Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Golden Circle - Tourist Sites and Desolate Roads

Today started out a bit late after the short redeye, full day of sightseeing, and then attempt to stay out as late as the Reykjavikians do on Saturday nights (we made it until about 2am, far short of the 5 or 6 am last call for locals).

We skipped breakfast and simply headed out to the Golden Circle - Þingvellir, Geysir, and Gullfoss. Little did we know that we should have eaten.

Driving eastward from Reykjavik, we left the city behind and quickly saw the road conditions change from dry and A-OK to a slushy mess. Kudos to Ken for driving (we rented a manual transmission rear-wheel drive car, and I can't drive a stick and am, therefore, the navigator). We learned that not only were the roads unplowed and that our vehicle was entirely unsuitable for such conditions, but also there would be no service areas for a long time.

In fact, after we left Þingvellir National Park and tried to make it onward to Geyser, we encountered this "Impassable" sign.

Lovely, we thought.

So we turned around, headed South to another intersection with Rte. 35, which would then take us back toward the remaining sights. Reading further in the guidebook, it appears that the impassable road is always that way throughout the winter.

The driving was quite desolate. A car passed us from the opposite direction perhaps once every 5 minutes. There were few signs of life for miles, as the weather conditions on this side of the mountains were harsh - snow and jagged rock or empty fields everywhere. No power, no irrigation, no buildings. Nothing.

Once we made it to Geysir, a geothermally active valley, we found a number of tour buses and visitors speaking many different languages. Finally - people! There are two geysers there - Strokkur and Geysir. Strokkur spouts off once every six minutes, and Geysir hits about twice each day.

There were a few other gurgling holes and spouts, but these two were the main attraction. The authors of the travel guide said not to stand downwind, as the sulfur gas that's emitted from the ground is quite stinky. They were right.

A bit northeast of Geysir is Gullfoss, which translates to "golden falls." Gullfoss is an amazing double-waterfall, well worth the trip. We hiked down to a plateau right downriver from the first falls and about where the second falls dropped into the river below. Ken commented about the lack of park rangers and warning signs at Gullfoss, and for the slippery and icy conditions, I'm a bit surprised as well. Icelanders might be a hearty bunch, but we tourists aren't necessarily!

Also on the Golden Circle was Kerið, a 3,000 foot deep volcano crater with an amazingly beautiful caldera. It appears that Björk once played a concert on a platform in the middle of the lake below. Unfortunately, she was not there today. In fact, nobody else was.

The lack of snow at Kerið and during the final couple of hours of the drive made it far more bearable. It's remarkable how mountains create weather patterns, but just as I witnessed at Mount Rainier in Washington State, it is most certainly true. The dry conditions in the valley communities east of the mountains, (such as in this photo of Hveragerði) were far more pleasant for driving.

The plan was to complete the Golden Circle and then head onward to the Blue Lagoon. Unfortunately, we ran out of time (the Blue Lagoon closes at 8pm), so we decided to move the Blue Lagoon to the end of tomorrow's sightseeing along the southwestern coast of Iceland.

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