þingvellir and Gullfoss

The original vision for the Iceland tour route  that I had plotted out in June entailed starting in the large West Fjords peninsula in the northwest and then making a clockwise circuit around country’s ‘Ring Road’ with occasional forays into the highlands.  Had I been alone at the beginning I might have held to that, but with Maurice having arrived for a two week stay at the beginning I decided to aim for the highlands first to start on an adventurous note.  

I was not sure how adventurous to be so contacted Ice-Rovers, a local company that organizes highland trips, for route advice.   After spending some time with looking at a map with (name????)  we decided to cross the island from south to north using the F35 out of Gulfoss.    We agreed to head east from Reykjavik on the way to Kolour highland route, which took us en route through the so-called ‘Golden Circle’.   This is  not really a circle at all, but a relatively small area of southwest Iceland that contains more than a few sites of natural and historical interest. 

Golden Circle route map, Iceland
Maurice and I took the north leg through Thingvellir, Geysir and Gullfoss, before heading due north on the F35

We started out at þingvellir, (pron. Thingvellir – the þ, or ‘thorn’, is one of the old Norse letters in the 32 character Icelandic alphabet),  a place of great socio-historical significance for Iceland and of global geographic interest.  Socio-historically it is where for centuries the chieftains of the Icelandic Free State, created by the first Norwegian settlers in 930, held the annual ‘Althing’, or Commonwealth,  to make laws and resolve legal disputes.   Today it is considered hallowed ground by Icelanders for its role in defining their political culture.   Geographically, þingvellir is a point where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet.  It is this meeting of the plates which make Iceland one of the most active volcanic regions in the world.   At Þingvellir the two plates are about 5 kilometres apart and separating by a couple of centimetres and the valley between is dropping at about the same rate.

Hikinig trail along a fissure at þingvellir

There was a lovely lake at þingvellir  that was lined with fisherman.  Maurice, who had the foresight to bring his gear, tried his luck, but did not have any.

þingvellir Lake

We set up camp at what we came to learn is a typical format for many, tho’ certainly not all, campgrounds in Iceland: a large field with no specific site assignments.   This is actually normal European camping, but it differs dramatically from what we know in North America, and not in a positive way.   It works fine if, as was the case at Þingvellir, it is not crowded, but we later learned that those campgrounds can sometimes get very crowded.   þingvellir was fine tho’; we even got a rainbow with no rain.                                                                

The morning after the night we were at this campground we were treated to a group of motorized paragliders coming down from the hill above Geysir that flew right over the campground and carried on out of sight.
The next day we were off to Geysir, a proper noun after which all other geysers are known.   This was the first of several geothermal fields I encountered in Iceland, this one consisting of several vents and dominated by a so-named Great Geysir, which actually erupts every 4-5 minutes, much more frequently than the smaller-yet-more-well-know  Old Faithful at Yellowstone.     Iceland is a volcanic creation and has some 30 separate volcano ‘systems’.    These systems are tapped for geothermal energy to provide about 40% of the electrical power and heating for virtually the whole country.  They even melt the snow in the streets in Reykjavik using geothermal water.     

Geothermal field at Geyser, with some evidence of the tourists that are flocking to Iceland

The same day as we went to the geothermal field we also got to one of Iceland’s iconic waterfalls.  Gullfoss (Waterfall of the Gods)  is a beautiful two-stage cascade tumbling down from the highlands.

At Gullfoss we were already at the beginning of the F35, the first mountain road of our trip, and one of two great routes crossing Iceland through the middle from south to north between glaciers.   That was the real beginning of the adventure, and I will save that for the next post.

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