Getting Geologic on Iceland’s Golden Circle

We didn’t have a lot of time to explore Iceland since we, as many people do these days, were adding a visit on to the end of a trip to France.  Our two night layover meant that we had to pack in as much as possible.

The Golden Circle Tour was perfect for that.

Leaving Reykjavík early on a gray sub-arctic morning, we set out to see half a dozen of the island’s foremost highlights. We weren’t about to let a blustery drizzle dampen our spirits.

Our first stop combined two of Iceland’s most exceptional attributes, its place in history and its place on the planet.

 Þingvellir National Park is home to the site where the world’s oldest parliament first met in the year 930. The Alþingi (assembly) met here until 1800, because the location was reasonably accessible for representatives from most of the island. Then, after a short break, they resumed in Reykjavik.

Little did these pioneering legislators know that the Rock of Law they used as a platform for discussions, debates, and deliberations was part of the only place on Earth where the Mid Atlantic Ridge can be seen above sea level.

They were likely impressed by the natural acoustics of the stone walls while unknowingly straddling two continents. Right here is where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are separating at a rate of about one inch per year.

That might not sound like much, but by geologic standards that’s moving like a Black Friday shopper late for the sale, meaning the island is continually growing.

This phenomenon of continued separation is the reason behind Iceland’s fascinating volcanic geography, and we were about to see a bunch more of it.

Our next stop, Gullfoss, or Golden Falls, gave us a good glimpse into the lava flows that have resulted from all of that volcanic activity.

The river has carved out a stair-step formation that the water tumbles down, clearly showing how each layer of lava was laid down during the myriads of eruptions that created Iceland.

A century ago, a man named Tómas Tómasson owned Gullfoss and was looking to sell the waterfall as a source for the country’s first hydropower plant.  Fortunately Tómas’ daughter, Sigríður Tómasdóttir, would have none of that and fought to save the falls by threatening to throw herself into the tumbling torrent.

She was saved from such a sacrifice when the power plant idea fell through and Gullfoss was preserved as a protected site and her willingness to give her all earned her a memorial at the top of the falls. Way to go Sigríður!

Here in Iceland, the heat of the earth’s magma reaches very close to the surface. Because of this any water trapped underground begins to boil. If the pressure builds up enough, that liquid comes flying out through any crack in the surface it can find.

That’s not all that common, Yellowstone is probably the best known example, but Iceland is every bit as active, if not more so. With that in mind, the circle route certainly had to include a chance to see an eruption or two.

No, not volcanic, we aren’t that crazy (at least not since watching one in Hawaii), we were heading to the geothermal area in Haukadalur.

This is where Iceland’s largest, and most active geysers can be found. The big daddy of them, Geysir, is actually where the word geyser comes from. Geysa means to gush in the Old Norse language.

For thousands of years Geysir would blast super-heated water hundreds of feet into the air. We would have loved to see that, but earthquakes greatly impact the frequency of these eruptions, and lately the big guy has not been gushing.

But that didn’t mean we would miss out completely, because good ole Strokkur would not let us down.  This ferocious fountain spews forth about every 5 to 10 minutes, usually about 50 feet high, but now and then lets go with a hundred plus foot plume of boiling brew.

We caught both of Strokker’s styles, so even though we didn’t get to see the namesake of all geysers, we felt pretty good about our luck.

Another historic milestone awaited us at our next destination. Considered Iceland’s first and one-time largest city, Skálholt now stands out as only a lonely church isolated on the tundra.

This is where county’s first bishop presided, and where the first school was founded, so it holds a special place in history. Yet, even though a church has stood here for nearly a thousand years, the current structure was relatively recently finished in 1963.

But that didn’t mean we didn’t get to see any old stuff, that’s kept in cellar. We even discovered a seemingly secret passage out of that basement that led to a fantastic view of the sea.

With time for one more waterfall before we finished, the bus pulled off at The Faxi, or Vatnsleysufoss, which was described by our guide as a miniature Niagara Falls.

It took some doing for us to imagine that, but the fantasy didn’t take away from the beauty of the falls, even if they are only about two stories tall.

As a final bonus on our way back through the city, our driver did a photo op run by Reykjavík’s best known landmark, the Hallgrímskirkja. This Lutheran church towers nearly two hundred and fifty feet above the buildings below. Nothing else even comes close in this relatively small city.

Small enough in fact, that we decided to set out on foot to explore and discovered a delightful town with some disconcerting, disturbing, dumbfounding, and sometimes downright disgusting peculiarities.

But that’s another story.

David & Veronica,

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4 thoughts on “Getting Geologic on Iceland’s Golden Circle”

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  2. Fantastic post. You article is good to read up.. Wow, that was quite an adventure. You captured amazing picture and video in your travel trip. Thank you so much for sharing this post!!
    Keep sharing!

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