Experience The Golden Circle Riding Adventure…
On every trip there is a kind of pinnacle moment, an experience that you know instantly you’ll remember for a lifetime. On the Golden Circle Riding Adventure in Iceland, there are many potential peak moments; every instant is spectacular and special in its own way. If I asked every one of the hundreds of women who have been on this trip to share her favourite moment, there would likely be as many answers as women! But, a few things do stand out.
I want to share a few highlights from this trip, as well as my own personal pinnacle moment: a small and seemingly insignificant experience that is forever etched in my mind as the climax of this trip. I relive this experience on each trip, with the same kind of wonder and joy as I felt the first time.
Let’s start at the end of the trip. This is the day that is, arguably, the most fun: riding on the black sand beach at Thorlákshöfn. The beach is uninterrupted, stretching as far as the eye can see. Some days the water is relatively calm, lapping at the shore while the sun shines brightly through clear blue skies. Those days are expansive and magical…and rare. More often it’s windy with some urgency to the churning North Atlantic surf that pounds the sand. Those days are exciting and exhilarating! Occasionally it rains along with the wind. Those days are character building, and full of appreciation for the hot pots (hot tubs filled with natural hot spring water), hot drinks and a four-course meal waiting for us back at our cozy guesthouse after the ride.
There is simply nothing like riding a smooth, trustworthy, spunky Icelandic horse as fast as you dare (we often break up into two groups: those who want to fly, and those who would rather enjoy the beach at a more relaxed pace), along an unbroken stretch of beautiful black sand. Off the south coast of Iceland, there is no land mass closer than Antarctica! So, the prevailing winds have a long stretch of ocean to pick up some energy. Riding on the beach on a windy day is like absorbing all that energy with every breath. No matter what the weather, this day scores high on everyone’s list of favourites, which is why the black sand beach ride concludes all our riding tours in Iceland.
On our penultimate riding day, we have another unique and stimulating adventure. We ride across a section of the sprawling Hengill lava field near the town of Hveragerdi, an active volcanic area that, fortunately, hasn’t seen an eruption in about 2000 years. We climb up and over the mountain into the Reykjadalur (smokey valley) Valley. Early settlers named the valley because of the hot river that snakes through it, sending up trails of steam from both the river and many natural boiling pots of mud and water that are ever-changing in the valley. It’s like stepping into a fairy tale of mysterious swirling mist. We leave our horses in a small paddock, enjoy lunch on the river bank, and a long soak in the river before saddling up again to follow a different route back to the farm.
Our homeward journey travels through some of the most geothermally active areas in Southern Iceland. In fact, the nearby agricultural college has perfected the art of growing bananas and other tropical foods in their geothermal greenhouses, which we pass along the ride. The paths here are wide and smooth, and there are more opportunities to split the group into those who want to enjoy the scenery and those who want to feel the rush of speed. There is no doubt that riding over mountains and crossing wide flowing rivers, to soak in a natural hot river, is one of the highlights of this trip. But, it’s still not THE highlight for me!
Let’s go back to the beginning of the trip. Our first morning together, we get acquainted with riding and tacking up Icelandic horses, and get paired with our first horse of the trip. It’s wonderful to witness the excitement as the women learn to tölt for the first time. The tölt is a smooth gait, particular to Icelandic horses, and dreamy to ride when you get it right, but it does take a bit of practice. We make sure everyone is feeling comfortable before we head out for a few hours of riding in the hills and along the rivers near the farm, learning about the early settlers and some of the local history along the way. Each new group of wild women inevitably begins to fall in love with Iceland and Icelandic horses on this ride.
This first ride is also a time when some fears generally come up, especially with newer riders, which gives the guides (and other experienced riders) a chance to provide instruction and encouragement. No matter what kind of a rider you are at the beginning, you will be a better and more confident rider at the end. All the fears that come up at the start of the trip, are transformed into pride and accomplishment by the end. Icelandic horses have a great will to care for and teach their riders, and everyone benefits from their incredibly generous natures. These friendly, compact horses (they’re pony-sized, but don’t dare call them that!) have been critical to survival and livelihood in Iceland since its settlement in 874 CE, and are a huge highlight of this trip. Many women dream of purchasing an Icelandic horse after doing this trip, and a surprising number actually do!
The second riding day is stunning. We travel through a valley that, with every turn, is more and more beautiful with wind-sculpted cliffs, towering rock faces, tumbling waterfalls and a criss-crossing crystal clear river that we ride alongside.
