Experience the breath-taking beauty of Iceland's Golden Circle waterfalls

By Artur Serra

Iceland is known as the land of fire and ice, a natural sanctuary in the Atlantic Ocean and a home to the most beautiful landscapes.One of its most famous regions, the Golden Circle, is a place where all the elements - Earth, Wind, Fire and Water - converge. In this article we will focus on the last of those, in perhaps its most spectacular form.Join us on a journey exploring Iceland's Golden Circle waterfalls.

We all have days we want to disappear, to be at peace with ourselves. We daydream about going to a distant place, a peaceful place, where we can be away from all the chaos and  pressures of the life in the city. 

Take a deep breath and imagine a place where you can see a vast immensity of green fields, framed by ice-capped mountains, and crossed by a rebellious river. Next to you, the dance of the waters culminates in an astonishing waterfall, where it’s not unusual to see rainbows emanating from it.

It might sound like a dream, but rest assured it’s not. This place exists, and it’s just two hours away from Reykjavik. Welcome to a world of waterfalls on the route of Iceland’s famous Golden Circle. 

The history of Gullfoss

Photo by Myllan

The beauty of the Golden Circle – Iceland’s top one destination – is the variety of incredible natural sights to see. Of all of them, Gullfoss stands out for being the landscape of a fantasy.

Placed in a canyon that follows the Hvita River, Iceland’s most iconic waterfall is also bonded to a family that fought for its cause, who allowed us to be able to enjoy it today.

In 1907, an Englishman called Howell came to Iceland with ambitions to build a hydroelectric dam where Gullfoss is situated. He planned to use its power to generate electricity and profit.

At that time, the owner of the land where the waterfall was, Tómas Tómasson, refused to negotiate with Howell. He famously stated that the waterfall was his friend, and he wasn’t willing to sell it. However, due to legal loopholes, Tómas’ wishes were ignored, and the business plans were allowed to proceed.

It was Tómas’ daughter, Sigurður, who ensured that the waterfall could be saved. Fighting to honour her Father’s wishes, going to court and taking legal action against the English businessman.

Sigurður believed that the waterfall should be preserved, and never turned into mere sources of profit to foreign investors.

This case lead to influence not only Iceland’s tourism and natural beauty, but also its politics. with the lawyer that she hired to represent her on court becoming the first Icelandic president!

This story is confirmation of how much nature, and especially this waterfall, are so meaningful to Iceland’s history. Up to this day, Sigurður’s face – or at least its representation in stone – oversees the dreamy land she fought so hard for us to experience today.

Faxi

Icelandic food - icecream
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Ryan Yoo)

Twelve kilometres away from Gullfoss you can also find its “little sister”, Faxi (or “Vatnsleysufoss”, meaning “The waterfall with no water). Despite its name, Faxi has plenty of water and it’s a nice quiet spot to take a break from crowded locations around the Golden Circle.

One thing to consider when visiting Faxi is to stop, step out your car and just enjoy its sound. It offers an even terrain for a walk alongside the river or a hike around the waterfall area. 

Even though Faxi is in the Golden Circle, not a lot of people consider visiting it during their tours in the area, meaning it can be really quiet and calm to visit, even during high season. It offers a lot of opportunities for astonishing and inspiring pictures, spots for picnics and, as already mentioned, hikes!

On its left-hand side, accessible from the road, you can find a nice spot to sit down, get a book (I suggest a classic Saga or something related to Iceland!) and enjoy one of the best reading experiences (with a view) you might find!

If you’re feeling motivated, you can also take the well-paved path (starting from the parking lot) upwards to find a café, tables and places to sit down, where you can also enjoy the view of the waterfall from a higher ground. The view is breath-taking, as you can see not only the Faxi, but also the river flowing in the distance, after the falls.

Brúarfoss

Dried fish hanging in Iceland
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Steve Parfitt)

From Faxi you can take a 15-minutes drive to one of the most unique waterfalls in Iceland, Brúarfoss. Not as imposing as Gullfoss, its uniqueness lies in its display.

Brúarfoss is a ring of small waterfalls pouring in to a central pool. This Icelandic hidden gem also offers a lot of opportunities for a nice walk, as you can simply stroll close to the river and take really nice pictures from a close distance. 

To add to its uniqueness, the colour you will find in Brúarfoss’ waters is distinctive and incredible that you’ll probably want to spend some good time there, just enjoying the picturesque scenery.

Thankfully you’ll have plenty of time to take it all since, as the hike from the closest parking lot to the location of the waterfall might take around one hour during summer (a bit more during winter as the trail there gets a bit tricky to follow). 

