For visitors to Iceland with a limited amount of time on a short stopover the Golden Circle has become a popular half day tour that takes in three notable sights near the capital Reykjavik. I had confirmed myself on this tour and was fortunate to have a dry if not warm day of sightseeing.

While many travellers opt for the 8-hour full-day Golden Circle tour in comparing the itineraries and on the advice of friends I opted for the shorter 6-hour Golden Circle Afternoon half-day tour as it included all the stops of the longer tour except for a lengthy stop at a geothermal-fueled greenhouse growing all natural (pesticide free) fruits and vegetables. Combining Golden Circle Afternoon half-day tour with a morning Reykjavik city sightseeing tour is a better value than booking these separately with combo prices in the CAD$120 range which includes hotel pick-up and drop off and a tour leader.

The first stop is located in a rift valley at the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge that marks the junction of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates Þingvellir, anglicised as Thingvellir, is a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Sight that has significant geological as well as cultural importance to Iceland’s as it’s ancient parliament, the Althing, was established here in 930 holding sessions until 1798 before being restarted in Reykjavik in 1844 where it’s met since. The national park was created in 1930 to mark the 1000th anniversary of the Althing.

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Within a short walk of the park’s visitors center is the Almannagjá fault, a deep canyon created by the two tectonic plates moving away from each other.

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Despite the popular myth the two sides of the gorge do not represent the two tectonic plates as both are on the North American plate side with the Eurasian side being 5 kilometres away across the rift valley floor.

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Our guide reminded us that as this gorge was in an active geological area some of the craggy rocks looming overhead could come crashing down as occurred late one night a few years earlier. While no one was injured in that collapse it did serve as an important reminder that despite the millennia of local history the fault was relatively young  in geological terms and still be shaped by the forces of nature.

For the very intrepid nearby is the Silfra fissure, the only spot on earth to SCUBA or snorkel between two shifting tectonic plates. Thanks to crystal clear glacial water the visibility underwater is unparalleled extending to 100 metres.

From a look-out the whole rift valley, or what isn’t obscured by low clouds, can be seen including the Thingvellir Church which is near where the Athing was established. The current wooden church dates to 1859.

A scenic drive around the top of Þingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest natural lake, is the Laugarvatn Fontana, an open-air hot spring bath and spa not unlike the larger and more famous Blue Lagoon. Nestled on Laugarvatn Lake, the spa is surrounded by steam vents creating an almost toxic fog that hangs close to the ground but this being Iceland the haze is nothing more harmful than super heated water escaping through holes in the ground.

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Nearby is an equally active area known for its hot water blow holes the Icelandic called Geysir which is where we get the English term ‘geyser’. The Geysir Hot Spring Area was until the early 1930’s in private hands but was donated in perpetuity to the people of Iceland and has a number of boiling mud pits and geysers including Strokkur which erupts every 6 – 10 minutes sending water up to 20 metres in the air.

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I stood watching the geyser for what must have been half an hour grateful I’d brought my toque and gloves as the open ground aided the wind in making the windchill drop the temperature.  Despite the cool weather it’s quite a natural phenomenon to behold.

Strokkur is across a two-lane highway from the Hotel Geysir and adjacent souvenir shop and restaurant but without a controlled crossing be mindful of the traffic. The shop has the standard tourist trinkets and sweaters but a good variety of professional photos of the geysers so I couldn’t resist buying an 8 x 10 inch matted picture of Strokkur for around CAD$20 which was as much as my Gull beer and sandwich in the bistro.

The final stop is at the Gullfoss Waterfall which sees the Hvítá (White) River plunge 32 metres in two stages into a steep canyon whose walls rise to some 70 metres.

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Gullfoss was almost lost to an early 20th century hydroelectric project but for the heroic efforts of Sigriður Tómasdóttir, the daughter of the farmer who leased the falls to an Englishman who upon hearing of the plans used her savings to hire a lawyer to stop the project but when her legal efforts failed Sigriður resorted to threatening to throw herself into the falls if construction was begun. Her stubborn efforts to preserve this natural beauty were ultimately successful and the falls were eventually sold to the Iceland government who designated it and the surrounding area a nature preserve in 1979.

Iceland has a wealth of natural beauty that is worth exploring at a leisurely place but for those on a short stop-over on their way to or from Europe joining a Golden Circle tour is a good way to experience some of this island nation’s most important sights.