Driving the Golden Circle Route with Some of the Most Beautiful Waterfalls in Iceland
If you’ve been doing your research for where to see beautiful waterfalls in Iceland, you’ve likely seen the Golden Circle route mentioned everywhere. Directly east of Reykjavik, it is a highly traveled route for most visitors to Iceland. Some opt to spend a few days driving the circle, but you can really do it in one day. Read on for tips of where to go along the Golden Circle route in Iceland!
The Golden Circle in Iceland is sort of like going to Yosemite and driving around the valley – it’s going to be crowded, but you have to do it. If you are traveling 2 or more of you, it’s great to rent a car and drive it yourself so that you can go at your own pace. But there are also tons of tours that you can consider if you’d rather have someone else do all the planning and driving!
There are multiple routes you can go depending on what you want to see, but we chose to head out to Gulfoss, and then head south to Selfoss, where we would be staying for the night. So, we didn’t quite make a circle – but we hit most of the great spots along the way!
I personally tend to steer clear of heavily touristy areas. I won’t ever go to Yosemite Valley between Memorial Day and Labor Day because the tourists show up in crazy numbers. Now, I’m not criticizing tourists (yet…) because I recognize I’m a tourist as well – and I think it’s great that people are getting out there to enjoy the great outdoors. I just don’t love crowds. So, I prefer the off-season when there are fewer people, less traffic, and less irresponsibility.
That being said, if you’re going to Iceland, you can’t miss the Golden Circle and it’s bountiful beautiful waterfalls. Here was our experience!
Self-driving the Golden Circle Route in Iceland
We woke up on day 2 in Iceland (after an incredible day 1 driving the Snæfellsnes peninsula) and went back to Geirabakari Kaffihus after enjoying a lovely continental breakfast at our Bjarg Guesthouse. We decided to stock up on sandwiches for our drive around the Golden Circle so that we wouldn’t have to get caught up in expensive tourist trap restaurants – and Geirabakari Kaffihus has delicious sandwiches!
Driving from Borgarnes, we had 2 options to get to the Golden Circle route in Iceland – either drive the quicker route south through the tunnel and pay another 1,000 krona, or take the longer route east (route 47) along the Hvalfjörður fjord. Money aside, we figured we had already been through the tunnel, so we chose to explore – and I’m SO glad we did.
The drive was simply spectacular – and that word doesn’t even feel like quite enough to adequately explain the views. If you’re looking for the coolest waterfalls in Iceland, and just simply amazing views, this should definitely go on your list. The sun peeking through the clouds, rainbows just hanging out with us for what felt like forever, horses and sheep everywhere – and a cow who was very displeased with us driving by him as he took a stroll along the road.
And, of course, countless waterfalls. There are so many waterfalls in Iceland, and this route gave us an up front view for a ton of them. It was about an hour of “omg, this is beautiful” over and over again.
Now, one thing to know about Iceland – and I’m not certain if this is all year round, or just in the fall/winter – but it will likely rain every day at some point. We saw a tchotchke in a gift store at some point that said “If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, give it 10 minutes”. One minute, the weather would be perfect, and the next it would be raining…but only until you drove another 10 miles, and then it was clear again.
Some days it rained all day and the winds would knock you off your feet, while other days were beautiful with passing showers. Definitely very unpredictable! That’s what most of day 2 around the Golden Circle route in Iceland was for us – lots of passing showers, but luckily not too much wind, like we had the day before on the Snaefellsnes peninsula.
On the south side of the Hvalfjörður fjord, we ended up on a gravel road (route 48) for a while before we reached the main road (route 36) around the Golden Circle route. When we picked up our car rental, one of the insurance options was for gravel insurance. We now found out why.
We took the road very slow, watching for potholes everywhere, as those with 4WD flew by us (although there were very few cars along this road). Once we got to the main road for the Golden Circle route, we were back up to 55km (the speed limit throughout most of Iceland) and quickly came upon the tourist traffic.
