Driving the Golden Circle is a popular day trip for visitors to Iceland. The 300km route covers many beautiful landmarks in a short period of time.
If you can’t spend a full week driving Iceland’s Ring Road (which circles the country), renting a car and driving the smaller Golden Circle route on your own is a perfect option. Especially for people on a short layover flying to or from Europe, or if you simply don’t have much time.
Self-driving the Golden Circle rather than joining an organized tour allows you stop for photos anytime you want or head off to explore side roads.
There’s no rush when you’re traveling at your own pace. Spend an hour petting Icelandic horses if you want, or wait patiently for perfect clouds to move into your camera frame.
That’s just what Kiersten and I decided to do. Basing ourselves out of Reykjavik, we rented a cheap used car from a fun company called SadCars and spent a day driving the Golden Circle hitting all its best attractions.
In this guide I’ll share some tips, highlights, and photography from our trip.
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Driving In Iceland
Depending on when you’re visiting, driving in Iceland is relatively stress free. There aren’t many people living in the country, so traffic is nonexistent once you’re outside of the city. In the summer, you’ll have to keep an eye out for herds of sheep crossing the road.
In the winter, roads can get icy. Weather changes quickly in Iceland, and a sunny morning can easily turn into a snowstorm later that day. But Iceland has a fantastic website to check real-time road conditions called Vegagerdin. They even have a handy smartphone app.
Wind can sometimes be an issue depending on where you are — strong enough to throw your car door open and dent things if you’re not careful.
Gas is expensive in Iceland at about $2 USD per liter ($7.50 per gallon), however a full tank should be plenty for the Golden Circle. Some foreign cards may need to be charged inside rather than at the pump.
Þingvellir National Park
We started driving the Golden Circle going NE on Route 36 towards our first stop, Þingvellir National Park. A fresh snowfall dusted the mountains as we drove between beautiful valleys and large farms — hardy Icelandic horses and sheep lining both sides of the road.
Thingvellir National Park is the location of Iceland’s first Parliament, started back in 930 AD. At the Lögberg people could step forward and give speeches about important matters. An assembly of 48 chieftains gathered here to discuss laws & engage in court proceedings on behalf of the country’s citizens.
This is also where the North American & Eurasian tectonic plates are slowly splitting apart from each other, creating deep fissures in the ground. One of these, called Silfra, is full of icy glacier water where some people go snorkeling or scuba diving.
Geysers At Haukadalur
Next stop on our Golden Circle road trip was Haukadalur, a geothermal area about 60km away from Þingvellir National Park. There are two famous geysers here called Geysir and Strokkur. In fact the general term “geyser” was named after this particular one in Iceland.
The Earth churns up boiling hot water that smells like rotten eggs, with steam rising from vents in the earth next to mud pools, fumaroles, and mineral deposits.
The original Geysir no longer erupts after an earthquake shut it down, but a second one called Strokkur constantly explodes with scalding water shooting 100 feet into the air every 10 minutes or so. Haukadalur has a gift shop & restaurant where you can warm up with hot soup.
The mighty Hvítá river abruptly disappears into a ravine at a spectacular waterfall called Gullfoss, the next major highlight on Iceland’s Golden Circle. This wide & fast moving river turns a corner and falls 100 feet into a crevice in the earth, producing thick mist & frequent rainbows.
After descending a long staircase from the parking lot, a concrete pathway allows visitors to walk along the edge and look down into the roaring cascade of water. The area around the falls gets pretty windy, so a waterproof jacket (and maybe even pants) is recommended if you plan to get close. The dramatic scenery at Gullfoss makes it one of Iceland’s most popular attractions.
Gullfoss waterfall is located off the main road, so you have to backtrack a bit to continue on the Golden Circle route. There is a road that continues past, but it’s one of Icealand’s notorious F-roads that requires four-wheel drive.
Kerið Crater Lake
Our final big stop on the Golden Circle was Kerid Crater Lake. We pulled into the parking lot as the sun was beginning to set on this red volcanic crater covered in green vegetation. Once a typical cone-shaped volcano, the top has since collapsed into an empty magma chamber.
The bottom is filled with a deep blue shade of water that sets off the red & green colors on the crater itself. Hiking down to the bottom of the crater only takes 5 minutes.
Not as well known as the other attractions featured here, Kerid Crater is definitely worth a quick stop if you have the time.
Iceland’s Golden Circle
While actual driving time is only 3 hours, with stops along the way you’re looking at 6 – 8 hours depending on how many places (or how long) you explore. If you want to experience some of Iceland’s stunning landscapes but don’t have a lot of time, renting a car and driving the Golden Circle is a wonderful choice. ★
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Location: Golden Circle Route, Iceland [Map]
Car Rental: SAD Cars
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Useful Notes: Always check weather & road conditions before driving in Iceland. The Golden Circle is paved so four-wheel drive is not needed. Rental cars have studded tires in the winter anyway. There are many short hikes you can do on this route too.
Iceland Travel Guide: Lonely Planet Iceland