“You see this highway we’re driving on now? It’s in this spot because of the elves.”
I’m in Iceland, which at this week-point in my trip I’ve dubbed the “land of folklore.” Currently I’m on a Grayline Classic Iceland Golden Circle Tour, with my guide directing my attention to my left. On the side of the road sits two rocks, residing in the place where the road was originally supposed to have been built.
“Right when the bulldozer was about to move the rocks it tipped over, completely defying the laws of physics,” explains Jaakko. “When a second bulldozer came its engine suddenly died. Then they knew there were supernatural forces at play.”
The story goes that a clairvoyant came to survey the rocks, and told the workers it was the elves doing. They didn’t want their home destroyed. And so a “formal agreement” was made that unless absolutely necessary, elf rock homes would not be destroyed for infrastructure.
Welcome to Iceland, the Land of Fire & Ice… and folklore.
“Many people ask me if I believe in elves”, continues Jaakko. “I ask, ‘If you’re wearing a sweater do you believe in it?’ It’s not about believing; it’s about acceptance.”Welcome to the land of fire and ice... and folklore #iceland #goldencircle Click To Tweet
Þingvellir National Park Views
Reaching the beautiful green smokey Þingvellir National Park — a true Iceland bucket list experience — a fog ascends on the volcano-hugged landscape.
“Peer into the fog. If you see something move, the elves are allowing you to see them.”
Folklore aside, Þingvellir National Park is an important place for many reasons. Along with being one of three national parks in Iceland and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s where Iceland’s parliament was started in 930 by the Vikings. It’s also where Iceland declared independence from Denmark in 1944.
We get off the bus at the Visitor Center. Here Jaakko invites us to, “Take a look at the view here, and see exactly why this place was chosen.”
It’s true; from the Visitor Center’s Hakið viewpoint I see rifts cut through the ground showcasing crystal waters and creating an otherworldly effect. I can even see where I snorkeled Silfra just days before, a fissure where you swim between North America’s and Eurasia’s divergent tectonic plates.
You can see exactly where the earth descends as the plates move apart — about two centimeters each year — and even walk through the Almannagjá Fault.
It works like this: once upon a time ice melted from a glacier outside of Þingvellir National Park, running with a river into Þingvallavatn Lake. Shortly after, nearby Skjaldbreidur Volcano erupted, causing a lava blockage in the river. Fire and ice united, and now we have Silfra, a gorgeous fissure with visibility reaching over 100 meters.
“There was a 10-day earth quake, can you imagine?! The cows were milking butter they were shaking so much!” exclaims Jaakko.Ever wondered what it's like to walk along a fault line? #iceland #travel Click To Tweet
Iceland’s Golden Waterfall
The drive to our next stop — Gullfoss, or the Golden Waterfall — is through the national park. It’s a beautiful journey that allows us to explore two continents whether we know it or not.
“We’ve now left North America and have entered No Man’s Land!” Says Jaakko energetically. “We’re actually in what Icelanders know as the forest.”
This is a funny statement, as we’re driving through what I would know as short shrubs.
He smirks. “If you ever get lost in an Icelandic forest there are two rules you need to remember. One, don’t panic! It will all get sorted out. And two, stand up! There you go. You’re no longer lost.”
We leave the national park and head toward Gullfoss, a 31-meter-high double waterfall. Here, Jaakko gets really excited.
“Icelanders have a crush on waterfalls. I think we have more than any other country in Europe! And there is no waterfall so tiny it doesn’t have a name, because all of our waterfalls have history.”
Gullfoss certainly does. At the turn of the 19th century foreign investors became interested in exploiting the falls for electricity, or at least trying to. Sigríður Tómasdóttir, whose father once owned the land the waterfalls sit on, started fighting to preserve them as a natural attraction. In fact, she even threatened to throw herself into them if they were used for industrial purposes. Today, the falls are protected, and you can see a memorial plaque for Sigríður Tómasdóttir near the walkway.
Smiles Jaakko, “We love people who fight so passionately in Iceland. Now when you look at the waterfall, please answer, was it worth her fight?”
I’d toured the South Coast the day before and had seen Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss. While lovely, growing up in New York I’m always hoping for that Niagara Falls kind of wow. Gullfoss delivers!
It’s extremely powerful, with various viewpoints to take in the beauty. Iceland is full of geological wonders, with the edges of the waterfall made from hard lava basalt. The actual falls themselves rest on soft sedimentary rock on which the river can carve a channel. Mother Nature can really be impressive sometimes, especially as layers in these waterfalls date back to the mid-Ice Age.
