The Golden Circle is a popular 300km loop near Reykjavik that delivers some of the best parts of what Iceland is known for. A quick search of Golden Circle tours will find you hundreds of options; from a private tour to the big bus tour groups that crowd the stops. We decided to rent a vehicle and drive the Golden Circle ourselves. This is our experience and best advice for driving the Golden Circle in winter.
The classic Golden Circle tour is comprised of 3 stops. Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, Geysir and Gullfoss. The Golden Circle can be explored easily in 1 day, but we had an injury and ended up exploring it on 2 separate days. The whole loop could comfortably be complete in about 6 hours though.
Driving in Winter
I would suggest to forgo a tour group and rent a vehicle and explore it yourself. We visited on a snowy day in March, so we made the decision to rent a Land Rover with 4×4. Any vehicle with 4×4 would have been fine, but we had 6 people in our group and needed a larger vehicle.
You should probably be familiar with driving in the snow if you are going to attempt this route. The roads are usually well maintained and were clear for us, but the weather changes so quickly in Iceland. The only time we encountered snow was in parking lots and when we pulled off on the side of the road.
You should always check the road conditions when driving outside of Reykjavik as well. This is the site that we checked, which was recommended to us by our rental car company.
Also, I guess it’s not really necessary to have GPS to make this loop, but we had it anyways and found it useful in getting us from Reykjavik to Route 36. Be warned; Iceland LOVES their roundabouts! We passed through at least 6 in a row on our way to Route 36.
Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2004 and it holds great cultural significance for being the site of the oldest Parliament in the world. From 930 to 1798, 2 weeks every summer chieftains/leaders from various villages around Iceland would assembly. This was called the Althing. They held elections, created laws and unified their country. The Althing occurred at Logberg (Law Rock) because the sound of voices reverberated off the rocks and could carry further.
I am a bit of a history nerd, so this was mind blowing to me! It’s amazing to think that over 1,000 years ago people were standing where I was standing and trying to figure out how to unify their people and create the foundations of a government.
We were excited to visit Þingvellir for another reason as well; Game of Thrones has filmed there! You may recognize some of the tall rock outcroppings which were shown on the path to the Eyrie and Arya and Clegane’s journey.
There is a small gift shop/info center at Þingvellir, a viewing area and trails. I would recommend walking down into the valley. For a longer journey you could cross the bridge and go to the old church. Just getting below the rim though is an entirely different experience and will make you think about and really appreciate the history of the place.
Also, dress appropriately for goodness sakes. As fashionable and cute as they looked, I saw more than one young Asian women wearing TIGHTS for pants. Tights. In ICELAND IN THE WINTER. I had on my thermal layer plus 2 pairs of pants on top and my butt was freezing by the time we got back to our car.
Geysirs in the Haukadalur Valley
The Haukadalur Valley has a lot of geothermal activity which has created multiple hot springs, mud pots and 2 famous geysirs. I didn’t realize until I started researching Iceland that the word ‘Geysir’ is actually an Icelandic word, or name. It was the name given to the first known geysir. It is now called the Great Geysir but it is not as active as it once was.
Your best chance of seeing a geysir erupt is with the ever faithful Strokkur. We were there for less than 15 minutes and saw it erupt 3 times!
The first time we drove the Golden Circle we drove past the Geysir to visit Gulfoss first. This was around 1 pm and there were large crowds of people. The second time (when we actually visited Geysir) there were hardly any crowds since it was about 5 pm. If you can wait until after crowds have thinned I think the viewing experience is a lot more enjoyable.
Gullfoss waterfall was probably the #1 thing I was most excited to see on the Golden Circle! The pictures I had seen of the half frozen waterfall in winter were like anything I had ever seen. Our first glimpse of the waterfall didn’t disappoint!
Gullfoss Waterfall is made up of water from the Hvítá river, as it crashes down over 3 tiers and eventually falls to the bottom of a crevice which you cannot see. I had never seen a waterfall quite like it!
We decided to eat first since it was getting late. Most of us opted for the Icelandic lamb soup which was incredible! It came with delicious bread and included free refills on both. For 1350 ISK (~$11 USD) it was well priced for Iceland and both warming and filling.
There are 2 parking lots and viewing areas at Gullfoss. The upper parking lot has direct access to the gift shop and cafeteria and the viewing ares are quite good (but also crowded). There is a long set of wood stairs that connects to the lower parking lot and viewing area. If you are visiting in winter, do be careful because some stairs were slick where the snow was packed down.
Injury at Gullfoss
At the lower viewing area I had just started setting up to take pictures and I could see people much closer to the falls. I packed up to get a closer view and they had just roped it off because of dangerous conditions. It had started to rain, turning the packed snow into an ice rink. Jake and I got closer to the roped off area so we could to get a better view and then suddenly I heard a loud crash behind me.
Jake had fallen and had his foot pinned back between his body and the ice. An unhelpful older lady leaned over him and said, “see, it wasn’t worth it!” as he was screaming out in pain and trying to Army crawl off the ice so he could try and stand. It was a mad dash trying to get him back to the car, trying to figure out who else in our party could drive a manual Land Rover in the snow and where the nearest hospital was.
We skipped Geysir after this incident and returned a few days later, sadly part of our party had to miss it. We spent the rest of the day in the Emergency Room (something I will talk about in another post) but Jake didn’t break his foot and is nearly back to normal.
One of my favorite parts of this area is all the farms and Icelandic horses! One of the bonuses of being able to drive yourself is stopping whenever something takes your fancy. We stopped to pet the horses and feed them an apple between Þingvellir and Geysir. Make sure you pull off the road at an area that allows for it, the snow can get pretty deep on the sides of the roads and you don’t want to get stuck.
We also made a stop after Þingvellir, where the main road (Route 36) and Route 361 intersect. The views of Þingvallavatn lake were too much to pass up! It was absolutely silent out here. The peacefulness while looking out over the lake…that’s something I won’t forget!
Tips for Driving the Golden Circle in Winter
Dress appropriately. You should at least wear a thermal layer and 2 other layers, plus a rain jacket. You can always remove layers if you get too warm, but it can be miserable if you are freezing and nothing you can do about it
Bring a buff. I had it around my neck most of the time, but when it got windy I would pull it up over my nose and mouth and it really helped in keeping me warm
Bring enough water. There are only a few stops, so make sure you bring a few water bottles, which you can refill at any bathroom or cafeteria along the way (the water in Iceland is amazing no matter where you are!)
Arrive early or arrive late. Many tours depart around 9 AM, so if you’re not starting the Golden Circle until late morning then you can expect it to be crowded at every stop
Bring apples to feed to the horses. Might as well have something to offer them since they probably see hundreds of tourists a day stopping to pet them
Bring a cover for your camera. There were multiple times I wish I had one so my lens wouldn’t get wet when it got windy or started sprinkling.