The great thing about a country having 269 glaciers is that they create some pretty wonderful natural features. As Iceland’s ice caps melt and freeze throughout the year, their meltwater births waterfalls.
No matter what area of the country you’re in, you’ll find a beautiful, famous fall to marvel at. None, however, is more famous than the Golden Circle’s Gullfoss waterfall. Let's learn all about it!
Gullfoss Waterfall Facts
Gullfoss translates to ‘Golden Falls’. It was probably named this for the golden hue of its water, or the way the sun hits its sprays. Another explanation lies in an old story, featuring a farmer called Gýgur. It’s said that he didn’t want anyone possessing his gold after he died, so he threw it in the waterfall to keep it away from eager eyes.
Gullfoss waterfall is one of Iceland's South Coast main attractions. The waterfall is 32 meters (105 feet) high and lies in the Hvitá (meaning white in English) river. It falls in two stages and is formed by meltwater from the Langjökull glacier, which lies a short distance above. The waterfall is a busy one, with an average water flow of 110 cubic meters per second.
The heroine of Gullfoss
With such power, it’s not surprising that Gullfoss once attracted the attention of energy companies. In the early twentieth century, investors wanted to create a hydroelectric dam. The land’s owner, Sigríður Tómasdóttir, Iceland's first environmentalist, refused to allow this, as she wanted to preserve the waterfall in its natural state.
She managed to win the first legal battle, and eventually the site was purchased by the Icelandic government to ensure its protection. Fast forward to today and it’s of the most popular places for tourists to visit, having become part of the Golden Circle route.
How to Get to Gullfoss
Gullfoss is about 115 km (71 miles) west of Reykjavík, a journey of about an hour and a half. However, it is rare to find people who drive straight to Gullfoss and back to the capital. Instead, they take the world-famous tourist route.
Gullfoss is just one spot of many that lie on the Golden Circle route. The other two most popular stops are Þingvellir National Park and Geysir Geothermal Field. The Circle begins at the capital, taking Route 1 (the Ring Road) either clockwise or counter-clockwise.
Those that are traveling clockwise will turn onto Route 36, whereas those that choose counter-clockwise will follow Route 1 until they reach Route 35. However, it does not matter which direction you travel, as the furthest point from Reykjavík will be Gullfoss from either direction.
Many choose to rent a car in Iceland and drive the Golden Circle themselves. This gives you the freedom to stay at each stop for as long as you like, setting your own pace. Alternatively, many companies offer Golden Circle packages that include a Gullfoss waterfall tour. These will generally be in large coaches with a knowledgeable tour guide, and time is allotted to explore each site.
Ultimately, the choice is yours. While it’s nice to not have to drive, it’s also great to have an open schedule. Whichever way you view the Golden Circle, expect to be out for the whole day. In total, the route is about 230 km (143 miles). We spent about 10 hours exploring this wonderful part of Iceland.
At the waterfall itself you will find a Visitor’s Centre equipped with a gift shop and restaurant. There are two vantage points available at which to view Gullfoss: at the top or bottom of a small hill, accessible with steps. There is also a stone memorial dedicated to Sigríður Tómasdóttir near the Center.
The car park is practically in front of the waterfall, so you won’t have to walk far. But wear decent footwear regardless, because there will be walking involved at other stops along the route.
When to Visit Gullfoss
The great thing about Gullfoss is that its majestic appearance is completely different depending on when you visit.
In the summer, the sun’s reflection and the larger volume of water truly showcases its power. On the other hand, winter sees it completely framed by snow and ice, with the air’s chill giving the site an extra freshness.
We have been to Gullfoss twice, both times in the winter season, so we can firmly attest to its frigid nature. Ensure you are properly dressed, because you’re going to want to stand and stare for a while.
Since the waterfall lies in a valley and you are viewing it from above, you’ll be exposed to all the elements. Strong wind is common in Iceland's winters, which dramatically reduces the air temperature. So, ideally, pick a day with low wind speeds.
Keep in mind that if you do visit in the summer months, you’ll be in the midst of the country’s ‘high season’ and there will be many others at Gullfoss waterfall. Bring your camera along, but just know you’ll have to be patient to get a photo.
Where to Go after Gullfoss
Spending one hour is more than enough to fully enjoy Gullfoss. So, where to go next?
The Geysir geothermal field is where you can see one of the world’s few active geysers, Strokkur. It erupts approximately every 6-10 minutes, shooting boiling hot water up to 40 meters (130 feet) into the air. Whether or not you’ve been in the presence of a geyser before, this site is a must-visit.
Take a walk around the area, taking care to stick to the roped paths. The geothermal field is full of bubbling mud pools and other geysers for you to enjoy—from a safe distance.
Þingvellir is one of Iceland’s three national parks, and it’s both culturally and geologically significant. It is the site where Iceland’s—and possibly the world’s—first parliament was held; Þingvellir translates to ‘Assembly Field’. It is located nearby Gullfoss so it's a perfect stop to make along the way.
This is also where the earth’s tectonic movement is clearly on display, as the national park sits atop where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are moving apart, at 2.5 cm per year. As a result, many crafts and rifts can be observed at Þingvellir. Here's our guide to Thingvellir National Park for more information.
Kerið Crater is a deep red volcanic crater lake along the Golden Circle route, and is 170 meters (558 feet) wide and 55 meters (180 feet) deep. This is because the crater is young by geological standards: about 3000 years.
The lake also helps this site to stand out; due to minerals in the soil, the water is bright blue. Finally, the moss that lines the sides of the crater contrasts beautifully with the blue and red colors, making Kerið a piece of natural art. In order to preserve the area, the land owners now charge an entrance fee of ISK 400.
The Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon is not the only geothermal spa in Iceland; the Secret Lagoon lies in the Golden Circle. Like its blue sister, the Secret Lagoon is man-made but utilizes naturally heated water from nearby hot springs.
The water stays at a comfortable 38-40°C all the time, and there’s even a small geyser nearby to entertain you. This is the most popular natural spa in Iceland, so be sure to book in advance to guarantee the time slot you want.
A Stop at Gullfoss
Few of the waterfalls you will see around the world will dazzle you as much as Gullfoss waterfall in Iceland. With its powerful plunges, bright colors, and churning action, it will be hard to turn your back on this natural beauty.
It’s also only one out of many stops on one of the most highly rated tourist routes in the world: The Golden Circle. If you can’t decide when to visit—summer or winter—do both. You can experience the waterfall and the other wonders of Iceland as two different worlds.