We followed the traffic and pulled into the first stop for Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, which is the visitor center where you can buy a parking pass for all attractions along the way. You can find stations to buy parking passes elsewhere, but it just makes sense to buy it here. If you want to use the restroom, be prepared to pay (how else are they going to maintain the roads?), and there’s a gift shop inside. We got our parking pass (I think it was like $5 – cheap) and went on our way.
Exploring Thingvellir National Park
- Öxarárfoss Waterfall: If you’re looking for awesome waterfalls in Iceland, don’t miss this stop. The first attraction in Thingvellir National Park is the Öxarárfoss waterfall. You can see the water spraying in the wind all the way from the main road, but it’s not until you park and head up a small path that you see its awesomeness! When we got there, there were tons of people who had turned out to be part of a bus tour – so, once the tour left, so did they.
- Helpful note – there are free porta-potties here (oddly enough, made in Missouri) if you don’t want to pay to use the restrooms at the visitor center.
- Silfra Fissure: From the parking lot, you can also walk to the Silfra fissure, or you can choose to drive (like we did). It’s about a mile walk, and we were feeling lazy and cold (and it was raining again).
- Silfra is a divide where you can scuba or snorkel between the American and Eurasian continental plates. For most, diving between the plates, with visibility exceeding 100m is a huge draw. For me, the thought of having to put on a dry suit and carry my gear to dive where there is no wildlife just didn’t sound worthwhile. Yes, it’s a cool concept, but I like to dive for the wildlife. I’d rather dive where there are tons of fish and turtles and cool stuff!
- If you drive, you have to park a short walk from the fissure, and again, with the rain, we were content eating our sandwiches and driving on.
- Bruarfoss Waterfall: Yes, more beautiful waterfalls in Iceland! But this one is a bit more secluded, and spectacular.
- From the silfra fissure, we stayed on route 361 and then veered onto route 365. This next waterfall is easily in my top 5 choices of what to see in Iceland (and that’s saying a lot cause there are SO many awesome spots!)! Before the trip, I had read about a waterfall in Iceland that wasn’t part of the main Golden Circle route that the tour buses don’t stop at, but with a little work, you could find it.
- We found ourselves in this darling little community, and were a bit concerned that maybe we shouldn’t be there because it was so residential. We ran into a few other people along the way, but this was definitely not a place where you would expect to see the masses of tourists.
- After a short and very muddy walk, we came across the most vibrant blue water I’ve ever seen. Of course, the introvert in me was especially happy that we had the falls to ourselves with no tourists, but also the contrast of colors was just wonderful. If you can find Bruarfoss, I highly recommend it – but please be respectful of the community.
- Geysir: Next up along the Golden Circle Route in Iceland, we stopped to see the Geysirs – which was, as expected, filled with tourists. October is by no means busy season in Iceland, so I can’t imagine how crowded it must be in the summer! We stopped long enough to see the main Geysir erupt a few times, and then got back on the road.
- If you’re hungry or thirsty, there’s a cafeteria here, and a gift shop. There was also a hotel for people looking to stay nearby.
- Gulfoss Waterfall: The last main attraction in this direction is Gulfoss – one of the largest and most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland, often surrounded by beautiful rainbows. There is a story that a love affair happened with a man and woman who had to wade through to get to the other side to be together. Sounds dangerous….
By this point along the Golden Circle Route in Iceland, we were tired of the sightseeing and ready to get to our hostel in Selfoss. We skipped the secret lagoon hotsprings, we stopped briefly at the Kerið crater – literally paid, walked up, said “hey, you wanna walk around or down there? No? Cool, me neither” and got back in the car.
It was getting pretty windy, and the sun was starting to go down so it was getting colder. I could see why people spend more than a day doing the circle if they really want to enjoy all the sights, but with how crowded each spot had been, I wouldn’t have wanted more than a day and I was content with what we were able to see.
