Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Iceland Day 3 - The Golden Circle

For my third day in Iceland, I booked a tour of the "golden circle," a ring of geysers, waterfalls, volcanos and geothermal areas all within day trip distance of Reykjavik. It's like doing Ireland's Ring of Kerry, only with less seaside and more explosions. I didn't want to be on a huge tour bus, so I booked the "super jeep" tour through the company Extreme Iceland. These have a max of ten people. The tickets are pricey, but for one person, it was cheaper to do this than to rent a car and explore the area on my own.

We started at 9:00 am, and when the jeep picked me up, there was just a young couple from Hong Kong and our guide, Árni, who told us that with such a small group, we would have the opportunity to do some extra things. Did we want to go up on the glacier? Of course we did.

Our ride for the day. It's so high off the ground, we needed a step stool to climb in and out.

Our ride wasn't actually a Jeep, but a Ford van, jacked up onto a massive chassi with huge wheels. We stopped at a gas station for a quick toilet break and headed to our first destination, Kerið, a volcanic crater lake, where we hiked around the crater, an exhilarating experience in the brisk wind, with beautiful views into the crater and of the countryside all around.

Around Kerid

I saw this red shrub everywhere but I don't know what it is.
I saw a lot of rainbows in Iceland

After a brief stop at the Faxi waterfall, we went to Geysir, a geothermal area that has several geysers: the famous Geysir, which is now dormant, and the active Strokkur, which erupts roughly every ten minutes. Despite it's lack of activity, Geysir is an interesting sight because of the delicate blue color of its water, and even though it doesn't erupt, its water is scalding hot. Árni told us that Geysir became active again for a while, after an earthquake in 2010, but then went back to sleep. It was freezing cold with a stiff wind and it was tempting to try to warm yourself by the geyser, as if it were a campfire, but the steam loses its heat immediately, and you can't touch the water because you'll scald yourself. 
Water literally boiling out of the ground

You can tell when Strokkur is about to erupt because its water will start to gloop and gurgle, and then blast, a huge plume of water rises into the air and immediately dissipates. (You don't want to be standing downwind or you'll get soaked, but not burned because it cools so quickly.) The quality of this video is so bad - I'm too discouraged to load more, but I put a couple of other ones on my Patience Crabstick facebook page, so you can check them out there, if you want.

There are toilets, a cafeteria, and gift shop at Geysir, so we stopped for an early lunch and rest. Árni, in addition to being very knowledgable about all the sights and wonders of the surrounding country, was a pleasant guy with whom to spend a day. 

Langjökull is the large glacier, furthest to the left.

Not too long after we headed for the Langjökull Glacier, the paved road ended.  Árni pulled over to let some air out of the tires, explaining that for the terrain we were about to cover, this was necessary to reduce bouncing and to allow as much rubber as possible to come into contact with the road. The vehicle was equipped with a system for efficient deflating and re-inflating of the tires and soon we were on our way again and Árni let us know that the tires were down to just 10 psi, which is pretty flat. ("We go down to 5 psi in the winter," he said.) Anyway, at first the road didn't seem THAT bad, but then Árni said, "We don't need roads. Roads are for cars," and made an abrupt right turn and we went jouncing down a rocky cliff, until we reached a river, which we drove through - the bridge well above us - and then clawed our way back up to the road.

The "road" to the glacier

After that exciting diversion, the road became pretty bad and eventually ended altogether and we slowly progressed across a difficult, rocky terrain. But let me back up to when we were still on the paved road. As we drove, I could see, far off in the distance, a vast, inexplicable thing such as I'd never seen the likes of before. It was high above us, seemingly at the same height as the mountains in the distance. With a mist rising off it, it looked as if the sea had somehow invaded the mountaintops. Of course, the thing was the glacier, which sits about about 4,000 feet above sea level. Langjökull Glacier is the second-largest in Iceland and covers roughly 1500 square kilometers.

The landscape changed dramatically as we neared the glacier. The grass and trees around Kerið and Geysir gave way to a greenish-grey moss which eventually disappeared and we drove through a barren moonscape, devoid of all life except for patches of livid yellow moss. (Fun fact: astronauts were sent to Iceland to practice before going to the moon because Iceland is the most like the moon of any land on earth.)

On the glacier

The black cones are volcanic ash

The glacier itself has a deep margin of black volcanic ash. We drove right onto it, past the ash and onto the ice and got out of the car to walk around.  The ice is blue, because, Árni explained, it is so compressed. It was absolutely freezing. The wind was from the north, and thus had traveled across 1500 square km of ice before hitting us. The air temperature itself was probably not that cold, but the windchill was easily as cold as the coldest winter day you'll ever experience in Virginia. (But not as cold as weather I've experienced in Buffalo.) I'd lost my hat on Videy Island :( 

After we left the glacier, we made three more stops, but this post is getting long, so I think I'll save the second half of this day for later.


  1. Nature is so cool. And weird. And gorgeous.

  2. The landscape, especially the glacier, is amazing. It looks like there would be too many nooks and crannies to actually walk on the glacier. And I'm so sad you lost your hat!

  3. Gorgeous! I have always wanted to travel (and live, I think) in Iceland.

  4. Gorgeous! I have always wanted to travel (and live, I think) in Iceland.

  5. What a landscape! And brilliant that you got a "private" tour of the area--sounds like you had the perfect guide and situation. All that geothermic activity makes me think of Yellowstone.