Iceland is often called the land of fire and ice. Water in its liquid state, however, provides visitors with some of the most memorable experiences of their stay. The good news for budget travellers is that aside from the cost of transport and parking, it costs nothing to visit the country’s most spectacular waterfalls.
There are at least 200 named waterfalls littered throughout the country. Many more flow seasonally or are insignificant enough to be ignored for the most part. Some estimates put the total number of waterfalls in Iceland as high as 10,000. Whittling it down to a short selection was a pretty challenging task, but here goes: the ten Iceland waterfalls you must visit. For more Iceland ideas, check out our 7-day Iceland itinerary and our list of 10 best hot springs.
Gullfoss is the first waterfall many visitors set eyes on. It forms one of a trio of attractions collectively known as the Golden Circle.
Fed by meltwater from Langjökull glacier, the Hvítá River pours over two steps in the rock. The first drop is 11 metres, but the second is even more impressive as water cascades almost twice as far down a sheer rock face. The water rushes into the Gullfossgjúfur canyon, a narrow gorge formed by glacial erosion and further sculpted by the river that now runs through it.
The river’s discharge is greatest in summer when warmer temperatures melt some ice upstream. Around 140 cubic metres of water pours over the rock. This waterfall is firmly on the beaten track, so don’t expect to get it all to yourself.
Another popular stop is on the south coast stretch of the ring road, not far from the turnoff for the ferry to the Westman Islands. Seljalandsfoss is unusual in that it’s possible to follow a trail behind the curtain of water. The path can get a bit slippery. On the left-hand side, as you face the falls, the steps cut into the rock are a bit steeper. Nevertheless, it’s worth risking muddy hands for that view looking out over the surrounding countryside.
If you can, try to visit under blue skies. Watch through the waterfall as the sun sinks under the horizon, casting a warm light over the rocks. A short trail leads to another waterfall. Gljúfrabúi is easily missed as there’s only a narrow gap in the rock face in front of it. You can peer through without getting very wet, but you’ll need wellies if you want to get right up close.
Many travellers combine Skógafoss with Seljalandsfoss. They’re only about 20 minutes apart, and both are right on Route 1. Skógafoss is the wider of the two, and the volume of water dropping down into the river below is impressive even if you’re suffering from waterfall overload.
To the right of the falls, as you look at them, you’ll find a metal staircase. It’s worth climbing to the top to see the water cascade over the edge and to appreciate the coastal setting. Skógafoss used to drop directly onto the beach. After centuries of erosion, it’s now a long way inland. Hike a bit further with the sea behind you to see just how pretty the landscape is up here.
This Skaftafell gem is in Vatnajökull National Park. Framed by tall basalt columns, a crescent-shaped arc of dark rock accentuates the foamy white water that pours over it. Undercutting has eroded back the base of the falls, leaving a shaggy top layer. The result is one of Iceland’s most photogenic waterfalls.
The hiking trail to reach Svartifoss climbs steadily, but for most people, it’s doable if you take your time. Unlike Seljalandsfoss or Skógafoss, you can’t walk right up to the waterfall as it’s protected. There is, however, a small viewing platform where you can perch and enjoy the view.
Hraunfossar isn’t one but a whole landscape of tiny falls that tumble over the edge of an old lava field. Their collective impact, plus a convenient location an hour or so from the capital, make this a popular stop for tour buses. It’s stunning in autumn when leaves on the birch trees and blueberry bushes turn red and orange. Go early or late in the day, though, and you’ll find it less crowded.
A few minutes walk along a short trail leads to another waterfall, Barnafoss. The name means “children’s falls”, and it’s tied to a tragic legend. Two children tumbled from an old bridge that once spanned the falls and drowned. Their distraught mother cursed the bridge and, driven to insanity, vowed that any other youngsters who tried to cross the falls would meet the same fate.
Kirkjufell translates as “church mountain”. These twin double drop waterfalls are perfectly placed to add foreground interest to your pictures and selfies of this imposing peak. You won’t be alone, though. Many people reckon this is the most-photographed mountain in the country. Located on the Snaefellsnes peninsula, the falls are easily visited on a day trip from Reykjavik. Still, if you’re travelling in the darker months (September to March), it’s worth booking overnight accommodation nearby. That’s because the dark skies make this an ideal location to spot the Northern Lights.
Dettifoss is one of several north Iceland attractions that together form what’s known as the Diamond Circle. It can be accessed on both sides, though the road and facilities on the western bank are superior. Dettifoss is Europe’s second-largest waterfall (Germany’s Rhine Falls is bigger) when measured by the volume of water.
You’ll find Dettifoss on the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river, which is fed by Vatnajökull, the country’s largest glacier. Standing next to it, the sound of rushing water is deafening. The sight of so much greywater crashing into the Jökulsárgljúfur will blow your mind. But it’s not the only waterfall in this area. Follow the trail south for a few minutes, and you’ll reach Selfoss. Selfoss is a broad waterfall that itself has an impressive 11-metre drop.
The River Skjálfandafljót plunges over a 12-metre drop to form Goðafoss. Before doing so, it crosses an ancient lava field, the remnants of a past eruption of Trölladyngja volcano.
The name of this horseshoe-shaped waterfall translates as “the waterfall of the Gods”, and it certainly has a heavenly beauty. But the name comes from the actions of a pagan chieftain called Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði. Around 999AD he converted to Christianity and, in doing so, threw statues of his Norse gods into the waterfall. If you’re careful, it’s possible to clamber down to the river, though the rocks do get slippery. These days it’s frowned upon to throw anything into the water.
This waterfall, also known as Fjallfoss, lies off the beaten track in the West Fjords. Its unusual appearance, likened by some to a wedding cake or a bride’s veil, makes it worth the long drive. The waterfall is about 100 metres. It’s fed by water running off a mountain plateau called Dynjandisheiði. It’s almost twice as wide at ground level as it is at the top.
This place is even more jaw-dropping because Dynjandi is only one of seven waterfalls that cascade in steps down the hillside. Beneath it are Hæstahjallafoss, Strompgljúfrafoss, Göngumannfoss, Hríðsvaðsfoss, Hundafoss, and Bæjarfoss. While each is much smaller, the collective sight (and sound – Dynjandi translates as “thunderous”) is nothing short of breathtaking.
A decade ago, if you’d have asked an Icelander the name of their tallest waterfall, they’d have told you it was Glymur. With a drop measuring 198 metres, it dwarfs many of the country’s other waterfalls. Unfortunately for Glymur, in 2011, someone found that another waterfall, called Morsárfoss, was just a little taller. That one is 228 metres created as a result of a thaw in the Morsárjökull glacier.
You’ll need to cross a moving glacier to reach it, which means kitting yourself out with crampons, ice axe and ropes. However, it’s a little easier and worth the effort to get the previous record holder on foot, even if it is still a challenging hike. Take the Leggjabrjótur (Broken Leg) trail. You’ll need to navigate some steep stretches as you make your way through the Botnsdalur valley and cross the river a couple of times, but the view from the top is spectacular.