Iceland's Golden Circle Tour - is it worth it?
We are all craving unique experiences that are made just for us, and a lot of us would love to be among 'the first discoverers' to see or experience a place. I often hear that some places are very touristy and travellers resign from seeing them. Is it worth skipping? It depends what you want to see and what are your preferences but I think some places just must be seen even with masses of tourists flocking into them!
I have travelled to Iceland with the same mindset, I wanted to see the paths that were less travelled. And my idea was to go to the South and see famous black beaches and visit small villages around the area. However, due to changes to my inbound flight, which influenced the changes to my itinerary, I end up not having enough time to explore the South.
The dilemma was real: South of Iceland vs. Golden Circle Tour? In the end I opted for Golden Circle as this provided me with landmark sights of Iceland, it was approximately 8 hours (as opposed to 10-12 for the South) and I felt that I will see the best of Iceland in that one day trip.
So what is my verdict? Although Golden Circle tour may be a touristy activity, it provides you with the most incredible views and natural landmarks that are so characteristic of Iceland that if you think of them - you think of Iceland. Depending on the trip you choose, you are seeing variety of geological sights - in my case - Kerid crater, Gulfoss waterfall, tectonic reef, and geyser. All that during a day trip. If you are choosing this tour during your stay in Iceland, here is what you can expect?
Golden circle tour - What can you expect?
Starting from Reykjavik you will drive for about 1 hour to the first stop Kerid crater (please note that not every GC tour will have it included in their itineraries) which is a volcanic crater lake with water at the bottom of it. Interesting fact is that the level of water changes in the crater so the lake can be higher or lower depending on when you are visiting. It is impressive in size. We had only 40 minutes to spend there so were only able to walk around the top of the crater edge and have some photos taken from above. I could see people down by the lake and wished we had enough time to go there. I guess if you are travelling on your own you could spend as much time as you want here.
Second stop and probably most impressive of all for me was Gulfoss Waterfall - a huge breathtaking, and loud waterfall. The meaning of the name is 'golden waterfall' and it stretches over two cascades and 32 meters into a canyon. Once you are walking from a car park there is a footpath that leads you to the waterfall. While you are walking towards to the waterfall, you can not only hear the sound of the waves crashing but you can also feel the mist on your face that was created from the waves falling all those meters down the cascade and into the narrow canyon. The size is impressive and you can stop and stare at the beauty of it, forgetting the time and surrounding - simply mesmerising! In the land of waterfalls, Gulfoss is second largest waterfall in Iceland and in Europe. The waterfall is so vast that you can admire its beauty from few viewing platform having different perspectives to admire.
While you admire upper parts of the waterfall, you can also see as your backdrop a glacier which seem to be very close. Additionally, if you are lucky on a sunny day you may see a rainbow too!
The third stop for us was Haukadalur valley which is famed with hot springs in the area, and its main Strokkur geysir which erupts every 10 minutes and is the area's main attraction. Another natural wonder and very unique and popular sight in Iceland. As far as I know and researched, there are no other geysers in Europe apart from Icelandic ones so it is a great opportunity to see one exploding. You need to be patient and you will see it going off meters sky high. It is quite an impressive view.
Last but not least is a Þingvellir National Park - historically and geologically very important location. Þingvellir was declared a national park in 1930 and there was a law passed to protect this national area and prevent it from sale. The park has been the site of many special moments in history of the country. The Icelanding parliament called The Althingi was established here in 930 AD (the oldest surviving in the world) and in this place Icelanders celebrated their Independence from Denmark in 1944. Þingvellir park planes are located on the North Atlantic rift that splits Iceland between North America and Euroasia continent. What it means in practice is that I have been on two continents in one day (geologically, not politically!)
Is it worth it?
If you ask me if it is worth to do Golden Circle Tour I would say yes! If you are driving on your own, then you can plan your time to be at those places earlier than groups of tourists and you can admire and have the place to yourself. If you are visiting during winter time, I would suggest to buy excursion via tour operator - it can be dangerous in the Haukadalur valley as the snow fall may cut off the road and it is completely disconnected from that part and you will not be able to drive by.
All the sights along Golden Circle are must haves to see in Iceland, and I think you can consider them as most significant nature sights of Iceland. You can have a glimpse into this amazing island and see what it can further offer if you explore more of this country. I would say just book a trip and do it.