The great thing about a country with 269 glaciers is that they create some wonderful natural features. As Iceland’s ice caps go through their natural fluctuations of melting and freezing throughout the year, their meltwater births waterfalls.
No matter what area of the country you’re in, you’ll find a beautiful, famous fall to marvel at. Many of them are also included in the Top 30 Things to Do in Iceland, but none, however, are more famous than the Golden Circle’s Gullfoss waterfall.
Gullfoss Waterfall Facts
Gullfoss translates to ‘Golden Falls’. It was probably named like that due to the golden hue of its water or the way the sun hits the spray. Another explanation lies in an old story, featuring a farmer called Gýgur. It’s said that he didn’t want anyone possessing his gold after he died, so he threw it into the Gullfoss waterfall in Iceland.
The Gullfoss waterfall is 32 meters (105 feet) high and is formed by the Hvitá (translation: white) river. It falls in two stages and is formed by meltwater from Langjökull glacier, which lies a short distance above.
The waterfall is a busy one, with an average water flow of 110 cubic meters per second. With such power, it’s not surprising that Gullfoss once attracted the attention of energy companies.
In the early twentieth century, investors were considering using the waterfall to generate electricity via a hydroelectric dam. The land’s owner, Sigríður Tómasdóttir, refused to allow this, desiring the waterfall to be preserved in its natural state. She fought a fierce legal battle and won.
Eventually, the site was purchased by the Icelandic government to ensure its protection. Today, it’s one of the most popular places for tourists to visit and has become part of the Golden Circle route.
How Far is Gullfoss Waterfall from Reykjavík?
Gullfoss waterfall is about 115 km (71 miles) east of Reykjavík, a journey of about an hour and a half. No one, however, just drives straight to Gullfoss and back to the capital; they take the world-famous tourist route.
Gullfoss is just one spot of many that lie on the Golden Circle path. The other two most popular stops are Þingvellir National Park and Geysir Geothermal Field.
The Circle begins at the capital, taking Route 1 (the Ring Road) either clockwise or counter-clockwise. If traveling clockwise, you’ll need to turn onto Route 36, and if counter-clockwise, just follow Route 1 until you reach Route 35. It does not matter which direction you travel; the furthest point from Reykjavík will be Gullfoss falls from either direction.
The good news is you won't need a 4x4, since the road is paved, and you'll be able to reach the waterfall with your city car rental from Reykjavik.
Driving to Gullfoss Waterfall with Your Rental Car
Many travelers choose to rent a car and drive around the Golden Circle themselves. This gives them the freedom to stay at each stop for as long as they like, setting their own pace. Alternatively, there are many companies offering Golden Circle packages that include a Gullfoss waterfall tour.
Golden Circle tours are generally carried out in large coaches with a tour guide, and time is allotted to explore each site. The choice is yours; it’s nice to not have to drive, but it’s also great to have an open schedule. Whichever way you decide to visit the Golden Circle, expect to be out for the whole day. In total, the route is about 230 km (143 miles) long.
At the waterfall itself, you will find a visitor’s center with a gift shop and a restaurant. On sight, you’ll find a small hill that you can go up and down to get the best view of Gullfoss. There is also a stone memorial dedicated to Sigríður Tómasdóttir.
The car park is basically in front of the waterfall, so you won’t have to walk far. Having said that, wear decent footwear; the Gullfoss waterfall hike can be slippery.
When is the Best Time to Visit Gullfoss?
The great thing about Gullfoss is that its majestic appearance is completely different depending on when you visit. In the summer, the sun’s reflection and the larger volume of water truly showcase its power. In the winter, it’s framed by snow and ice, with the winter chill giving the site extra freshness.
Ensure you are properly dressed because you’re going to want to stand and stare for a while. Since the waterfall lies in a valley, and you are viewing it from above, you are exposed to the elements. Strong wind is common during Iceland winters, which dramatically reduces the air temperature, so try to pick a day with low wind speeds.
Keep in mind that if you do visit in the summer months, this is Iceland’s touristic 'high season'. There will be loads of people with you at Gullfoss, so you may have to be patient to get a photo. By visiting in the winter, you may get the chance to see the northern lights from Gullfoss.
Other Stops on the Golden Circle Route
Geysir Geothermal Field
The Geysir geothermal field is where you can see one of the world’s few active geysers, Strokkur. It erupts approximately every 6-10 minutes, shooting boiling hot water up to 40 meters (130 feet) into the air.
Take a walk around the area, taking care to stick to the roped paths. The geothermal field is full of bubbling mud pools and other geysers for you to enjoy—from a safe distance.
Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir is one of Iceland’s three national parks, and it’s both culturally and geologically significant. It is the site where Iceland’s—and possibly the world’s—first parliament was held; Þingvellir translates to ‘Assembly Field’.
Þingvellir is also a site where the Earth’s tectonic movement can be clearly observed. This national park sits on the North American and Eurasian tectonic plate division; therefore, many rifts can be observed at Þingvellir.
Kerið Crater is a volcanic crater lake along the Golden Circle route. The crater is 170 meters (558 feet) wide, 55 meters (180 feet) deep, and it bears a deep red color. This is because the crater is young by geological standards: about 3000 years old. The lake also makes this site stand out; the water is a bright blue color due to the minerals found in its soil.
Finally, the moss that lines the sides of the crater contrasts beautifully with the aforementioned blue and red tones. Kerið is a piece of natural art. In order to preserve the area, the landowners now charge an entrance fee of ISK 400 per person ($3).
The Secret Lagoon Geothermal Spa
The Blue Lagoon is not the only geothermal spa in Iceland; the Secret Lagoon lies in the Golden Circle. Like its blue sister, the Secret Lagoon is man-made but utilizes naturally heated water from nearby hot springs. The water stays at a comfortable 38-40 °C all the time, and there’s even a small geyser nearby to entertain you.
Is Gullfoss waterfall worth the visit?
Very few waterfalls around the world will dazzle you as much as Gullfoss waterfall in Iceland. With its powerful plunges, bright colors and churning action, it will be hard to walk away when you see it. It’s also only a quick stop on one of the most famous and highly rated tourist routes in the world.
The Golden Circle has much to offer, and if you can’t decide when to visit—summer or winter—do both. You can experience Gullfoss and the other wonders of Iceland in two different dimensions, so book your rental car right now and make this the year that you visit the Gullfoss waterfall in Iceland!