Best Waterfalls In Iceland

Blessed with a unique volcanic geology and variable climate, Iceland is a land sculpted by elemental forces like fire and ice. Nowhere is this more evident than in Iceland's plethora of exceptional waterfalls carved through its fractured terrain. Iconic cascades draw visitors from across the globe eager to admire their majestic torrents of glacial meltwaters and associated legends that excite the imagination. From the Golden Falls of Gullfoss and its narrow plunge through an ancient rock gorge to the unusual hidden oasis of Hraunfossar trickling from a lava field, the diversity proves staggering. Powerful torrents like Dettifoss contrast colorful cascades at Aldeyjarfoss, yet all share origin from the country's mammoth Vatnajökull ice cap. Even the thundering Skógafoss and its haunting folktales surrounding buried Viking treasure captures Iceland's spirit of mystery and adventure. For waterfall enthusiasts, photographers, or outdoor adventurers, Iceland promises marvels around every bend fed by ice and fire under the Midnight Sun.

Gullfoss - Iceland's Famous Golden Waterfall

Regarded as Iceland's most famous waterfall, magnificent Gullfoss lies in the popular Golden Circle route, drawing tourists in droves. This iconic cascade sees the Hvítá glacier river plummet a total of 32 meters in two dramatic stages into an ancient riverbed valley. The enormous volume thundering over its brink creates awe-inspiring views. The name Gullfoss translates to “Golden Falls” in Icelandic, likely attributed to the radiant light that shines on its cascades at sunset. But a legend suggests it earned such a gilded name from riches rumoured buried in silt after a tragic accident in the early 20th century. On sunny summer days when the fall's spray sparkles just right, it appears positively golden. Gullfoss’s origins contrast with today’s beauty. It formed thousands of years ago within a large crack in the landscape called a graben valley. The underlying geology features two parallel faults with an indented section dropping down between them. For ages the relentless erosive force of the Hvítá River slowly deepened this crack, creating the canyon Gullfoss now flows through.


The upper cascade at Gullfoss drops 11 metres over the cliffs marking the edge of the formerly flat Graben valley. But it's the second longer drop of 21 metres that draws attention - a dramatic freefall into the gorge, spraying mist high into the air which frequently generates rainbows on sunny days. In winter, sections freeze solid into glistening columns and icy caverns. At peak capacity, the mighty Gullfoss waterfall clocks in at an incredible 140 cubic metres discharged every second. Come winter when some upstream tributaries freeze over, flow can diminish to just 20 cubic metres per second. Yet no matter the season or vantage point, Gullfoss appears strikingly beautiful and commands awe.


Best Times to Visit

As Iceland's iconic must-see waterfall along the popular Golden Circle route, stunning Gullfoss draws enormous crowds, especially in summer. For thinner crowds with plenty of elbow room to admire Gullfoss's awe-inspiring cascades, late April through May serves well. This window provides long daylight, thawed walking paths, and peak snowmelt-swollen flow surging over its cliff edges unseen any other time of year. July at Gullfoss shifts exceptionally busy, as visitors flood in recognizing Iceland's warmest, longest days coincide with peak waterfall capacity. But if hoping to witness Gullfoss's enormous 140 cubic meters per second discharge rate thunderously plunging into its ancient rock gorge, the lively crowds seem a bearable tradeoff. Just arrive early before tour buses pile in!  If seeking tranquillity, try September when children return to school. Lesser crowds, stunning autumn colours in the canyon backdrop, and Gullfoss still flowing robustly as glacial summer runoff slows the pace. Regardless of visiting Gullfoss in freezing January overcast or at full sun-sparkled glory in June, the falls mesmerize eternally. Yet viewing during peak flow frames its iconic cascade best. Plan flexibility around fickle Iceland weather, but do include experiencing mighty Gullfoss any time the chance arises!

