Waterfalls are some of the most recognizable features of Iceland. With frequent snowfall and expansive glaciers, it’s not surprising that the country is alive with rivers, lakes, ponds, and streams. But indeed it’s Iceland’s waterfalls that are the true jewels of the landscape. Here are our top 10 roundups of the most epic waterfalls in Iceland.
Most noteworthy of all is Gullfoss, closest to Reykjavik. As one of three stops on the Golden Circle, Gullfoss remains the most popular waterfall in Iceland. Its power comes from the mighty Hvíta river, from the roots of the great glacier Langjökull. It travels long and far, to plunge down in two tiers into the narrow Hvitargljufur gorge. Gullfoss (“golden waterfall”) is an emblem of Iceland and appears in many Icelandic paintings and folktales. One local story tells the tale of Sigríður Tómasdóttir, the daughter of a landowner in the early 20th century. She was an environmental activist who struggled to save the waterfalls from exploitation. Perhaps because of her efforts, today it is under government-protected status.
Located in the northern highlands not far from Lake Mývatn, Dettifoss is a marvel to see. It’s accessible by a long drive and a short hike from Akureyri. Dettifoss is the certainly most powerful waterfall in Europe, a veritable Northern Niagara. It boasts an average flow of 193 m3/s (in other words, around 6816 ft3/s). That’s more than 3 million US gallons per minute! The water originates from the massive Vatnajökull ice cap to the south and travels a great distance. Brownish rainfall and glacial silt tumble together into the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river for miles. Finally, the water makes it to Dettifoss, to drop down around 144 feet into the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon. The thunderous din is enough to set your teeth on edge. Film buffs will recognize the falls as the location of a scene in the 2012 film Prometheus.
Goðafoss is a quiet yet alluring fall right on the Ring Road on the way east to Akureyri. It plays an important role in Icelandic history. In the year 999, the government debated whether to accept Old Norse paganism or Christianity as the official religion. The decision ultimately fell to Lawspeaker Þorgeir Þorkelsson, who spent one restless night wrestling with the choice. At dawn, he announced that from that day forth, Icelanders would be Christian. He returned to his farm and threw his idols of the Norse gods over into the nearby rapids. Consequently, today the falls are known as the “Waterfall of the Gods.”
While not as dramatic as its sisters, Selfoss is rather beautiful in its own way. This wide and powerful waterfall is located in the north, another runoff from the river Jökulsá á Fjöllum. It is just a few hundred meters downstream of its cousin, the powerful Dettifoss. Though not particularly tall (only around 36 feet), it stretches wide like a horseshoe. These falls are particularly gorgeous in winter when the icy hand of winter gives birth to icicles and frozen droplet
The beautiful cascades of Hraunfossar are a photogenic series of waterfalls in western Iceland. The name Hraunfossar means literally “lava falls.” This is due to the way the water tumbles out over almost 3000 feet of lava! To reach the falls, drive 34 miles from Borgarnes. In summer the water is particularly forceful. To be sure, though–no matter which season you go, it’s guaranteed to be stunning.
Skogafoss is just a short stop on the Ring Road and tends to draw major crowds. First of all, its classic rectangular body embodies the ideal waterfall. This is exactly what people think of with the word waterfall. Secondly, it’s a simple left turn off the main highway. Its convenient location and noteworthy beauty certainly make it attractive to photographers. On sunny days, you can usually count on a single or double rainbow! Folk legend recounts how the VikingÞrasi Þórólfsson reportedly buried a treasure chest in a cave behind the falls. Apparently, it is still hidden there. One day, a local boy stumbled on a glittering ring at the base of the waterfall. The ring was later melted and the gold embedded into the church door of nearby Skogar. Have a peek around–who knows, maybe you’ll find the chest.
Next, we come to Svartifoss, which while more inaccessible, is, in fact, one of the most photographed of Icelandic waterfalls. The “black waterfall” is aptly named, as its water tumbles out over a curtain of jet-black basalt columns. If you go hunting for these falls, make sure you bring your hiking gear. It requires some minor trekking into Vatnajökull National Park to reach. But it’s all worth it to see it, the bleached white water against the sharp edges of black rock. Svartifoss’ charming hexagonal corbels have served as inspiration for the design of the Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavik.
Another on the Southern Ring Road, Seljalandsfoss is probably one of the more popular waterfalls in Iceland. It is narrow and tall, with a drop of around 206 feet. A unique aspect of these falls is that you can walk behind them! Not surprisingly, it’s been the setting for many photographs and music videos, including one by Justin Bieber.
The jewel of the West Fjords, this impressive waterfall dips down 330 feet. “Dynjandi” means, aptly enough, “thunderous” or “resounding.” It courses down with impressive energy from Lake Eyjavatn and pours over the cliff-face like a bridal veil. Moss-colored slopes and nearby bird nests attract many an admirer. Its other name, Fjallfoss (“mountain falls”) seems to speak to its curtain-like shape. The waterfall has seven tiers in all, each with a name, which lends a special “wedding cake” quality to the water. Visitors can walk up on the side of the falls, but bring your hiking boots as they can be slippery.
Finally, there is Bruarfoss, a truly hidden gem located in a cottage area just beyond the Golden Circle region. If you Google Bruarfoss, you’re most likely to find blogs trying to explain where the heck the falls are located, like I said – a truly hidden gem. Bruarfoss is a series of waterfalls that fall into a deeper channel turning the color of the water to a vibrant blue, especially on a sunny day. This waterfall is definitely less traveled to, but absolutely worth the visit. It might even be our favorite of all!
And there you have it! Want to see more stunning images of Iceland?
Have you visited any of Iceland’s waterfalls? If so, what was your favorite spot?
It’s truly difficult to pick a favorite waterfall in Iceland seeing as they are cascading around nearly every corner you turn, but this is what makes Iceland so magical!
Free Roamer & Travel Writer Extraordinaire