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3 must-see waterfalls along the South-Coast of Iceland

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Sunset from behind Seljalandsfoss on the South Coast of Iceland
Obviously when TLC warned everyone to not go chasing waterfalls I was off daydreaming as waterfalls are second only to squirrels when it comes to my favorite thing to chase these days. With a seemingly greater population of waterfalls than people, there was no way I was missing the opportunity to let the waterfall chaser in me run free in Iceland. Why so many waterfalls? The reason is a mix of the country's north Atlantic climate that produces frequent rain and snow and its near-Arctic location that produces large glaciers, whose summer melts feed many rivers. For these same reasons, Iceland waterfalls are also amongst some of the largest and most powerful.

With so many waterfalls to choose from how is one supposed to choose? For me it was a case of popularity and accessibility due to not having a rental car and only staying in Reykjavik for four days. Of those I did get the chance to witness the following three were my favorites. With the furthest (Skógafoss) only 150 km from Reykjavik and en route to the not-to-be-missed Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon (more on this to come) and a high frequency of local buses and tours visiting all three waterfalls, you have no excuse to miss these ones!

1. Skógafoss

Skógafoss in Iceland from the road

Pronunciation: Sko-ah-fahss (You didn't think that it was possible for any Icelandic to be easy to pronounce did you? )

Boasting a width of 25 meters and drop of 60 metres, the Skógafoss (or Forest Waterfall) stands tall and proud over a volcanic cliff that used to be part of the southern coastline of Iceland. However, all the fame has not gone to its head, as it still works hard to impress its guests, producing such a mass of spray that a single or double rainbow can be seen on a sunny day (Yes these do occasionally occur in Iceland). There's a nice little piece of folklore that goes with the occurrence of this rainbow. According to legend, the first Viking settler in the area, Þrasi Þórólfsson, buried a treasure in a cave behind the waterfall. The legend continues that locals found the chest years later, but were only able to grasp the ring on the side of the chest before it disappeared again. The ring was allegedly given to the local church and used as a door ring and can now be found in the Skogar Folk Museum.

Skógafoss waterfall on the South Coast of IcelandSkógafoss waterfall on the South Coast of Iceland

2. Seljalandsfoss 

Sunset from behind Seljalandsfoss waterfall on the South Coast of Iceland

Pronunciation: Sell-yah-lahnds-fahss (I like to remember it as sell your lands first - before you sell this waterfall).

Although Iceland has many amazing waterfalls, it has only one that allows you to walk behind it - Seljalandsfoss. In English, “Seljalandsfoss” translates to 'selling the land of waterfalls', which is fitting for its spectacular nature. Depending on the weather and time, from behind Seljalandsfoss one can see a rainbow or the Northern Lights past the waterfall making for a truly epic Icelandic experience. Although the time and weather did not allow me these pleasures, I did get the joy of experiencing the changing colors of the cascading falls as I watched the sun set from behind them, which is an experience I recommend working into your itinerary if you can.

Sunset at Seljalandsfoss waterfall on the South Coast of IcelandSunset from behind Seljalandsfoss waterfall on the South Coast of Iceland

3. Gullfoss

Gulfoss Waterfall in Iceland

Pronunciation: GHULT-fahss (That double l is a real killer...)

The Gullfoss - or Golden Falls - are almost invisible within the Icelandic landscape until you are literally standing above them; with the Hvítá river that feeds the falls seeming to simply vanish into the earth. As one hikes down the steps to stand beside the waterfall however, the river can be seen to flow down into a wide curved three-step staircase before abruptly plunging into a 32 metre deep crevice.

 With all this power during the 20th century, there were talks of using the waterfall to generate electricity. During this period, the waterfall was rented by its owners, Tómas Tómasson and Halldór Halldórsson, to foreign investors. However, the investors' attempts were unsuccessful, partly due to lack of money. The waterfall was later sold to the state of Iceland, under who the waterfall became legally protected. Legend has it that Sigríður Tómasdóttir, the daughter of Tómas Tómasson was so determined to preserve the waterfall's condition that she even threatened to throw herself into the waterfall. Today, you can see a stone memorial to Sigriður located above the falls.

Why the name though? The falls are named for the brownish tint in the plunging water. This discoloring is due to the glacial nature of the water, meaning that the water bears soil particles picked up when the glacier grinded its way downhill.

 Together with Þingvellir and the geysers of Haukadalur, Gullfoss forms the popular Golden Circle tour in Iceland. This is one I cannot wait to return to in winter. If you haven't already, google pictures of the Gulfoss in Winter and prepare for the ultimate winter wonderland inspiration.

Golden Circle Evening Tour - Gullfoss WaterfallGolden Circle Evening Tour - Gullfoss Waterfall