Over the years I have been showing you many waterfalls, some well-known and easily accessible, but others remote and difficult to reach. In this travel-blog, I am going to show you the best-known waterfall in Iceland, the breathtakingly beautiful Gullfoss, the Golden Waterfall, which gives a name to the Golden Circle.
But as you might know then the Golden Circle is the most popular sightseeing tour in Iceland.
Gullfoss is one of Iceland's landmarks and it is the waterfall I have visited most often in my country. I count Gullfoss amongst my favourite waterfalls in Iceland; it is number 4 on my list of waterfalls, and very close to my heart. If it were allowed I would want to camp by the waterfall and just look at it for hours, that is how mesmerised I am by its beauty :)
The beautiful Gullfoss is around 32 m high, with two cascades and an average flow of around 109 cubic metres per second. The waterfall's first cascade is 11 m high, and the second cascade is around 21 m high; they drop into the 2.5 km long and up to 70 m deep Hvítárgljúfur canyon. The canyon is narrow in this place, so the second cascade is half-hidden away.
The grass closest to the canyon is off limits now, but in the summertime, you can follow a path down to a sill right by Hvítá glacial river and stand next to the upper cascade of the powerful waterfall. Remember to wear a raincoat or waterproof clothes, as in certain wind directions the mist reaches the path and will make you drenched. Protect your cameras here.
Due to the mist, the path gets icy and slippery in freezing temperatures in the winter time. Then the path is closed. This is done for our protection as we do not want our visitors to fall and hurt themselves, or fall into the roaring waterfall. I will show you a winter visit with beautiful winter photos a little later in my travel-blog.
I zoomed in on these two little properly dressed kids who were walking down to the waterfall, as they looked so cute
The waterfall runs in the massive glacial river Hvítá (White River) which originates in Iceland's second largest glacier, Langjökull glacier, in the highlands above Gullfoss and flows from Lake Hvítárvatn on the east side of the glacier.
In my last travel-blog, I told you about Mt. Kerlingarfjöll in the highlands and Jökulfall glacial river, which joins Hvítá river to create this extraordinary waterfall, Gullfoss waterfall, which gives a name to the Golden Circle, Iceland's most popular sightseeing tour.
Seeing that it is the most popular sightseeing tour in Iceland then it is difficult getting a photo without people in it ;)
It is not certain how Gullfoss - the Golden Waterfall - got its name, but there are some speculations:
At Gýgjarhóll a wealthy farmer lived. His name was Gýgur. Gýgur owned some gold and didn't want anybody to get hold of his gold after his death. So he threw his chest with his gold treasure into Gullfoss waterfall, which thus got its name; Gullfoss.
Source: Ferðabók Sveins Pálssonar - the Travel Journal of Sveinn Pálsson (1762-1840).
Another speculation is that the golden afterglow, which often shines on Gullfoss, gave the waterfall its name. Or that it got its name from the rainbow, which is very vivid by Gullfoss in the sunshine. So we don't know really. But it is a beautiful name.
Steps leading to the upper level
Steps take you to the upper level of the waterfall, from where there is a great view of the waterfall, information signs, platforms, restaurants, souvenir shops and toilets.
On the upper level at Gullfoss, you can get a good view of the waterfall. And you can get the popular traditional "kjötsúpa" meat broth at their restaurant.
Everybody was staying on the trails during this visit to Gullfoss waterfall
Gullfoss and its environment have been protected since 1979 and we have to preserve the vegetation by the falls. The grassy depression by Gullfoss is also off limits as the grass is wet from the drizzle, which can soak you when walking on the path.
But in the past few years, some risk seeking travellers chose to ignore the signs to get a selfie with Gullfoss from that grassy depression.
Here is some more news footage from 2015, when I started saving links to reckless behaviour at Gullfoss:
It can get crowded at Gullfoss - I love the colours of the rainbow in this photo :)
Others followed suit, even leaning on the no walking sign in the process! If you look at the photos in the news article you will see people having their "jumping in the air photos" in this location! This is dangerous behaviour and the police in South-Iceland calls it taking a photo between life and death, and finds it really disturbing knowing that people are playing with death in this off-limits location.
The edges by the waterfall are unstable and you can fall plunge right into Gullfoss with the next falling rock. And there is no surviving the power of Gullfoss. That is why it is off-limits. There have been fatalities here and in July 2017 a 22-year-old refugee from Georgia fell into Gullfoss.
