Chasing Waterfalls in Iceland

Iceland is the most active, geologically dynamic place I have experienced. It’s a fascinating country filled with volcanoes, moon-like lava fields and craters, glaciers, boiling mudpools, shooting geysers, and the list goes on. I’ve even seen the result of what happens when a volcano erupts beneath a glacier and causes flash flooding: a steel bridge on the side of the road mangled beyond recognition. It’s truly a land that makes you recognize and appreciate the majesty of creation and a powerful Creator.

And as much as Iceland shows its powerful natural “guns” if you will, it also is full of peaceful farmland, lakes, and an incredible amount of waterfalls. Without even pulling off the main Ring Road, you can see countless little cascades trickling down, flowing rivers, and carved-out gorges. Driving around Iceland is just as much a highlight as reaching “destinations,” which are also pretty spectacular. Today I want to share some of the waterfalls I sought out between two trips to Iceland, which were well worth the stops! 

Here they are, 11 of Iceland’s seemingly countless waterfalls:  

1. The Most Popular: Gullfoss
[southern Iceland, east of Reykjavik]

If travelers only see one waterfall in Iceland, it’s most likely to be Gullfoss. That’s because of its prime location in relation to Reykjavik. It is about 1.5 hours away from the capital city and part of the “Golden Circle,” a popular tourist route that features natural wonders that are easily doable as a day trip. Though it was certainly the most visited waterfall I went to in Iceland (a popular tour bus stop), it was no less spectacular. 

One of Iceland's star attractions: the tiered waterfall of Gullfoss

2. Behind the Scenes: Seljalandsfoss
[southern Iceland] 

This waterfall has a special place in my heart for being the first waterfall I visited in Iceland last May, and it retains its spot there as one of the most majestic. It is easy to find, just off the Ring Road. The interesting thing about this one is that you can actually walk behind the waterfall. (I didn’t though because despite being May, it was quite cold and I was more than happy to enjoy its beauty from the safety of a somewhat dry spot facing the falls.) I just love this gorgeous photo Michael captured while I was shivering beside him that became the face of our Icelandic adventure in my 2013 European picture round-up.

Seljalandsfoss, blue skies, and a misty rainbow dazzled me on my first day in Iceland

3. The One with a View: Skógafoss
[southern Iceland]

Just under half an hour further south on the Ring Road than the previous waterfall is Skógafoss. Though both of these waterfalls seem to attract their share of tour buses, our trip in the shoulder season of May proved to be relatively calm. 

You can get pretty close to the base of Skógafoss as illustrated by those two people in red!

Skógafoss is one of the country’s biggest waterfalls, but it wasn’t its size that made it memorable for me. There is a path alongside the waterfall that you can climb up. At the top, not only do you get a closer look at the waterfall but it offers a great view of the surrounding farmland. And since my heart just melts at every adorable sheep I see, this vantage point was wonderful for some Icelandic sheep spottings.

The view from the top - sadly, no sheep featured here but there were plenty behind where I was standing

4. The Architecturally-Inspiring: Svartifoss 
[southern Iceland]

Although some of these waterfalls take a little bit of driving to get to, most that I saw in Iceland weren’t much of a walk to get to from the car park. This was the furthest walk to get to a waterfall that we did - 2 km (4 km round-trip) on a well marked, easy trail. (It’s within the Vatnajökull National Park.) 

The walk to Svartifoss gave us some views of it out in the distance

Svartifoss, which translates to Black Falls, is known for its dark basalt columns behind the cascade. Seeing these falls made me appreciate where the unique structure of Reykjavík’s famous church, Hallgrímskirkja, came from: these basalt columns. The falls itself aren't very big but it is the setting that makes this one worth the hike.

5. The Local Pick: Glanni 
[northwestern Iceland]

Sometimes I get so bogged down in travel research that I forget the most logical, obvious resource. Ask the locals. That’s just what Michael did when we picked up our rental car at the airport to figure out what we should see en route during our trek northward to Sauðárkrókur. This was our first stop of this year’s trip, easily accessible just off the Ring Road. Immediately we were reminded of one of the things that makes a trip to Iceland so unique - you really can feel like an explorer charting out new territory if you ignore the short, trodden path to get to the falls. It’s incredible to be standing at a place like this and have it all to yourself! 

