Today was “Golden Circle Plus.” We did the Golden Circle, which is a series of three sites in southwest Iceland that many tourists visit, but we saw a lot of other things along the way and ended with exploring the area around Mount Hekla. Plus today was Icelandic National Day, which commemorates the day of Iceland’s independence from Denmark in 1944, as well as my husband’s birthday. So there was a lot to cover in one day!
We set off this morning from Hvanneyri with bus and trailer full of our luggage and food. We traveled from an agricultural valley into the highlands. Whereas we had seen a lot of land used to grow crops, especially hay for feeding animals during the long winter, now we were seeing a lot of grazing area. Tobba told us that the horses we saw were set free on pasture for summer break.
Going into the highlands we stopped because a sign said the road ahead was impassable. Our driver Sigthor made some calls and found out the road was okay now but had been impassable earlier in the year. As we moved forward, I could see why – the mountain inclines were pretty steep. Fortunately in the middle of June, we saw only one small patch of snow.
Traveling south we then moved into Iceland’s rift valley, part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates come together. On our right on the North American plate was Hvalvtan, the lake that fed the Glymur waterfall, and on our right on the Eurasian plate was the broad shield volcano Skjaldbreiður.
Þingvellir National Park
Finally we arrived at Þingvellir National Park. The park sits on Lake Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland. Across the lake we could see the Steingrimsstöð Power Station, one of Iceland’s first hydropower stations that came online in 1959. The plant drains water from Lake Þingvallavatn into the River Sog to create hydropower. Dr. Slater said when it first opened, it took too much water too quickly and killed a lot of the char in the lake. Now it is used to manage lake levels.
Þingvellir (pronounced “thing-vellir”) is incredibly significant for Iceland in both geology and history. Geologically the park’s most impressive structure is Almannagjá, the gorge on the eastern edge of the North American plate. The walking path through Þingvellir takes you through the Almannagjá gorge, overlooking the 7 km basin between the North American and European plates.
Historically, Þingvellir, or “parliament plains,” is where Iceland’s Alþing (pronounced “all-thing”) general assembly was established around 930 and met until 1798. This is where Iceland was declared to be a Christian nation around the year 1000, and where Snorri Sturluson was elected law speaker in 1213.
Of special importance at Þingvellir was the lögberg, or law rock. Anyone could step onto the lögberg to give a speech or share important news. This is where the assembly was convened and dissolved and rulings of the law council announced. Because of shifts in the landscape since the Middle Ages, no one knows exactly where the lögberg is now, but two possible sites have been identified.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, Þingvellir became an important symbol of Iceland’s national pride. Numerous rallies and meetings were held there to push for independence, and on June 17, 1944, the birthday of Icelandic national hero, Jón Sigurðsson, the republic of Iceland was declared at Þingvellir. Þingvellir was designated as a national park in 1930 and a UNESCO world heritage site in 2014.
The next stop was Laugarvatn, or “lake of the hot springs,” a small town on a lake fed by hot springs under its floor. Tobba went to high school here and recently visited for her 25th class reunion. We stopped at a spa called Fontana, where people could pay about $30 to bathe in the geothermal baths. I wish we would have had time for that, but we didn’t. The restaurant on site sold bread baked by geothermal heat underground. We walked around and saw hot springs bubbling out of the ground.
Next was the second official stop on the Golden Circle tour, Geysir (pronounced “gay-sere”), home to the first erupting geyser discovered by Europeans. We found a picnic area for lunch, then walked through a series of hot springs. In the early 20th century, the largest geyser would erupt many times a day, sending boiling water up 60 meters (196 feet), but now it erupts rarely, and we did not see it.
Instead we had a lot of fun with a smaller geyser called Stokkur, which erupts every few minutes, sending water up about 30 meters (98 feet). Tourists line the rope surrounding the geyser with cameras ready to capture the moment. On my first try, I ended up getting drenched. I supposed the wet rocks where I was standing should have been a tipoff that it would be better to stand on the other side, but I didn’t think about that. Fortunately there was a warm breeze, and my clothes dried off pretty quickly.
The third stop in the Golden Circle tour is Gullfoss, or “golden falls.” This is huge double waterfall 31 meters tall and the site of a nature reserves designated in 1979. In the early 20th century, the farmer who owned Gullfoss leased it to foreign investors to be used for an electric plant. His daughter, Sigriður Tómasdóttir, filed legal action to keep the plant from being built, and traveled to Reykjavik many times for legal proceedings.
