The wonderful waterfalls of Iceland
By Samantha Fergusson
There are many breathtaking waterfalls to be found around the world – the Iguazu Falls in Brazil and Argentina, the Victoria Falls between Zambia and Zimbabwe, the Niagara Falls between Canada and the USA – but it is rare to have such a spectacular collection in just one country, particularly when said country has a landmass of just 100,000 square kilometres…
Iceland’s waterfalls are as varied as they are beautiful. For that reason, many of them feature on travellers’ dream itineraries and are regularly used as film locations to bring about a dramatic, and often other-worldly atmosphere - think the opening to Prometheus at Dettifoss, or the scenes showing the mythical land of Asgard in Thor with Skógafoss being a key feature.
Here, we’ve picked out the best waterfalls in Iceland - a perfect roundup to inspire you, whether you’re a photographer looking for that perfect shot or just a simple traveller seeking unforgettable sights.
Measuring a spectacular 60 metres high and 25 metres wide, the dramatic cascade of Skógafoss is one of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls. If you are travelling along the south coast of the island, you should definitely add it to your list of leg-stretching stops – it’s clearly visible from Route 1 so you won’t miss it. The ground is level right the way up to the pool at the bottom of the falls, meaning you can get incredibly close to the foot of the cascade – though beware that in doing this you are likely to get absolutely drenched! Photographers should note that if the sun is shining from the right direction, it’s not at all unusual to be able to see one, or maybe even two rainbows dancing in front of the falls – a winning shot for the album.
As is often the case with Iceland’s dramatic geological features, there is a story attached to Skógafoss. Folklore suggests that Þrasi Þórólfsson, one of the first Vikings to settle in the Skógar area, buried a chest full of gold in a cave behind the waterfall prior to his death. On learning this, many years later, local villagers tried to retrieve the chest, heaving on a golden ring attached to the side. It broke off in their hands and the chest was lost forever. If this tale piques your interest, the nearby Skógasafn Regional Museum has the ring on display, as well as a café and a museum shop – the perfect hidey-hole for weary travellers.
Less famous than Skógafoss, but no less spectacular, Aldeyjarfoss on the Skjálfandafljót river is a raging torrent of a fall that plunges down black basalt rocks into a churning pool. The best time to admire this particular waterfall is around winter, when snow highlights the dark, volcanic rocks, the low sun creates dramatic lighting and the water is surrounded by sculptural chunks of ice and compacted snow. Being slightly out of the way and within the boundaries of the highlands in the north of Iceland, Aldeyjarfoss is also less visited by fellow tourists, so appeals to those who like to get off the beaten track, and photographers who don’t want other travellers wandering into shot…
Europe's mightiest waterfall, Dettifoss, is well worth admiring... views of the fall are truly awesome and untainted by viewing platforms or walkways. You can simply savour the sheer natural power of the waterfall without having to see anything manmade. Dettifoss is so powerful that a cloud of mist can be seen from several kilometres away, despite the drop being only 44 metres. It has earned its reputation for being the mightiest waterfall in Europe due to the sheer quantity of water that tumbles over it's lip into the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon each second - 193 cubic metres! - all meltwater from the Vatnajökull glacier.
This is a truly pretty waterfall, formed from multiple rivulets that trickle into the river Hvíta over a distance of 900m, spilling in from the edge of the Hallmundarhraun lava field. While the falls are not crashing down epic drops or gushing through a deep chasm, their magical appearance, seemingly from nowhere, make them arguably one of the most visually pleasing waterfalls in Iceland. We highly recommend visiting them in autumn, as the fiery colours of the surrounding scrub and bushes add a gorgeous splash of warming colour.
Goðafoss, is a thundering powerhouse of a waterfall, and one of the most iconic in Iceland. It is also one of the largest, with water tumbling over 30 metres of gently curving rim to fall 12 metres into a frothing pool. But it is not only the beauty and size of the waterfall that warrants its fame; the tale behind its name is worth a read...
The story goes that in the year 1,000, the Althing Parliament met to decide whether Iceland would embrace Christianity or continue to worship the Norse gods of old. There was bitter debate, and with the threat of civil war looming, one man took it upon himself to assume leadership. His name was Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði, and he was in fact a pagan priest, but despite his inclinations he swayed the council to agree to Christianity being Iceland’s official religion, with pagans being allowed to practice in private. Following this monumental decision, Ljósvetningagoði converted fully to Christianity, and threw idols of the old Norse gods into the churning waterfall, giving Goðafoss, (which translates as ‘Waterfall of the Gods’) its name.
This waterfall is small in comparison to most, but no less beautiful for it. The setting is one of the most spectacular – and therefore photogenic – on the island. Head to Grundarfjörður on the Snæfellsnes peninsula, where you will easily spot the tapering, conical mound of Mount Kirkjufell. Photographers should visit in midsummer, where the midnight sun provides some truly gorgeous lighting - though that being said it is pretty spectacular when the land is encrusted in snow and ice come midwinter.
Head to the south coast of Iceland and wander behind Seljalandsfoss for a unique vista. Tranquil, flat grasslands stretch away before you to the sea, while 63m of tumbling water falls ceaselessly over the lip of a cliff, creating misty columns between you and the view. It is particularly pretty at sunset or sunrise, when the water is tinged with romantic dusky hues.
Roughly one and a half hours from Reykjavik, in the west of Iceland, Brúarfoss is a staggeringly beautiful waterfall – the bluest in the land, in fact. The glacial river Brúará dashes towards the falls, and tumbles two or three metres into a deep channel surrounded by dark volcanic rock formations. The rapids that result from this are a remarkable sky-blue, and many locals regard this small waterfall as one of Iceland’s hidden gems.
But despite Brúarfoss’ beauty, it has a dark past. Two tales in particular stand out, involving cruelty and even rumours of murder… Brúarfoss translates as “Bridge Falls”, and it takes this name due to the stone arch that used to stand above the falls. The story goes that in 1602, this natural bridge was destroyed by a minion of the Skálholt episcopal see in order to keep peasants (who were suffering from a famine at the time) away from the bountiful lands that were claimed by the church.
Wind the clock back further and the tales only become more suited to the dark Scandinavian noir tales that we all devour in the local bookshop! Legend has it, that in 1433 a Danish bishop murdered a young woman’s lover in a fit of jealousy. In return, she swore her devotion to any man who was willing to avenge her lover’s death and a chieftain’s son took up the claim. The unfortunate bishop was drowned in the waterfall, and the young man found himself a beautiful wife – a silver lining if ever there was one.
Finally, we come to Gullfoss (“Golden Falls”) one of Iceland’s most popular waterfalls and a key destination on the famous Golden Circle route. Water pours from the glacier Langjökull down the Hvítá river, eventually dropping 32m over Gullfoss’ two tiers into a deep gorge. If you love feeling exposed to nature’s raw power, then this is the waterfall for you. You can get so close as to feel the spray on your face as the water thunders past.
Make it happen
If you would like to make a trip to Iceland to take in its natural splendour, then get in touch with our wonderful local experts. They can create your dream tailor-made holiday to Iceland at the drop of a hat, and can easily direct you to your favourite waterfalls. If at any point you would like to speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, please call +44 (0) 117 325 7898.