The travel blog of a day The Highland Road & Golden Circle Evening Tour:
There are numerous places on the great mother earth that have incredible landscapes and the one in Iceland is one of the most exotic. Covered in lava, the island is like a naked beauty and the viewers wouldn’t miss a thing. If you are to experience the amazingness of the island don’t miss the highlands. Spectacular sceneries of rivers, lakes, geysers, ice, and glaciers. It is a secluded yet beautiful area with proximity to the comparatively popular Golden Circle.
From time to time, I hear a friend of mine planning a trip to Iceland and that always brings back my fond memories of when I was there. I fell in love with the magical island (and the feeling was mutual :P). I visited Iceland during summer and the best thing about that is the 24-hour sunlight (except that means no to catch the northern lights – Iceland is a great place to see the northern lights, but I did say that in Yellowknife and Lapland). In view of not wasting the sun’s time, we signed up for a whole-day excursion from Reykjavik that covers the highlands and the Golden Circle. The trip started at noontime and returned to the city around midnight, it’s a 14-hour trip yet I had a great time. In fact, the tour was kind of comprehensive, we got to see the glacier and so many more in just a day. The first half of the tour covers the secluded highlands in Hallmundarhraun – as I gazed out of the car windows there was the uncovered no man’s land without boundaries. The second half covers the Golden Circle, which are the three of the most popular attractions in Iceland – Þingvellir National Park, Gullfoss waterfall, and Geysir hot spring area.
Before reaching the highlands, we stopped by Deildartunguhver. It is a geothermal area with Europe’s most powerful hot springs! 180 Liter of water emerges to the surface almost “boiling” at 97-degree Celcius every second. The longest hot pipeline in the country then transports the hot water to Akranes, 64 kilometers away, as the water temperature will drop to about 80-degree Celcius.
It was the actual starting point of the tour. There, we spent a couple of minutes walking around the area, took a toilet break, and then hopped on to our 4×4!
Hallmundarhraun Lava Field
Then we headed north for our main course of the day. once we entered the Hallmundarhraun lava field in West Iceland, the 4×4 was running on rocks. If you type “Hallmundarhraun” in Google Map, you don’t see any roads. That’s where we were at – the no man’s land. The unique and dramatic landscape in Iceland is the most out of this world I have ever seen. Miles and miles of lava cover the island without sight of tall trees and bushes. People call it a lunarscape for a good reason. The sparsely inhabited plateau is located in Iceland’s inland; it is a volcanic desert, where no plant can grow due to the fast infiltration of rain or snow into the ground.
Hallmundarhraun lava field was formed in a giant eruption close to the Langjökull glacier around the year 930 and is 8-9 cubic kilometers. We kept heading up to the top of the field through rocks and finally reached Langjökull, the second-largest glacier in Iceland where the water of the Harunfossar waterfalls came from. Once we got out of the car, 1260 meters above sea level, it felt like we just arrived at the North Pole. Standing in front of the glacier, we didn’t expect such strong wind coming in all directions and water and ice from the glacier to hit our faces mercilessly. I bet many on the tour weren’t prepared for this and it was hard to stand still for a minute. I tried to get closer to the glacier and then I saw snowmobiles and dog sleds on the ice from afar. It was, once again, when the power of mother nature made me feel humble.
There are three lava caves in the area: Surtshellir, Stefánshellir, and Viðgelmir. The Viðgelmir lava tube is the longest in Iceland and all three of them are 3.5 kilometers long combined.
Back on the surface, we discovered Hraunfossar (also called the “Lava Falls”). The waterfall is only 12 meters high, and neither is considerable in height nor volume. However, the waterfall is a unique natural phenomenon. The origin of Hraunfossar is the Langjökull glacier; the glacial water flows through the lava field formed from a volcano eruption that turned the water turquoise. It was a unique and distinctive sight as the hundreds of streams of spring water ran out through the cracks of lava rocks and churned down into the river Hvítá.
The water streams run along the edge at a distance of 900 meters long. Barnafoss is a rapid waterfall at the end of Hraunfossar, as the water flowed from the river finally cascading into a narrow valley. The site is a great example of the ever-changing Iceland’s sceneries – you never know what to expect. I have also shared in my article dramatic waterfalls in Iceland about the waterfall’s fascinating folklore.
