The Golden Circle, Iceland

Friday, April 28, 2017

Ever wondered what it’s like to drive around Iceland in a 4WD vehicle and sleep in a tent on top of your car? Well today, I’m sharing all the deets about our camping adventure and our first day exploring The Golden Circle!

When we were planning our trip to Iceland, Mike and I absolutely 100% knew we wanted to spend at least half of it camping. We had seen a ton of videos on YouTube and heard stories from people who had done it and everyone said it was the best way to see the country. When camping in Iceland, you have quite a few options since it’s a pretty popular way to explore. There are full out RV rentals, there are Land Rovers with beds in the back, there are camper vans with mini kitchens, and then there’s our personal favorite, the camping car, which is basically a normal 4WD vehicle with a collapsable tent built onto the roof. 

Since we were planning to visit Iceland in September, we knew this would be a good option. The weather in Iceland in September is very much like the mid-atlantic's late-fall and we knew these would be the perfect tent-sleeping conditions. 

If you’re thinking about camping, I suggest you do your research when timing your trip. Once you get into October, the weather in Iceland changes dramatically as this is generally considered the start of winter. This isn’t to say that we didn’t see hail and temps below 40F in September, because we did, but once October hits, you should definitely be prepared for snow. Based on stories we’ve heard and our own experience, I highly recommend renting a covered van if you plan to camp anytime from October through April. The locals told us that spring and fall don’t exist for more than the five minutes between summer and winter, and they weren’t kidding. September and May tend to be the “shoulder seasons” as they transition between cold and warm weather, while summer typically last from June through August - which is also when all the tourists fly in. Since our anniversary falls in September and we had also heard September is the best non-winter month to see the northern lights, we knew it was fate. 

When it came to selecting a camping car company, we ended up going with … wait for it …  a company called Camping Cars. Despite the simple name, I cannot say enough great things about them (and no, they did not sponsor this post). Aside from the experience itself, the staff is probably the number one reason we rave about them. Throughout our entire experience with Camping Cars, they were extremely helpful and friendly. They were super responsive throughout the booking process, sent us resources and tips months before we got there, and even picked us up from the airport and dropped us back off again when we were switching rentals, for free! When we got to their office, they showed us how to operate everything, gave us all kinds of maps, gear and advice, set us up with wifi in the car (which is available in all their vehicles) and then quickly upgraded us on the road a few days later when we requested a larger package. They helped point out the best grocery stores to stock up on food (look for the Bonus stores with a big pink pig logo!), explained the super complicated gas station system (I’ll explain in a later post), and answered all the questions we had. They checked in throughout our trip via email to make sure everything was okay and genuinely cared about our experience of Iceland. The cars themselves aren’t the newest or most luxurious, but they’re reliable and sturdy, and when you’re riding on some of the rough gravel roads, that’s exactly what you want. 

Aside from the car itself, our favorite part of camping was setting up in a different spot every night and waking up with some of the most incredible views around us. Ahhh, the freedom! The good news is that in Iceland, you can pretty much camp anywhere. We tried to stick to camping pull-offs or established campgrounds though, since there were hot showers and bathrooms available, which we did not regret. After we had explored a bit of Reykjavik on our first day there, we made our way around what’s known as The Golden Circle before finding our first spot to set up camp. The Golden Circle includes three main stops with a couple of extras that you can explore at your leisure. The sites all form sort of a big circle to the east and north of Reykjavik and you can easily see everything in an afternoon. I think total, it took us about four hours. 

Our first stop was Pingvellir National Park, just east of Reykjavik. Pingvellir is unique for many reasons, with lots of interesting history, but one of the coolest features is the landscape. The park itself sits in a rift valley between two tectonic plates. We followed the main path and we could clearly see the continental drift as we walked between the the North American and Eurasian plates. There are faults and fissures all over the area, but the biggest crack separating the two continents is called Almannagjá. Pingvellir a beautiful place to explore and we learned quite a bit about Iceland's geology when we visited. 

Our next stop was Geysir. Frankly, this was probably my least favorite stop on the circle. Geysir is Iceland's largest geyser, blasting 250 degree water up to 70 feet in the air. It was cool to check it off the list and to learn about geysers and geothermal energy, but really, you're just standing around a big watery hole in the ground with a bunch of tourists waiting for it to explode. Don't get me wrong, this can be really cool if you're interested in geysers, but our visit didn't last more than 30 minutes.

Here I am standing awkwardly, out of focus, waiting for the thing to explode behind me. 

Gullfoss was our third stop and the photos here do not do it justice. This place was absolutely incredible. There are two areas to park - one overlooking the falls and one right up close. We actually visited Gullfoss twice since it was a bit drizzly the first time and we'd heard it was most magical in the sun. We waited for the weather to clear up and headed back, and boy am I glad we did. The secret to the sun? Rainbows. They were everywhere we turned, shining in the mist. It was the first moment in Iceland (of many) where I stood frozen in awe of the beauty and power of nature.

Our last stop for the day was Kerid, a volcanic crater near the southernmost part of the circle. The volcano is no longer active since it emptied its magma reserve long ago, and now inside sits a beautiful turquoise lake. We spent quite a bit of time here since you can walk around the top and then down inside the crater. It was incredibly quiet and peaceful by the water, so we hung out for a while just absorbing the day. 

That evening, we found a spot to camp between Gullfoss and Kerid that had just closed for the season, but was open for people to stay for free if they wanted. Since there was no manager staying at the site, there was an honor system for the showers, so we left a couple bucks as a donation. We ended up passing out around 6:30PM and didn't wake up until about 7:00 the next morning. It had been a very long day of traveling and site seeing, so we needed the rest for our trek along the south of Iceland that we'd begin in the morning. I'll be back next week to cover this leg of our trip!


  1. These photos are phenomenal! I have always wondered about how those tents on top of the car work...and it looks AWESOME. Lovin' these posts, girl! Keep em' coming!

  2. WHAT A TRIP!!! I loved looking through these photos and reading about your trip. Staying in one of those tents on top of the car is on my list of life goals.