Updated: Aug 1, 2019
The Golden Circle is the most well visited route in all of Iceland. It is made up of three incredible natural wonders that no visitor to Iceland should miss. Each one is entirely unique and showcases the forces of nature that have shaped the country. The ‘Land of Fire and Ice’ certainly has its fair share of drama and on this route you get to see these forces in action. The three sights are the Þingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss Waterfall and the Geysir Geothermal Area. We will go into them in much more depth a little later.
The Golden Circle (sometimes referred to as the Golden Triangle) is within easy reach of Reykjavik. It is an simple three-hour drive that loops around Southern Iceland beginning and ending in Reykjavik. There are innumerable day tours that you can join from the capital that combine all three sights. If you are visiting Iceland for a short time or decide not to hire a car these are good options.
However the best way to tour the Golden Circle is with your own rental camper or car. With your own transport you can take your time, camp over night and visit the sights when they are quieter. In this article we will take you through the highlights of the Golden Circle route. We will also cover tips on driving the route and advice on the best time of year to visit.
The three main sights on the Golden Circle
Þingvellir National Park
This is the oldest of the national parks in Iceland and it has real historical importance. This was the site of Iceland’s very first parliament (Althing) dating back to the 10th Century. In those days the parliamentary debates were held outside in the elements. There are a few remnants of buildings in the park but it is mainly a beautifully wild and untouched landscape.
Geologically speaking Þingvellir National Park is very important too. This is where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. This meeting of two tectonic plates explains why Iceland is quite so volcanic. Magma rises up from deep inside the earth to fill the spaces created as these plates move apart. The plates meet partly under water in the huge Silfra Lake. Here it is possible to have the incredible experience of diving between them. The national park is vast and most visitors will only see a small portion of it when they visit. If you are on a self-drive camping trip there is a lovely campground on the shore of the lake. You could camp here and opt to stay a little longer. Then you can really delve into the park further than the average visitor.
Geysir Geothermal Area
The Geysir Geothermal Area is a bubbling, steaming and jet propelled valley floor. As you walk around you will be witnessing explosive geothermal activity in action. You can walk amongst churning mud pots, brightly coloured mineral deposits, seriously steamy hot spring pools and of course geysers. The Strokkur geyser shoots water up 20-30 meters into the air 5-6 times an hour. The highest geyser used to have a 120-metre reach! But it is currently lying dormant. This is the great geyser area that all other geysers were named after!
The mighty Gullfoss is one of Iceland’s great waterfalls. This is most people’s first introduction to the power of Iceland’s many glacial rivers and waterfalls. Located in the Hvítá river canyon Gullfoss consists of two tiers of cascading waters dropping a combined distance of over thirty metres. Seeing Gullfoss for the first time is a real stand and stare moment. The falls are a short walk from the parking lot.
When is the best time of year for driving the Golden Circle?
The Golden Circle can be visited year round. As these are some of Iceland’s most popular sights they do get quite busy during the high season. So from June to August there will be many Golden Circle tours heading out of Reykjavik throughout the day. Tour buses generally set off from the capital at around 8-9am and again from about midday to 2pm. They generally take around five hours to complete the route. Sometimes eight hours if they add in an extra stop or two or an activity. This means that before 9am and after about 6-7pm the tour groups either haven’t arrived yet or have headed home. So those in rental cars or campers will have these beauty spots all to themselves.
Driving in Summer
During the summer season the Midnight Sun shines in Iceland with almost 24 hours of daylight. So it is very possible to visit the sights early or late. All three of the main sights are open 24 hours a day and are completely free. So you might go for a midnight walk in Pingvellir National Park or see the geysers at dusk.
During the shoulder season months of April, May, September and October Iceland is much less busy with visitors. These are excellent times of year for driving the Golden Circle. Both the roads and the sights will be quieter. There will also be plenty of hours of daylight and some dark night-time hours too. This means that you could catch sight of the Northern Lights along the way. As the fall colours and perhaps a dusting of snow arrives in September or October the landscapes become even more beautiful.
Driving in Winter
Driving the Golden Circle in winter is still very much possible. However nervous drivers might not be so keen. The snow, ice and stormy weather in Iceland can make driving in winter a little tricky. This is a well-driven route though with well-maintained roads and located in the slightly milder south of Iceland. So if you are caught in a snowstorm help will be close at hand.
It is also a good route to get used to driving in Iceland on. The distances are short and the roads are all paved and in good shape. There are plenty of gas stations around and all in all it is pretty safe driving. You might be happier driving a 4 x 4 camper or car if you are out in very wintery weather in Iceland. In terms of daylight hours you will be much more limited in the winter months. But you will be able to see beautiful snowy landscapes and perhaps sight the Northern Lights too.
How long will it take to drive the Golden Circle Route?
Driving the Golden Circle route would take about three hours of driving with no stops. So you could easily see all the sights on a day trip. If you are pushed for time then you could visit all three in about five hours. A full day would give you much more time at each stop and allow for a few additional stops along the way. Our preferred option though is to take two to three days and do the whole thing at a much more relaxed pace.
If you hire a camper van or a motorhome then you will be able to stay the night at campgrounds. The advantages of this are many. Firstly you will be able to really appreciate your natural surroundings. If your trip to Iceland is in summer then you will be able to visit the sights out of hours without the tour bus crowds. There is an excellent campsite in Þingvellir National Park right on the lake. It has great facilities including BBQ equipment in summer. There are also two further campsites within easy reach of the other two main sights. All are great options.
If you choose to tent camp or motorhome camp then stock up on some shopping in Reykjavik. There are a few shops along the way but you will be much better served by visiting one of the larger supermarkets in the capital. Stock up on snacks and remember your BBQ coals if you are camping at the national park campground.
Detours and Stops along the way
There are several interesting additional stops along the way if you are driving the Golden Circle. You could visit the Hellisheiði Power Plant with its fascinating exhibition all about geothermal energy in Iceland. Don’t miss seeing the amazing Kerid Crater either with its brightly coloured crater pool and surrounding red rock. You can also stop off at the Langjökull glacier for a spot of snowmobile riding. Adrenalin junkies might also like to go river rafting on the Hvita River.
Another popular stop on the Golden Circle is the lovely Secret Lagoon hot springs near the town of Fludir. This blissfully quiet hot springs is the perfect place to soak tired bodies after a day of walking. If you are driving this is a popular place to visit at the end of a Golden Circle tour. From here it is just a little further south to join the Ring Road and continue your Icelandic adventures.