Article and photos by Einar Páll Svavarsson, local photo and private guide
Gullfoss (The Golden Waterfall) in the river Hvítá is one of the best-known landmarks or national wonders in Iceland. There is no admission or entrance fee to view or walk around the Gullfoss waterfall, and parking at the parking lot is also free. Icelanders, being keen travelers themselves, will insist it is the most beautiful waterfall in the world. That is, of course, debatable but beautiful it is and has made it to many lists of the most beautiful waterfalls on the planet. Although, in essence, a flow of water is a mighty natural wonder made up of many geological ingredients.
Gullfoss waterfall is often on the list of 10 most interesting waterfalls on the planet
The waterfall, origin, and geology
The river Hvítá that feeds the waterfall has many sources that spread out in the Highland like a large tree with many branches. It is mainly a glacial river but also has its origin is spring-fed streams north of the waterfall. One of the primary sources is in Hvítárvatn lake, a glacier lagoon, by the Langjökull glacier in the Icelandic Highland. From the lake, the river rushes 40 km through the Highland before cascading into a two-step gorge that makes up the base of the spectacular Gullfoss waterfall. The above step facing south being 11 m high and the other level facing west 22 m high. The gorge below the cascades that the river has carved out throughout thousands of years called Hvítárgljúfur is about 40 to 50 meters deep and around 4 kilometers long. All things that contribute to the spectacular natural wonder we call Gullfoss waterfall.
Gullfoss waterfall in springtime
The 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 a massive difference in the volume deepening on the time of year. The average flow is about 110 cubic meters per. Second. In its most aggressive mode during spring, the river can twentyfold, and the flow becomes around 1800 to 2000 cubic meters. Occasionally the current increases to a point where the lower waterfall disappears as the water fills the gorge. So very much like many other natural wonders in Iceland Gullfoss waterfall is not static but an ever-changing phenomenon.
The volume of the waterfall at Gullfoss can vary 20 fold between seasons
Service at the tourist attraction
Even as early as the late 19th century, Gullfoss became a tourist attraction. Possibly one of the first natural wonders that visitors had to see and experience. Explorers that came to Iceland usually advertised the waterfall as one of the most exciting places to visit in Iceland. So Gullfoss early became one of our main attractions. It wasn’t until the last two decades that the number of visitors explodes. Accordingly, Icelanders and people responsible for the region around the waterfall developed the area for both service and safety. Today the area around Gullfoss is in good condition to accept thousands of visitors every day. There are good food and restroom service. The paths are great for viewing both at the upper and lower level.
Gullfoss in late winter when the volume is at minimum and the blue color is quite visible
Like many places in Iceland Gullfoss has its folklore
Upriver from Gullfoss, you’ll find beautiful and dangerous rapids that only the foolhardy will try to cross. And some have. One of them was a young man who was overseeing his father’s livestock on the river’s west bank. On the opposite side, a young woman had the same duty to her family. By and by, they started communicating by shouting to each other over the water’s cacophony. 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. That he did, and they lived happily ever after.
The lower part and the canyon grabbing the Hvítá river as it travels farther to the shoreline
History: The farmer’s daughter that saved the waterfall
In the early 20th century interest in producing electricity increase as Iceland had many rivers and waterfalls. A farmer who held the Hvítá water rights contracted Gullfoss to an English firm with a plan to build a hydroelectric power station. The farmer’s daughter, Sigríður Tómasdóttir, became so incensed that she threatened to throw herself into the falls if her father didn’t withdraw the contract. She fought this impending disaster alone until a young lawyer – who later became Iceland’s first president – joined her. Together they managed to save the waterfalls. In 1978, the farmer’s daughter was commemorated by a monument by her much beloved Gullfoss.
Hvítárgljúfur that the river craved out over a period of thousands of years
Most visitors find it sufficient to take a selfie on either the upper or lower level or the lower level of Gullfoss. The two most common viewing points. Many visitors also take photos from the path that stretches from the lower level to the small cliff west of the upper waterfall. This part is usually closed during winter and should not be used when closed signs are up. The variables that define Gullfoss, on the other hand, are many and of great interest to serious photographers. We have mentioned the volume of water that varies between seasons, winter season is also impressive in itself 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 waterfall and the walking path towards the viewing panel near the waterfall
Access is easy and part of the popular route Golden Circle
As Gullfoss is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland and with Þingvellir and Geysir is part of the popular route Golden Circle. Gullfoss is usually quite crowded during high season in summer, at least during the day. There are two parking lots, and both give a good view of the waterfall. Our preference for viewing is the lower parking lot. A great place to get good photos and probably the best angle for photography. Walking near this powerful waterfall requires caution, especially during winter when the walking paths are slippery as well as the area near the waterfall. From Reykjavík, you drive to Mosfellsbær village on the Ring Road Nr. 1. When passed Mosfellsbær you turn east on Þingvallavegur Nr. 36 all the way to Lyngdalsheiðavegur Nr. 365 to the tiny village Laugarvatn. From Laugarvatn you take the road Nr. 37, Laugarvatnsvegur to Road Nr. 35 that will get you to Gullfoss waterfall.
Article and photos by Einar Páll Svavarsson tour and photo guide