Gullfoss waterfall

Gullfoss waterfall

Skógafoss - Stair-stepping Giant of the South Coast

Plunging 60 meters over Iceland's south coast, magnificent Skógafoss mesmerises with its mammoth cascade and stair-stepped shape. The falls dump an estimated 2000 litres of water per second over alternating shelves of black basalt and rocky sediments, before thundering down on the cliffs below and drenching onlookers in sea spray. What makes Skógafoss so recognisable is the stark “steps” its waters tumble over. This design comes from softer sediments wearing away quicker beneath the falls, exposing more resistant palagonite basalt cliffs. The cumulative effect creates giant landings partway down Skógafoss’ overall drop. These unique tiers provide drama and amplify the noise into a deafening roar. Adventurous travellers visiting Skógafoss should hike up its eastern side to reach the dramatic clifftop viewing area. Handle winds carefully though, as gusts intensified by the falls and sea can suddenly whip by and destabilise footing. But breathtaking vistas over the falls and south coast open from this perspective.


Legends & Folklore

An intriguing legend rooted in mystery surrounds Skógafoss waterfall, weaving a tale about the very first Viking settler of Iceland. According to folk stories passed down through generations, Þrasi Þórólfsson buried a large locked treasure chest filled with gold coins and priceless jewels behind mighty Skógafoss over a thousand years ago.

But so the dramatic tale goes, Þrasi cursed the gold hoard to protect it from future pilferers. The curse promised misfortune and death upon anyone else attempting to dig up and steal his buried fortunes hidden behind thunderous Skógafoss to this very day. For centuries since numerous excavation attempts seeking Þrasi's mythic treasures have failed...some claiming disruption by sinister supernatural forces! Thus Skógafoss and its 60 meter tall majestic curtain of falling water keeps safe its secrets through the ages. Continuing to spill endless bounty not of precious metals or jewels, yet water itself cascading over Iceland's picturesque south in abundance. Was there truth to the legends? None can yet say. But perhaps not coincidentally, visitors to mighty Skógafoss may still feel forbidden riches lie tantalizingly near behind that mystical veil of waterfall spray after all...

Seljalandsfoss - The Waterfall With a Cave Behind

The jewel amongst Iceland’s cascade crown is no doubt Seljalandsfoss. At 60 meters high and just 12 across, what makes Seljalandsfoss so incredibly unique is visitors can walk behind its parted stream of water along a trail. This provides access to the shallow cave opening behind the waterfall's veil for an otherworldly experience. Admiring a torrential waterfall from its backside is rare indeed! The origins of Seljalandsfoss contrast with most of Iceland's falls, which are sourced from large surface glaciers. Instead, water feeding Seljalandsfoss originates from the Eyjafjallajökull ice cap 20 kilometres inland. This melt filters through porous subglacial ash, gathering minerals from the 2010 eruption before percolating through underground aquifers and emerging at the cliff base. Overall a fascinating chemical journey! 


While tamer than some Icelandic falls at just 20 metres wide, once inside the moist grotto behind Seljalandsfoss it feels enormity expansive. The simple joy of winding along the path as the falls split and rejoin overhead sparks wonder. Frame bright verdant cliffs under the summer Midnight Sun, or visit on crisp wintery days to see the entire cascade frozen into a glistening ice sculpture. Both lovely! Just remember to protect cameras when walking behind Seljalandsfoss, as intense spray frequently gusts backwards and drenches anyone inside. But dancing through the mist and getting drenched lounging behind this rushing curtain of water makes the experience unforgettable. Just maybe leave the fancy coat behind for this one so you too can cross “walking through a waterfall” off the bucket list!


Seljalandsfoss Surrounding Environment

Behind the falls lies Thórsmörk, one of Iceland's most beautiful protected nature reserves filled with wildflowers and adorable native puffins during migrating season. The area is strictly regulated but offers magnificent hiking amidst untouched valleys, expansive views from atop Iceland's table mountains, and creative lava formations emerging from the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption. For great photos at Seljalandsfoss, use fast exposure speeds to freeze falling water, and bracket exposures to capture detail behind the sunlit water column. Shooting long exposures softens textures. Play with angles behind the cascade too. And for stunning winter shots, return when Seljalandsfoss's columns freeze over into a glistening ice sculpture.

