked down the nearby path, but they were surprised to see nothing much for quite a ways.

This ranger has a different idea of very little walking than we do, they said. But apparently, Dad pushed himself to walk a little more, and they ended up seeing some pretty sights along the valley path before turning back.

Flosagja (“Lasagna”) Gorge

I was sad that they hadn’t seen the beautiful flooded gorge the ranger had advised me about. But then Erik and I realized that we could drive to that other lot in just a few minutes. Once there, within a few steps of the car, we were staring down into Flosagja Gorge, and at the many coins past visitors had thrown there.

We looked, snapped a selfie, and jumped back in the car for the 45-minute drive back to the Airbnbn. We were all tired, especially Toth, with his cold. He fell asleep in the car, but not before seeing this: A lamb and two baby sheep frolicked on the grass at the side of the road, almost as if they were cartoon characters. They are literally frolicking! we shouted. Erik made sure not to hit them, because remember! Not covered by the insurance.

After leaving Thingvellir, I realized we had never seen Silfra, the area where people snorkel and dive in clear water in the gorge. It turns out, that was near the lot where Erik had parked. We probably actually did see it, only snorkeling and diving was probably done for the day by the time we got there. Oh well.

How accessible is Thingvellir?

As long as you understand that you can drive to the lot right next to the visitor center without special plates, it’s not bad. You can actually get a nice view from the viewing platform. And driving around to Flosagna Gorge is a little bonus.

However, it’s unfortunate that there are two flights of stairs between the viewing platform and the most iconic walk of the park, Almannagja, the deep fissure between the continental plates. If you’re able to walk just a little, starting from Flosagna might be a good approach, because unlike the boardwalk from the viewing platform by the visitor, there aren’t any stairs. On the downside, you don’t get an overview of the valley from there.

Was it a good decision to drive the Golden Circle backwards? If it had been just Erik, me and our kids, it would have been. It was nice how we built in excitement from minor to major sights, and how we had unlimited time to take in Thingvellir at the end. However, with people who get tired more easily, like Dad, this was not the best plan. By the time we got to Thingvellir, I think he was too tired out to really take in the majesty of it.

Is it better to drive or take a bus tour?

Our day involved a certain amount of confusion and screwups. The signage is not always totally clear at these sights. That said, Google Maps works great in the Icelandic countryside; we never got actually lost. And it was never very hard to park.

If we had taken a bus tour, we probably would have always been dropped in the ideal spot, eliminating the unnecessary walking that sapped Dad’s strength. On the flip side, our schedule would not have been our own, and we would have been with a crowd everywhere we went. Personally, I’m glad we drove instead of taking a tour. Besides, since most Golden Circle tours are $75 or more per person, and the car rental was only about $100 a day, our way was a lot cheaper.

Hot dog and Laundry

Mom and Dad didn’t want dinner that night, so Erik and James and I ate the leftovers from the first night. Then we all had to pack up before bed, because we’d be leaving for our 10:15 a.m. flight to Bergen, Norway, at around 6. That would give us an hour to drive back to the car rental and 15 minutes for the company to drive us over to the airport, in order to be there three hours early for our international flight.

I took everyone’s laundry down the basement stairs, which were more like a ladder, and started two loads in the two washers, then moved one to the dryer.

Then, although we had already eaten, Erik, Toth and I walked back downtown to get a hot dog. We just couldn’t leave Iceland without trying their famous speciality. It was fun standing around a little table outside the Baejarins stand, eating our hot dogs, and drinking orange pop.

But I have to say, the hot dog itself did not impress me. I’ve heard they are mostly lamb and supposedly very high quality, but to me they just tasted limp and bland. I’d rather have a Costco dog or a Vienna Beef at Wrigley Field. Three hot dogs cost $16.05.

When we got back to the house, I found that the clothes I’d started had not dried at all. Maybe I had forgotten to turn the dryer on? I started it and went upstairs to pack. Later, I went back down and found the same result: Wet clothes. After a few repetitions of this loop, I realized that the dryer was only running for a few minutes each time before stopping itself. I brought my postcards down to the basement and stood guard over the dryer, restarting it over and over. I hung all the clothes that didn’t fit in the dryer all over the basement, although I knew there wasn’t enough time for them to air dry. As I sat down there, my throat started huring, and I realized I had — unsurprisingly — caught Toth’s cold.

Unfortunately, it was hours later — and everyone else was sleeping — before I finally figured out the dryer’s problem. This dryer, it turns out, had a water reservoir. All the water it removed from wet clothes was supposed to go into this reservoir. The problem was, the reservoir had already been full when I started — probably from doing all the sheets before our move in. After I emptied the reservoir, the dryer started working properly.

By the time I finally finished everyone’s laundry, it was after 1 a.m. It still wasn’t very dark out. I set my alarm for 5:30 and passed out, exhausted and sick.

Summary of Expenses, Day 4

  • One of three nights in the 3-bedroom Airbnb house: $260
  • One of three days rental car: $101
  • 2 gallons of gas: $18.32
  • Entry for 5 to Kerid Crater: $13.25
  • Gifts and souvenirs: $33.16
  • Lunch and ice cream: $184.79
  • Thingvellir parking: $11
  • Thingvellir exhibit: $22.09
  • 3 hot dogs: $16.05

Total: $659.66

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