Thing is, there’s a lot going on in Þingvellir National Park. That, by the way, is how you pronounce the first syllable of Þingvellir – “Thing”, or “Thing/vet/leer”. Þingvellir is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; it was the nation’s seat of government for 332 years, is one of the top SCUBA diving places in the world, was once an execution spot, and is the only above-water place that the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. If there’s one place to cram in a lot of Icelandic … uh, stuff, it’s Þingvellir.
Also, there’s a waterfall.
We pulled into a small parking lot off of Iceland Route 36, on Iceland’s Golden Circle.
The Golden Circle is a trifecta of major attractions all within about an hour and a half of Reykjavik. Þingvellir is the first stop, followed by Geysir, a geo-thermal waterspout and the etymological origin of the word geyser. Next is Gullfoss, a massive waterfall on the Hvítá River. There are some other, slightly less magnificent features (The Secret Lagoon, Vatnsleysufoss, and Kerið Crater) on the route as one circles back to Iceland’s capital.
We headed down the trail toward the rift. The first thing we passed was a giant historic cairn. Due to the rocky, and virtually treeless, landscape, cairns are the accepted method of blazing trails in Iceland and have been for thousands of years. It is illegal to build or knock down a cairn in the land of fire and ice.
Moments later we stood at the edge of a precipice. Despite having flown flying for five hours and feeling quite sure we were now in a European nation, we were, in fact, standing on the North American continent, the Eurasian continent thirty feet away across a deep chasm. We descended into the geologic no-man’s land between tectonic plates. The trail through Almannagjá gorge is known as Dead Man’s Walk, although it was anything but creepy. Delightful might be a more apt descriptor. The trail led us on a merry chase between continents, twisting down the center of the grassy crevice like a brown thread through green cloth. The fabric was woven in a floral pattern; purple wood crane’s-bill suffused the floor of the ravine, embellished here and there with bright-yellow buttercups. To our left, in shades of dark stone and moss, was Europe. To our right, adorned in a matching lava-rock motif, was our home continent of North America. Weird.
A half-mile into our trek down the Kontinentalspalte, we rounded a corner and were rewarded for our ten-minute trek with Öxarárfoss, a forty-four foot wide waterfall where the Öxará River spills into the Mid-Atlantic Rift from its origins at Myrkavatn, a lake some six miles to the northeast.
Öxarárfoss frothed, milky-white, over the precipice, in stark contrast to the nearly black volcanic rock to either side. Bright green moss grew in scattered patches on the dark stone, and the cataract’s plunge-basin was surrounded by boulders the size of end tables. Past the falls, the Öxará flowed southwest down the rift, flanked by lush, green grass and craggy, black rock. We ogled Öxarárfoss for a long while before moving on.
We two continental tweens climbed up and out of the rift and onto a gravel pathway, continuing southwest. Another half-mile slipped splendidly by as we surveyed the stunning Icelandic landscape. The mood darkened as we arrived at Drekkingarhylur, the drowning pool. Beginning in 1565, women were drowned here for a variety of capital offenses but mostly for sex-related crimes such as incest or adultery. There’s an informative plaque and some graphics at the spot to thoroughly depress you. Thankfully, this practice was abolished in the early nineteenth century. We moved on, following the Öxará as it tumbled toward (lake) Þingvallavatn.
Fortunately, and not to diminish the suffering at Drekkingarhylur in any way, the superlative surroundings snapped us out of our depressing death-funk almost immediately. Mere steps further was Lögberg or “Law Rock”. Lögberg was the location of Iceland’s Alþingi, or parliament, from 930 to 1232 CE. A natural dias overlooks the location where the council ostensibly met; today, an Icelandic flag marks the spot.
It was time to move away from the divide and farther onto the European continent. The trail snaked east toward Þingvallakirkja (a church) and the Prime Minister’s summer residence. Once Iceland’s House of Parliament, this building provides warm weather accommodations for Iceland’s head of state, as well as lodging for visiting dignitaries. Continuing on, the trail crossed a trio of bridges over branches of the Öxará as it wound through a grassy floodplain. We passed the church and the parliament building and headed for the last main attraction at Þingvellir: Silfra.
Silfra is probably the most awe-inspiring geologic feature in the area, albeit less so if you’re not wearing SCUBA gear. Part of the rift, Silfra is a tectonic fissure filled with freshwater. This water, naturally slow-filtered through lava rock, is not only fresh, but also clear – amazingly so. On the day we were there, we could see the bottom as if it were ten or twelve feet down. In reality, the Silfra fissure reaches depths of 207 feet, and while it may not have been that deep where we were, we knew it was significantly deeper than it looked with no reference point. Lateral visibility often exceeds 100 meters (328 feet), making it some of the clearest water in the world. Eventually we saw some divers (finally – a reference point!) and were stunned at how far down they appeared to be. SCUBA divers from all over the world come to Þingvellir to plunge into the icy crystal-clear waters between continents and enjoy the geoaquatic canyon-scape. Also, I’m pretty sure I just made up the word “geoaquatic” but you take my meaning, I’m sure.
The underwater ledges of Silfra glittered in the diffused Icelandic sun. Gold? Jewels? Ancient bits of hacksilver? Well kind of … they were coins. Why do people throw perfectly good money into bodies of water? For luck? An offering to the Norse Gods? Reduced base weight? Whatever the reason, we chose to keep our cash.
Þingvellir is a must-see stop on the Golden Circle. It’s a lot of history, geology, and bathymetry crammed into a small, beautifully wrapped, Icelandic package. This national park has miles of trails if you want to get a better hike in. Our route was really more of a walk than a hike, but it hit all the main features that put Þingvellir on the map, as they say. The trip through between continents is not to be missed, and it took us to Öxarárfoss, which was worth the price of admission – which, by the way, was zero. The nature is free to all – Icelanders don’t take to charging admission to what they consider the people’s land. If you go to Iceland (and if you love the outdoors and hiking you really should), don’t ignore the Golden Circle just because it’s a tourist’s stomping ground. It’s worth the day. Oh, and at the nearby Hakið Visitor Center, they have ice cream. Thank Odin we retained our hacksilver! ♦
Date: July 12, 2015
Location: Þingvellir National Park, Iceland
Trailhead: 64.272798, -21.110990
Distance: 3.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 350 feet