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Waterfalls of South and West Iceland
Iceland is a land of waterfalls. Once you leave Reykjavik behind, you’ll discover this at almost every turn in the road on Iceland tours. On your first day, you’ll want to stop off at every single waterfall you see to take some photos and revel in the beauty of nature. But by your third day, the waterfalls might become somewhat blasé, or at least so commonplace as to not be as remarkable anymore. You see one and smile and remark how pretty it is, but you don’t stop for every single one, because if you did, you’d never make it to the other beautiful ones right beyond the bend in the road.
So in the interest of helping you out on an Icelandic vacation, I’ve highlighted a few of the waterfalls you absolutely should stop at when exploring the country’s south and west. These are popular spots, so for a lot of them, you won’t be the only person admiring the waterfall, but they are absolutely gorgeous and worth planning around when venturing through Iceland. Few natural wonders are as appealing.
Waterfalls in South Iceland
A part of the Golden Circle of Iceland, Gullfoss is likely the most popular waterfall in the country. It’s located about two hours northeast of Reykjavik and you reach it after stops in Þingvellir National Park and at the bubbling mud pools and geysers of Haukadalur, which altogether make up the Golden Circle. The name of the waterfall means “Golden Waterfall,” which you’ll understand if you visit the waterfall in the early morning or late afternoon when the sun gives the water a golden sheen. Gullfoss is most impressive for its size as it consists of two wide systems of waterfalls that course down a wide ravine. There are two walking trails running alongside the waterfall. One takes you along the cliff edge to view it from above, while the other goes up onto a large rocky outcrop jutting into the waterfall. Apparently, if the rains are heavy, the outcrop can become submerged in the coursing waters.
Öxarárfoss is located in Þingvellir National Park (Thingvellir National Park) and is easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention when walking the looping trail through the park. If you park in the main parking lot like most people do and follow the trail through the continental rift and continue along straight until you reach the end of the trail and another parking lot – about a kilometre away – you’ll eventually meet a curving trail leading up into the rocks. Follow this trail and you’ll reach Öxarárfoss, which is a beautiful little treat hidden amongst the overwhelming beauty of Þingvellir. Öxarárfoss isn’t very tall, but it pours right off the continental rock into a small pool, giving it a picturesque quality. And the fact that it’s relatively out of the way in the park means that you can snap some nice pictures without too many people crowding the view.
Seljalandsfoss is located just off the ring road in South Iceland, not far from Eyjafjallajökull and about 45 minutes from Vík. It’s one of the tallest waterfalls in the country and has the added bonus of having a cave behind it, meaning you can admire the streaming water from both sides. No waterfall in the country is probably as quintessentially attractive as Seljalandsfoss, with its 60m drop, large cave, and perfect position for capturing stunning sunset views when inside the cave. Just be aware that you’ll likely get wet venturing into the cave. The spray from the waterfall is considerable.
Gljúfrafoss is more commonly referred to as the hidden waterfall that lies not far up the trail from Seljalandsfoss, which makes it seem like it’s this cute add-on to the main highlight of Seljalandsfoss, but don’t make this mistake. It’s a highlight in its own right. After seeing Seljalandsfoss, walk five minutes along the trail heading north and you’ll reach Gljúfrafoss, although it won’t be obvious at that moment because the waterfall is hidden. You have to pass into a crevasse in the hillside and walk along some slippery stones in the middle of a stream to reach the waterfall in a gap in the cliff. You’ll get soaking wet in the spray from the waterfall, but it’s absolutely worth it as there are few things more magical than discovering a waterfall in a mountainside. Just be ready to wait your turn leaving the crevasse, as there’s only one path over the rocks running inside and out.
Skógafoss divides the highlands from the plain on the edge of Eyjafjallajökull. It’s an enormous waterfall and has shown up in movies and television shows like Game of Thrones. It has a 60m drop and a width of about 25m, making it one of the largest waterfalls in the country. There’s a fairly strenuous walk up a staircase on the right side of the falls that leads to a platform looking down over the falls. This path also leads into the highlands and the nature reserve of Thórsmörk. The walk up the staircase is exhausting – I counted well over 200 stairs – but it’s worth it, as the views of both the waterfall and Eyjafjallajökull are impressive from the top. The waterfall is also incredible easy to access, as you can drive up to a parking lot not far from its face. It’s also located in the tiny village of Skógar, so if you’re lucky enough to stay there, you’ll have views of the waterfall from your hotel room.
Kvernufoss isn’t mentioned in many guidebooks, or if it is, it’s kind of an afterthought much like Gljúfrafoss. You’ll find this hidden waterfall on the eastern edge of the village of Skógar, not far behind the folk museum. Park in the museum parking lot and curve around the farming warehouse and into the crevasse leading into the hillside. After a few turns in the cliff edge, you’ll discover the waterfall, with its 30m drop and small cavern behind it. It’s a beautiful location. I even saw a couple of newlyweds taking wedding photos here when I visited. A few local hotels mention how to get to Kvernufoss, but know that it’s easy to find and is a mere three minute drive from Skógafoss, even if it doesn’t get nearly the number of visitors as that waterfall.
Waterfalls of West Iceland
Glymur is the second-tallest waterfall in Iceland – with a 198m drop – and the biggest one you can reach by foot. However, it’s by no means easy to get to. Located about an hour northeast of Reykjavik on the edge of Hvalfjörður, Glymur requires about a three hour hike to reach, which takes you over unpaved roads, across a river, through a cave, and finally along a mountain path. However, the views are incredible, with the massive drop being worth the hike. Just prepare for the hike and be sure you have waterproof boots and some clothes ready for inclement weather. Remember: it’s Iceland, which means the weather is always changing with no notice.
Hraunfossar, known as the Lava Falls, is located about 45 minutes east of Borgarnes in West Iceland. It’s a wide bunch of small falls coursing down a volcanic hillside into the wide river and is not nearly as popular as falls in the south. The falls aren’t particularly tall, but the sheer number of them, as well as their location in the midst of a birch forest, make them gorgeous. I was lucky enough to visit the falls at sunset, and the slanting beams of light transformed the landscape into an overwhelming vision of orange and gold. It was beautiful. Make the time to visit, on Iceland tours, if you’re anywhere nearby.
Barnafoss is located right near Hraunfossar, and is accessed by the same car park. Unlike Hraunfossar, Barnafoss isn’t a bunch of tiny rivulets that impresses due to its collective impact, but a powerful waterfall in the midst of a gorge leading to the river below. There’s a bridge that crosses the gorge and lets you enjoy a good view of the falls, as well as several walking trails on either side that offer different vantage points. The waterfall gets its name from a story of children who wandered away from their farm in settlement times and likely drowned in the falls, but know that the actual waterfall is not nearly as ghastly as the story that gives it its name. It’s a beautiful spot and pairs with Hraunfossar as an ideal destination for a day trip.
Kirkjufellsfoss is not the most impressive waterfall on its own, but when combined with nearby Kirkjufell Mountain, which is most photographed hill in the country, you understand why it’s so beautiful. Located on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Kirkjufellsfoss consists of several small waterfalls leading to a bay beneath the rise of Kirkjufell Mountain. You park just off the main highway and then walk a little ways up to the falls. You’ll have to enjoy the falls in the company of many fellow travellers, but even if you’re jockeying for space alongside professional photographers and Instagram influencers, the visit is worth it, especially if you happen to catch fading light falling across the mountain.
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