Gullfoss (translated to ‘Golden Falls’) is one of Iceland’s most iconic and beloved waterfalls, found in the Hvítá river canyon in Southwest Iceland.
For those who rent a car or take a Golden Circle tour, Gullfoss waterfall can be reached within two hours from Iceland's capital. Most of the guided packages around the country include a stop at Gullfoss, such as this popular 6-Day Vacation, as do almost all self-drive journeys, like this 7-Day Winter Road Trip.
The water in Hvítá river travels from the glacier Langjökull, before cascading 32 meters (105 feet) down Gullfoss’ two stages in a dramatic display of nature’s raw power. This incredible site is seen by most visitors, as it is on the Golden Circle sightseeing route.
Because of the waterfall’s two stages, Gullfoss should actually be thought of as two separate features. The first, shorter cascade is 11 meters tall (36 feet), whilst the second drop is 21 meters (69 feet). The canyon walls on both sides of the waterfall reach heights of up to 70 meters (230 feet), descending into the great Gullfossgjúfur canyon. Geologists believe that this canyon was formed by glacial outbursts at the beginning of the last age.
In the summer, approximately 140 cubic meters (459 cubic feet) of water surges down the waterfall every second, whilst in winter that number drops to around 109 cubic meters (358 cubic feet). With such energy, visitors should not be surprised to find themselves drenched by the waterfall’s mighty spray should they get too close.
As mentioned, Gullfoss makes up a part of the highly popular Golden Circle sightseeing route, alongside the Geysir geothermal area and Þingvellir National Park. Many Golden Circle tours include additional activities that can be taken from Gullfoss, such as ascending the mighty nearby glacier Langjökull and entering its ice tunnels or snowmobiling along its gleaming surface.
In the early days of the last century, Gullfoss was at the center of a controversy regarding foreign investors and their desire to profit off Iceland’s nature. In the year 1907, an English businessman, Howell, sought to utilize the waterfall’s energy and harbored ambitions to use its energy to fuel a hydroelectric plant.
At the time, Gullfoss was owned by a farmer named Tómas Tómasson. Tómas declined Howell’s offer to purchase the land, stating famously “I will not sell my friend!” He would, however, go on to lease Howell the land without the knowledge of a loophole that would allow him to proceed with his plans.
It was Tómas’ daughter, Sigríður Tómasdóttir, who would lead the charge to stop Howell’s ambitions. Having grown up on her father’s sheep farm where she helped pave the first road to Gullfoss, she sought to get the contract nullified, hurriedly saving her own money to hire a lawyer.
The ensuing legal battle was an uphill struggle; the case continued for years, forcing Sigríður to travel many times by foot to Reykjavík, a distance of over 100 kilometers (62 miles). Circumstances became so difficult that Sigríður threatened to throw herself into the waterfall if any construction began.
Her tenacity, however, resulted in success. In 1929, Howell withdrew from the lease, unable to keep up with the costs and difficulties of his plan. The waterfall thus fell back into the hands of the Icelandic people.
Today, Sigríður is recognized for her perseverance in protecting Gullfoss and is often hailed as Iceland’s first environmentalist. As such, she is one of the most famous figures in Iceland’s history. Her contribution is forever marked in stone; a plaque detailing her plight sits at the top of Gullfoss.
Interestingly, the lawyer who assisted Sigríður, Sveinn Björnsson, went on to go down in history too; he became the first president of an independent Iceland in 1944.
Besides Gullfoss, visitors can enjoy the views from Gullfoss Cafe, a locally run delicatessen that serves a wide variety of refreshments and meals. The menu has options to tantalize everyone’s taste buds: hot soups, sandwiches, salads, and cakes. There is also a shop on site where visitors can browse and purchase traditional Icelandic souvenirs.