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall
Seljalandsfoss Waterfall

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall

Dettifoss - Europe's Most Powerful Waterfall

With a mighty 500 cubic meters of water discharged per second over its mighty precipice, it comes as no surprise that Dettifoss claims the title of the most powerful waterfall in all of Europe. This incredible cascade is found in the northern region of Iceland within the vast wilderness of Jökulsárgljúfur National Park, fed by the massive glacier river Jökulsá á Fjöllum which originates from the imposing Vatnajökull ice cap. Spanning an incredible 100 meters wide, Dettifoss unleashes its voluminous waters 44 meters over the sheer cliff faces of the Jökulsargljúfur canyon, plunging into the basalt pillars and jagged crevasses below with brute force. On the east bank, the water violently explodes over the cliff edge, creating a churning cascade of whitewater that thrashes upon the rocks as it descends. Meanwhile, on the west side, a more gently sloping cliff face gives rise to a smoother curtain-shaped fall that maintains its form throughout the descent. Yet by afternoon when sunlight shines from the west, vibrant rainbows sparkle through the mist thrown up by both sides of the mighty Dettifoss.


The remote position of Dettifoss within Jökulsárgljúfur National Park means services are limited and roads unpaved. But this isolation amidst a stark volcanic desert creates an exceptional sense of solitude for visitors. Barren plains of volcanic sediment stretch for miles, dotted with hardy vegetation clinging to life. Basalt canyon walls frame the waterfall, carved over centuries by the relentless glacial waters constantly hammering this landscape. While always impressive no matter the season, visiting Dettifoss is best scheduled between late June through early September. During these months, snow and glacial ice melt feed the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river most heavily, allowing peak discharge rates of over 500 cubic meters per second to be witnessed. This creates Dettifoss’s most spectacular flows. Just take caution when approaching the waterfall's vicinity, as the combination of slick rocks and thundering spray can make paths precarious. Sturdy footwear is a must!

Dettifoss Waterfall

Dettifoss Waterfall

Godafoss - Historical Falls of the Norse Gods

Known as “Waterfall of the Gods,” Godafoss bears exceptional cultural significance in Icelandic history. It was at this very site along the Skjálfandafljót River in the year 1000 AD that prominent law speaker Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoð made Christianity the official and singular religion of Iceland moving forward. As the story goes, Þorgeir symbolically cast his statues and idols of the traditional Norse gods into Godafoss’s rushing waters below. Effectively rejecting Iceland’s long pagan beliefs in this act, Christianity would prevail. Today a large stone statue of Þorgeir stands proudly beside the falls, commemorating this pivotal moment that guides the nation still. Despite its mythic heritage, the scenery surrounding Godafoss evokes tranquillity more than anything. Brilliant blue pools at the base swirl with foamy white where two main flumes of waterfall plunge over 12 meters down from above. Framing the scene, verdant farmlands roll between volcanically carved valleys. Frequent rainbows sparkle in the mist where sunlight meets water. Even the native Blue-Winged Teals drifting across its placid basin seem in harmony with this locale.


For stunning photographs at Godafoss, one of the best vantage points is capturing the perfectly symmetrical horseshoe shape of the falls while standing high on the eastern bank. From here both sides of the ribbon-like curtain can be framed falling away to each side over lush emerald-green mosses clinging to the volcanic rock basin. The glassy reflection in Godafoss’s basin also makes for prize shots. A paved pathway traces around Godafoss, allowing visitors to admire it from every angle with ease. And unlike many of Iceland’s larger waterfalls, the crowds here are seldom overwhelming. Plan to linger when visiting Godafoss! While smaller in stature than some falls, there is an alluring, magical quality to this “Waterfall of the Gods” that never fails to enchant.

Godafoss waterfall

Godafoss waterfall

Aldeyjarfoss - The Rainbow-Hued Waterfall

Tucked away through Iceland’s northern rugged interior lies the mystically beautiful Aldeyjarfoss waterfall. This relatively remote cascade tumbles 20 meters over an amphitheatre of colourfully banded basalt columns near the northern portion of the great Sprengisandur plateau. But what makes Aldeyjarfoss extra magical is the kaleidoscopic effect of various mineral deposits swirled within these ancient hexagonal cliffside pillars. Like a giant’s rocky staircase, stepping stones of bright burnt orange, smokey greys, sunny yellow, and flaming red volcanic stone jut out from the cliff base. Into the pools, they create plunges Aldeyjarfoss , its average 20 cubic meters per second flow contrasting the muted palette beneath in beautiful white foam. Thus Aldeyjarfoss’s well-deserved nickname - “The Rainbow Falls.” When sunlight hits just right, its spray shines every hue too.


