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  • Writer's pictureEinar Páll Svavarsson

Goðafoss waterfall

Updated: Apr 3, 2023

Goðafoss waterfall in north east region Iceland
It is possible to see Goðafoss as a beautifully clear waterfall in the autumn and dirty glacial water during spring

The beautiful waterfall Goðafoss is one of many along the river Skjálfandafljót. The main origin of the 180-meter-long river is at Vonarskarð (mountain pass of hope), deep in the Icelandic highland. It is one of the largest rivers in Iceland and is interesting due to the many factors that affect that waterfall’s volume and texture. Although its glacial origin is at Bárðabunga, an outlet glacier in Vatnajökull ice cap, and the tiny glacier Tungnafellsjökull north-west of Vatnajökull, the river picks up a lot of direct run-off and spring-fed rivers along the way to the shoreline. After collecting water in the highland, the river runs through an inhabitable area down the long Bárðardalur valley and continues to increase its volume via small rivers and creeks resulting in a similar proportion of murky glacial water, muddy direct run-off rivers, and clear spring-fed rivers in the stream when it arrives at the waterfall Goðafoss. These proportions of liquid ingredients vary depending on the season. Accordingly, it is possible to see Goðafoss as a beautifully clear waterfall in the autumn and loaded with forceful and dirty glacial water during spring. The primary source, though, is the Bárðabunga outlet glacier. Lurking beneath the 900-meter-thick ice is Iceland's largest, most powerful, and most dangerous volcano. Eventually, a large eruption in Bárðabunga could mean a catastrophic flow through the path of Skjálfandafljót and the end of Goðafoss as we know it today. In 2013 we came pretty close to such a scenario.

Goðafoss the waterfall

Goðafoss waterfall in winter
Goðafoss waterfall in winter

The fall is 30 meters wide, 17 meters at its highest point and 9 meters at its lowest point. The rock formation along these 30 meters makes it one of the greatest natural wonders in Iceland as it divides the waterfall into many smaller and more fascinating falls. The slightly curved upper level of the waterfall only enhances its appeal and photogenic appearance. This is one reason why many visitors consider Goðafoss to be one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland and a magnet for photographers. It also contributes to why many locals have labeled Goðafoss as ‘the Beauty' while dubbing neighboring Dettifoss ‘the Beast’. Nonetheless, both are great waterfalls along two fascinating rivers. In 2020, Goðafoss, and the area around the waterfall on both sides of the river, was defined as a place of conservation.

The waterfall Goðafoss is part of our religious history

Goðafoss waterfall in summer
Goðafoss waterfall in summer

Goðafoss means the waterfall of the pagan gods and traces its name back to a significant year in Icelandic history: the year 1000. According to the book of Christianity written in the mid-13th century, it was the year the law-speaker Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði, who lived on a nearby farm, declared at Alþingi assembly that Christianity would be the official religion in Iceland. When the chieftains at the assembly couldn't find a solution as to whether paganism should continue to be the official religion or the country should convert to Christianity, Þorgeir was given the task of making that decision. It was a huge undertaking for one man as the question had elevated the country close to the level of civil war in the decades prior. He crawled into his tent, buried himself beneath a stack of hides, and emerged with his decision three days later: the country and Icelanders would be Christian. As Þorgeir was a clever politician, he added that it would not be banned to discreetly practice paganism, a decision that contributed to a peaceful change of religion. It was, of course, a socio-economically sensible choice, as other countries at the time had a predilection towards Christianity. Þorgeir was a leader in his region, a pagan priest, and one of the most respected chieftains in the young country. He also held the highest, and only, official role in Iceland as a law-speaker. Upon returning home after his ruling, he threw all his statues of the Norse gods into the waterfall as a gesture of support towards his wise decision. From that moment, the waterfall was called Goðafoss.

Photographing Goðafoss waterfall in winter
Photographing Goðafoss waterfall in winter

Goðafoss is easily accessible

The waterfall Goðafoss is easily accessible as it is just by the Ring Road (Road no. 1) in the northern region of Iceland. There are great paths on both the east and west sides of the waterfall, and it is equally as stunning in winter and summer. It is certainly worth spending at least one to two hours to admire it and even more if you are a serious photographer.


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