In previous travel blogs, I have been showing you the waterfalls off the beaten path in Bárðardalur in North-Iceland. Now I want to show you the beautiful, historical Goðafoss, which is the best-known waterfall in the 180 km long Skjálfandafljót river, Iceland's 4th longest river.
Goðafoss is located right by ring road 1 and is very accessible. It has got a drop of 12-meters (depending on where you measure it though) and width of 30-meters and forms a horseshoe shape or a semi-circle. It is divided by big rocks into two waterfalls, but I always regard Goðafoss to be one waterfall.
Photo taken from the west bank
There are 2 ways of approaching Goðafoss, which will give you a totally different view of this beautiful waterfall. You can visit it from the parking lot on the west side, which leads right up to the brink of the waterfall. Let's be very careful here.
The other way is from a new parking lot on the east side, where a viewing platform was recently erected.
Photo taken from the east bank - beautiful basalt formations
The west side of Goðafoss is an island, which I don't think many people visiting the waterfall, realize. The island is called Hrútey - Ram Island, and the river runs on each side of it, the main river on the east side.
From the east bank, you will see the extraordinary basaltic formations on the west side of the river, which create some beautiful shapes. They are so lovely, especially in the sun, and look like artwork. The same scenery can be found around Aldeyjarfoss in Bárðardalur valley, which is one of the most elegant waterfalls I have seen in Iceland. The lava field here is around 9,000-years old and is called Bárðardalshraun.
From the east bank, you can walk down to the level of the river and see Goðafoss up close. It is a rocky path, so let's be careful here also. The photo below shows what kind of photos you can take if you go down to the river. It was late in the day on a September night when we took this photo, so it was quite dark.
Photo taken from the level of the river on the east bank
It is possible to cross a footbridge and walk in a semicircle up to the other side of the waterfall. It is worth visiting the waterfall from both sides, but nowadays I only visit Goðafoss from the east bank as I like that side better.
You can see that the photos I have added to this travel-blog are taken during my many visits to Goðafoss. But even though I have visited Goðafoss countless times in my lifetime, this waterfall is always an obligatory stop.
Photo taken from the east bank
I remember back when there were very few tourists here, and if there were a couple of people visiting Goðafoss, we would think it was crowded. Being a nation of only around 364,000 people we locals have a different opinion of the term crowded than people from densely populated countries ;)
Now Goðafoss has become a famous tourist attraction with a myriad of visitors enjoying it every year.
If you want to stay away from the crowds try not visiting Goðafoss very early in the morning during the summertime, when the tours from the cruise ships docked at Akureyri are here. My photo below is from my visit to Goðafoss early in the morning when the cruise ship tours were visiting Goðafoss.
Tours from cruise ships - then it gets crowded by Goðafoss
Some people take the risk of going out on a limb here to get good photos. But this is a powerful glacial river although it has been watered out by several spring-fed rivers, so I don't want anybody to fall in.
Be extra careful here, especially in the wintertime, when everything is frozen. Never go out on the ice by the waterfall as it can break. We, locals, are horrified when we see how close people venture - literally out on a limb. It is like all caution is thrown to the wind. We want our visitors to be safe in Iceland.
Photo taken from the east bank - Skjálfandafljót river
The colour of the Skjálfandafljót river is so beautiful, it ranges from being beautifully powdery blue, which I love, to being greyish white. In the thaw, in spring the river changes colour and becomes brown and very forceful.
Then you will really see a different Goðafoss than in the middle of the summertime. Summer arrives late in Iceland and when I visited Goðafoss at the beginning of June last year the river was a roaring brownish glacial river.
Photo taken from the east bank - Skjálfandafljót river
Just imagine how difficult it was to travel in Iceland before these powerful glacial rivers were bridged! Then these cold rivers were crossed on fords on horseback and travellers would need a local guide to show them where it was relatively safe to cross the rivers.
At Goðafoss you will see another much smaller, but powerful waterfall downstream of Goðafoss called Geitafoss. This waterfall is only some 5 meters tall, but the river is extremely turbulent here.
Salmon swim up the Skjálfandafljót river as far as Geitafoss, but it cannot jump up the waterfall. If it could it would be a pretty useless effort as the powerful Goðafoss is just around the bend.
When you visit Goðafoss from the west bank you can walk close to Geitafoss by a small trail leading to it, and have a look at it from above.
