With huge glaciers and high rainfall, Iceland has no shortage of freshwater. These phenomena bring with them an abundance of massive rivers and beautiful waterfalls to enjoy. Waterfalls can be seen all around the country, flowing from the center to the coastlines and into the ocean. One of the most beloved waterfalls in West Iceland is Hraunfossar, or ‘Lava Falls’.
So named because they flow from the Hallmundarhraun lava field, the Hraunfossar waterfalls drop from the river bank’s northern cliff. They cascade off the cliff and into the Hvítá (White) river over a long stretch. Hraunfossar, then, is not one waterfall, but a series of many small ones. The water that supplies these falls is meltwater from Langjökull, the second-largest glacier in Iceland. It flows into the river which, despite its name, is not white, but a rich blue color. Hvítá then continues its western flow and eventually turns south, then joins the Atlantic Ocean.
But Hraunfossar isn’t the only beautiful waterfall in the area. Only a short walk upstream will bring you to Barnafoss waterfall. The Barnafoss and Hraunfossar waterfalls are so close together that it’s a given you’ll visit both when you head there. In Icelandic, Barnafoss means ‘Children’s Falls’. It gets its name from a local folk tale, which concerns two boys who lived on Hraunsás, a farm nearby. The boys’ parents went to church and told the boys to stay at home. However, the boys became bored and wandered away from the farm, intending to follow after their parents. When the parents returned, they followed the boys’ track to the river, to a natural stone bridge over the waterfall. It was assumed that the boys must have fallen into the river and drowned. The mother cursed the bridge, which later collapsed due to an earthquake.
Barnafoss is a waterfall of rapids, squeezing through tightly-packed cliffs and crashing over rocks jutting from the river bed. The water is churned up into a white foam, then settles down as it reaches Hraunfossar.
How do I Get to Hraunfossar?
From the nation’s capital, Reykjavik to Hraunfossar is 126km (78 miles), a journey of around 1 ½ hours. Take your car rental in Iceland and join the ring road (Route 1) heading north, and follow it until you reach the turn-off for Route 50. Follow Route 50 until it merges into Route 518, and continue along that until you reach the turn-off for Hraunfossar. The road will be signposted ‘552 Barnafossvegur’, and this will lead you to a car park. From there it is a short walk to the viewpoint to see Hraunfossar, then it’s another short walk to Barnafoss.
There’s also a restaurant/café on-site if you want to refresh yourselves before moving on. If you look at Hraunfossar on a map, you’ll notice that you’ll be driving into the interior of the country. So, be prepared for all weathers; bring warm, waterproof clothing, no matter the season. There’s a small village about 15 minutes away, Reykholt, if you need supplies. At Reykholt there’s also a Cultural & Medieval Centre, Snorrastofa, that is well worth a visit. It’s named after famous Icelandic writer and poet Snorri Sturluson, who was from Reykholt.
If you continue past Hraunfossar, you will be venturing onto road F550. The F roads are unpaved highland roads, composed of gravel. They’re only open in the summer months, and only 4x4 vehicles are permitted to drive on them. They lead you into Iceland’s uninhabited interior, where more wonders await.
Other Waterfalls in West Iceland
Aside from Hraunfossar and Barnafoss, Iceland has many other incredible waterfalls in the west that are worth seeing.
The most famous tourist route in Iceland is the Golden Circle. It includes three main sites: Þingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal area, and Gullfoss waterfall. Gullfoss is the furthest stop from the capital, at 116km (72 miles). This feature is part of the river Ölfusá and is the most visited waterfall in the country. Huge amounts of water drop down a wide valley in a series of steps. Together, the total height of these steps makes a fall of 32 meters (105 feet). In the winter, much of the river freezes over, creating an altogether different spectacle.
This fantastic scene is worth seeing in both summer and winter; the contrast makes it feel like two unique places. With an incredible view of the surrounding landscape and a comfortable visitor’s center on-site, Gullfoss is a must-visit. You can reach it by joining Route 1 heading north, then turning onto Route 36; that’s the Golden Circle clockwise.
If you want to see this waterfall up close, you have to earn it. It’s a 3-4 hour up-hill hike to reach Glymur, a walking journey of around 7km (4.3 miles). But it’s well worth it; the scenery from the top is awe-inspiring, with a huge valley extending across the horizon. Glymur is Iceland’s second-highest waterfall, at 198 meters (650 feet). Once you reach the top, you can cross the shallow Botnsá river above. You can then make your way down the other side for a completely different hike.
This is a full day’s trip, and the hike is intermediate level; solid footwear and warm, waterproof clothing are required. You should also only complete this hike in the summer, as the winter snow will make many obstacles impassable. Glymur is a 70km (43 miles) journey from the capital, a car trip of about an hour. Bring plenty of water and snacks with you.
Up in the north-west of Iceland is the area known as the Westfjords. This is one of the most beautiful parts of the country, and also one of the least visited by tourists. It’s here that a very well-known waterfall is found: Dynjandi, or ‘thunderous’. It’s 100 meters (328 feet) high and lives up to its name, falling down the cliff in a wide arc. You might think it looks like a powerful stream of watery hair, spilling out over the cliff edge.
Dynjandi is fairly far from Reykjavík, at 360km (224 miles), so you’re looking at about a five-hour drive. Head up Route 1 traveling north and then turn onto Route 60; that’ll take you all the way to Dynjandi. There is so much to see in the Westfjords, it’s recommended to spend at least a few days exploring it.
These wonderful waterfalls are only a small sample of what there is to explore in western Iceland. There are plenty more water features, glaciers, volcanoes, and hikes to experience. When snow blankets the country, entirely new scenes appear, with the northern lights offering shimmering above them. No matter the season, the land of ice and fire is waiting for you.
Samuel Hogarth, Cars Iceland.