Day 26: the Golden Circle

Within a couple of hours’ drive from Reykjavík are three major landmarks: Þingvellir National Park, the Geysir geothermal area, and the spectacular 200-foot waterfall Gullfoss.  They’re part of the “Golden Circle” tour and they usually wind up on every tourist’s itinerary because they’re so easy to reach in a single day.

The Golden Circle is neither made from gold, nor is it a circle.  Discuss
The Golden Circle is neither made from gold, nor is it a circle. Discuss

But it’s been over a year since my last visit.  Clearly time for another road trip.

As I mentioned in my last post, a number of students gathered at the University for coffee Thursday in unofficial social event for early arrivals.  While there, I met Keith and Victoria, a couple from Kentucky who hadn’t yet had a chance to get out from the city since their arrival.  Although Keith has been to Iceland before, Victoria hasn’t – all the more reason to hit the road.  And so we did.

Keith and Victoria with new friend spouting off behind them
Victoria and Keith with a new friend spouting off behind them

We left Reykjavík at about noon, turning off from the ring road a few miles outside the city and heading toward Þingvellir.  The countryside was beautiful: lush green fields, rivers, mountains, and the largest lake in Iceland, Þingvallavatn.

Þingvallavatn (small)

Before long we arrived at a place that manages to be historically and geologically significant all at the same time.  Less than a hundred years after the first settlers arrived, Iceland’s first parliament met on the shores of Þingvallavatn at Þingvellir.  The clans gathered in tents and temporary structures to settle disputes and to make rules for commerce and the punishment of criminals.  The  Alþing, as they called it, now meets in Reykjavík; it is the world’s oldest parliament.

For almost a thousand years, the Alþing met here for two weeks each summer; the gatherings became an important focus of national culture and identity.  The parliament adopted laws which were announced at the Lögberg – the “law-rock” – by the Alþing’s Law Speaker.


Not so different from the law today
Not so different from the laws today

In addition to being a place where Icelanders came together, Þingvellir is also significant because it is a place where Iceland is coming apart.  It is one of the most prominent rift zones in the country, a place where the North American plate and the Eurasian plate are drifting away from one another.  Because of this drift Iceland currently grows, on average, a bit less than an inch in its east-west dimension per year.

Little by little, Iceland is becoming less little every year
Lava eventually fills in the cracks where the plates are pulling apart

The cracks and fissures are especially prominent here.  Þingvellir is a place where you can literally stroll from America to Europe – or, if you prefer, dive or go snorkeling in places like Silfra, the long, narrow, and deep fissure between the continents.

Bring a wetsuit - the water is cold!

Of course, all this geologic activity manifests itself in other ways.  The pulling apart of the crust is driven by an upwelling of magma from deep within the earth – the so-called “headless cat” of molten rock that flows beneath Iceland.

I'm going to have to stop using this image after Hobbes gets here next week
I’m going to have to stop using this image after Hobbes gets here next week

The heat just below the surface sometimes erupts in spectacular outbursts, as with the eruption that created Surtsey in 1963 or the volcano that buried parts of Heimaey a decade later.

The Eldfell volcano erupts
The Eldfell volcano erupts.  Icelanders saved most of the town, but not quite all of it

In other places the earth just simmers, boiling groundwater that eventually works its way to the surface in the form of hot springs, heated rivers, and geysers.  The Geysir geothermal area is one of those places.

Very pretty.  Also very hot.  Don't touch!
Very pretty.  Also very hot.  Don’t touch!

The word “geyser” is a word borrowed from Icelandic and made a part of the English language: it comes from Geysir, the name of the largest geyser in the area.  Geysir is now unfortunately dormant, but another nearby geyser called Strokkur (“the churn”) erupts on average every 5-8 minutes.  Sometimes it just sort of burps boiling hot water a dozen feet in the air, and other times the eruption can reach 60-80 feet above the ground.

Strokkur puts on a show
Strokkur puts on a show

After our visit to the hot springs and geysers, we went a bit farther to Gullfoss.  Here, some of the water that flowed out of Hraunfoss (see my earlier post here) takes another wild ride – this time plunging over 200 feet into a narrow canyon and seeming to disappear altogether.  You can get a sense of the scale of the falls by looking at the silhouette of the person standing on the rock outcropping in the mist on the left-hand side of the photo below:

There is no guardrail, but there is a small rope which you're encouraged to stay behind
There is no guardrail, but there is a small rope which you’re encouraged to stay behind

After that, it was back to Reykjavík to drop off Keith and Victoria and then back home to Kópavogur – where, despite my best intentions to write a blog post right away, I immediately dropped off to sleep.  Who knew sightseeing could be such strenuous work?

One thought on “Day 26: the Golden Circle

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