Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Trip Around the Golden Circle

Tuesday we did a trip around the infamous Golden Circle in Iceland.  It was an 8 hour (8 LONG hours) bus tour that covered the Thingvellir National Park, Gulfoss Waterfall, the Geysir hot springs, Skáholt Church and finally Hellisheidavirkjun Geothermal Powerplant.  You'll read more about it below, but know that we probably could have skipped the last 2 places and shaved a few hours off our day.  It was still a great day but exhausting by the end.  Our tour guide was fine but she wasn't the most enthusiastic guide I've had (it's still going to be hard to beat our Scottish tour guide from 2 years ago!) or else maybe she could have made the Church and power plant interesting... but they weren't.  However, the rest of these places were AMAZING and absolutely worth the bitter cold 1000x over!

Map of where our tour went today

As our tour guide mentioned when we set off, Iceland is currently getting 4 more hours of sun than it was back on Dec 21st.  That's a lot of extra minutes per day in a short amount of time.  However, while it's still light out here until after 6, the sun does not rise until after 9AM.  It was like driving at night during our drive out to the park, our first stop.  

Josh and Aidan ready to go - it's just after 8 and look at how dark it still is!

Mommy shut off the flash!

During our drive out to Thingvellir National Park, I couldn't help notice once again how stark the landscape is here once you leave the boundaries of the city.  I mean seriously, you could drive forever before seeing a home or any form of life.  I can't imagine if you need to run out for milk or something - it would take you 45 minutes just to get to the closest grocery store.  As we drove, the landscape, while still barren, suddenly became snow covered as we increased our altitude.

It's strange because much of the land is relatively flat and seems to go on forever.  And then the mountains dot the horizon.  It's like one huge valley where we were traveling.  Many of these mountains are also volcanos, some dormant, some not.  Thankfully none were active during our trip today!  But we were constantly driving alongside lava fields throughout the day.

Thingvellir National Park

We were incredibly lucky for the timing of our tour with our arrival to the park.  We managed to get there just in time for sunrise.  Seriously we could not have timed this any better if we tried.  I honestly don't think I've seen a more beautiful sunrise before.

This is where the first Parliament was formed

Though the sunrise was stunning, the coolest thing (and I don't just mean freezing cold) about this park is it is where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are separating... and you can actually see where the separation is occurring.  So first we see the Northern Lights and now we get to see where the tectonic plates separate - seriously, how cool is this place?  And yes, this time I mean it's cold too because it was freezing today!!!!

You can see the separation of the tectonic plates on either side

The ridge is where the plate is shifting

Thingvellir is also the first national park in Iceland, has the largest natural lake (Thingvallavatn) and it's also known as the home to where the world's first parliament was founded back in 930AD.  Who knew that Icelanders were so progressive that they started the first parliament?  The Parliament remained in this location until 1789 when it was moved to Reykjavik.

We walked around the park for a little bit and were able to see some of the fissures caused by past earthquakes.  The kids favorite part was "skating" on the ice all around.  I think that was their favorite part of the whole trip as they did it every single opportunity they had.

Winter is not my best fashion statement...

So happy to be able to "skate" on the ice!

Nothing makes kids happier than wide open space... oh and ice!

On our way back to the bus we saw a small fissure filled with water that had frozen and must have frozen slowly as the bubbles were still visible.  This was an incredible site and ironically there was almost something identical to this on my Facebook that morning!

Ice bubbles

We even got to see what I'm guessing was some thermal areas as everywhere else was melted solid but these few areas were flowing with no ice nearby.

The journey then continued on to Gullfoss Waterfall.  The trip was about an hour from the park and the entire drive was scenic with the rare spotting of humanity along the way.  I can't imagine living so far from civilization - you could be dead out here and no one would find you for weeks, months or even years!!!

More of the tectonic ridge as we were leaving the park

Gullfoss Waterfall

Gullfoss waterfall was not in any way in a place that I expected.  Whenever I think waterfall, I think of a mountain or a forested area.  I think you could drive past Gullfoss and not even know it - it comes up out of nowhere.  We were driving along a flat road and then pulled up to a building.  They told us that the waterfall was behind the building.  As soon as you got to the other side of the building, you could hear the roar of the falls.  It was just strange because it seemed to be in such a random area.  But the falls were beautiful and even more so since they were half frozen.

You can practically walk to the edge of the falls where the water goes over at a rate of 109 cubic meters per second.  That's pretty fast!!  The windchill got to be a bit much in this area so we stuck around to take a few pictures and then moved along!

While the falls might not look huge here, the picture doesn't do them justice - they are much taller than they appear!

Can you tell he's freezing??

Even Liam is wearing protective gear!


From Gullfoss, we headed just down the road to Geysir, a natural hot spring area home to the first geyser - aptly named Geysir which has been known to the Icelandics since the 1200s and according to research, has been active for some 10,000 years!  It's the namesake for all geysers in the world, including the famous one at Yellowstone!  Unfortunately Geysir itself has been relatively inactive for about 14 years, but there are others that are still active, including Strokkur which erupts every 5 or 6 minutes.  Changes in their activity varies depending on seismic activity.  It was a sight to see!!


View from closer to Geysir

Aidan and Liam and.... Geysir

Aidan found one of many icicles

Eruption of Stokkur

You can see the caldera near the center of the spring

Another eruption

The water literally gets sucked down the caldera in the middle after the eruption and then immediately starts to boil back up again...

A video Josh did of the eruption:

Ice field formed by the spray of the erupting geyser

We didn't stay here but Aidan wanted a picture by the sign...

Skálholt Church

After Geysir, the rest of the day was kind of bleh... our first stop was at Skálholt Church.  Now this area is historically significant to Iceland.  It was just a boring stop.  Aside from being one of Iceland's two episcopal sees from the start of the 11th century, it was also home to Iceland's first official school.

What we also got to see here was a turf house.  This was the traditional way of living for many Icelanders up til the middle of the 20th century.  More on these in our Southern tour blog, but let's just say that I'm truly amazed at how far this country has come in a mere 70 years as these homes did not have electricity, indoor plumbing or even heat!  Yes, until the late 1940s!

Aidan with the turf house - this one looks large compared to the ones we saw on our Southern Tour

Given the doorway size, I'd say the Icelanders are not very tall.  Given that we just spent time in Amsterdam a few weeks ago with the tallest people in the world, it's a big contrast!

View from the hill by the church

More skating!

Skálholt Church

Me and the boys by the turf house

Our final stop was at the Hellisheidavirkjun Geothermal Powerplant.  This was cool to see but we were allotted something like 40 minutes - way more than was needed.  The Icelanders have truly taken this natural resource and have used it to their advantage.  While there are still chimneys left in Reykjavik, we were told that none are used any more as the majority of homes here use geothermal power.  This is a country that really embraces it's green energy to the best of it's ability!

Before you know it... ok, that's a lie, those last two stops added on what felt like hours and hours to our day, it was time to head back to Reykjavik.  It was a fun day with overall great weather (especially given it's February in Iceland!) and a lot of cool places to see.  We continue to be in awe at all of the wide open space - it's like the land goes on forever and is untouched by human hands.  If only more places were like this!


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