The Golden Circle is a 300 km route to the 3 most popular natural attractions in Iceland. The Golden Circle consists of Geysir, Gullfoss and Thingvellir.
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Geysir is a geyser that gives its name to hot springs all over the world. But although Geysir itself is not active anymore the area features spectacular hot springs such as the powerful Strokkur (spouting a vast amount of water every 10 minutes, regularly about 15-20 meters into the air), Smidur and Litli-Strokkur.
The 'Golden Waterfall', is the second part of the Golden Circle, and one of the most beautiful and powerful waterfalls in Iceland, plummeting 32 meters into the river gorge of the popular rafting river Hvita. It is Iocated about 10 km from Geysir.
The largest attraction of the Golden Circle is Thingvellir National Park. The Icelandic parliament was founded there in 930 and remained until the year 1798.
Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most important places to visit in Iceland, not just for its historical and cultural values, but for also its magnificent landscape.
Thingvellir is surrounded by a beautiful mountain and volcano range and is the site of a rift valley, where the tectonic plates meet, marking the crest of the Mid-Atlantic ridge.
Of particular note at Thingvellir are the magnificent Almannagja gorge, and the beautiful lake Thingvallavatn, the largest lake in Iceland. The popular Gjabakkahellir lava cave is also in the area.
The fissure Silfra is located by Thingvallavatn, Iceland's largest lake, and is famous for its clear waters and popular for diving and snorkeling, as you can literally swim between continents.
Jokulsarlon is a glacier lagoon in the south of Vatnajokull national park that is easily reached by the Ring Road.
Covered in thick glacial ice until the 1930’s when the glacier started retreating, the lagoon today measures 7 square miles (20 km2). More than 300 feet of ice still breaks away each year, reshaping the lagoon and filling it with icebergs - causing an alarmingly beautiful sight.
The water is freezing cold and contains a mixture of salt and freshwater giving it a blue-green color. There is plenty of fish and birdlife by the lagoon and the vast sand area of Breiðamerkursandur, and hundreds of seals stay there in winter.
Vatnajokull is the largest glacier in Europe covering 8% of the island of Iceland. Vatnajokull National Park - which encompasses the earlier national parks of Skaftafell and Jokulsargljufur - is the largest protected area in Europe and believed by many to be the most beautiful place on earth.
In this area you'll find some of the most stunning and diverse sights in iceland. Among those are Iceland's highest peak, Hvannadalshnjukur, its most active volcano, Grimsvotn, beautiful waterfalls such as Svartifoss by Skaftafell and Dettifoss, Europe's most powerful waterfall, stunning canyons such as Jokulsargljufur and Asbyrgi, and the breathtaking Jokulsarlon, an ice-riddled glacier lagoon that is one of the most beautiful attractions in Iceland.
The glacier itself covers a surface area of about 100 km2. The thickness of the ice is generally around 400-600 meters, at its thickest around 950 meters. Under the glacier are valleys, mountains and plateuas as well as active volcanoes, most notably Grimsvotn and Bardarbunga, both the largest and most active of these. Then there are Esjufjoll, a glorious volcanic mountain island, surrounded by the glacier on all sides.
Vatnajokull has over 30 outlets, some of the major ones being Dyngjujokull and Bruarjokull to the north and Breidamerkurjokull, Oraefajokull, Skeidararjokull and Sidujokull towards the south. On the west side from the north are smaller glaciers Eyjabakkajokull, Hoffelssjokull, Flaajokull Heinabergsjokull and Skalafellsjokull.
The highest peak of Iceland then lies to the south, Hvannadalshnjukur in the Orafeajokull outlet, reaching 2109 m, according to latest measurements.
Many rivers have their sources at Vatnajokull, including some of the greatest glacier rivers in the country. To the North are Jokulsa a Fjollum and Skjalfandafljot, to the Northeast are Jokulsa a Bru, and Jokulsa i Fljotsdal and to the south are Jokulsa i Loni, Honrfjardarfljot, Jokulsa a Breidamerkursandi, Skeidara, Nupsvotn, Hverfisfljot and Skafta.
The area around the glacier is highly varied. The highland plateu to the north is divided by glacier rivers which see massive floods in the summer. This is a highly volcanic region, where the volcanoes Askja, Herdubreid, Kverkfjoll and Snaefell tower over the scene. In this area is also the Jokulsargljufur preservation area with its magnficent canyon and the mighty glacier ricer Jokulsa a Fjollum where you'll find stunning waterfalls such as Dettifoss, Europe's most powerful waterfall. Further north are the Hljodaklettar echoing caves and the horse shoe-shaped Asbyrgi canyon, among other incredible sights.
