Probably the best loved waterfall in Iceland is Gullfoss waterfall. The Great Golden Waterfall. The largest two-stepped waterfall in Iceland situated in a glacial river flowing from the country’s second largest glacier Langjokull formed in massive flood around 5000 years ago. On clear days there is a stunning view of the glacier and this location is about as far inland as regular day tours go unless you are going snowmobiling on the glacier itself. The vegetation gives away beyond this point until you are travelling in some of the last wilderness in Europe which resembles the moon so much that NASA sent the first astronauts here to practice.
Hvita is one of the great glacial rivers of Iceland and flows 40 km from Hvitarvatn glacial lake to form Gullfoss waterfall where it rumbles through a gorge in two steps from a total height of over a 100 feet and then runs towards the sea through the farming areas of the south and picks up volume emerging with other rivers until it is roughly double in size where it meets the Atlantic.
Gullfoss simply means “golden waterfall” and there are two legends connected to the name. One says that on old viking dumped his treasure into the waterfall so that no one could enjoy it after his day. The other says that the name originates in the rainbows that form in the spray above the waterfall on sunny days. Those two stories might also have a deeper cultural origin in the legend of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow which reminds us yet again that the Icelanders have a mixed cultural history rooted in both viking and celtic origin.
The magnificent beauty of Gullfoss waterfall is something to behold and can be enjoyed from two different levels. There is a platform on the same level as the large parking area and the service center and from there is a view over the river as it plunges into the gorge, and then there are some stairs that lead to a lower level where you get a little closer to the untamed force of nature that is a glacial river. Always be careful though since in a place like this you only fall once.
Gullfoss has always been well loved and appreciated by travelers and locals alike. The Golden Circle Iceland tour is named after the waterfall and its image is instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever been there. There is a wonderful story from the early 20th century of a farmer’s daughter who, upon hearing that there might be plans to dam the gorge and destroy the waterfall, started an opposition which might be classified as the first environmental fight in Iceland. She gained some local support and went as far as to say she would throw herself into the waterfall if any kind of construction was started. To make a long story short there never was, and thankfully this jewel of nature is now protected and will hopefully be there for all of us to experience and many generations to come.
Gullfoss is among the most breathtaking and magnificent sights to see in Iceland and should not be missed.
For the more adventurous, it also represents the gateway to the highlands with the mountain road Kjölur starting next to the location. This road is the shortest route north, however, it is only open in the summer and is not paved. So you have to estimate 5 hours for the 168 kilometers and you are not allowed with all rental cars to take it. From Gullfoss many people also start their snowmobiling adventure which picks them up at the waterfall and takes them a few kilometers along kjölur road before going on Langjökull glacier. So to cross the highlands you should have at least an SUV but in case you travel by rental car you should confirm with your car rental if the insurance covers mountain roads.
During longer tours along the ring road this part of the golden circle often is visited during a day starting or ending in south Iceland.