Day 2 – The Golden Circle and More!
Day 2 dawned cold and cloudy. We overslept because somehow I still don’t know how to correctly set an alarm on my phone. We ate a big, hearty breakfast at the hotel and had many cups of delicious hot coffee to fortify ourselves before we ventured out on the road.
We booked our tour through Guide to Iceland. This was the first time I’ve used a travel agency, but in the case of Iceland we knew we were traveling to lots of small towns and villages, and it seemed a wiser course of action to rely on people who knew the area (Guide to Iceland is located in Reykjavik city hall), rather than trying to rely on a travel guide. Many guesthouses, restaurants, and hotels close up shop during the winter and we didn’t want to get stranded sleeping in the car.
Our tour, which included our rental car and lodging at all the places we visited, also included entrance to the Blue Lagoon (see Day 4), and a detailed and informative itinerary of places it was suggested that we visit. As this is a self-drive tour, you are free to go where you want when you want, which was just how we wanted it.
We drove out of Reykjavik towards the ring of nearby natural wonders known as the Golden Circle. Our GPS got us briefly lost (again, turns out I don’t know how to use technology as well as I thought I did), but we figured it out before we drove into the ocean. The snow was coming down hard and it was difficult to distinguish the horizon from the sky. The mountains were looming walls of white against a white sky on a white ground. A few scattered farmhouses peeked out of the blinding white. Fortunately it was warm enough that the snow wasn’t sticking on the road.
We rounded a curve and suddenly looming below us was the gray expanse of þingvallavatn, the largest lake in Iceland. We wended our way around the lake into þingvellir Valley, a National Park of Iceland. þingvellir is the meeting place of the North American and Eurasian Tectonic Plates, and the continents are slowly tearing themselves apart at a rate of a few centimeters a year (hence the valley). In the middle of the lake is Silfra fissure where you can scuba dive and snorkel, actually diving between the two tectonic plates!!! However, we bypassed this activity as it was pretty cold and the activity was very expensive for the short amount of time you got to spend exploring.
Instead, we parked and began to hike trails through the park. There is an enormous wall of basalt rock that runs along the Northern part of the lake. This is the famous “Law Rock,” or Lögberg where the Icelandic Parliament (the Alþingi) was held from 930 AD until 1799. The Law Rock has been featured in Game of Thrones (as have many locations in Iceland).
We hiked up and saw the crystalline glacial waters of Öxarárfoss, a small waterfall nestled in a basalt crevasse. The jutting black rocks were scarred with lichens and dusted with newfallen snow. We followed the path along to the Law Rock, which towers over the valley, a true monument of kings. It’s easy to imagine, at a place like this, how the Icelandic people believed in giants and trolls and dragons and gods. What else but a giant or a god could split the earth in such a way? (The answer, of course, is volcanoes and tectonic plates!) Below us, þingvellir Valley stretched nearly as far as the eye could see until it ended at distant mountains, barely visible in the snowfall and gray light.
Though we could have explored the nooks and crannies of the valley for hours, we had so much to do, so we got back on the road. We were hungry for lunch, so we stopped at a bistro our tour book recommended, but it was too fancy. Instead, we found a small farm called Efstidalur II where we had a hamburger and enjoyed fresh ice cream while watching the cows from whom the ice cream was made.
We pressed onward to Geysir, a famous geyser from which the English word is taken! It’s actually a whole field of small and large geysers and bubbling hotpots oozing steam and boiling, mineral-rich water. Geysir didn’t erupt for us, but his neighbor, Strokkur, did, blasting water fifty feet into the air!
We made our way further up into the highlands to the most colossal of all waterfalls in Iceland, Gullfoss. The Hvítá river has carved a deep canyon in the earth, like a giant gash, and here there is a three-stage waterfall. Waterfall doesn’t really do it justice. It felt more like Niagara in its breathtaking, awe-inspiring scale. The spray from the falls had turned the rock walls of the canyon into sheets of perfectly structured walls of ice. Between the heavy snowfall and the river below, it was as if all the time-destroying powers of water were bearing down on this place.
It was mid-afternoon and we had several hours of daylight remaining, so we ventured off of our itinerary into þorsadalur Valley, where we had read that we could find several sites of 9th century viking ruins. As we ventured further up into the valley, we began to lose light and the snow continued to fall, now beginning to stick to the roadway. We found a dirt track off of Route 32 that was marked “impassable” and appeared to be quite muddy. We left the car at the road and hiked back, but the ruins were much further off the road than we were willing to venture on foot. We did spot arctic fox tracks and saw fantastic mountain vistas, but the ruins eluded us.
We were losing daylight quickly so we returned to our car. The nearest bridge was another 15 km up-river, so we ventured further up into the valley as the snow continued to fall and the light continued to fade. We finally found a wooden bridge that crossed the þorsa river and the road that would take us back down out of the valley and ultimately to our destination at Hvolsvöllur. The road was narrow and treacherous. Snow had blown over much of the roadway and visibility was low thanks to the fading light and the falling snow. At one point, a wall of ice blocked part of the roadway. We managed to avoid it, driving through drift after drift of snow, but then the roadway entirely disappeared! Only the yellow markers along the roadside guided us along the roadway.
Conditions gradually improved as we slowly drove out of the valley and across a sprawling lava field, creeping below the mighty volcano Hekla like Sam and Frodo sneaking through Mordor beneath the Eye of Sauron. After nearly two hours of joking about how long we could survive on Clif bars and Icelandic junk food should we get stranded, we reached Hvolsvöllur.
We had pizza and beer at the restaurant/bar/grocery/gas station combo (a common format in rural Iceland). The pizza was surprisingly delicious. We staggered back to our hotel and crashed. Our bed had a crevasse in the middle like the rent in the earth at þingvellir. The hotel lacked any charm but was clean. We were too tired to care.
Small details of the day: arctic fox tracks, hunting for rocks along the þorsa river, off-roading up a hill for a stunning view of the valley, annoying super-jeeps hogging up the road, BLUE BLUE BLUE glacial water, and lots of snow – we were both grateful for investing in heavy coats, boots, gloves, hats, and scarves!
After today, we were beginning to get a sense of the scale and power of Iceland. Endless miles of volcanic rock and ice with only the rarest of settlements in between. A place forgotten by the rest of the world, devoid of human habitation until the Vikings discovered it in the 9th century. Iceland might as well be another planet, and we two explorers on a distant world.