The Golden Circle

The day started early. Not that I minded. I had actually just experienced a pretty terrible night of sleep. Did it have anything to do with the fact that I slept in a hostel that was attached to a haunted museum? You be the judge. But none of that mattered. There was a lot to see! I got into my car under a bright morning sun, and headed north to explore the Golden Circle. My quest for chasing waterfalls had been a smashing success the day before. I was ecstatic to once again be seeking the famous natural attractions of Iceland.

I was confronted with my first rare beauty just minutes after getting into my car.

The Golden Circle
The rainbows were hunting me again…

The mountain Ingólfsfjall was wreathed in a halo comprised of some early-morning fog. A flickering double rainbow touched down in a green and gold field. Just another morning in picturesque Iceland. 

I plugged in my first destination, Þingvellir National Park. It’s been anglicized as Thingvellir, but I’m going to keep using the Icelandic character Thorn [Þ, þ] because I like it. Based on what I’ve written above, I’m sure you’re able to figure out how to pronounce it. Icelandic is the only language that has kept the letter, but it used to be part of Old English, Gothic, and Old Norse before it was replaced with the digraph th.

Anyway, tangent aside, I started heading for Þingvellir. I should probably mention that I arbitrarily chose this destination first and for no reason. From my hostel it was only three extra minutes to Geysir, and 19 extra minutes to Gullfoss, which is basically Geysir’s next-door neighbor.

Oh wait, now I remember there was a reason.

It’s a Game of Thrones shooting location.

Fans of the show might recognize it. We’ll come back to that in a bit. So yeah, I decided to go to Þingvellir first because I couldn’t contain my excitement to go to Westeros.

First I had to pass through the quaint town of Selfoss on the way north.

Conquer Fear the Golden Circle
North of Selfoss, the lazy Ölfusá River meets the fog-wreathed mountain Ingólfsfjall.

The town sits in the shadow of Ingólfsfjall, and the Ölfusá River runs right through the middle of it. The area is quite magnificent. This actually happens to be where I first filled up the car’s gas tank, and WOAH was it expensive. At the time I was there, gas was more than twice the price that it was in the US. Americans really don’t know how good they have it for gas prices!

I drove through Selfoss, made my way over the bridge, and skirted along underneath the mountain. There were a few lookouts here that were just jaw-dropping. The river stretched out before my eyes and reflected the morning sun. But no light could pierce the thick mist that drifted down from the mountain in waves, as though it were alive.

After a short drive you need to cross another bridge over the Ölfusá to continue north. Just before that is where I shot the photograph above. When I got to the other side, there were some people by the side of the road.

I picked up my very first hitchhikers!

A pair of Game of Thrones fans from the Isle of Mallorca. They weren’t necessarily trying to complete the Golden Circle like me, but they were heading to Þingvellir. So we buckled in for the remaining 35 minutes and talked about our favorite fantasy TV series!

The Golden Circle
At last we arrived at stunning Þingvellir National Park.

My only regret with picking up the hitchhikers is that I stopped getting out of the car every 30 seconds to take pictures. I missed a lot of wonderful photo opportunities on the drive north to the national park. If I could remember the spots I passed over, perhaps I could get some of those missed shots back on my next trip. Ah, who knows? The north remembers, but I forget.

I actually was disheartened enough to decide not to pick up any more hitchhikers while I explore the Golden Circle. My moratorium on hitchhikers ended up lasting my entire Iceland trip. But that was fine. I get to stop the car whenever I want.

Remember, solo trips are all about you.

Now we’ll see if any of the Game of Thrones fans can recognize the scenes that were shot here. I didn’t know where the shot actually took place, but I lucked into a guess that ended up being right. The TV series definitely had a camera suspended across the middle of the rift, but I had to settle for a shot from the edge. I’ve put my photo below with one of the scenes from the show.

Conquer Fear the Golden Circle

Conquer Fear The Golden Circle
The girl in my photo happens to be standing in the exact same spot as Arya and The Hound.

This scene is when The Hound is taking Arya to the Vale in Season 4 to “totally not ransom her” to her Aunt Lysa. He’s only returning her safely with the expectation of hefty reward despite the fact that no one even knows Arya is alive – definitely not the same thing. This area of Þingvellir was used to represent the Bloody Gate – the entrance to The Vale. Petyr Baelish and Sansa also pass through the Bloody Gate earlier during that season.

Had I researched a bit more, I would have discovered that there were a few more scenes shot inside of Þingvellir National Park. There’s also a scene in which Tormund and Ygritte meet the cannibalistic Wildlings in a stony canyon, and a brief shot of Arya riding a horse near a waterfall before she leaves for Braavos. Both of those shots were in the park, but I didn’t know about them until later.

Game of Thrones talk aside, the rifts in Þingvellir are very interesting. They are formed by the continental drift of the North American and Eurasian plates. When you’re there, you’re literally standing in a place that was made by the world pulling itself apart.

Þingvellir was awesome, but I had more of the Golden Circle to see.

I headed east to see a pair of OG’s – Geysir, and Gullfoss.

Conquer Fear The Golden Circle
I’m picturing a Zeus-like diety hurling rainbows down into the earth like colorful missiles. Their aim is fab-ulous!

On my way out of the park, I continued to be assaulted by a barrage of rainbows from above. A cascading rainbow to my left, a giant arcing double rainbow to my right… It’s a country full of rainbows! If Iceland has a gay deity watching over it, then that would explain why the exterior design is so exquisite.