Neighbouring this geological phenomenon lies one of Iceland’s most remote and hostile deserts. The rocky Sprengisandur is essentially a 200-kilometre stretch of black volcanic sands scattered with lava remnants, volcanic caves, and the towering Hofsjökull ice cap glistening along the horizon on clear days. Reaching vibrant Aldeyjarfoss requires navigating the rugged Highland F26 mountain road, which is only recommended for modified 4X4 vehicles and only passable during the summer months when snow melts. But those who persevere through the Icelandic backcountry seeking Aldeyjarfoss are rewarded by discovering this painterly scene. Just remember to tread carefully when approaching. The smoothed and vibrantly coloured minerals create serious slipping hazards along the cliff ledges. Caution and safety first allow properly admiring nature’s watercolour artwork that is remarkable Aldeyjarfoss.

Hraunfossar - The Lava Field's Hidden Oasis

In the rolling farmlands of western Iceland, a magical phenomenon lies hidden beneath the rugged landscape - the subsurface waterfalls of Hraunfossar. Translating to “Lava Falls,” what appears here is the Hallmundarhraun lava field seemingly bleeding clear aquamarine water from its porous igneous rock in hundreds of places at once. The steady flow converges and sheets down terraced volcanic slopes for almost a kilometre into the Hvítá glacial river below. Unlike a single powerful torrent, Hraunfossar forms through steady seepage from the lava field's aquifer. Rivulets numbering over 100 trickles out like growing stalactites, feeding vines and moss lining the rock walls. Some emerge no wider than a foot across, eventually joining larger streams until a waterfall curtain 30 to 50 feet wide pours forth. Despite variances in size, their collective discharge measures an impressive 140 cubic meters per second!


The story behind Hraunfossar’s hidden oasis lies in the porous properties of lava rock left in the wake of ancient volcanism. Molten magma by nature forms highly porous and permeable stone. An expansive aquifer sitting beneath the Hallmundarhraun plateau collects precipitation and snow melt from atop the neighbouring Snæfellsjökull glacier, sinking deep where it gathers in subterranean reservoirs. Pressurised, this water emerges back to the surface through fractures in the lava field, sprouting forth as the hundred little springs forming stunning Hraunfossar. A well-marked walking trail traces the lengthy run of Hraunfossar, allowing visitors to easily enjoy the waterfall's full length with numerous viewing platforms dotting the route. Even in winter this unique phenomenon seldom fully freezes over. With lava fields surrounding, contrasted by vibrant blue waters cascading forth, there’s an almost supernatural atmosphere to this hidden oasis in Iceland’s wild and volcanic west.

Hraunfossar waterfall

Hraunfossar waterfall

The Majesty of Icelandic Waterfalls

As highlighted in this extensive guide, Iceland deserves its reputation as “The Land of Waterfalls.” Nowhere else on Earth can boast such a diversity of incredible cascades - from the smooth vertical plunge of Skogafoss to the multi-hued magic of Aldeyjarfoss. Even the unusual lava seeps of Hraunfossar showcase Iceland’s imaginative geology and relationship with water. But while flocking to famous staples like Gullfoss and Dettifoss, travellers should save time exploring lesser-known yet equally gorgeous falls too. The beauty of Seljalandsfoss, the spirituality of Godafoss, and the chromatic wonder of Aldeyjarfoss each tell a unique story about the elements shaping Iceland’s terrain. Just remember proper safety precautions when getting close to their brute power. By learning about the stories, records, and features of these falls, one gains a deeper connection both with Iceland and nature itself. So during your trip, venture out and be awed by the majesty carved over eons at Iceland’s sensational waterfalls. Discover just how these cascading masterpieces have inspired both legend and a nation’s identity since its very settlement. Feel small standing before their mighty rush. And maybe a glimpse of why Icelanders see the magic flowing within their sublime cascades of ice and fire.

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