By Chris Ayliffe, Arctic Meta
There’s no doubt about it, if you’re going to travel to Iceland, you’re almost certainly going to come across at least one waterfall on your adventures. Frequently fed by glacial water along incredible canyons, Iceland currently boasts over 10,000 of these magnificent spectacles around the country.
Yes, let me reiterate that again, 10,000 waterfalls!
Now, in total contrast to the advice of the famous TLC, you should definitely spend a good portion of your time chasing waterfalls on a visit to our shores. After all, there are mighty ones, thunderous ones, tall ones, unique and quirky ones, and some that frankly look like they’ve been produced by the fiction of folklore.
In this guide, I’m going to highlight my personal top 5 waterfalls in Iceland which I highly recommend visiting if you get the chance. I’ll cover the facts, the figures, the history, and of course all of the folklore built around these epic natural locations.
Sound good? Then get your pen and paper out and get these waterfalls scribbled down in preparation for your future trip to Iceland!
You simply can’t complete a visit to Iceland without exploring the Golden Circle. It’s an incredible nature lovers trail only an arms throw from Reykjavik with some of the most scenic spots in the country.
And, whether you’re taking an Iceland self drive tour, joining one of the fantastic Golden Circle tours or simply going it alone, Gullfoss is going to be the most spectacular highlight of this travellers route.
Fed by the glacial water of the neighbouring Langjökull glacier down the Hvítá river, Gullfoss cascades down 32 m (105 ft) over two steps into the canyon below.
In three words – It. Is. Awesome.
For the photographers among you, there are a range of positions you can set your camera up to capture this titanous waterfall. You can either follow the pathway along the western side which leads to a viewing point overlooking the full canyon, or you can choose to head down the steps to get a closer perspective and frame your shot standing between both the cascading steps.
If time is on your side on your visit to Gullfoss, then definitely check out both of these viewing points.
However, one thing you’ll definitely need to bring with you is a waterproof jacket and hood. Now, I know this sounds like basic advice for the whole of Iceland, but trust me the mist from Gullfoss can be drenching, particularly if the wind is feeling that extra mischievous while you’re visiting.
The name itself, Gullfoss, translates to Golden Waterfall. And though some travellers believe this is due to the potential fortune hidden in the falls due to the very common sighting of a rainbow descending out of its mists, in actual fact there is another tale that earned it this name.
The story goes that a wealthy local farmer named, Gýgur, was worried about who would take his fortune once he’d die. So, in a state of paranoia he decided to take his chest of gold to the falls one day and cast it into the waterfall to stop anybody from collecting his fortune – what a guy!
However, though most of Icelandic folklore is filled with revenge and tragedy there is another little more uplifting story based around Gullfoss.
The tale starts with a young man who was tasked with overseeing his father’s livestock on the river’s west bank, whilst on the opposite side a young woman had the same duty for her family.
As time went on, the pair saw each other more and more, and regularly shouted to each other above the loud thunders of the fast-flowing river and waterfall between them.
And, much like the tinder situation of its day, the couple fell madly in love with each other, so much so that the young man even eventually shouted a proposal across the river after several weeks of courting.
The young woman, however, would only accept on one condition: the man must cross the river to join her on the opposing bank and deliver the proposal in person.
And, as the story goes, he made it across successfully and the couple lived happily ever after (less like tinder).
Now, if Gullfoss is a titan, Dettifoss has to be among the gods of waterfalls.
Situated in North East Iceland, Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in Europe. At a height of 44 m (144 ft), Dettifoss boasts an incredible waterflow of 193 m3/s, which converts to 96,500 gallons every second.
And, where Gullfoss is fed by Langjökull glacier, Dettifoss is fed by the much larger Vatnajökull glacier, the largest glacier in Europe, covering 14% of Iceland’s landmass.
In fact, Vatnajökull glacier is so large that it could comfortably fit all of Europe’s glaciers inside of it, and it even sits on top of 4 major volcanoes: Grímsvötn, Bárðarbunga, Öræfajökull, Holuhraun.
You can be sure that volcanoes in Iceland are often regularly active, especially Grímsvötn, which at the time of writing is overdue for another eruption soon.
So, you get it, it’s huge, it’s loud and it’s an incredible feat of nature.
A lot of recent travellers, however, recognise Dettifoss more for its feature in the Ridley Scott blockbuster film, Prometheus.
For those of you who’ve seen the movie, this is the opening scene of the alien drinking an unknown substance and falling into the waters below – not a scene to recreate in real life that’s for sure!
Though Dettifoss can frequently be inaccessible in the depths of winter (December – January) due to the amount of snowfall the North of Iceland gets each year, if you’re travelling outside those months it’s worth noting that you can visit the waterfall on both sides of the canyon (west and east).
The western point has better tarmacked roads, a well maintained car park, and some helpful trails to keep you right. Whereas, the eastern side will require at least a 40-minute drive on a less maintained gravel road, but it will allow you to get that extra step closer to the waterfall itself.
No matter when you go, this waterfall is an impressive sight to behold on your trip to Iceland. Take your time getting to there and make sure to be careful on the slippery rocks beside you. It goes without saying that this is one waterfall you absolutely don’t want to slip into!
Saying you’ll need to wear your waterproofs on your visit is an understatement. In fact, each time I’ve visited this waterfall I have been completely drenched for hours, camera included.
If you have a little extra time in the area, you can equally walk a little upstream (South) to Selfoss waterfall, and downstream (North) to Hafragilsfoss. Though these sister waterfalls are not at the same scale of power and size as Dettisfoss, they are still very much worth a visit and a snap.
If you’ve come this far in your planning process and not seen about 6000 images of Skógafoss I am baffled!