With my father-in-law on the upper level of Gullfoss from where there is a great view of the waterfall
Daily thousands of visitors admire Gullfoss waterfall. Fortunately, the majority of our foreign visitors have common sense, but unfortunately, there is always a certain percentage of risk seekers who don't pay any attention to the rules. And they are usually the ones who have to be rescued :(
Everybody respected the closure when I last visited Gullfoss on my birthday in March 2019
Gullfoss is very beautiful in the winter time and I have had quite a few "WOW" moments by it on cold winter days. But waterfalls are dangerous in the winter time, as the area around them is icy and very slippery. One never knows what lies beneath the snow and ice.
In the winter time, the path down to Gullfoss is often closed. Due to the mist from the waterfall, the path gets too slippery in freezing temperatures and unsafe to walk on.
What frustrates us, locals, when visiting Gullfoss in the wintertime even more so when this happens in the summertime, is that people have been seen stepping over the closed-sign by the icy and slippery path leading down to the sill.
But this sign warns that the path leading to Gullfoss waterfall is too slippery for it to be safe to walk down to the waterfall. And that the area by the waterfall is temporarily too dangerous to visit.
Obviously, a defiant person did not want to be stopped from visiting the lower level and stepped over the sign :( Other people followed suit and then they stepped over ropes and went even further into dangerous areas! I.e. right onto the unstable icy edge of Gullfoss!
This is overhang; snow and ice can cave in at any moment, especially if somebody is stepping on it. It is also leaning towards the waterfall and it is easy to slide on the slippery ice and plunge into the waterfall. A sudden wind is common in the gorge, so you can understand why we locals are worried when we see tourists in such dangerous places.
The Lady in Gullfoss as seen from the upper platform
I haven't got any photos of this kind of behaviour but would be devastated if I were to see people in such danger on the edge of the waterfall. I don't think anybody would willingly put their lives at risk like this; they are just ill-informed and unaware of the danger.
You can see some of the news footage here:
I have had people stepping over the sign right in front of me and winking! Like they get pleasure from defying the locals, who know about the real dangers in Iceland. Do not follow such people into life-threatening situations!
I have way too often seen people slipping on the icy path right by Gullfoss and being unable to stand up, lying flat on their stomach, with other travellers coming to their rescue and putting themselves at risk in the process.
The path is closed for a reason. Not to ruin your visit to Gullfoss in the winter time, but to keep visitors safe and alive during their Iceland visit. So let's enjoy and survive our stay at Gullfoss and be careful here. There is a good view to be had of the waterfall from the upper level.
A low relief of Sigríður in Brattholt by Ríkarður Jónsson
Gullfoss is now state property and has been protected since 1979. But that was not always the case, and it is quite startling thinking about the fact that Gullfoss might have been harnessed for electricity generation when Gullfoss was contracted to foreigners!
If it hadn't been for the determination and fight of one woman, Sigríður in Brattholt who was the daughter of one of the farmers who owned this land, then Gullfoss wouldn't be this massive, beautiful waterfall it is today.
The woman in question was Sigríður Tómasdóttir (1871-1957), the second eldest daughter of the farmers at Brattholt farm; Margrét Þórðardóttir and Tómas Tómasson, who had 13 children in total. On the information sign at Gullfoss, Sigríður is described as having been good looking when she was young, with thick blond hair, and she worked outdoors with the strength of a Viking :)
When tourists started visiting Gullfoss back in 1875, Sigríður and her sister acted as guides and helped in building the first trail leading down to the waterfall.
Foreign investors saw a business opportunity in the great untamed force of Iceland's waterfalls, and in 1907 an Englishman offered Sigríður's father, Tómas, a lot of money for the rights to build a hydroelectric dam across Hvítá glacial river, harnessing the energy of Gullfoss waterfall. Tómas's answer was: "I will not sell my friend".
All the same, at a later date, Gullfoss was leased to foreigners. This was not at all to Sigríður's liking as she loved Gullfoss, so she protested and took legal action to have the rental contract voided. Gullfoss is located some 120 km away from Reykjavík, the capital city of Iceland, and Sigríður walked this long distance to Reykjavík several times to further her case, even wading ice-cold rivers.
This was a difficult task; a poor farmer's daughter going against powerful public officials. The case continued for many years and was not in favour of the family of Brattholt turf farm, as they lost the case. Sigríður's lawyer was Sveinn Björnsson, who later became Iceland's first president.
Sigríður did not cave in and threatened to throw herself into Gullfoss waterfall on the very day of the breaking of the ground. Sigríður finally won this battle in 1928 when the rent payment for the waterfall stopped and the lease could be terminated. Gullfoss was again in safe hands.