Brúarfoss’ means “The bridge waterfall”. It got this name after a natural stone bridge that was located there and crossed the river. As Iceland’s History and Waterfalls are closely related, this one also has its piece of importance in Iceland History books.

Back in early 20th Century, when the king of Denmark visited Iceland, a road was built here to show the royal entourage all the beauty of this waterfall and the landscape around it. The road also connected Brúarfoss to the Geysir and Gullfoss, meaning that this waterfall was included in a previous version of “Golden Circle Tours”!

A perfect pitstop

A classic Icelandic hot dog
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Andy Wang)

Not far from the waterfall, you can also find a very traditional dairy farm called Efstidalur, that also works as a restaurant!

Serving burgers, grills, ice cream and also a vegetarian friendly menu with local ingredients coming from the farm itself. Here you can enjoy authentic Icelandic ice cream while watching the cows that produced the milk to prepare it!

Even if Brúarfoss isn’t on your plans, this is a great stop if you’re just around the Golden Circle.

Oxararfoss and Thingvellir

Icelandic coffee
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Iceland’s dreamy landscapes are not gathered in one single place, they are everywhere! Driving to Thingvellir National Park is an awesome experience. The road is an amazing and overwhelming visual experiences for those not used to Iceland’s overwhelming beauty.

This top tourist destination has its reason to be famous. It’s really difficult to find any other place in the world where you can say you just took a walk (or swam) between two tectonic plates! Aside from that, the National Park is also a really important location in Iceland’s History.

Thingvellir (that means “The Assembly Field”) and is Iceland’s first national park. It is situated upon the area where Iceland’s Thing (Parliament) was created and took place for more than 800 years, from 930 to 1798.

The official reason declared in History books is that this region was chosen because it was central to all chieftains from the most populated regions, making it easy to access from anywhere in the island.

Once you’re there, it’s easy to understand why they might have been inclined to choose this place. Being in  Thingvellir, is like being transported to a parallel world, maybe even an alien planet, where you can see nature in an extremely peculiar and unique way.

Everything Iceland is known for, can be found in Thingvellir. Mountains, forests, rivers… and also waterfalls!

One of the hidden gems in Thingvellir is the Öxarárfoss, a waterfall artificially created to provide water to the visitors of the Icelandic Parliament. The whole story is represented in the Sturlunga Saga, written between the 12th and 13th century.

Even though it’s man-made, it’s one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland, and as a Game of Thrones location it is a cool alternative to other famous waterfalls in the country.

A cool tip before you prepare to visit there: Try to do it in the morning, with the sun behind your back. This will raise the possibility of getting a rainbow in front of you, while facing the waterfall!

If you are visiting between April and October, it can also be nice to consider the Öxarárfoss Waterfall Trail. In colder months, like April and May, it might be an awesome trail to explore around the park, experience some bird watching and some breath-taking views from the National Park that only Iceland can provide.

The trail itself is kid friendly and easy to take, but might get busy during warmer months, as Iceland is filled with tourists. As you’re strolling on the well-travelled path along this little nice trail, keep in mind that you’re walking in the centre of Icelandic culture!

It was a very important location and social centre in Iceland’s early days, and a lot of the decisions that built the country were taken there.

Try to imagine yourself back in those days, living a simpler lifestyle (and the landscape might help with it!), gathering there with your tribe to decide the future of your country… it’s a really engaging experience that will make you enjoy Iceland even more (especially if you take a History book or Saga with you).

Hjálparfoss

Photo by Gaedabakstur

Despite all the joy, beautiful pictures and historical meaning the waterfalls of the Golden Circle can provide, it wouldn’t be fair to yourself to limit your experience to only those included on that trail. 

So its worth taking time to explore the waterfalls located near the Golden Circle. These waterfalls are as magnificent as the ones found on the more famous tourist trodden route and include one of the most picturesque falls in the country!

An hour-and-half drive separates you from the Thingvellir National Park and Hjálparfoss, a double waterfall located on the Hekla Lava Fields. This waterfall, that connects the rivers Fossá and Þjórsá as they merge into a pool, is a top location for those looking for some calm moments, away from crowds and tourists.

If visiting it during the fall, the colours around the Hjálparfoss can be quite divine, providing all sorts of stunning and jaw-dropping pictures, no matter the angle you take them. 

Other stops

Photo by Anna Rosa

Leaving Hjálparfoss might be difficult, but there are also some other cool waterfalls around it that you should make time to visit.

Driving towards Bjarnalón (an amazing lake and also a hike for those looking for adventure), you will enjoy the journey along the river until you make a small detour to find Gjáin. 

Gjáin is a small valley filled with a lot of little waterfalls. This “fairytale-come-true” landscape, with green all around, rivers and lava formations, is one of the most inspiring places in Iceland, and it makes a beautiful and well-deserved stop to recover your energy. 