Hansensgat by Geitafoss
By Geitafoss, you will find a big hole, a natural rock arch called Hansensgat or Hansen's Hole. And from there you can get a good look at the waterfall. The name of the hole apparently stems from when Hansen, a pharmacist around 1900 in Akureyri, fell into it. He survived.
Once a horse fell into the river and was hoisted through Hansensgat hole (ref. 171 Ísland by Páll Ásgeir Ásgeirsson). And just recently a tourist fell some 8 meters down steep cliffs by Hansensgat!
The name, Geitafoss - Goats' Fall stems from a farmer driving his sheep and goats here. Another cave by the river, just above Geitafoss, is Jötuhellir - Manger Cave.
According to a detailed survey I read on Goðafoss by the Archaeological Institution of Iceland, the farmer used to lower his sheep in a box from a cliff on the east side of the river, right on top of Geitabrú, an ice bridge.
He then drove his sheep through Hansensgat hole and into a cave called Jötuhellir. The landscape by the forceful river has changed due to the massive floods in the river, so this is not possible today.
Ptarmigans in Jötuhellir cave
You will see Jötuhellir cave across the river when you visit the east bank. It is located a little further up the river than Hansensgat and Geitafoss. A rock looking like a manger is said to be inside this cave.
Once during my visit in September, I noticed some white spots in the cave. When I zoomed in I saw that the white spots were ptarmigans half-clad in summer clothing and half-clad in winter clothing.
Ptarmigan by Skjálfandafljót
I also spotted one of them on the cliff next to me on the east bank, you see how difficult it is for it to hide when it is only half-clad. Then they are easy prey to the falcon.
Old Icelandic folklore states that the falcon doesn't realize until he eats the ptarmigan's heart that she is his sister. He then gets so remorseful and filled with grief that he wails for the longest time.
My husband and my father-in-law walking down to the river
You can climb down to the river on the west side by a steep ladder and have a look at Geitafoss from below. You can also visit the Hansensgat from here, but the path is very rocky.
My husband and my father-in-law visited Hansensgat this way, but as I feel very wobbly on rocky surfaces I stayed behind and took photos of them. You can see them as blue dots in my photos.
The beautiful bridge over the Skjálfandafljót river, which is located a little further downstream from Goðafoss, was built and consecrated in 1930. There was an older bridge built in 1882-1883 in this place and you can see what is left of it under the bridge.
When the bridge was consecrated in 1930 there were great festivities and even Pater Jón Sveinsson (1857-1944), the most-beloved Icelander Nonni himself, who was made the Honorary Citizen of Akureyri in the same year, was present.
Nonni had been invited to Iceland on the occasion of the 1000-Anniversary of the Icelandic National Assembly (the Althing) in 1930.
See also my travel-blog: Nonnahús and Nonni, the Honorary Citizen of Akureyri
This bridge is now a footbridge and you can get some beautiful photos from it. The shape of the gorge makes it difficult to photograph the two waterfalls together though.
The one-lane bridge further down-stream on ring-road 1 was built in 1972 for car traffic. The Road Administration of Iceland aims at adding a new two-lane bridge a little bit north of the current bridge and move the road.
Geitafoss as seen from the west bank
Close to Geitafoss waterfall on the east bank Sölvahellir cave is hidden away. The story goes that an outlaw, Sölvi, lived in this cave for some time. People had no idea where he was hiding, but one day he seems to have been off his guard and put his white linen clothes out to dry in the sunshine.
People from the valley, on the opposite side of the cave, noticed the white linen clothes and gathered that this was the hiding place of Sölvi; they attacked him and killed him.
(Translated into English from Þjóðsögur Jóns Árnasonar - the Collection of Folklore by Jón Árnason - RHR)
Here you can see Jötuhellir cave on the west bank, Sölvahellir is on the east bank
I haven't got a photo of Sölvahellir, but you can see a photo of it on page 15 in the aforementioned detailed survey on Goðafoss made by Fornleifastofnun Íslands, the Institute of Archaeology of Iceland. The cave is on the east bank of the river, around 1.2 m high, and 1 m wide.
The detailed survey was made to prevent any important old traces from being ruined when the new paths and platforms were put up by Goðafoss recently.
Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði as depicted at the Saga Museum in Reykjavík, which I recommend visiting while in Iceland
The name Goðafoss - the Waterfall of the Gods might have come about from a very important event in Iceland's history. Back in the year 1000, the Lawspeaker Þorgeir Þorkelsson Ljósvetningagoði (born 940) was faced with a difficult decision at Alþingi; the old Viking Parliament at Þingvellir in southwest Iceland.
Þorgeir was both a Goði - a Chieftain, which means that he represented the chieftainship of the Ljósavatn district at Alþingi and the Lawspeaker at Alþingi from 985-1001, which was the highest position. So he was a very influential man.
A slide from an online Medieval history course at the University of Iceland which I attended. Photo credit Beth Rogers
Christianity was spreading in the countries around Iceland and the Norwegian King Olav demanded that Icelanders converted to Christianity. Most of the Vikings in Iceland were pagans, but there were some settlers who had been Christians, like Auður djúpúðga, the settler woman.
The photo above explains what was happening between Norway and Iceland at this time, which eventually led to the conversion of Iceland.
There was great discord amongst the pagans and the Christians at Alþingi. The difficult decision was now up to the Lawspeaker Þorgeir.
The chapter from Íslendingabók - Kristnisaga hangs on the wall of Þorgeirskirkja church
Þorgeir had to choose between leaving the old faith in the Norse gods behind and adopt Christianity or leave things as they were, thus opposing King Olav. He withdrew and lay under a fur blanket (lagðist undir feld) for a day and night and then another day of equal length until he finally came out with the conclusion. Laying under fur was considered to be powerful back then as it was believed that those who did acquire godly wisdom.
Þorgeir came to the conclusion that it would be against the public interest if the inhabitants of Iceland were not to have one law in Iceland. In his words: "Það mun satt vera er vér slítum lögin, þá slítum vér og friðinn" meaning "It will prove true that if we tear apart the laws then we will also tear apart the peace".
Thus Iceland became a Christian country without bloodshed. But bloodshed and blood vengeance was really common in the Viking age as you can read about in my travel-blog on the bloody Viking battles in Skagafjörður.
A memorial plaque for Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði erected by Goðafoss by the Bar Association of Iceland
Þorgeir, who himself was a pagan, then chose Christianity as the official religion in Iceland and proclaimed that all men should be baptized. It was allowed though to secretly worship the old gods, as far as it wouldn't be discovered. If it were discovered then it would be punishable.
Þorgeir lived at Ljósavatn and built a church there, but Ljósavatn is around 2 km away from Goðafoss waterfall.
See also: Vikings and the Norse gods in Iceland
A drawing on the information sign of Þorgeir throwing the heathen gods into Goðafoss
It is also a common belief that Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði cast his idols of the old pagan Nordic gods from his temple at Ljósavatn into Goðafoss after returning from Þingvellir. This he is supposed to have done as a symbolism of the conversion to Christianity.
Þorgeir was heathen and I think he didn't simply throw his old gods into the waterfall when he converted, he more like put them to rest there and showed them respect. This must not have been easy for him.
We have no old source for the god-throwing story though. According to Vísindavefur, it was first mentioned in Kristian Kålund's book on Icelandic historical sights, published in 1879-82. I own this collection of books and found it written there. The story has caught on and we locals like to believe that it is true.
You will notice two protruding rocks on the edge of the gorge when you visit Goðafoss from the east bank. They have by some been mentioned as being the statues of the old Norse gods which were cast into Goðafoss.
Goðafoss waterfall and the two rocks
After the conversion at Þingvellir, the ministers of King Olav then baptized some of the heathens in cold water in Öxará river at Þingvellir.
Some people from the north and south were baptized in Vígðalaug at Laugarvatn in S-Iceland after the conversion, and people from the west were baptized in the warm pool Reykjalaug, also called Krosslaug pool in Lundarreykjadalur valley in West-Iceland, as they didn't want to be baptized in the cold water of Öxará river.
By Krosslaug in Lundarreykjadalur valley in West-Iceland
I told you about the baptism of the Westerners in my travel-blog about Lundarreykjadalur and the hot pools.
That pool is warm and people bathe in it nowadays.
The sign leading to Krosslaug in Lundarreykjadalur in West-Iceland
Þorgeir is my ancestor 28 generations back according to Íslendingabók - the Book of Icelanders, where we Icelanders can trace our genealogy.