Spending the Night in Selfoss
We made it to Selfoss around 6pm, tired from our exploration of waterfalls in Iceland for the day, and checked into the Guesthouse Garun Heidmork. Since we would only be here for a short night, we didn’t mind sharing a bathroom, and the price was very reasonable. We were checked in along with 2 other couples, and then we never saw the host again. This is apparently not uncommon in Iceland…
We cracked open a bottle of wine and relaxed in the common room chatting with our new friends until it was time for them to pass out. We decided to head to Kaffi Krús for dinner – shared a pizza and dessert since everything was again so darn expensive.
There was a grocery store a few blocks away that was still open at 8pm, so after dinner, we loaded up on some breakfast items for the next day as well as sandwiches to carry us along for lunch. Surprisingly, the packaged sandwiches that you find at grocery stores and gas stations throughout Iceland are quite delicious – ones that I would never consider in the states. And they’re far cheaper than any restaurant.
We went to bed dreaming of waterfalls in Iceland with the sound of rain and wind, and were excited to explore more of Iceland! The next day we would play by ear based on the weather. I was dying to go horseback riding, but if there was wind and rain, it would be a miserable time. We decided to wake up and check out a horseback place nearby that I had researched prior, and then do some more sightseeing. We’d be heading south to our hotel, Welcome Hotel Lambafell, down near the Skógafoss waterfall, but we were in no rush!
Review of Guesthouse Garun Heidmork
The Guesthouse Garun Heidmork was a great place to stay for a night as you’re heading from Reykjavik to the South side of Iceland.
When we arrived late afternoon after spending the day exploring the Golden Circle route in Iceland, the host was busy checking in another couple which only took a few moments. He checked us in next, and then that was the last we saw of him. It was a little odd, but seems normal in Iceland.
Luckily, the house had everything we needed, so this wasn’t a problem. There was a fully stocked kitchen, and the house was nice and clean. We could have used a few extra pillows since the ones we had could barely be considered pillows, but otherwise the room was comfortable. Our room had a patio that you could go out on to, but it started raining shortly after we checked in and we didn’t get to use it.
There was a common room right outside our room, and the bathroom was around the corner. We didn’t have any trouble using the bathroom as there was only one other room on our floor, and other bathrooms on the additional floors.
Wifi isn’t great throughout the house, and the house is old (but very charming), so sound carries easily. My skype conversation with my grandparents was certainly not private, which was fine – the other guests were all nice, but most kept to themselves. We made brief friends with a couple from Colorado who had arrived that morning and would be camping (yikes!) the next few days. I love camping, don’t get me wrong, but with that wind and rain…they agreed they would likely be camping in the car.
The next day we woke up late and made breakfast, and as we were eating the housekeeper showed up to start prepping for the new group of people coming in that day. Overall a very good experience at a reasonable price. Highly recommended – just ask for extra pillows when you check in!
Want to read more? Follow along on the rest of my week-long adventure in Iceland!
Coming back to the topic of tourists, I’d like to discuss something for a moment. It’s called responsibility and accountability. I’m all for people getting out and enjoying the beautiful outdoors…but…STOP LEAVING YOUR TRASH EVERYWHERE! And if you see trash that’s not yours, pick it up! I’ve met with Rangers before whose entire job was to walk through the backcountry and pick up trash left behind. In Iceland, sadly, it was no different. Now, I will say that most of the places we drove (where there was nowhere for tourists to stop), there was no trash. The countryside is immaculate, and driving off-road is highly illegal. Which is what made it so much more noticeable on the Golden Circle. At pretty much every attraction along the way, we were picking up trash left behind, and watching as people went behind ropes and signs saying “DO NOT GO HERE” to take a photo. Guys. Come on. Those signs aren’t there because people want to be mean. They’re there to protect these attractions so that our grandkids’ grandkids can enjoy them as well. If you walk on a path that’s not a path, your footsteps may not ruin it, but yours + 110583509823 other people’s surely will. So STOP BEING A BUTTHEAD AND FOLLOW THE RULES! Now go responsibly enjoy the waterfalls in Iceland, and let’s preserve them for future generations.
Thank you 🙂