Peaceful and relaxing, this valley is also the perfect place for a hike. One challenge is to walk around the area and count as many waterfalls as possible!

The most famous, however, is located quite close to the parking lot and its double-fall is amazing for pictures. The rock formations, just like those around Hjálparfoss, are quite characteristic of the volcanic landscape, adding to the magnificence of the scenery around Gjárfoss.

tbc

Icelandic food
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Micheile Henderson)

As I said before, Iceland’s waterfalls and history certainly intertwined. Gjárfoss is no exception. Close to it (a 20 minutes walk), you can find Stöng, an open-air museum, built up based on the original Stöng Commonwealth Farm.

This is a viking-era farm destroyed and buried down this area during one of Hekla’s eruptions, back in 1104. It was reconstructed in 1974, in celebration to the 1100th anniversary of Iceland’s settlement by Norwegian Vikings in 874.

A one-hour drive from Stöng (or a 5h hike for those feeling adventurous) can take you to Háifoss, which I consider to be one of the most beautiful locations in Iceland.

Háifoss, which means “The Tall Fall” lives up to its name standing at 122 meters. The landscape is so diverse and beautiful, allowing you to take astonishing pictures throughout the whole year.

For those into panoramic pictures, try it here, as you can also fit “Granni” (Neighbour in Icelandic) in the picture as well!

Granni is another fall located quite close to Háifoss, and you can find a good spot between both of them to simply enjoy one of the most magnificent views in your life.

The river follows down the valley, and the colours in this region are so intense and beautiful, that no matter when you visit Iceland, you be rewarded with amazing memories, ready to be captured in video and photo. 

If you decide to hike from Stöng, you will feel like you’re in Tolkienian adventure, with this beautiful, somehow nostalgic and one-of-a-kind landscape all around you.

You might understand the reasons those characters went on adventures the moment you set foot on the road and start to notice every detail from your surroundings.

This is perfect moment to set up your favorite playlist, audiobook and podcast, and enjoy the hike of your life! And remember to carry your water bottle with you, because you might as well fill it with the clean Iceland water directly from the waterfalls and rivers alongside the path. And refilling with this water believed to have magical powers so drink up!

Unfortunately, Háifoss is not as easily accessible as the other waterfalls. You’ll probably need a 4×4 to get to the closest parking lot, but don’t worry if you didn’t rent one. You can also park your car a bit farther away, and then walk a few kilometres to the waterfall area.

There are also some folklore related to Háifoss, which might be a nice addition for those fond of this subject. “An ogress lived in Háifoss (which used to be called Fossárfoss before it got its name in 1912 – RHR). She lived on trout, which she caught in the waterfall. Once a teenage boy travelling with other travellers threw a rock into the river.

That night the ogress went to the tent, where the travellers were sleeping, and tried to pull the teenage boy by his legs out of the tent. But his mates pulled him in the other direction by the upper part of his body. After a lot of tussles, the ogress let the boy go and went away, but the boy was bedridden for a whole month from this maltreatment”.

(Translated into English from Þjóðsögur Jóns Árnasonar – the Folklore of Jón Árnason – RHR).

You can also hike down the waterfall, but a good guide is recommended. It’s such an amazing experience and recommended to all of those who want unique experiences and do not mind the 3.5km path downwards. 

tbc

Icelandic food
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Micheile Henderson)

As you can see, the Golden Circle offers a lot of unique and unforgettable memories, especially if you’re a waterfall lover. If you don’t mind, you can even drive a bit further away and enjoy some other waterfalls around the Circle, which can be as satisfactory and rewarding as the experiences you’ll have within it. 

Iceland is a country full of beauties and a one-of-a-kind place to be. Before going there, you might want to prepare not only the places you will visit, but also some add-ons to complement your overall experience.

Top tips:

  • Get a good History book – if you’re into it -, or even a folklore book, to be your unofficial guide to Iceland. Every place there has some kind cool story related to the specific areas. Connecting the dots of how those places were important to the people living there at some point in time might feel like a journey back in time, and it will probably open your perspective to a different look into this country. 
  • But not only that! Take with you your favourite songs, your favourite games (portable, probably!), your favourite snacks and your favourite books.

To be quite honest, the experience of sitting down close to a waterfall with a really nice book in your hands is far from what words can describe, and you might enjoy these special memories for the rest of your life.

You’ll always remember that you were listening to that introspective song that you love, sitting down in the middle of Iceland, with a colossal (or not) waterfall nearby. After this moment of introspection, you’ll quite easily understand how this island became the synonym of dreams come true to the foreigners who were lucky enough to visit it.

Icelandic horse in Iceland
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