We only write about destinations we have personally visited with our family. This post contains affiliate links. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to UNICEF.
The Golden Circle is an extremely popular day trip from Reykjavik. We decided to spend two days here to take advantage of having a car and two kids who like to get up early. This allowed us to beat the crowds at several of Iceland’s most popular attractions, which makes the experience that much more special. If you have the time during your visit, we recommend staying in the area.
Our first stop in the Golden Circle area was the þórufoss waterfall. This waterfall is located on a poorly maintained dirt road section of Highway 48 – driving southeast we were dodging potholes for a long way leading up to the waterfall. We pulled into the parking lot and the wind was blowing so hard the rain was literally falling sideways, so rather than go through all the effort of getting the kids dressed up in their winter and rain gear, we left them in the car and took turns walking down to the viewpoint for a look. It’s a pretty nice waterfall, but with the weather so awful, it was merely a quick look and then back in the car. It looked like there were some walking paths around, so on a nicer day you could probably spend a little time exploring and finding different vantage points to enjoy the views.
Þingvellir National Park
Next up was our main destination of the morning, the Thingvellir National Park. This national park is of great cultural importance to Iceland, but as nature lovers, we came to this park primarily because this is where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates diverge, creating a large rift valley.
Based on our extensive research (the park map on the side of the highway – haha!), we decided the southeast park entrance off of Highway 36 looked most interesting for us. It was still cold and wet, so we got the kids dressed in their warm winter clothes with an additional rainproof layer on top. For additional warmth and to allow ourselves to see more in less time, we put both kids in their carriers and set out for our visit.
Past the visitors center there is a lookout platform where you can get your first glimpse of the rift valley, a beautiful grassland with gentle rivers running through it. From here, we followed the main path which descends into the valley, with a dramatic cliff face running along the left hand side of the path. It’s fascinating to think that this cliff is actually the edge of North America and is slowly drifting away from the other edge of the park at a pace of 1 inch per year. The path passes a nice waterfall along the way and has several offshoots which lead to the valley’s interior walking trails, to the Law Rock or simply to some viewpoints. We enjoyed a few of the viewpoints, but we were continually drawn back to the majesty of the towering North American tectonic plate cliff. It is humbling walking in the shadow of such an enormous force of this planet.
We had planned to stay in the park for a few hours and do some hiking beyond the typical tourist trail up and down the tectonic cliff, but sadly the weather was so bad we needed to get the kids back in the car for some warmth and a chance to dry off.
Hveragerði Hot Springs River Trail
After naps, we hopped in the car to drive to Hveragerði, a town with very active geothermal activity. They say many residents have their own hot springs in their backyards! As you drive through town, you can see all kinds of steam vents coming from the neighborhoods and up in the surrounding hills. Following the main road through town all the way to the end, you come to the parking lot where you find the trailhead for the Hveragerði Hot Springs River Trail. By this time in the day the rain had stopped, but the wind was still ferocious, so we put the kids in their carriers and hit the trail.
This 2.2mile (3.5km) one-way (4.4 mile/7km return) hike leads you through some amazing mountain landscapes with many steam vents and boiling water ponds along the way. All of this geothermal activity really makes it feel like a walk in Iceland! The wide and well maintained trail begins by leading you up and over the side of a mountain. It’s a steady climb, which requires some effort, but it wasn’t too bad. We were very glad to have the strong wind at our backs for the climb up!
Besides the usual reward for reaching the top of the hill, you will be treated to a view of a beautiful, cascading waterfall in the valley below. The hike doesn’t end at the top of the hill; in fact it’s about halfway to your destination. From here, the path descends a little bit and you walk through an open meadow. Shortly, you will see a large amount of steam rising on the horizon, which means you are getting close. The steam is rising up from ponds of water which are literally boiling from the geothermal heat below. You walk very close to the bubbling ponds and as you walk through the steam, you can feel the warmth and smell the sulphur. Keep a very close eye on your little ones!!
Shortly thereafter you reach the hot springs, which are actually a little natural creek with spring water which are popular to soak in. Due to the popularity of this experience, they have built wooden boardwalks, open-air change rooms and little stairs leading to the water. Due to the late time of day and complexity of getting the kids changed into their swimsuits, we opted to all put our feet in the water instead of a full soak. The ‘hot’ springs were actually ‘warm’ springs. The water temperature was warm and pleasant, but it was not hot. The kids thought it was super fun and it was a nice treat after making them endure the harsh winds the whole way up.
