Before I arrived in Reykjavik in September 2016, my accessible tour company, Iceland Unlimited, sent me a list of things I should pack. On the list was waterproof pants. Seriously? I imagined they would look something like those baggy vinyl pants from the 80s that would make you sweat and lose water weight. Fortunately clothing tech has come a long way, and I found a somewhat fashionably slim Chinese off-label pair on Amazon for $30. And I am soooo glad I did, for they were designed for this day. Here’s my guide to wheelchair users exploring Iceland’s stunning Golden Circle.
My tour guide, Krystján, met me at the hotel at 9am for our tour. The day promised to be typical Iceland–cold, wet, and windy. Our first stop of the day was Pingvellir National Park. First of all, the P in Pingvellir isn’t really a P; there are characters in the Icelandic alphabet that are really strange (derived from runes, so I’m told), and that’s the closest letter it looks like. It’s also pronounced like TH, so in some places you’ll find the name of the park written as “Thingvellir” instead. And for the record, the true pronunciation of Thor isn’t Thor; it’s Tho, with the “th” like in “thought” and the “o” is something halfway between and long and short vowel sound. Really weird. But my superhero fan friends should know.
Anyway, when we got to Pingvellir, the steady drizzle magically paused for the hour or so that we were there (although the 25 mph winds were not so kind). The solid cloud ceiling also broke in a small spot so the sun that was trying SO hard to come out made a very brief appearance. The first vista point is really stunning; it overlooks a broad swath of land with a meandering river, mountains in the background…and the meeting of two tectonic plates behind me. Yeah; I’ll get to that in a minute.
It’s weird to describe the colors and landscape here. The mountains aren’t as overwhelming or stunning as, say, Grand Teton (where I was two weeks ago) or the Rocky Mountains. This whole island country is one big outcropping of lava, and if you’re in a flat spot, there’s a good chance you’re sitting on top of a dormant or extinct caldera. The entire landscape EVERYWHERE is black or charcoal gray with a thick layer of yellow-green moss on top. Trees are scarce in most places, unless they’re planted on purpose; many firs are imported from Norway for Christmas reasons. So while the mountains aren’t that high, the lack of significant vegetation and the strange colors still make them remarkable.
Iceland is often cold and very wet, especially when you’re seated and not totally covered! Waterproof pants are a must for a visit, and these are the ones I use (they come in men’s sizes, too): Singbring Women’s Outdoor Lightweight Waterproof Hiking Mountain Pants
After this viewpoint, Kristján asked me if he thought the scooter would be capable of making it through a narrow path of hard-packed black gravel. I checked it out and it looked good, so off we went in between these two walls of stacked basalt. He told me to observe how the basalt walls had distinct layers, and explained that each layer represented a volcanic eruption’s lava flow. The path kept going down and the walls got higher. Only later did I realize that the wall on my left was the North American tectonic plate, and the wall on my right was the Eurasian plate. Unlike the San Andreas fault, which is a slip fault (meaning the plates move sideways, or slip against each other), the plates here are spreading apart at the rate of roughly 2 cm per year–slow enough to keep the gravel path intact, it seems.
I’m glad the park was doable for my scooter because the views were just amazing. There is running water everywhere, and pretty waterfalls are a common occurrence. Just like Yellowstone, this whole country is a geothermal hotspot, so there are steam vents and fmaroles and hot springs everywhere. In fact, Iceland is completely energy independent; it meets all its own energy needs through geothermal and hydroelectric power. The average utility bill for a small three-bedroom home is about US$50 a month–and we’re talking about a place where heating is a necessity for a good chunk of the year.
Speaking of geothermal, that was our next stop–Geysir, home of the Strokkur geyser. If you read one of my previous posts from when I saw Old Faithful, I was pretty skeptical of the name after I learned how not particularly regular that geyser actually is. Well, Strokkur does not disappoint. While its eruptions only last a few seconds, they happen every 4-8 minutes, so you don’t have to sit around waiting for a couple of hours to see the next one. Something that is a little disturbing is that you can get so close to this geyser that you can literally almost touch the scalding hot boiling water as it erupts from the bowels of the earth. Clearly the Icelanders have no such liability concerns as the Americans.
At this point the rain was coming down in more than a drizzle, and I was having a hard time keeping my phone (a.k.a. camera dry). Fortunately we only had one more stop–the famous Gulfoss waterfall. We had a bit of an unexpected challenge here. While there is a great ramp that leads to the scenic overview, there was this weird (and large) gap betw
en the concrete sidewalk that hugs the visitor center and the ramp. There was no curb drop to the gravel either, so Christian and I had to go to the parking lot tarmac, put my scooter in neutral, and he had to push me through loose gravel onto the ramp. Not sure what the geniuses here were thinking, but whatever. My battery was getting low on my scooter and I was getting pretty wet and cold, so we only stayed long enough to get a few photos and some video of the impressive two-tiered waterfall.
It’s possible to visit these areas on your own if you’re driving a rented vehicle. However, I recommend using a guide to learn about all the fascinating geology and geography of the Golden Circle’s landscape. My guide also knew the most accessible paths for my electric scooter at each stop along the way, making for a very smooth and enjoyable day trip from Reykjavik.