The spray of nice, cool mist swirling in the air. The constant power, powerful enough to change the landscape yet somehow silken soft. A waterfall is an wonderful experience!
Here in Iceland we bring you close to some of the most gorgeous waterfalls, or foss, in the world. Dettifoss, or Fallling Falls, made famous in movies like Prometheus, is Europe’s strongest. Skógarfoss, or Forest Falls, is said to conceal a hidden treaure ~ a chest of gold and wealth sits behind its intense veil. The waters of Goðafoss, or Gods Falls, are watched over by lava formations that have controlled respect for more than a millennia. And of course Gullfoss, or Golden Falls, with its broad and graceful tiers poses picture ideal for visitors in all seasons. And in between these cherry, silver lining the bare mountains, are tens of thousands of smaller foss, most with titles and a story or two behind them. Some are seasonal, appearing together with the spring thaws, while others remain the year round, freezing into strange winter shapes. But all bring us drop by drop back into touch with our most precious of resources: pure mountain glacial water.
Gullfoss is, in many ways, like Iceland’s Eiffel Tower, or Golden Gate Bridge. Though a natural characteristic of the landscape it’s somehow captured the hearts and imaginations of hundreds of thousands of people, and has become a must-see for both visitors and locals alike. Its beautiful tiered drop has a gentle, soothing power and regardless of the weather is always mesmerizing, even if suspended sculpture-still in winter.
After a scenic drive northward from the main highway, Route 1through meandering hills and simple landscapes, Gullfoss is hidden from view until the very last minute, tucked as it is down into a river gorge. For the first time visitor particularly, arriving at the edge of the gorge gives a sense of discovery – even though there might be people around you, there’s a feeling that yours are the very first eyes to witness the autumn’s beauty.
Imagine standing only feet away from the most thunderous waterfall in Europe, and one of the most overall impressive falls in the world. Peering down from the lip of the falls, the river below is not possible to see through a massive billow of ice-cold mist, and a sense of justified vertigo may even take hold. Across the wide glacial river Jökulsá á fjöllum, you can see tiny people on the contrary columnar basalt bank and you wonder at the reckless courage they show by reaching down to touch the water just before it descends 150 feet below. You see that you might also look just as daredevil to them!
Welcome to Dettifoss, a natural phenomenon so overpowering that it takes your breathe away. At the north of Iceland, it has some kilometers off the main highway through a barren landscape and a short hike from the parking lot, but seeing its majesty is well worth every second it takes to arrive. Choose the eastern western or side (which is a simpler drive on a paved street ) – you will not be disappointed!
It’s possible that each and every individual has envisioned, at some point in their lives, walking behind a powerful waterfall. There’s a feeling of deep mystery behind the endless curtain of mist and water that comprises a falls, and the understanding that it’s virtually impossible to stop the flow makes needing to see behind it even more compelling. The magic of Seljalandsfoss is that you can do precisely that! Seen from the southern principal highway, the falls look like any other traditional ribbon of shining water, falling over 200 feet down from a volcanic cliff. Just that alone makes it attractive.
But up close something more amazing comes to light: there’s a clear and easy, albeit muddy, path that curves up and around the falling water on a wide inset ledge many yards behind it, overhung with raw stone from which small plants and mosses grow. The photo opportunities are amazing, especially as the summer sun sits low on the horizon, shining in beyond the decoration of water, but in any season or time of day there is that special sense of fantasy at listening to the thundering falls from firmly behind them. It’s an experience not to be missed!
While some few waterfalls are possible to go behind, others keep their secrets and treasures more closely. Skógafoss is one of them. His treasure glitters bright when the sun hits it right, but no one yet has been able to recover any of it but a curcular handle that sits today in the historical musem close by. Knowing that generations of locals have wondered about the treasure adds to the drops appeal.
For many, Skógafoss is the most beautiful waterfall in Iceland. Unlike the gorge-style falls that can’t be viewed from the street, Skógafoss gleams and falls wide and gorgeous from a high cliff and on a flat and easy riverbed below. There’s a fantastic set of stairs just to the side that take you to a viewing platform at the top and the start of a well-used hiking trail, and down below again you are welcome to get as close to the thundering water as you’d like – though beware the continuous spray of icy glacial water!
It’s not hard to envision the Old Gods at Goðafoss, itself named in honor of the two which stand sentinal, frozen in rock, on either bank of the falls. This is one of those waterfalls that you just don’t expect after miles of drive over high rolling heaths. The river that feeds it, Skjálfandafljót, is fed by glacial melt, rainwater flows and springs, and cuts flat through the highlands east of Akureyri before hitting the lava at Goðafoss. That means it is not visible until you are up near it, as it demands to be seen and experienced.
The story goes that in the year 1000 AD, when Iceland officially accepted the Christian faith, the locals pitched their pagan idols into the drops as a symbolic gesture. Given the almost-mythical lava formations that seem to stand sentinel over the broad and beautiful falls, and that the Old Ways were never actually forgone from the populace, it appears appropriate that this waterfall has been selected for the job. Admirers can approach the falls from both sides, with well-signed walking trails as guides. It’s the ideal place for a picnic along the northern principal highway, and historically significant as well!
Seemingly the only bright spot along a very barren cliff, even from a distance it beckons the traveler closer, and when attained is more beautiful than you’d ever expect. It starts out as a classic glacial river toppling off the edge of a remote heath, but widens into a spectactular event as it spills forth over the layers of horizontal ridges below, forming into a river before spilling again off lower ledges in more compact forms and eventually out to sea.
Getting to this spectacle of nature is not easy – the West Fjords themselves are distant, originally only accessible via boat, and most easily traveled to with the ferry that runs to the norther border of the broad Breiðafjörður bay. Imagine, after hours of sea and waterfalls, witnessing the wonder of a 330 foot high bridal veil of water widening out over a rocky mountainside, and hiking along its banks, feeling its cool mists and hearing its own secret whispers. This is the Iceland you came to find: remote and full of wonder!
At the end of a long, deep and incredibly beautiful fjord is the waterfall Glymur, the highest falls in the nation. From a high escarpment, such as a thin ribbon it falls 650 feet into the river below, which feeds into Hvalfjörður, just a short distance north from Reykjavík. It’s not something you can see from the street that winds through the fjord – there are three paths that lead to it, but the one that provides the best view of the falls in its entirety takes a good 2 hour-long vertiginous hike. But once there, the journey is worth the effort.
Surrounded by the mystery that is Hvalfjörður, or Whale Fjord, and the silence of an area that was once the sole road to the north (the Hvalfjörður tube today redirects most visitors ) there’s a sense of escaping into a past Iceland, at once super close to the bustle of the city and very quite distant from it all. Glýmur is a natural phenomenon that’s all about the experience you have to find it, and the feeling of accomplishment upon arrival. Getting there’s not for the faint of heart, but is worth every moment of the gorgeous journey!