Most people when they visit Iceland base themselves in Reykjavik. One of the more popular tours from there is of the Golden Circle. Covering approximately 300 kilometers, the three main stops are Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss waterfall and Haukadalur geothermal area.
But if you’re willing to venture farther afield, all the way north, there are many sites more beautiful and less crowded than the Golden Circle. Below, are three sites that are wonderful substitutes for the Golden Circle attractions on the road less traveled.
HAUKADALUR VS NAMASKARO GEOTHERMAL AREAS
Haukadalur is a geothermal area that is home to Geysir and Strokkur. While the Strokkur geyser is spectacular, it erupts every few minutes, you can’t count on an awesome eruption every time it happens. I stayed through two eruptions but the second was pretty anemic. Outside of the quick excitement of a Strokkur explosion, there’s not much else here–a few bodies of bubbling clear blue water and lots of steam. If you’ve ever visited Yellowstone, then you’ve been there and done that.
Instead, try Namaskaro, near Myvatn. Namaskaro, while
it doesn’t have the excitement of a geyser spewing boiling hot water every few minutes, does have a lot more to explore in the way of bubbling mud pools, hissing fumaroles and steam, lots of steam. It also has vivid colors such as shades of orange, red, green and blue.
GUILFOSS VS DETTIFOSS or GODAFOSS
I love waterfalls (if you’ve seen my waterfall page on this site, you know that) and there is no doubt Gullfoss is a beautiful one. A double-level waterfall, water rushing over the edge, a rainbow arcing over it, I loved it. But the thing about Iceland is there are many beautiful waterfalls scattered all over the country. I saw eight on my trip. The best waterfalls I saw on this trip were in the north–Dettifoss and Godafoss.
Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in
Iceland with 560 cubic meters per second of water roaring over the precipice. It is 100 meters wide. “Detti” means to fall and “Foss” means waterfall, so Dettifoss is “the falling waterfall”. The negative about Dettifoss is that you have to take about a 1 km hike over rugged terrain to get to it, and then when you arrive it is really hard to get a clear view of the entire falls from the various outlooks. And be prepared, no matter where you stand around Dettifoss, you and your camera will get drenched from the spray. The falls raged and sprayed, the
roaring water deafened you and the mist from the spray clouded the falls. There was a nice rainbow spanning it as well (see the featured picture of this blog).
As a bonus, after a “short” trek there is a second waterfall at this site, Selfoss. It doesn’t rage quite as much, but you can get a clear view of it.
Godafoss, the Waterfall of the Gods, is 12 meters tall. On the observation decks on the right, you can’t see the entire falls, so I suggest the left side where you can take stairs to the bottom of the falls as well.
Dettifoss and Godafoss are near Myvatn.
THINGVELLIR NATIONAL PARK VS ASBYRGI NATIONAL PARK
Thingvellir National Park, aka Parliament Valley, is historically important in Iceland for being the site of the first parliament meetings before they were moved to Reykjavik. Executions were done here when Parliament met in June. Women were drowned (like witches!).
Thingvellir sits on two tectonic plates, the North American and European plates. Between them is a valley with a river feeding into a lake. The valley is also called the Rift Valley.
The area is home to rowan trees, downy birch as well as “ropy” lava rock formations.
We stood on the spot where parliament shouted out new laws to members who rode on horseback up to 17 days to get there. We also saw where they drowned the “guilty” women. There were virtually no trees in the park (and few anywhere in Iceland). Can’t grow trees on lava rocks or hot spots, I guess.
I found Asbyrgi National Park near Myvatn to be more beautiful than Thingvellir. Situated in the alpine tundra of northern Iceland, the tundra is covered with shrubs rather than trees. Some shrubs include juniper, five types of willow (including dwarf and arctic willow) and dwarf birch.
Asbyrgi is a horse-shoe shaped canyon. Legend has it (Iceland is a land of legends) that a giant disguised as a human wanted one of the female gods as a wife, so he challenged the gods that he could build a wall for them in a year, and if so, he should get his bride. He brought his horse to help haul the rocks and was well on his way to victory. Trickster god Loki, wanting to prevent the giant from succeeding, posed as a mare and lured the giant’s horse away. The mare and the horse had an eight-legged foal, and the belief is that the canyon was created by the hoofprint this eight-legged horse.
If you enjoy Icelandic legends, they also believe that the “hidden people” live in the cliffs.
You can take a nice leisurely stroll (the best kind, you can really soak in the scenery) through arboreal forests (“Tiga”), seeing more birch and willow as well as crane’s bill (a purple flower) and buttercups. At a couple of the overlooks, we viewed the Joklusa River running along the canyon and saw birds such as widgeons (a duck). A small climb up to the cliff face gave me a better view as well as a view of fuglars (birds) nesting in the cliffs. Lots of bugs here–bring bug spray.
There is a visitor’s center where you can eat a picnic lunch or pick up some souvenirs.
BONUS ADVICE – BLUE LAGOON VS MYVATN NATURE BATHS
The Myvatn area is not only home to all these awe-inspiring wonders, but to a nature bath that beats Blue Lagoon. Blue Lagoon, near the Keflavik International Airport, is crowded with tourists and chaotic. Myvatn’s nature baths were much more calming and free of crowds and chaos. I took a dip in its ice-blue waters. The color was ice-blue, but the water itself was warm, bordering on hot depending on where you stood. The water contains minerals that make your skin feel silky smooth (but wreaks havoc on your hair). I had a stuffy nose which cleared right up in the steam.
Icelanders visit nature baths to bathe, unwind, converse with friends and have a drink. The pools have ledges you can perch on to relax (and have that drink).
HOW TO SEE THESE SITES
To get to these sites, you can fly into Akureyri (a 45-minute flight from Reykjavik– get a window seat for beautiful views) where you’ll be within 1-1 ½ hours of these sites. Or you can drive (it’s about 6 hours from Reykjavik to Akureyri). Or you can take a tour like I did. I went on National Geographic Expeditions: Volcanoes, Glaciers and Whales trip. There will be other articles covering this trip later on this blog and also check back for updates to my waterfalls pages where you can see pictures of all eight spectacular waterfalls I visited.