Broad wetlands lie near the glacier and in the vicinity of Snaefell, further east. Particularly notable is the Eyjabakkar oasis, one of the largest nesting places for pink feeted geese in the world and located north of the Eyjabakkajokull outlet. To the east is also the stunning Jokulsarlon.
South of Vatnajokull, majestic mountain ridges characterise the scene, with outlet glaciers lying between them and reaching onto the lowlands. The Skaftafell preservation area is located there, with its rich flora and home to the beautiful waterfalls Hundafoss and Skogafoss, the latter famed for its with its magnificent columnar basalt formations.
To the south lies the vast sand desert Skeidararsandur, reaching all the way to the sea. The glacier river Skeidara runs through it and the sand was indeed created by great glacier bursts from Skeidara, with its origins in volcanic activity at Grimsvotn.
To the west of Vatnajokull there is strong volcanic activity as well. Some of the world's greatest fissure and lava eruptions happened there, at the Eldgja volcanic chasm and the Lakagigar craters in the 18th century. Vonarskard pass, to the northwest is also worth checking out, a highly colourful geothermal area that connects the North and South of Iceland.
Fans of the James Bond films might recognize the glacier from A View to a Kill and the stunning Jokulsarlon from Die Another Day, though the events of the former were supposed to take place in Siberia.
Scenes by the Wall in the HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones were also shot by Vatnajokull and further scenes were shot at lake Myvatn, another Iceland's major attractions.
Skogafoss is one of the biggest and most beautiful waterfalls of the island with an astounding width of 25 meters and a drop of 60 meters.
This is one of the most popular waterfalls in Iceland for travelers to visit. It is located in South Iceland, not far from Skogar, which itself features a highly interesting regional museum. Due to the amount of spray the waterfall often produces a single or double rainbow on sunny days.
The stratovolcano Hekla in the south of Iceland is undoubtedly one of the island's most famous and active volcanoes, with over 20 eruptions since settlement.
Hekla is part of a 40 kilometers long volcanic ridge but the most active part is the fissure Heklugja, considered the volcano proper. Hekla has produced one of the largest amounts of lava of any volcano in the world. Last time Hekla erupted was in 2000.
In the Middle Ages Hekla was considered to be the gateway to Hell, and it continues to inspire. It’s referenced in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, poet and artist William Blake banishes Winter to Hekla in his poem Winter and Icelandic composer Jon Leifs, inspired by Hekla’s power, composed one of the loudest pieces of classical music ever, Hekla Op 52.
Travelers from all over seek out Hekla and it is a popular hiking place. In addition to hiking you can ski there in the spring, summer offers easy mountaineering routes and you can snowmobile to the top in winter.
Geysir is a famous hot spring in Haukadalur valley in South Iceland. Part of the ‘Golden Circle', Geysir gives its name to hot springs all over the world.
Though Geysir itself is hardly active anymore, the area features spectacular hot springs such as the powerful Strokkur, which spouts a vast amount of water every 10 minutes, around 15-20 meters into the air, Smidur and Litli-Strokkur.
North of Geysir are fumaroles, i.e. unlike the hot springs the emit hot water, only steam and gas emanate from these. You may be able to observe bright yellow stains at the fumaroles, this is native sulphur, which crysallizes from the steam. At the southern part of the geothermal area, called Thykkuhverir, you‘ll find various mud pots. Such mud pots are actually fumaroles that boil up through surface water/groundwater and may become steaming fumaroles during dry spells, rather than the usual boiling mudpots.
About 2 km from Geysir is an old preserved natural pool called Marteinslaug. One can bathe in it and it has room for 3-5 people at a time, but care should be taken, as the area around the pool is very delicate. The temperature is 39-43°C, depending on how you are positioned in the pool. The water is slightly muddy, as the pool is built on soil, and the bottom is slippery due to algae, so caution is advised.
In Haukadalur there has also been tree planting in recent times and today the forest Haukadalsskogur is one of the largest in South Iceland. Aspen, various types of pine, and other plants have been tried out there and experiments and research continue. We also recommend visiting the tree museum, built in the memory of forester Gunnar Freysteinsson. There are good paths and roads in the forest and the wood is specially designed to accommodate wheelchairs.