A stone-throw away from Goðafoss you will find Þorgeirskirkja church. It was erected in the year 2000 to commemorate the millennium of Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði's decision on adopting Christianity in Iceland. And in remembrance of Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði himself of course, as the church is named after him.
Having to make such a huge decision in the year 1000 at Alþingi cannot have been an easy task, so kudos to Þorgeir for having accomplished this without bloodshed in a Viking country.
The altarpiece in Þorgeirskirkja church is very special; it is a big window behind the altar, showing the beautiful nature of Ljósavatn and Ljósavatnsskarð and bringing light into the church.
Þorgeirskirkja church used to be open to visitors in the summertime. But during my last visit, I was told that it had unfortunately proved too costly to keep it open to visitors, so it is now closed.
The older church, Ljósavatnskirkja, by the farm at Ljósavatn, built in 1891-1892.
Most churches around Iceland are closed now, much to my dismay as my hobby is to visit all the churches I encounter on my travels in Iceland; all in all, they are around 380. But due to theft from the churches and vandalism, we are forced to keep them closed.
A couple of decades after this very historical event, the outlawed Viking Grettir the Strong (born around 996) arrived in Bárðardalur valley. The purpose of his visit to the valley was to help some farmers out, who were dealing with a troll haunting their farm. Two men had disappeared from the farm without a trace.
Chapters 64-66 in Grettissaga - the Saga of Grettir tell us about the troll haunting in Bárðardalur and Grettir's wrestling with a terrible troll woman.
Even though Grettir was considered to be the strongest of all men, the troll woman almost proved to be too strong for him. After a long fight that took them all the way to the waterfall, he managed to cut off her right arm and she fell into the waterfall.
By Goðafoss waterfall
Later on, Grettir dived into the waterfall and found a cave and another terrible troll. He managed to kill the troll and search the cave. He found bones of 2 men, most likely the men who had disappeared from the farm in Bárðardalur at Christmas time 2 years in a row.
You can read up on this exciting story and all the gory details in my travel-blog about Grettir and the waterfall. I had originally put the story here in this travel-blog, but as it was getting way too long then I put it in the additional travel-blog.
The story might have happened here at Goðafoss although it is said to have happened in Eyjardalsá river close by. But it is more dramatic connecting it to Goðafoss.
Photo taken out of a moving car from the heath leading to Laugar. Here you see almost the whole area by Goðafoss
Goðafoss isn't the only waterfall bearing this name, but it is unarguably the best-known waterfall by this name. You will find at least 6 waterfalls named Goðafoss, one of which is Goðafoss in Hallardalsá river, which I have written about in my travel-blog about Strandir in the Westfjords of Iceland.
500 meters away from Goðafoss waterfall closer to the ring road 1 is a guesthouse, a gift shop, and a restaurant.
When you come driving over the heath from the east you will have a fantastic view of Goðafoss, as you can see from my photo above. I always try to take a good photo of it from the car, but it is difficult, and the photo above is the best I could manage to take.
The information sign by Goðafoss
Further up in Bárðardalur - some 41 km - you will find two other beautiful waterfalls in Skjálfandafljót river; Aldeyjarfoss waterfall, which is one of my favourite waterfalls here in Iceland - and the picturesque Hrafnabjargafoss waterfall.
It is well worth driving 40+ km to visit these 2 spectacular waterfalls. In my opinion, Skjálfandafljót river is at its finest when Aldeyjarfoss cascades over a wall of beautiful basalt columns into a turbulent white and powdery blue pool. Here the beauty of nature blows my mind.
Goðafoss is a part of the Diamond Circle. I have joined a guided tour twice and written about my experience if you want to get acquainted with this ruggedly beautiful area of Iceland. And I have of course travelled in this area myself many times:
The Spectacular Diamond Circle in North-Iceland - a travel-blog
To visit Goðafoss you can rent a car in Reykjavík and drive up north. The distance from Reykjavík is around 422 km. The distance from Akureyri, the Capital of the North, is only 34.5 km. If you continue further some 53 km you will see the many attractions of Mývatn. And Húsavík, the Whale Watching Capital of Iceland is 47-50 km away.
Fly Over Iceland photographing Goðafoss for their new project
Have a wonderful time at Goðafoss, which, finally, was preserved in June 2020 :)
Kristnitakan á Þingvöllum, Gunnar Kristjánsson