Sigriður lost her case, but the rental contract for the power plant was voided for nonpayment. In 1940 her son sold the falls to the Icelandic government, which designated it a nature reserve in 1979. Sigriður’s efforts to save Gullfoss brought the importance of preserving nature to public attention, and she is considered Iceland’s first environmentalist.
We then stopped by another waterfall called Faxi, notable for the salmon ladder next to the falls. The falls themselves are too steep for salmon to swim up, but the ladder provides a series of locks they can use to swim up and down the river. Apparently the salmon do use it, just as animals use animal crossings over highways that people build for them on land. Fish and animals are a lot smarter than we think.
Next we stopped at the Secret Lagoon, the oldest swimming pool in Iceland heated by geothermal springs. As soon as we disembarked to walk around, a huge tour bus pulled up; apparently the lagoon is no longer a secret. It looked like a fun and relaxing place to hang out — a couple dozen people were availing themselves of the facilities, beers in hand and on the shore.
Around the pool was a set of small hot springs. One was like a miniature version of Stokkur at Geysir, erupting every few minutes. It was entertaining to watch, though a bit of an anticlimax after seeing eruptions 100 feet tall. There was also a series of greenhouses used to grow mushrooms and tomatoes.
After a coffee and bathroom break, we left the Golden Circle and headed southwest to the highlands surrounding the volcano Hekla. Hekla is one of Iceland’s most active volcanos having erupted more than 20 times since 874. Europeans of the Middle Ages thought Hekla was the gateway to hell.
Hekla is a stratovolcano, meaning its cone has been built up through many layers of lava, tephra, pumice, and ash. Tephra from Hekla can be found all over Iceland and as far away as the British Isles. Hekla’s last eruption was in 2000, so many people think it is due to erupt soon. The risk is considered high enough that no flyovers are allowed. You can keep an eye on Hekla through the Mila webcam.
Hekla is also a mountain that can be climbed. Dr. Slater climbed it in 2009 and said it took six to seven hours of solid climbing. He went up with a Swiss guy who went back down by using a plastic bag as a sled. That took two hours. There was only a one-hour notice when Hekla erupted in 2000, so climbers might want to take plastic bags with them going up in case they need to get down fast.
We made three stops in the vicinity of Hekla. First was Hjalparfoss, a unique double waterfall joined at the base and surrounded by lava formations. It was a short hike to see the waterfall up close, but the area was swarming with midge flies. They didn’t bite, but they landed on your face and hair and swarmed into the bus.
Next was Búrfellsstöð, Iceland’s second-largest hydropower station. The power is generated by a drop in the Þjórsá river used to express potential energy. Here a series of impoundments and dams had been built onto the river just upstream of the plant to control the flow and rate of drop. Our driver Sigthor told us he had worked on construction of this plant in 1968, and he took the bus on the roads over the impoundments so we could see what it looked like. Two wind turbines were also visible.
Down the road we saw an area where tephra was being mined, so we got out to take a look. Tephra is sold to be used in building materials, insulation and ceramics, and there is a huge supply of it around Hekla. It comes in various forms from a fine ash to pieces 5 to 10 mm across to large pieces many feet across, but it weighs almost nothing because there are so many airholes in the rock.
At the quarry we picked up a huge piece of tephra and threw it around like a beach ball until it dropped and broke open. Again the midge flies swarmed us, and I became the subject of wide entertainment by waving my arms like windshield wipers in front of my face. I was just thankful the suckers didn’t bite or I would have been in trouble.
Throughout the drive, we saw areas where the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland had been trying to rehabilitate the land. In one area Dr. Slater had been working with a student to do reforesting. Volcano ash kills plants close to the ground, so the goal was to get trees high enough to resist the ash. We saw birch trees about 15 years old, along with a lot of – what else – lupine.
In other areas, the Soil Conservation Service was using lyme grass to stabilize the sand. They used to distribute seed and fertilizer from airplanes but now use tractors. Without it, the sand shifts so much that it’s impossible to hold water, and it erodes away. It was easy to tell the difference between gray areas of degraded lava fields and green areas that had been rehabilitated with lyme grass.
Dinner was pizza at a restaurant chain in Iceland called Arhus. I was thankful not to eat out of the lunchboxes again, and to have a real bed with a private bath at the Lax-A West Ranga Lodge room I shared with Danielle. We had a beautiful view of a river in the back, and during reflection time Tobba taught the group how to say Happy Birthday in Icelandic so I could send that to Paul. Unfortunately wifi didn’t work in the rooms as advertised, but I was able to get it by walking to the ritzier hotel next door. In case you ever need to wish anyone Happy Birthday in Icelandic, it is “Til hamingju með afmælið.”
Here are more photos from the day. Click on any photo to enlarge it.