Haukadalur has been a church site since ancient time. The current wooden church was last rebuilt in 1938 but the variety and appearance of the church dates back to 1842, making it one of the oldest of its kind in Iceland.
Haukadalur is indeed a historical place. It was settled during the age of settlement and scholar Ari “The Wise“ Thorgilsson grew up there. The first pastoral school in Iceland was also built there.
For accommodation, Hotel Gullfoss is about 7 km from the Geysir area, and closer still is the Hotel Geysir.
Gullfoss ('Golden Waterfall') in Hvita river is one of the most beautiful and beloved waterfalls in Iceland and forms a part of the famous Golden Circle along with Thingvellir National Park and the Geysir geothemal area.
This mighty waterfall cascades 32 meters into the river gorge and you'll be able to stand close enough to feel the waterspray on your face. Hvita itself should not be missed by any fan of rafting, as it is one of the most popular rafting rivers in Iceland.
The glacier volcano of Eyjafjallajokull (1651 m) is located at the borders of the South Icelandic highlands. It featured prominently in world news in 2010 when ash from its eruption halted air traffic in Europe.
An ice cap of about 100 km with several outlet glaciers covers the caldera of Eyjafjallajökull that stands at the height of 1651 meters. The diamaeter of its highest crater is around 3-4 km2 wide and the rim has several peaks.
Eyjafjallajokull glacier volcano lies north of Skogar, and to the west of Myrdalsjokull glacier and the massive volcano there; Katla.
Eyjafjallajokull is thought to be related geologically to Katla in Myrdalsjokull and eruptions in the former have often been followed by eruptions in the latter.
The end of 2010 saw some small seismic activity that gradually increased and resulted in a small eruption in March of 2010, characterized by a flow of alkani-olivine basalt lava.
This first stage lasted until April 12th and created the volcanic craters Magni and Modi at the Fimmvorduhals trail. They are so far Iceland's newest vocanic craters, and still eminate steam with lava glowing under the surface.
However it was the second phase of the eruption that started on April 14th that created the huge ash cloud that rose about 9 km into the skies.
This eruption halted air traffic in Europe for days, and its estimated that as many as 107.000 flights may have been cancelled during the week it lasted.
The ejected tephra measured around 250 million cubic meters. This ash cloud lasted for six days and some more localized disruption continued into May. The eruption was officially declared to be over in October 2010, as the snow on the glacier had ceased to melt.
Eyjafjallajokull erupted in years 920, 1612 and again 1821-1823.
Its latest eruptions were the two that occurred in 2010.
Future volcanic developments remain unclear. The area is still highly active and can be quite unpredictable. It continues, however, to be closely monitored by The Icelandic Meterological Office.
Thingvellir is one of the most important sites to visit in Iceland for its landscape, history and cultural value.
The Icelandic parliament was founded in Thingvellir in 930 and remained there for centuries.Thingvellir is surrounded by a beautiful mountain range and is the site of a rift valley, marking the crest of the Mid-Atlantic range. Today it is a natural park, listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and considered a vital part of the ‘Golden triangle’ (with Geysir and Gullfoss). Of particular note is the magnificent gorge Almannagja, which marks the eastern boundary of the north American plate and into which the beautiful waterfall Oxararfoss falls.
Other notable attractions within the park include the beautiful lake Thingvallavatn, the largest lake in Iceland, the Silfra fissure, one of the world's top dives, and Gjabakkahellir, one of Iceland's most interesting lava tubes.
The world-famous Reynisfjara shore, near the village Vik in Myrdalur on Iceland's South Coast, is widely regarded as the most impressive black-sand beach in Iceland.
Reynisfjara is a black pebble beach and features an amazing cliff of regular basalt columns resembling a rocky step pyramid, which is called Gardar. Out in the sea are the spectacularly shaped basalt sea stacks Reynisdrangar. The area has a rich birdlife, including puffins, fulmars and guillemots.
The waves at Reynisfjara are especially strong and unpredictable, and fatal accidents have occurred at this beach, so people are advised to take extra care when visiting the area.
According to folklore, two trolls attempted to drag a ship to land but were turned to stone as daylight broke, turning them into the Reynisdrangar stacks, clearly visible from the beach.
Vik in Myrdalur valley is the southernmost village on the Icelandic mainland, located around 180 km from the capital Reykjavik.
Vik is important as a service center for the inhabitants and visitors of the marvellous Reynisfjara beach.