As I made my way further east towards the rest of the Golden Circle, the landscape once again changed. This time I found myself in a valley full of hot springs.

Conquer Fear The Golden Circle
This steam shown here is from the cultivation of Iceland’s plentiful geothermal energy.

None of the hot springs were open to the public, but imagine how cool it would be to live there! Free Jacuzzi for eternity! That’s as far ahead as I’ve thought. For that reason and that reason alone, it would be worth living here.

I was tempted to put my foot in one of the puddles to see how hot it was. But I decided against it.

It seemed like a really stupid thing to have written on my gravestone.

The rest of the 50 minute drive from Þingvellir to Geysir was easy. The roads were empty, which was perfect. I would have expected a bit more traffic along the Golden Circle. The sky had begun to clear up, and I was extremely pleased with how the day was going. I wonder how it could get any better?

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The slopes of Laugarfjall Hill, home to Geysir and Strokkur.

Oh I have an idea. How about by being introduced to the first geyser ever described in a printed source? The first geyser known to modern Europeans is also sometimes known as The Great Geysir (thanks, Wikipedia). Yup, that took my day to new heights. Especially when Strokkur, Geysir’s neighbor, erupted.

Strokkur is one of the (other) most famous geysers in Iceland. It erupts pretty much every 6-10 minutes, one of the very few natural geysers to erupt reliably and consistently (thanks again, Wikipedia).

The Golden Circle
I got up close and personal with The Great Geysir.

By comparison, Geysir is like a broken down old man. It doesn’t erupt anymore, a fact helpfully pointed out to me as I pointed my smartphone camera at it, eagerly awaiting the appearance of a plume of boiling water.

Good thing I wasn’t holding my breath.

My second stop on the Golden Circle was an explosive triumph. I had never seen a geyser erupt before, so that was a very cool experience. I was ready to continue to my last stop: Gullfoss.

Conquer Fear the Golden Circle
The Tremendous Gullfoss is the largest volume falls in all of Europe.

Yes! Finally! A rainbow appeared at a landmark long enough for me to snap a picture of it! I stood there in awe of the waterfall before me, utterly transfixed by its massive power. The sound of the water crashing into canyon below was deafening.

Imagine going over those falls in a barrel. Ouch. Seriously, what was ever the allure of that? I can understand a lot of daredevil activity, but going over a giant waterfall in a barrel? Not seeing the point here.

The last stop on my tour of the Golden Circle is a grand total of 105 feet high. Interestingly, the name Gullfoss means “Golden Waterfall”. It’s a perfect fit! Apparently in the summer, the water looks golden brown from the glacial sediment that has flowed downstream from its source. And what river tumbles over the tremendous waterfall into the canyon far below?

The Ölfusá River!

Or at least, the Hvítá River, which becomes the Ölfusá River. The internet can’t seem to make up it’s mind for me on this one. And just like that we’re back to where we started!

The Golden Circle
Now that I’ve completed the Golden Circle, it’s time to pay a visit to the capital!

The geyser and waterfall had been an amazing side trip. I was very happy to have gone out of my way to see them, and I was even happier that the weather had turned around! I could finally see a blue Icelandic sky!

The route from Gullfoss all the way to Reykjavík is a very manageable hour and a half drive. I cranked up the tunes and hit the road – which was empty yet again! Have I mentioned how much I love driving in Iceland? But wait, there’s more!

My journey to Reykjavík would once again take me through the spectacular Þingvellir National Park. This time, however, there was a beautiful blue sky! I was getting pretty hungry, but I couldn’t help stopping again for a few more photos.

The Golden Circle
Because it was autumn, the landscape was afire in reds, yellows, oranges, and golds.

I took a few more pictures in the national park, but then left shortly after. I’d already spent plenty of time there, and I was getting seriously hungry.

My stomach calls the shots, and I’m man enough to admit it.

But I couldn’t help but conquer one last challenge before going to my hostel on the harbor. There was a small detour on the way into the city that left me in a carpark under a mountain. Was it more of a hill, and probably, definitely not big enough to be a mountain? Yes. But I’m going to refer to it as a mountain nonetheless. I parked and climbed up.

The Golden Circle
In Iceland you’ll find rock piles like these rather frequently. They’re called cairns.

The climb up wasn’t much of a problem. The view was pretty fantastic, I walked around the top and could see for miles in every direction. A few locals were up there walking their dogs as the afternoon transitioned to early evening. The flat-topped mountains directly across from my little mountain were beautifully topped with just a dusting of snow at some of their highest points. The wind wasn’t too bad, but it was still enough to make me worry about the climb down.

The Golden Circle
The outskirts of Reykjavík. It’s a city that has a small town feel.

After looking down the mountain at the capital city I would be spending two nights in, I descended. It was actually a difficult descent, and I had to take it really slow. It could have ended up very similar to the scene in Lord of the Rings when Frodo falls down the rocks in front of the Black Gate in The Two Towers.

I finally made it to my hostel, and checked in. My day was complete! A full tour of the Golden Circle on my own terms. Every second of it was amazing. And with my 23rd birthday fast approaching, I was in high spirits.

And the cherry on top: while I was eating duck confit pizza at the bar (delicious), the bartender poured the wrong stout so he gave it to me for free. I love Iceland!

P.S. The Golden Circle was Iceland Part 3. Read on!

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