We lunch in the iconic Valley of the Horses, and then ascend along a ridge that allows us to see Reykjavik on a clear day, some 50 kms or so away. There’s a lot of up and down on this day, where we lead our horses over some tricky terrain and steep hills. This is the point in the trip where we really start to connect as a group, helping one another to lead our horses safely through narrow canyons and steep sections, and encouraging each other when the going gets more challenging.
We are rewarded for our efforts at the end of the day, arriving (by bus, with the horses in trailers) at a remote mountain hut on the edge of the spectacular Thingvellir National Park. A visit to the park steeps us in ancient Icelandic history, where we get to see the site of the world’s first parliament, as well as the site where the North American and Eurasian continental plates are slowly drifting apart, creating much volcanic and geothermal activity on the island. Certainly, a highlight of this trip for many!
Skógahólar hut is rustic but comfortable, and many memories are made here as we disconnect from the bustling world that we’re used to, and immerse ourselves in the Icelandic way of life, where their unofficial motto is þetta reddast, meaning, basically “oh well,” or “everything will work out ok.” I have many great memories of stories and songs shared here, and the view over the fields with the horses grazing happily, is a favourite mental snapshot from this trip.
There are so many memorable experiences, including a visit to a reconstructed house built into a cave, where a family lived with their animals over a hundred years ago. We visit Iceland’s most famous waterfall, Gullfoss, whose fate was saved by a young woman environmentalist named Sigríður Tómasdóttir, who protested the damming of the river (against her own father!) in 1907. Without her efforts, the thunderous and impressive natural falls would have been submerged and gone forever. Geysers that spout water hundreds of feet in the air, and an otherworldly landscape, give a magical feel to the country. It’s not at all difficult to imagine the elves and trolls that are rumoured to live invisibly, and mostly peaceably, amongst the people of Iceland.
Heading out of Skógahólar hut in the morning, we ride through the national park and forest, along gravel and dirt paths, until we come to a large open grassy area where we allow the horses to graze while we enjoy a hot lunch delivered by our cook. We feast on homemade soup, sandwiches, tea, coffee, hot chocolate and sweet treats. All the meals are delicious and a memorable part of this trip, even more so when delivered to a beautiful remote destination.
After a nourishing lunch, and time for both horses and riders to rest and digest, we start the journey toward my favourite moment of the trip!
I have to admit that the afternoon starts out pretty uneventfully! We ride along mostly abandoned paved and gravel roads toward our second mountain hut, Kringlumýri. This part of the ride seems to go on forever. Most of the way, we are not able to travel faster than a walk, because the paved roads can be slippery and hard on the horses’ hooves. We are usually getting tired by this point, and there’s not much to look at for the first hour or so.
Then, magically, the mountains start to open up and we get a spectacular view of the valley. As we look down on the vista, we take in a landscape full of rolling hills and lava, some barren and black as coal, and some covered by thick green and golden moss. Eventually, we can make out a road: black gravel in a landscape of black lava. Once in a while, a tiny car ambles along the road, marking its path. We feel our smallness in this powerful, stunning and exacting land.
In the middle of this moss and lava panorama, I spy a tiny red dot in the landscape below…then, another. At first, I think it’s my imagination. But, as we ride, those two dots turn into tiny rectangles, one with a red top, and the other with a lighter rusty top. Eventually, I’m able to make out the gravel road that turns off the main road. Then, I notice a truck and trailer parked alongside one of the rectangles, and the full picture begins to come into focus. I’m looking at our accommodations for the night: a small mountain hut, a rustic barn beside a fenced paddock, and the cook’s vehicle parked outside. There is nothing else human-made to interrupt the view. There is no power or water running to the hut. It looks like it grew there, in the middle of nowhere.
We ride about another hour, now carefully making our way down the mountain. The two buildings get bigger and more defined as we ride, until we can make them out without squinting and pointing. Some riders choose to canter the remaining few hundred meters, following the gravel drive to the hut. We arrive breathless with the beating hooves ringing in our ears, followed by echoless silence as the moss-covered hills absorb the sounds.
My pinnacle experience, the one that stays with me and comes back to me regularly, is watching those two tiny buildings emerge out of the rugged and isolated terrain, knowing we will be staying two nights in this remote, and beautiful place. Getting there feels like a meditation, step by step, slowly watching those little shapes morph and grow. And, it fills me with such deep gratitude and awe. Every single time.