Gullfoss is Iceland’s most famous waterfall. The name Gullfoss means “Golden Falls” in Icelandic, and comes from the fact that on a sunny day the water will sometimes take on a golden-brown color. This is from sediment in the glacial water, collected over millions of years. The popularity of Gullfoss is largely due to its inclusion, along with Thingvellir and Geysir, as one of three major attractions on the extremely popular Golden Circle Tour, a day tour by bus that travels the Golden Circle in the south. Many visitors to the area claim that Gullfoss is the most beautiful waterfall in all of Iceland.
Gullfoss is located in the upper part of the Hvítá River and is separated by two distinct right-angle drops that span its entire width. The total cumulative drop of the falls is around 32 meters, with the upper drop having a height of 11 meters and the lower drop being 21m tall. The crevasse was created at the end of the last Ice Age by catastrophic flood waves. It’s lengthened each year by about 25 cm due to the constant erosion from the water. When you view the waterfall from the main overlook, it seems to be even taller, as the falls seemingly plummet into the deep Earth. Be careful to stay inside the marked trails, as falling at this height can be deadly. Be cautious of children around this area.
Getting to Gullfoss
The drive to the falls, starting from Reykjavik, should take you about 90 minutes. Drive 54 kilometers east from Reykjavik along the Ring Road. Along the way, you’ll pass by Geysir, another main attraction in the Golden Circle tour, as well as a few small towns. Near the town of Selfoss, the largest town in South Iceland, you’ll take a left turn on to route 35. Follow route 35 for 70 kilometers until you reach the parking area for Gullfoss, which is clearly labeled.
Gullfoss Drying Up?
In the early 20th century there was a lot of discussion about using the power of this waterfall to harness electricity. Foreign investors, who were renting Gullfoss from the owners, wanted to build a hydroelectric power plant on the waterfall. This would have supplied the surrounding population with a renewable source of electricity. Sigridur Tomasdottir was the daughter of one of the owners, Tomas Tomasson. She fiercely protested the destruction of this beautiful waterfall in order to build a power plant, once even threatening to throw herself into the waterfall itself to support its protection.
Thankfully, no such sacrifice was needed. With the help of her lawyer Sveinn Bjornsson, who interestingly later became the first president of Iceland, they saved the waterfall and placed it under the protection and ownership of the people of Iceland. There is a memorial to Sigridur, created by sculptor Rikhardur Jonsson, that sits by the waterfall. It’s visited each year by thousands of tourists, who are thankful to her for saving this beloved attraction.
As one of the most popular and beloved destinations in all of Iceland, this Golden Circle Tour attraction offers a one-of-a-kind view you won’t find anywhere else in the world. If you’re planning taking a trip to explore the best that Iceland has to offer, then Gullfoss should surely be near the top of your list.