As one of the most photographed, filmed, and shared waterfalls in Iceland, Skógafoss stands as one of the most visited locations in the whole country, particularly if you take one of the great Iceland south coast tours available.
Situated in the village of Skógar, the waterfall itself can easily be seen from the main road (route 1) you’ll be travelling on. After a quick pull into the town you’ll be able to park your car or even pitch your tent (if you’re planning a summer trip) right outside of this magnificent waterfall.
For most travellers, Skógafoss will be the second waterfall in quick succession you’ll visit on your day, having most likely stopped at the equally impressive and sized, Seljalandsfoss, 15-minutes closer to Reykjavik.
However, if I had to pick between the two, it has to be Skógafoss. Wedged between both Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers, it is another powerful waterfall pouring from a height of 60 m (197 ft).
When you visit, you’ll be able to walk right up close no matter which season you’re travelling in, and even climb the steps up 60 m to the top of the falls on the eastern side, and either start a hike or simply check out the aerial views from above.
Where Dettifoss is most recognisable for it’s feature in Prometheus, you’ll be doing a good job to find a film or TV show based in Iceland which doesn’t at least include a clip of Skógafoss.
For instance, just off the top of my head, there’s the following: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, Thor: The Dark World, and of course Game of Thrones (though they enhanced the waterfall to look a little more bizarre!)
Don’t worry, I know what you’re thinking, and yes there absolutely is a folklore tale of Skógafoss too!
Legend has it that the first Viking who settled in this area was a man by the name of Þrasi Þórólfsson. It’s claimed that he buried his treasure chest filled with gold behind the falls of Skógafoss (there’s a theme with hiding treasure in Icelandic storytelling!)
It was later said that a local boy had found the chest years later, and was even able to take hold of the ring on the side of the treasure chest before it completely vanished once more.
Some believe the boy retained the ring from the chest, which can now be seen in Skógar museum where you’ll be able to make up your mind on whether this story is true or not.
I’ll level with you, this is where my waterfall choices get a little bit edgy.
Very few travellers, and even not many locals, know about the sibling waterfall of Skógafoss known as Kvenufoss.
But for me this is what makes it a real treat to go and visit.
If you park your car at Skógar Museum, walk towards the fields to the right (East), climb over the stye and continue towards the river (this is also a great place to get a picture of an Icelandic horse!), you’ll find a small trail to your left alongside the river’s edge which will take you straight to the waterfall.
It’s a short but beautiful walk. And while the crowds in their dozens will be standing around trying to capture the perfect picture of Skógafoss, you’ll have the equally impressive Kvernufoss all to yourself.
Aside from the fact that few people seem to know of this incredibly accessible waterfall’s existence, there is another fantastic feature to visiting Kvernufoss – you can walk directly behind the waterfall itself.
The cavern behind the falls is huge in size and reminiscent of Seljalandsfoss, which you will likely have stopped off at on your day already.
I have also never come away from a trip to Kvernufoss and not stood directly in a rainbow.
I know what question you’ll ask – do I have several pots of gold at home? And, though begrudgingly this has yet to happen, it is still an incredibly wonderful experience.
For the film and TV buffs among you, Kvernufoss was featured in the TV series, Vikings, where the character Floki see’s a vision of the Asgardian norse gods. I haven’t experienced that yet myself, but I will certainly update this article if I do!
For those of you planning a visit to the south coast of Iceland, you’ll want to ensure that Kvernufoss has a place on your list.
Dynjandi Waterfall: Wikimedia. CC. Hjalmar Gislason.
Dynjandi, otherwise known as ‘Fjallfoss’, is perhaps the greatest spectacle of Iceland’s much underlooked westfjords.
With a series of mesmeric waterfalls cascading down 100 m (330 ft) from the mountain pass of Dynjandisheiði, this is by far my favourite waterfall in the whole of Iceland.
It’s the perfect mixture of power, scale and position.
Now, I’ll be honest with you, very few travellers at the moment take the time to venture into the westfjords, in part due to the inaccessibility during the winter season and the impact it has on the local road network.
However, with the infrastructure in the region continuing to build at a fast rate and the popularity of travelling to Iceland during the summer months, more and more visitors are now including this region in their itineraries, and for good reason.
Dynjandi itself, allows you to walk from the base of the Arnarfjörður fjord all the way to mid-way up the most impressive section – you can even easily touch the waters as they trickle beautifully down the mountainside.
For the photographers among you, this is the ultimate stop in Iceland, particularly if you’re able to spend some time at Dynjandi around the stunning golden hours in the day.
And much like the other waterfalls I’ve described in this article, Dynjandi has a very unique place in Icelandic folklore.
Legend has it that Dynjandi is actually the cascading bridal veil of a jilted giantess, whose thunderous roar of heartbreak can be heard from the very mouth of the fjord to this day with each crash of its waters.
Though this story sounds the most bizarre of the bunch, once you get a little closer to the waterfalls peak, take a moment to breathe in the panoramic views of the fjord around you, and see if you can feel the story come to life.
I hope you enjoyed reading through my list of the top 5 waterfalls in Iceland. If not to directly support your travel plans, then to at least give you some great stories to share in the car as you journey through one of the most beautiful terrains on Earth.
Whether you’re planning on travelling with an Iceland summer package, an Iceland winter package, joining a small group guided tour of Iceland, an Iceland private guided tour, or even just braving it and going alone, you are in for a treat when you visit some of these unique natural wonders dotted all around the country.
Take your time to enjoy your surroundings, snap your photos, and remember the tales that have been passed on through the great storytellers of Iceland that, whether you believe them or not, transform this environment to something even more intriguing than you would otherwise have thought!