Þingvellir National Park
For the second half of the day trip, we visited the Golden Circle, which covers the Þingvellir National Park, Gullfoss waterfall, and Geysir hot spring area.
The Þingvellir National Park (or Thingvellir) is part of the tectonic plate boundaries of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which extends the length of the Atlantic from north to south. In other words, this is where American and Euroasian tectonic plates meet. What makes it unique is that Iceland is the only place in the world with these two tectonic plates above ground, while the other parts are buried deep under the North Atlantic Ocean.
While the plate passes through the entire island, Þingvellir National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the biggest part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The ridge is a line of underwater volcanoes where the new oceanic crust is formed. It stretches from the South Atlantic all the way to Iceland and rises above sea level. Kontinentalspalte is an awesome sight, and visitors can walk through this dramatic boundary on earth with the North American crustal plate on the left, and the Euroasian plate on the right.
Technically, the ridge is getting a few centimeters by year as the two plates are pulling away from each other!
There are a number of hiking trails in the park apart from the ridge. Well, they are more like “walking trails” as the entire area is generally flat, making it suitable for all walks of life. Since I was only there for a day trip, I took a walk up the ridge and had an amazing, panoramic view of the area, including the nearby Þingvellir Church. The name Þingvellir means “Assembly Plains”, it was the world’s oldest open-air parliament since 930. Not much left today, but it holds a historic and political value to the country’s pioneering development.
For those who have more time, the park does offer a number of outdoor activities – like fishing, snorkeling, or horseback riding. However, you could pretty much do the same in another place in Iceland; and those places could probably offer an even better experience. One activity that I would recommend (or I would want to do) is diving at the Silfra dive site there. (yes,… it’s very close to Þingvallavatn Lake, Iceland’s largest lake). The Silfra Diving Tour takes you for a dive in the lagoon between the two tectonic plates underwater, and it just doesn’t sound like something you do every day.
If you are visiting the park with a rental car, it’s easy to navigate along Route 1 / 36 and it’s only a 45-minute drive from Reykjavik. The park opens pretty much all year round, but it would be best to visit there between May and October, any time of the day.
Gullfoss is located a little bit further. It’s a short walk from the car park to the falls and it is another unique sight in the Golden Circle because unlike many other waterfalls, visitors view the falls from above the cliffs, and the falls make a 90-degree turn before the water cascades and disappear into a narrow gorge.
Gullfoss means “the golden waterfall,” which has some fascinating theories about how this name came about. It’s likely that the waterfall was named Golden because the golden evening hue gives colors to the water.
Another theory was based on the travel journal of Sveinn Pálsson, an Icelandic physician in the early 1800s. In his journal, a farmer had plenty of gold and could not bear the thought of someone else taking his wealth after his death, so he hid the gold in the chest and threw it into the waterfall. While gold was never found, tourists could still come to appreciate the beauty of mother nature.
The Golden Circle is famous for its geysers. It is mind-blowing and epic sightseeing it erupts right in front of your eyes. The great geyser was inactive for years until it awoke after the earthquake in the year 2000. It’s active, but I was told the eruptions were not as frequent and powerful as they used to be. In the Middle Ages, it could reach as high as 60 to 80 meters!
The Strokkur Geyser is one of the most powerful among the bunch – it erupts predictably every 8 to 10 minutes, and the powerful column of steam reaches about 25 meters. To me, it was still impressive to see the bubbles and steam coming out from the ground.
While visitors should be able to see some actions here and there, catching one in the picture could be tricky. The Strokkur geyser, right before the eruption, should usually form a turquoise bubble on its top. This is the sign that the geyser is about the shoot and so grab the timing and get your camera ready. If you want to be shot with the eruption at the same time, hold your post so you won’t miss the magic moment because they happen in only a split second 🙂
There are two basins that are linked underground, yet looked so different in colors. One is a hot water source, giving a deep blue color; and the other one is a cold water source, giving a like opal blue color. The content of the silica changes its color under the sunlight. There are a few hot spring resorts nearby, I would love to stay there if I had a car at that time and really pamper myself for a day or two in the suites. I will put this on my list for my next visit though.
After our visit to the Geyser (and some other nice waterfalls as an “extra” of the tour), we headed back to the capital city of the island, just in time to catch a magnificent sunset in the summertime at midnight, before it would rise again pretty soon at 3 am in the morning…