Glanni, the first stop of my Icelandic 2014 adventure, did not disappoint 

6. The Most Hidden: Æðafossar (Eider Falls)
[northeastern Iceland]

Finding this waterfall was a doozy, but also turned into a quite memorable drive. We thought we knew exactly where it was located, but drove past without seeing any signs. We confirmed in Húsavík’s tourist information office where it was, and were given these instructions: Drive south out of Húsavík on the main road 85. Turn right (there is no sign marking the attraction) when you see a farm with red and white buildings. Drive through a sheep farm, and when you get to a fisherman’s hut, keep right until you arrive at the falls. 

Once we made it through the farm, all sheep unharmed though startled by our car, we pulled up to this site. And once again were completely alone to soak in the beauty of Iceland.

Æðafossar (Eider Falls) in northern Iceland

7. Christian roots: Goðafoss
[northeastern Iceland]

Goðafoss means Waterfall of the Gods for its important supporting role in Icelandic history. It is said that the chieftain Þorgeir Þorkelsson decided that Iceland would convert to Christianity around the year 1000. He threw the statues of heathen gods into this waterfall, symbolizing the conversion and thus giving the falls its name.

While it wasn’t among my picks as the prettiest, it is part of the Diamond Circle which makes for a convenient addition to an itinerary. (The Diamond Circle is northern Iceland’s marketing of their version of the Golden Circle - lots of cool, natural sites all clustered in one general area.) A stop at Goðafoss is easily doable on the way to the next waterfall...

Goðafoss, the site of an Icelandic pagan god throw-down

8. The Most Powerful: Dettifoss
[northeastern Iceland]

Dettifoss has the reputation for holding the title of Europe’s most powerful waterfall.  Not only did its sheer size wow me, but as I mentioned on Monday, the fact that you can walk right up to the top of the waterfall without a single barrier surprised me. Maybe I’m just used to the “idiot-proofing” we do in the US - you can really edge up to this beast as close as you dare.

You can access Dettifoss on either bank, and we choose the east, which seemed to offer the better view (driving directions to each can be found on World of Waterfalls). If you are up for a little hike, you can continue past Dettifoss on a trail marked for Selfoss to see another waterfall. We didn’t make it to that one as we were fighting against the clock and had limited hours of daylight left. (But October’s limited daylight also meant limited tourists - I think at most there were 8 other people wandering around this popular waterfall while we were there!)

I've never been known for my graceful coordination so I didn't dare "live on the edge" to get a better view than this!

As we drove away from Dettifoss, we followed a sign for a lookout point of the next waterfall downstream, Hafragilsfoss. The spot gave us an appreciation from afar of Dettifoss' size.

9. The Canyon Cutter: Kolugljúfur
[northwestern Iceland]

This waterfall was a stop on the way back down from Akureyri to the Reykjavik area. Though I’m not sure how Michael discovered it - there seems to be little information on it, although it is a stop off for tour buses. We had good timing and arrived as a coach bus of people was about to leave, giving us once again the chance to explore completely alone. The waterfall was just as fascinating as the deep gorge that carries away its rushing waters. 

Kolugljúfur is the loudest thing going on in this serene stretch of farmland

10. Two for the Price of One: Barnafoss
[northwestern Iceland]

I wanted to stop to see Hraunfossar (see #11) and found that the stop offered a chance to see not one, but two waterfalls. A little further upstream from Hraunfossar, accessible by an easy path, is Barnafoss. It means “Children’s Waterfall,” which comes from a tragic story. The tale goes that two kids were left home while their parents attended Christmas Mass. When the parents returned home and the children were missing, it was thought that they went out to play by Barnafoss and drowned. 

The waterfall didn’t look too sinister when we visited, but like any waterfall it’s important to remember the power behind the beauty of these waterfalls. Even on a gorgeous autumnal day. On that cheery note let’s look at the last on the list...

The milky waters of Barnafoss

This looked like a potential site for a Poland Spring commercial to be shot!

11. The Most Intriguing: Hraunfossar
[northwestern Iceland]

I’m no expert on waterfalls, but I do know one thing. In a survey like I have here, in 10 out of 11 waterfalls the source of water is obvious. Meaning that usually when you look at a waterfall, you can easily identify the river/body of water that feeds the cascade. 

Unless the waterfall happens to be Hraunfossar. The water coming down the cascades of Hraunfossar seem to be coming straight out of the rocks like some magician’s trick right before your eyes. The explanation is that the water is being carried through lava tubes - but in the land of elves, it’s more fun to stick with the former explanation. Magic. 

 Hraunfossar spans for about 900 meters (about half a mile!)

Close-up of the mystery and intrigue of Hraunfossar - where is its source of water?! 

Do you have a favorite Icelandic waterfall?