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Gullfoss is one of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls. It is one of the highlights of the Golden Circle scenic route, and this, coupled with its location within easy reach of Reykjavik, makes it one of the most visited falls in the country.
Written by:
Julia Hammond
Content Writer
Published:
3 Jun 2024
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Did you know that Gullfoss is actually two connected falls that step down rather than a single, continuous cascade of water? The upper section of the falls comprises an 11-metre drop; the water then plunges a further 20 metres into a narrow chasm to reach the valley floor below.

In total, therefore, the waterfall is 31 metres high. In places, the canyon walls that flank the waterfall tower 70 metres high. Yet, impressive though it is, this is by no means the tallest waterfall in Iceland.

What makes Gullfoss a magnet for visitors, however, is the staggering volume of water that spills over the rock. According to the Environment Agency of Iceland, the average water flow in Gullfoss is 109 cubic metres per second. In summer, the waterfall is even larger; it’s not uncommon for that figure to increase to around 130 cubic metres. Occasionally, floodwaters swell the river’s discharge. One time, a jaw-dropping 2000 cubic metres per second was recorded.

The water comes from Langjökull, Iceland’s second-largest glacier; the name translates as “long glacier.” Meltwater feeds the Hvitá River, whose name, “white river”, is a clue to the turbulent nature of the water as it tumbles along the channel. Many tributary streams feed into the river as it travels along, adding to the amount of water and making it such a powerful waterfall.

Gullfoss waterfall: its formation and geological significance

Unsurprisingly, people are keen to understand how a waterfall as impressive as this came into existence in the first place. Like all waterfalls, its story has to do with layers of rock that are no match for the erosive power of a river current. The formation of Gullfoss can be traced back thousands of years, and broadly speaking, there are two main theories as to how it came about.

The first explanation would have been the most spectacular. Long before people settled in Iceland, some say that a massive glacial outburst flood that originated in nearby Langjökull had a catastrophic impact on the landscape. The force of this water carved out the canyon you see today. However, scientists believe that a more gradual process of erosion was probably more likely – if a little less dramatic.

Whichever theory is correct, the result is the waterfall and gorge you see today. After the end of the last Ice Age, sedimentary rocks, including mudstone and gravel, were deposited across the area as glacial meltwater swept across the landscape. In places, this later is almost ten metres thick. It covers much harder rock, a basaltic lava called dolerite.

Most of these deposits are closely bonded together. However, the gravel is loose, and as the water flows down the Hvitá River, it dislodges the material and carries it downstream through the Gullfossgjúfur canyon. Over the centuries, this has caused the sedimentary rock to be eroded backward, leaving a steep-sided, narrow gorge downstream of the waterfalls themselves.

Even in the depths of winter, nature's power and beauty remain unyielding and timeless.

Gullfoss’ importance to Icelandic culture and nature

Iceland is a champion of renewable energy, but sometimes, the downsides to creating such sustainable sources of power outweigh the potential advantages.

Early in the 20th century, that was the case at Gullfoss. Due to the considerable volume of water pouring over the falls, investors earmarked the location as suitable for the production of hydroelectricity. They petitioned Tómas Tómasson, the farmer on whose land Gullfoss sat, offering to purchase it. Though Tómasson wasn’t tempted to sell, he did agree to lease the land for a time.

Around the same time, Tómasson’s daughter Sigríður Tómasdóttir used to lead visitors to see the waterfall; she most likely built the first trail. She was concerned about the damaging effect that a power plant could have on the environment and campaigned to cancel the agreement.

In fighting for this cause, she shone a spotlight on Gullfoss, alerting others elsewhere in Iceland to the importance of preserving the natural landscape. Fortunately for today’s visitors, the HEP project turned out to be economically unviable, and after some missed rent payments, the contract was torn up. In time, the land was sold to the Icelandic government.

In 1979, Gullfoss and the land around it was designated a nature reserve and has been protected ever since.

A bronze monument of Sigríður Tómasdóttir

Sigríður Tómasdóttir battled for decades to protect Gullfoss. After many trips of over 100km on foot to Reykjavik, the lease was ended in 1929, and Gullfoss was given back to the Icelandic people. Sigríður is considered Iceland’s first environmentalist.

Practical advice to help you plan your visit to Gullfoss

Gullfoss is a year-round destination, so in some respects, there’s no best – or worst – time to visit. Each season has its advantages, so it comes down to personal preference.

In summer, the falls are at their largest, as rising temperatures increase the level of meltwater upstream at Langjökull Glacier. The surrounding countryside is lush and green. You’ll also have the best chance of fine weather. On a sunny day, you’ll see a rainbow shimmering in the plume of mist that rises from the waterfall.

Fewer visitors make it to Gullfoss during spring and autumn, but if your visit to Gullfoss coincides with good weather you’ll wonder why there aren’t more people at this scenic spot. In autumn, the vegetation surrounding the waterfall turns an orange-brown colour which is particularly attractive when dusted with the first sprinkling of snow.

The falls may partially freeze in winter if the weather is cold enough. When it is especially slippery, part of the trail will be closed, limiting access to some viewpoints. Nevertheless, the place is breathtakingly beautiful when the surrounding valley is covered in snow, and even more so after dark, if the Northern Lights make an appearance.

As with any waterfall, wind can blow the spray onto nearby paths and viewing platforms. When the temperatures plummet, this water freezes and can build up into a thick layer of ice. You will also find that at certain times of the year, the upper part of the walkway alongside the top of the falls is cordoned off for safety reasons.

Safety considerations in winter: If you plan to visit in winter, you may wish to pull crampons over the soles of your hiking boots to give you a better grip on the slippery surface.

Viewing points beside the falls

You’ll get your first glimpse of Gullfoss close to the car park. There’s A viewpoint that overlooks the waterfall and gives you the opportunity to take in the broader setting. From here, you’ll appreciate the scale of Gullfoss and also how a waterfall such as this changes the landscape.

Well-maintained paths guide you to various viewpoints, offering different perspectives of the waterfall. Whether you choose to admire Gullfoss from a safe distance or venture closer to the edge, it's important to be mindful of your surroundings. If you're carrying photography equipment, ensure it's protected from potential water damage and keep a lens-cleaning cloth handy.

A gravel trail hugs the hill's side to reach the falls' upper part. At the furthest point, you’ll be hiking over the faulted rock and have a close-up look. The edge is fenced off but you’ll still need to exercise caution as the rocks can be slippery with all that spray. In winter, this part of the falls can be off-limits for safety reasons.

Tourists gathered near the edge of Gullfoss waterfall in Iceland, taking photos and enjoying the powerful, rushing waters.

The trail leading right up the waterfall is open from May to November.

Amidst the autumn glow, the beauty of Gullfoss transforms into a golden spectacle, captivating the soul with its fleeting splendor

Nearby attractions on the Golden Circle

Visitors to Gullfoss often combine their trip with a stop at the Geysir geothermal area. Here, you can see steam rise from the ground and watch as Strokkur, the largest geyser in Iceland, erupts high into the air every few minutes.

Thingvellir National Park, one of the places where you can see the rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, is also a popular add-on and part of every Golden Circle Tour.

Stroll through the narrow Almannagjá Gorge to see the site of the Althing, where Iceland’s early lawmakers once met. Other attractions that are easily combined with Gullfoss include Kerið, a colourful volcanic crater.

Questions and Answers about Gullfoss

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