Iceland is not really a land of ice. It’s a land of waterfalls and waterfall fatigue can set in very easily. So I’ve gone through all the ones I’ve visited and come up with a top ten of waterfalls you should visit and why.
10: Faxafoss (Mane Falls)
Faxafoss is a waterfall you can very easily miss. It’s on the 35 between Skálholt and Geysir but it only features on the Golden Circle tour if your guide is making a special effort. I was taken there the first time I did the Golden Circle, when there were a dozen of us in an armoured truck in the middle of a very snowy winter and I suspect we went there partly because our guide was killing time until the sun came up a bit more.
It’s special because this is a salmon river and as salmon have some difficulty leaping up waterfalls, a salmon ladder has been built beside it. Photos in the summer show better how it works but this nice snowy photo does show it clearly.
9: Gullfoss (Golden Falls)
Gullfoss is my least favourite on the list, hands down. That’s because it’s such a major stop on the Golden Circle tours, up to two hours, because it’s got a good cafe. But Gullfoss is right on the edge of the Highlands, overlooked by a distant glowing Langjökull and it gets really cold hanging around looking at the waterfall for two hours in winter.
However, Gullfoss is big and powerful and impressive. It takes two steps down a canyon, each step turning at a spectacular angle and it throws up an amazing amount of spray and yet in the winter it half freezes. There’s a viewing platform on the middle step so you can get up close and personal with the water.
What makes Gullfoss really special is the story of Sigríður Tómasdóttir. Foreign investors were interested in harnessing the waterfall for hydroelectric production and Sigríður led the fight to save the falls, eventually threatening to throw herself in – fortunately, it didn’t come to that, and the waterfalls lived to become one of Iceland’s biggest tourist sights.
8 – Skógafoss (Woodland Falls)
Skógafoss is a waterfall you’ll get to know very well if you spent any time on the Ring Road along the southern coast. It’s a nice square straight fall, pretty powerful, sixty metres high. You can either approach it from the bottom or go up the staircase to the right of it and view it from the top. You don’t realise that sixty metres is quite horrifyingly high until you’re up there, by the way.
But the reason Skógafoss is special is because Þrasi Þórólfsson, one of the first settlers in the area, is said to have hidden a chest of treasure behind the falls. No one has ever found the treasure but it’s said that someone once found the chest and in their attempt to pull it out of the water, accidentally pulled off the handle, a gold ring that was later put on the door of the church. That gold ring is now in Skógar museum, it definitely exists but the treasure remains a legend.
7: Fagrifoss (Beautiful Falls)
Another relatively obscure one. Chances are you’ll only see this one if you take a guided tour to Laki, as it’s right up in the Highlands, on gravel tracks through the lava field where conventional vehicles and hire cars are not legally allowed. Fagrifoss makes seventh place because it is very pretty and because of the effort required to see it.
6: Goðafoss (Falls of the Gods)
Goðafoss is another “river monster”, like Gullfoss. It’s also always swarming with tourists and that’s partly because it’s a good scenic waterfall but part of its attraction is its history.
In around 999 or 1000AD, at the polite request of Ólafur Tryggvason, King of Norway, Christianity was made the official religion of Iceland at the annual þing. On his way home, the lawspeaker, Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði, stopped at Goðafoss and threw his pagan idols over the falls as a symbolic gesture of putting his old Norse gods aside in favour of the Christian god and thus making Goðafoss the most culturally significant waterfall in the country.
5: Dettifoss (Falling Waterfall)
Dettifoss takes fifth place for pure raw power. This is (disputedly) the most powerful waterfall in Europe. You may recognise it from the opening scenes of 2012’s Prometheus. This behemoth doesn’t just fall, it hurls itself off a cliff into a cloud so dense you can’t see the bottom. It’s a very violent river which is confined at this point to an astonishingly narrow canyon, which is probably why the waterfall has to turn diagonal to squeeze in.
You can approach Dettifoss from the west or the east from either of the two roads that run more or less parallel to the river. You can get closer to the drama from the east road but I think you get a better view over the whole thing from the west (and the west road is certainly a lot better).
Idiots who were born without any sense or have lost it along the way get far too close to this monstrous cataract.
4: Svartifoss (Black Falls)
Svartifoss is only accessible by foot – and helicopter, I suppose. You know you’re not going to meet a coachful of uninterested tourists here. It’s on the heathland above Skaftafell, which is surrounded by three glacial tongues. It’s an extremely decorative little waterfall, set in a little bite out of greenery and surrounded by black basalt columns. If you so desire, you can paddle in the river below it – on a hot summer day, I recommend it.
3: Hraunfossar (Lava Falls)
Oh, these ones are special. The previous eight waterfalls have all featured a river tumbling from a higher level to a lower one. Hraunfossar does not have a higher level. There is nothing more special than a waterfall that comes out of nowhere. Well, of course, it doesn’t. The river is underground, within the layer of lava and so it just pours out when it reaches the cliff.
2: Hengifoss (Hanging Falls)
I’ve talked about Hengifoss recently. It makes number two because of those spectacular red stripes and because it’s largely off the tourist trail.
1: Seljalandsfoss (I have no idea what its name means!)
Seljalandsfoss is the best waterfall in the country. Technically, I suppose, it’s two waterfalls, tumbling off the foothills of Eyjafjallajökull and it’s carved out a cave behind it. This means that you can follow a path and go behind it. It’s very, very touristy – that is, there are hundreds of people looking at it but as of the last time I was there, no tourist facilities, shops, cafes, toilets etc. Just a gravel car park and a lot of people enjoying the beautiful falling water.