One of Iceland’s main draws are the geothermal features. Icelanders depend so much on the geothermal activity that they have spas in every town and even the showers run on geothermal water (note: when you take a shower, don’t be put off by the sulfur smell!).
If you drive on the Ring Road, which is the main highway circling the country, you’ll pass by many different natural wonders. Here are a few worth stopping for, all of which are only a couple of hours by car from Reykjavik.
These so-called “Golden Circle” sights are all in the Southeastern corner of the country. The ride along the road is a treat in itself as you pass by mountains and moss-colored lava fields. Most tours of Iceland will cover these sights.
1. Geysir: This aptly-named natural park is known for its spurting pools of water. The largest geyser erupts approximately every ten minutes; it’s worth sticking around to see the show.
2. Gullfoss: This double waterfall is impressive, to begin with, but it’s even more stunning in the winter when the falls are frozen over. On sunny days, a semi-permanent rainbow stretches across the falls, going far up into the sky. Nearby, you can see the snow-capped volcanic mountains, which only add to the winter moonscape.
3. Thingvellir: Here, you can walk down a canyon into a valley that has waterfalls (which lead into deeper canyons). Along the way, you pass by an old church and the spot where political assemblies were held back in the 10th-13th centuries. Thingvellir doesn’t have any geysers, but is surrounded by snow-capped volcanoes. In fact, most of the mountains that you see are actually volcanic. There was even a volcano that spontaneously erupted out of the ocean in the late 1960s, creating a new island!
4. Seltun: You know you’ve reached Seltun when you can smell the intense odor of sulfur. Hold your nose, though, because a walk through this geothermal park is worth it. As you wander along a wooden bridge — don’t walk off of it; the water is boiling! — you pass by bubbling and gurgling streams and lakes of every color imaginable. Some Icelandic legends believe that the country is the gateway to hell, and one can certainly understand why people would think that when visiting a sight such as this. Across the way is a glacial lake that supposedly houses a creature similar to the Loch Ness Monster.
5. The Blue Lagoon: This geothermal spa isn’t truly a natural wonder, but it’s a nice place to relax after sightseeing all day, and is notably the best spa in iceland. Water is pumped in from a nearby volcano and is a perfect 100 degrees Farenheit. Even on a chilly night, you’ll warm right up in the huge outdoor pool. Go ahead and collect a handful of mud from the bottom; it’s filled with minerals that are great for the skin. Then sit back (there are actually places to sit in the pool), relax and stare up at the stars.
Tips and warnings:
1. You need to know how to drive a stick shift in order to rent a car in Iceland. The stick is necessary, though, because many of the roads that veer off of the main highway are not paved. It can be a very bumpy ride!
2. Don’t go into the interior in the winter. It’s tempting to drive toward the beautiful glaciers, but unlike the coastal areas, the interior is an unforgiving place in the colder months. Most of the access is blocked off, anyway.
3. Layer up. Temperatures can get a little colder as you move inland and start to head into the mountains. Even if it’s 40 in Reykjavik, it might be less by the volcanoes.