We were also grateful for a kind stranger who gave our shivering kids cookies to distract them while we got their socks/shoes back on.
One of the reasons we decided to spend two nights in the Golden Circle area was to use our early wake-ups to get a head start on the day trippers from Reykjavik. We decided to drive to our furthest destination first and work our way back home from there. We arrived at Gullfoss waterfall around 8:30am and we were rewarded by being only the second car in the massive parking lot.
As has been typical this trip the wind was howling and the rain was pouring, so we spent the first 10 minutes or so gearing up the kids in proper clothing for the weather. Thankfully the parking lot gets you really close to the falls, so it was a pretty short walk to the pathway where the views of the waterfall begin.
We are fortunate enough to have visited some of the world’s most amazing waterfalls (Angel, Iguazu and Victoria) and Gullfoss is impressive enough that it belongs amongst the world’s best. Gullfoss occurs on the mighty Ölfusá River and is the largest waterfall by volume in Europe. The water volume is impressive, but what makes this place special is the beautiful two-tier cascade waterfall. You need to work hard to find a more beautiful waterfall than this!
The pathway slowly descends towards the falls. There is a two rope safety fence along the side, but it’s not enough to keep a determined toddler from going over, so watch your kids very closely. The unique angles of the cascade waterfalls mean that the views of the waterfall get different as you descend down the path. At one point when you get close to the lower falls, the spray floats high in the air and if the wind is blowing in the right direction, you will get soaked by the spray. (We were already soaked by the rain and then we got double-soaked by the spray!!). The trail ends on a rocky ledge right next to the falls where you can get a true appreciation for the power of the water.
Back near the parking lot you can climb a set of stairs to a viewing platform high above the falls which enables you to see the full set of falls all at once – something you can’t easily do when you are close to the falls below. There is a visitor’s center up top along with some hiking trails. We had hoped to hike some of these trails, but the weather was too bad for the kids to be out too long.
As we drove to Geysir, we saw our first tour bus heading towards Gullfoss at 9:30. From then on, we saw at least one bus per minute – no joke! And this was in Mid-May, in the heart of shoulder season. Getting there early and having the place to ourselves was a real treat.
By the time we got to Geysir, there were tour groups wandering around already. There is a big parking lot on the highway, but there is an alternate parking lot on Haukadalsvegur which gets you closer to the actual Geysir geyser (which, by the way, doesn’t erupt regularly anymore). The nearby Strokkur geyser is the star attraction now, erupting every 6-10 minutes on average. As we walked the site, admiring the many pools of bubbling hot water, we were waiting for Strokkur to erupt. We were on site for well over 10 minutes and no eruption. It’s really hard to wait longer than ten minutes when the rain is blowing so hard that it hurts your face. Eventually, with no certainty of when the next eruption would be, we gave in to the protests of our kids and went back to the car, without seeing the geyser blow. You win this time Strokker, this time…
Although we were disappointed, that’s one of the great things about nature travel – you never know if you will see the geyser blow or the elephant on safari. The times when things don’t go your way make you appreciate the time that do that much more…
Kerið Crater Lake
After four full days of mostly crappy weather, we decided that we’d have a quiet afternoon in the cabin. After our little guy’s nap, the wind and rain were still going strong, so we let the kids start watching The Lorax on Prime Video. By mid-afternoon, there was a break in the weather so we paused the movie, quickly got dressed and ran out the door.
Our destination was the Kerið Crater Lake, which was really close to our cabin. Sadly, the rain had resumed by the time we got there, but we got out to see it anyways.
From the highway, you’d never guess there was a volcanic crater here as there’s no classic cone volcano mountain here. It’s so low to the ground, from a distance it looks like any old hill. But when you get up close you’ll be amazed at the size of this crater. It’s 885 feet (270m) long, 560 feet (170m) wide and 180 feet (55m) deep. It seemed just as large as any volcanic craters on top of volcanic mountains that I’ve seen in my travels.
There are two options to explore Kerið Crater Lake – there is a hike around the rim of the crater looking down on the lake or you can walk down a set of stairs and hike around the shores of the lake at the bottom of the crater. With the heavy wind and rain, we decided to walk around the bottom of the lake in hopes we could get shelter from the wind. It’s a short walk and our 4 year old did it no problem, including the stairs. Our little guy could have done it, but he wanted to be carried the whole way.
Have more time in Iceland? Don’t miss the incredible Snæfellsnes Peninsula! Read all about it in our post here.
Day Trips to the Golden Circle from Reykjavik
Vacation Packages Which Visit the Golden Circle