Gullfoss is, in many ways, like Iceland’s Eiffel Tower, or Golden Gate Bridge. Though a natural feature of the landscape it’s somehow captured the hearts and imaginations of hundreds of thousands of people, and has become a must-see for both visitors and locals alike. Its beautiful tiered drop has a gentle, soothing power and regardless of the weather is always mesmerizing, even if frozen sculpture-still in winter.
After a scenic drive northward from the main highway, Route 1, through meandering hills and easy landscapes, Gullfoss is hidden from view until the very last moment, tucked as it is down into a river gorge. For the first time visitor especially, arriving at the edge of the gorge gives a sense of discovery – even though there may be people all around you, there’s a feeling that yours are the very first eyes to witness the fall’s beauty. Close-up and enveloped in its mists, or at a distance on a viewing platform, Gullfoss is a delight to behold!
Imagine standing only feet away from the most thunderous waterfall in Europe, and one of the most overall impressive falls in the world. Peering down from the lip of the falls, the river below is impossible to see through a massive billow of ice-cold mist, and a sense of justified vertigo may even take hold. Across the wide glacial river Jökulsá á fjöllum, you can see tiny people on the opposite columnar basalt bank and you wonder at the reckless courage they show by reaching down to touch the water just before it descends 150 feet below. You realize that you might also look just as daredevil to them!
Welcome to Dettifoss, a natural phenomenon so overwhelming that it takes your breathe away. In the north of Iceland, it’s some kilometers off the main highway through a barren landscape and a short hike from the parking lot, but seeing its majesty is worth every minute it takes to get there. Choose the eastern side or western (which is an easier drive on a paved road) – you won’t be disappointed!
It’s possible that every person has imagined, at some point in their lives, walking behind a powerful waterfall. There’s a sense of deep mystery behind the endless curtain of water and mist that comprises a falls, and the knowledge that it’s virtually impossible to stop the flow makes wanting to see behind it all the more compelling. The magic of Seljalandsfoss is that you can do just that! Seen from the southern main highway, the falls look like any other classic ribbon of shining water, dropping over 200 feet down from a volcanic cliff. Just that alone makes it appealing.
But up close something more amazing comes to light: there is a clear and easy, albeit muddy, path that curves up and around the falling water onto a wide inset ledge many yards behind it, overhung with raw rock from which small plants and mosses grow. The photo opportunities are amazing, especially as the summer sun sits low on the horizon, shining in past the ribbon of water, but in any season or time of day there’s that special sense of fantasy at listening to the thundering falls from safely behind them. It’s an experience not to be missed!
While some few waterfalls are possible to go behind, others keep their secrets and treasures more tightly. Skógafoss is one of them. In the old days of yore, a chest of gold was hidden in a cave behind the falls by one of the original settlers, a man named Thrasi (Þrasi). His treasure glitters bright when the sun hits it right, but no one yet has been able to recover any of it but a circular handle that sits today in the historical museum close by. Knowing that generations of locals have wondered about the treasure adds to the falls appeal.
For many, Skógafoss is the most beautiful waterfall in Iceland. Unlike the gorge-style falls that can’t be seen from the road, Skógafoss gleams and falls wide and gorgeous from a high cliff and onto a flat and easy riverbed below. There’s a good set of stairs just to the side that take you to a viewing platform at the top and the start of a well-used hiking trail, and down below again you’re welcome to get as close to the thundering water as you’d like – though beware the constant spray of icy glacial water!
It’s not hard to imagine the Old Gods at Goðafoss, itself named in honor of the two that stand sentinal, frozen in rock, on either bank of the falls. This is one of those waterfalls that you just don’t expect after miles of drive over high rolling heaths. The river that feeds it, Skjálfandafljót, is fed by glacial melt, rainwater streams and springs, and cuts flat through the highlands east of Akureyri until reaching the gorge at Goðafoss. That means it’s not visible until you’re right up near it, when it demands to be witnessed and experienced.
The story goes that in the year 1000 AD, when Iceland officially accepted the Christian religion, the locals tossed their pagan idols into the falls as a symbolic gesture. Given the almost-mythical lava formations that seem to stand sentinel over the wide and beautiful falls, and that the Old Ways were never really forgone by the populace, it seems appropriate that this waterfall was chosen for the task. Admirers can approach the falls from either side, with well-signed walking paths as guides. It’s the perfect place for a picnic along the northern main highway, and historically important as well!
Like a fine silver veil, the Dynjandi waterfall flows softly down a rough mountainside in the West Fjords in tiers. Seemingly the only bright spot along a long barren cliff, even from a distance it beckons the traveler nearer, and when reached is more beautiful than you’d ever expect. It starts out as a classic glacial river toppling off the edge of a remote heath, but widens into a spectacular event as it spills forth over the layers of horizontal ridges below, forming again into a river before spilling again off lower ledges in more compact forms and finally out to sea.
Getting to this spectacle of nature isn’t easy – the West Fjords themselves are remote, originally only accessible via boat, and still most easily traveled to with the ferry that runs to the norther edge of the wide Breiðafjörður bay. From there, it’s a mind-bending drive in and out of fjords, along some of the oldest and most scenic landscapes in Iceland. Imagine, after hours of cliffs and sea, witnessing the wonder of a 330 foot high bridal veil of water widening out over a rugged mountainside, and hiking along its banks, feeling its cool mists and hearing its secret whispers. This is the Iceland you came to discover: remote and full of wonder!
At the very end of a long, deep and very beautiful fjord is the waterfall Glymur, the highest falls in the country. From a high escarpment, like a thin ribbon it falls 650 feet into the river below, which feeds in to Hvalfjörður, only a short distance north from Reykjavík. It’s not something you can see from the road that winds through the fjord – there are three paths that lead to it, but the one that gives the best view of the falls in its entirety takes a good 2 hour-long vertiginous hike. But once there, the journey is worth the effort.
Surrounded by the mystery that is Hvalfjörður, or Whale Fjord, and the silence of an area that was once the only road to the north (the Hvalfjörður tunnel now redirects most traffic) there’s a sense of escaping into a past Iceland, at once super close to the bustle of the city and very very remote from it all. Glýmur is a natural phenomenon that’s all about the adventure you have to discover it, and the sense of accomplishment upon arrival. Getting there’s not for the faint of heart, but is worth every moment of the beautiful journey!