Reynisfjara is widely considered one of the most beautiful beaches on earth (see for example Islands Magazine). This black pebble beach boasts an amazing cliff of regular basalt columns called Gardar, which resembles a rocky step pyramid and out in the sea are the spectaculary shaped basalt sea stacks Reynisdrangar. The area has rich birdlife, including puffins, fulmars and guillemots.
Hvolsvollur is a small town of 800 people in South Iceland, conveniently located by the ring road. The local airport has flights to the Westman Islands.
Hvolsvollur’s main economy is services to the surrounding agricultural area, which has an additional 600 people, meat processing and tourism.
The area features prominently in one of the most famous Icelandic sagas, Njal’s saga. There is indeed an excellent Icelandic Saga Centre in the town that we recommend checking out. It has two exhibitions, ‘The exhibition of Njala, introducing guests to the characters of the sagas along with the viking cosmology and the literary art and one on the history of trade, commerce and the cooperative movement in the 20th century. You can also view a model of Althingi, Iceland’s parliament, founded at Thingvellir in 930. There is also a nice gallery there and a good restaurant in the Saga Hall, a replica of a medeval longhouse.
Hvolsvollur has a number of interesting hiking routes in its vicinity. Among interesting sights is the large and peculiar rock Drangurinn by the farm Drangshlid, under the Eyjafjoll mountains. Hvolsvollur is also a short drive from many other interesting attractions, among them some of Iceland’s top ones. One of Iceland’s oldest swimming pools, Seljavallalaug, is about 44 km from the town. At a 14 km distance is the rural area of Flotshlid and the farm Hlidarendi. According to Njal's Saga, its hero, Gunnar, lived there.
There is good trout and salmon fishing in the nearby rivers. Several interesting caves, both natural and man-made are in driving distance from Hvolsvollur, 18-40 km. There is also a number of beautiful waterfalls not far off, the most well known being Seljalandsfoss, which you can walk behind, and Skogarfoss, one of Iceland’s highest and most beautiful falls. Forrests and groves can be found no further than 9-18 km from Hvolsvollur.
Kirkjubæjarklaustur (referred to locally as ‘Klaustur’) is a village of approximately 120 inhabitants in the Skaftárhreppur municipality of south of Iceland. Situated by the Ring Road, approx. 250 km east of Reykjavík, Klaustur is one of the few villages providing amenities—eg. fuel, post office, bank, supermarket— between Vík í Mýrdal and Höfn.
The history of Kirkjubæjarklaustur differs, in many respects, to the traditional Icelandic settlement. “Papar”, the Icelandic title for travelling Irish monks, were thought to have settled the area long before the Norsemen. In that tradition, it was claimed that pagans of no kind would set foot in Klaustur; this was a strictly Christian area.
Stories have permeated, with one telling of a pagan, Hildir Eysteinsson, who attempted to move there in the 10th Century. Upon setting foot across the border, he fell instantly dead and was buried on the neighbouring hill, Hildishaugur (“Hildir’s Mound.”)
Despite twisting the tongue, the full village name 'Kirkju-bæjar-klaustur' actually tells the story of the area well; 'Kirkju' means church, 'bæjar' means farm and 'klaustur' means convent. The word 'Klaustur' was added to the original name 'Kirkjubær' in 1186 AD when a convent of Benedictine nuns settled there.
In the 364 years leading to the Reformation in 1550 AD, Klaustur did much for the oral history of south Iceland. Systrastapi (Sister’s Rock), the Systrafoss waterfall and lake Systravatn all take their names from the nun’s settlement.
The folklore relating to these sites are rich in tales of religious heresy, superstition and death. Sister’s Rock, for instance, has been said to be the burial site of two nuns executed for sinful behaviour. Selling their soul to the devil, removing communion bread from church, carnal knowledge with men, blasphemy toward the pope; these were just some of the accusations brought against them. Guilty or not, the nuns were swiftly burnt at the stake.
Following the Reformation, one of the nuns was vindicated for her actions, and it is said that flowers soon bloomed on top of her grave. The other’s grave has remained barren, a continuing reminder of the lady’s ethereal disapproval.
Despite its petite size, Klaustur is an important crossroads to the attractions nestled at the centre of the island, namely the Laki Craters in Vatnajokull National Park and the Landmannalaugar hiking trails in the scenic Fjallabak Nature Reserve. Only a few kilometres from the village itself lies the spectacular Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon.
A short walk east of Kirkjubæjarlaustur will take you to the fascinating Kirkjugólfið “Church Floor”, an 80 square metre flat of basalt columns, shaped and formed naturally by tide and glacial melts.
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