Gullfoss waterfall is the most beautiful and interesting in Iceland
Updated: Sep 4
Why should you visit Gullfoss waterfall?
1. The waterfall is one of the most beautiful natural wonders in Iceland.
2. The distance from Reykjavík is 120 kilometers (75 miles)
3. Gullfoss is only about 10 minutes drive from Strokkur erupting Hot Spring
4. The two cascades make the waterfall unique worldwide when it comes to beauty
5. One of the first waterfalls in the world to create a dispute building a power plant
6. Gullfoss waterfall is part of Hvítá, the longest river in Iceland
7. You can visit Gullfoss any time and every season of the year
8. The area around the waterfall has a good parking lot
9. By the waterfall is a good restaurant, public toilets (restrooms) and a café
10. Admission is free
Gullfoss waterfall (The Golden Waterfall) is Iceland's best-known landmark and national wonder. Gullfoss waterfall is gorgeous and has made it to many lists of the most beautiful waterfalls in Europe or even on the planet. Icelanders will insist it is the most beautiful waterfall in Iceland and in the world. However, the waterfall is stunning and, in any sense of the word, a great place to visit as it contains many geological and geographical ingredients.
The waterfall, origin, and geology
The river that feeds the waterfall
The river Hvítá feeds Gullfoss and is one of Iceland's largest rivers. It originates in many branches of smaller rivers, creeks, lakes, direct runoff streams, spring-fed rivers, and glacial rivers from beneath two large glaciers, which spread over a large area in the Highland. One of the primary sources is the Hvítárvatn lake, a glacier lagoon by the east side of Langjökull glacier. The river rushes 40 km, 25 miles, from the lake through the Highland before cascading into a two-step gorge that makes up the base of the spectacular Gullfoss waterfall.
The two parts of the Gullfoss waterfall
The above step facing south is 11 m high, 36 feet, and the other level facing west is 22 m high, 72 feet. The gorge below the cascade that the river has carved out throughout thousands of years, called Hvítárgljúfur, is about 40 to 50 meters, 160 feet deep, and around 4 kilometers. 2.5 miles long. All ingredients contribute to the spectacular natural wonder that is the Gullfoss waterfall.
The volume, force, and flow of the water
Even though Gullfoss is always a powerful sight with a massive flood of water as the mighty river Hvítá falls down to the gorge; there is an enormous difference in the volume deepening at the time of year. The average flow is about 110 cubic meters pr. second. The river can be twentyfold in its most aggressive mode during spring, and the flow becomes around 1800 to 2000 cubic meters pr. second. Occasionally, the water flow increases to a point where the lower waterfall disappears as the water fills the gorge. Therefore, similar to many other natural wonders in Iceland, the Gullfoss waterfall is not static but an ever-changing phenomenon. This fact also provides Gullfoss with many faces as the waterfall is quite different from one season to another.
Service and parking lots by the tourist attraction
It was as early as the late 19th century that Gullfoss became a tourist attraction. It was possibly one of the first natural wonders visitors experienced when they came to Iceland. Explorers who came to Iceland usually advertised the waterfall as one of Iceland's most exciting places to visit. Therefore, Gullfoss became one of the major attractions early on. However, it wasn't until the last two decades that the number of visitors drastically increased. As a result, Icelanders and people responsible for the region around the waterfall developed the area for providing both services and safety.
Service today by the waterfall
Currently, the area around Gullfoss is in good condition to receive thousands of visitors every day. There are good food and restroom services along with the typical tourist shops. The paths to the observation platforms are great in all weather conditions, and like the waterfall, lead you to the observation platforms both at an upper and lower level.
Like many places in Iceland, Gullfoss has its folklore
A little ahead from Gullfoss lies beautiful and dangerous rapids that is not wise to cross, although some have. One of them was a young man overseeing his father's livestock on the river's west bank. On the opposite side, a young woman had the same duty toward her family. Finally, they started communicating by shouting to each other over the water's noise. As fate would have it, they fell in love, and the young man shouted a proposal across the river. The young woman accepted on one condition: that he crosses the river to seal their engagement. He fulfilled her wish and they lived happily ever after.
History: The farmer's daughter that saved the waterfall
In the early 20th century, interest in producing electricity and building hydroelectric power plants increased as there were many rivers and waterfalls present in Iceland. A farmer who held the Hvítá water rights made a Gullfoss contract with an English firm to build a hydroelectric power station. However, the farmer's daughter, Sigríður Tómasdóttir, did not appreciate the plan and became so incensed that she threatened to throw herself into the falls if her father didn't withdraw the contract. She fought this imminent disaster alone until a young lawyer—who later became Iceland's first president—joined her in this mission. Together, they managed to save the waterfalls. In 1978, the farmer's daughter was commemorated by a monument by her much beloved Gullfoss.
Most visitors find it sufficient to take a picture on either the upper or the lower level of Gullfoss. The upper level is by the service center and the best place to park a vehicle, and it is the most common viewing point. Many visitors also take photos of the path that stretches from the lower level to the small cliff that is west of the upper waterfall. This part is usually closed during winter and should not be used when the closed signs are up. On the other hand, the variables that define Gullfoss are many and of great interest to professional photographers. The pioneer photographer Sigfús Eymundsson (1837 – 1911) was the first to take Gullfoss photos. He had a photographic studio in Reykjavík and was the first person to work as a photographer in Iceland. Eymundsson was instrumental in defining many of the current natural wonders in Iceland as he was also the first to take photos of places like Gullfoss, Geysir, and Seljalandsfoss waterfall. Interestingly, many landscape painters at the time painted their paintings after photos from Mr. Eymundsson. It is also noticeable when we look at his pictures of Gullfoss, for instance, that he discovered all the best angles and views that we appreciate today. You could even say that he defined how Gullfoss is still seen today. Mr. Eymundsson was also an entrepreneur and started and owned a bookstore in Reykjavík. You can still visit his bookstore, that he started in 1874, at Skólavörðustígur in Reykjavík.
The volume and the seasons
The volume of water that varies between seasons has already been mentioned; the winter season is also impressive when the waterfall is frozen. Even during summer, the long hours of sunlight define infinite possibilities to photograph this spectacular natural wonder, not to mention the nights the northern lights come out. Gullfoss is undeniably an incredible natural wonder and an experience to be felt in any condition.
To visit Gullfoss from Reykjavík city
If you are visiting Iceland for a vacation or just a short tour, Gullfoss is one of the places you should visit. It only takes a few hours to drive to the waterfall from Reykjavík. To organize your tour in a rental car, I recommend that you read my article about the Golden Circle drive.