We are extremely grateful to Sigríður for her deed in saving this jewel in Icelandic nature. She is Iceland's first environmentalist and activist, who fought for the Icelandic nature to stay intact. And the nation was on her side.
A memorial was erected by Gullfoss in memory of this remarkable woman; the saviour of Gullfoss. The memorial was erected back in 1978 and the artist was the noted Icelandic sculptor Ríkarður Jónsson.
When Ríkarður visited Brattholt to draw Sigríður's portrait, Sigríður didn't like the drawing and threw it into the fire when Ríkarður left the room! What a feisty woman she was ;) So the low relief is a drawing which Ríkarður drew from memory.
You will find the memorial by the lower parking lot close to the steps leading up to the upper level.
Sigríðarstígur trail was also built in the memory of Sigríður. By her trail are many information signs on both Sigríður and Gullfoss. Earlier on the little building where the toilets are now located was called Sigríðarstofa, with an exhibition and information signs on Sigríður and her contribution to Gullfoss.
Sigríðarstofa was state-run but was closed down, unfortunately. With increased traffic to Gullfoss, it has now be changed to much-needed toilets. Sigríður died in 1957 and is buried in the cemetery in Haukadalur valley.
The Lady in Gullfoss
There is another "lady", which I love photographing when visiting Gullfoss; it is a rock which not many people have noticed so far. She is located in the middle of the upper falls and I named her the Lady in Gullfoss :)
For the past 4 years, every time I have visited Gullfoss I zoom in and take a photo of the Lady in Gullfoss. Isn't she pretty? I think that the Lady in Gullfoss is even more beautiful in her white dress in the winter time as it looks like she is wearing a wedding dress :)
The Lady in Gullfoss waterfall in her winter dress which looks like a wedding gown and a trail
I have posted a couple of photos over the years of the Lady in Gullfoss on my Facebook page but didn't get much response. But when I posted the photo above on my Facebook page recently people finally noticed her :) I like to think that is located there in the middle of the upper falls, protecting Gullfoss, like Sigríður in Brattholt used to do. So we might as well call her Sigríður.
You see how wide the glacial river is and difficult to cross
In the 17th century, a farmers son, Þórður Guðbrandsson (1661), lived at Brattholt in Biskupstungur, on the west side of Hvítá glacial river. On the other side of the river, lived the daughter of the farmers at Hamarsholt in Hrunamannahreppur county, Guðrún Þóroddsdóttir (1676).
They were both shepherds in the summertime, and kept the milking ewes in a pasture on each side of the Hvítá river, by Gullfoss waterfall. They got to know each other well by calling each other across the river, even though they had never met each other. Through the years their friendship grew and turned into mutual adoration and affection.
When time passed the boy started calling terms of endearment to the girl across the river. The girl responded that she would become his if he waded across the river to her. The boy immediately started wading the stream right above the waterfall's edge.
The river bed was very rocky and the depth varied a great deal, so he had to be really careful, but after a long while, he managed to cross the river and reach the other side. On the other side, the girl anxiously waited and probably regretted having encouraged her friend to risk his life by wading across the glacial river.
Gullfoss - the Golden waterfall - it sure looks golden, when the evening autumn sun casts a golden hue on Gullfoss
As he finally stepped out of the ice-cold strong current of the glacial river, she greeted him with open arms. These young people, who got engaged across the river Hvítá more than 3 centuries ago got married in 1690 and lived for a long time at Fjall at Skeiðar.
Loosely translated into English from the book Þjóðsögur við þjóðveginn, by Jón R. Hjálmarsson
A wedding photo shoot by Gullfoss in heavy mist from the waterfall
I have written another travel-blog about a Golden Circle tour I joined. Usually, I take my guests on a tour of the Golden Circle, but I also wanted to see what a professionally guided tour is like to show to you:
If you fancy joining a guided tour, then there are many Golden Circle tours to choose from:
Or you can rent a car in Reykjavík and explore the Golden Circle on your own.
Hvítá river is marked as Ölfusá river on Google maps. If anybody knows how to change that I would appreciate it. Hvítá river joins Ölfusá river much further south by Sogið and together these rivers create Iceland's largest river by volume.
Have a lovely time and stay safe at Gullfoss waterfall, the southern outpost of the highlands. There are several other smaller waterfalls in Iceland by the name of Gullfoss, see how many you can find on your travels in Iceland ;)