I’m also impressed with the food! This is our lunch stop, and my Grayline ticket gets me 10% off a hot bowl of traditional Icelandic lamb soup. I’ve had this soup numerous times during my week in Iceland, and have had mixed experiences. While the soup still doesn’t compare to the absolutely delectable bowl I had at the Tin Can Factory, it’s really tasty. In fact, despite it being located in a visitor center it’s better than some restaurants in Reykjavik!
Another note for health conscious travelers: while the food stop on my previous day’s Iceland South Coast tour was all greasy, the Golden Circle stop had soups, sandwiches and salads for a fresher meal.
Our final stop of the day is the famed Geysir Hot Spring Area. Warns Jaakko, “Be careful of spill water as it can be extremely hot. I know humans are curious though, so if you absolutely must touch it, please, don’t use your fingers; use someone else’s!”
In fact the signs warn visitors they’re dealing with waters ranging from 80-100°C (176-212 °F).
There’s a little walking trail complex full of geysirs, the most reliable of which is Strokkur. This geysir sits in the center of the complex, spouting hot water 30 meters (100 feet) into the air every few minutes.
Walking up the steaming path leading to Strokkur, I have no idea what to expect. Was it just constantly spouting? Would I need to stand there for an hour twiddling my thumbs?
It takes less than five minutes to reach it. Once there, I wait between 5-10 minutes. At this point I’m getting impatient, so when it finally goes off I gasp and fumble for my camera. Luckily, Strokkur is reliable — unlike the more famous Geysir, which has become less active over the years — and I’m able to photograph its glory numerous times during our tour’s 90 minutes there.
By the way, while the tour guide fills us with information on the bus, at each stop we’re given more than ample time to roam on our own. Once I photograph the geysers 701 times I decide to see what else is nearby. Awesome find: a trail that oddly not a single one of the other 500+ visitors has noticed. It leads me to a hiking path up a small hill for aerial views of the area. Actually one of the signs at Geysir Hot Spring Area says they’re currently working on opening up more trails, so this is potentially one of them. Either way, I’m happy for the peace in a beautiful place.
The Road Home
The drive back to Reykjavik is a treat in itself, passing through a mixture of fiery and icy landscapes, hence Iceland’s nickname the Land of Fire & Ice. At one point we coast through a lava field, which we’re told was created around 999 when Iceland was deciding if it should stay Pagan or not. Many believed the eruption was the Pagan gods showing their anger.
And that’s what I love so much about Iceland. Not only is it naturally beautiful, but every mountain, every rock, every waterfall, every field has a story tied to it. Mythology and heritage shroud everything you see in Iceland, giving each piece of earth on the country’s landscape an important meaning.Discover Iceland's incredible natural beauty on an #Iceland Golden Circle trip Click To Tweet
Stay:The ODDSSON Ho(s)tel. I absolutely loved this hostel and hotel, which caters to both budget backpackers and the older budget traveler. On the fourth floor you’ll find a self-catering kitchen, free-to-use yoga room (with the occasional complimentary class), terrace lounge and outdoor hot tub. The first floor, on the other hand, has more of a hotel feel with a gorgeous restaurant, “yoga food” cafe, work areas with communal tables and plush couches, and free bike rentals. What’s awesome is both my dorm and my hotel room had gorgeous views of Faxaflói Bay and the Esja, Akrafjall and Skarðsheiði Mountains. Rates: ~$33-$50 USD for a 12-bedroom dorm and ~$225-$385 USD for the private hotel room. Use code “JESSIEONAJOURNEY” for 10% off your stay!
Tour Price: $104 per person.
Essential Gear: For traveling Iceland in winter, I’d recommend:
- Clever Travel Companion Pickpocket-Proof Garments. Pickpockets will never even know you’re carrying cash. Iceland is very safe, but I never travel without my safety gear.
- RoamRight Travel Insurance. Iceland is rugged, and you definitely want to be protected.
- BUFF multi-use scarf. This tiny garment protected my neck, face and head from wind and hail.
- Merino Wool Hiking Socks. Essential for staying warm and temperate (they wick away moisture!).
- Merino Wool Base Layers (both shirts and pants). Click here for women and click here for men.
- A waterproof coat. I brought an umbrella but it was so windy I couldn’t use it. Having a warm waterproof coat saved me.
- Waterproof hiking boots. I swear by my Timberland work boots.
- Waterproof housing for your camera. If you use an iPhone, ProShot is a great investment.
- Jiva Coffee Cubes. Iceland is EXPENSIVE. Pack some non-perishable snacks and portable coffee cubes to help save some money.
Difficulty Level: Easy! While there are options to get out and do some small hikes, these are not required.