5 of Our Most Favored Waterfalls in Iceland
I want to tell you about the 5 of Our Favorite Waterfalls in Iceland. Waterfalls are some of Iceland’s most popular photography locations. Iceland could even be know as the land of waterfalls.
But why do we have so many waterfalls in Iceland? To try to answer the question shortly: It´s because the island has a „North Atlantic Climate“ meaning it produces frequent rain and snow, we have many glaciers (10% of our island is covered by glaciers) that during summer produce a lot of excess water in the rivers. We have a lot of mountains, tall ones even, so we have the altitude for the water to drop down on it´s way to the sea, hence all the waterfalls.
Many of my favorite locations in Iceland to photograph are waterfalls. And as you might guess the waterfalls are also some of my most photographed subjects, specially if you consider we don´t even know how many waterfalls this island has! Waterfalls along the main road n°1 are numerous – which of course is the most traveled road on the island.
Waterfalls definitely make a great subject all year round but my all-time favorite season to photograph waterfalls would be the winter, when they are partially frozen and icicles all around. During winter, some waterfalls actually can freeze through but the larger waterfalls keep flowing, at least under neath the top ice and snow layer.
A very common question I receive when helping people to prepare their Iceland journey is When is the right time to visit Iceland? Understandably people are planning a tour which might be a once in a lifetime visit and they want to do it at the right moment. If you have not decided when is the right time for you to visit Iceland you might want to read our blog WHEN IS THE RIGHT TIME TO VISIT ICELAND?
But back to today’s topic these are 5 of My Favorite Waterfalls in Iceland:
First to be mentioned I have to say the almighty Dettifoss. You´ve maybe been to Iceland but only a small percent of the visitors who come here travel all the way to the north coast where Dettifoss reigns.
Dettifoss is located within the Vatnajökull National Park in North-East Iceland and it´s the second most powerful waterfall in Europe. It´s great volume, hundreds of cubic meters of water plunging over the edge. Dettifoss is situated on the river named Jökulsá á Fjöllum (English: Glacier River on Mountains). The river flows from the mighty glacier Vatnajökull as well as it collects water from a large area in Northeast Iceland. The water has a special color of grey-ish/white because it is very rich of sediment.
Dettifoss is only 100 metres (330 ft) wide and has a drop of 44 meters (144 ft) down to the canyon named Jökulsárgljúfur (English: Glacier River Canyon). It is the largest waterfall in Iceland in terms of volume discharge, having an average water flow of 193 m³/s.
But how do scientist know that it is the „second most powerful waterfall in Europe“ – we always believed it was the most powerful but no then they named one in Norway as the most powerful. According to scientist the superlative of “most powerful” comes from multiplicating: water flow x its fall distance (193 m³/s x 44 meters).
What´s so special about it photography wise? It´s power, the sound waves hitting you as they travel up the canyon, the wide edge it falls over, and even the color of the water gives you a sense of volume of dirt it throws down the edge. Nothing can withstand the power of Dettifoss and it leaves you with the after thought of how tiny and weak the human being really is. And this power actually shows on the photos.
Hollywood has made Dettifoss well known in Ridley Scott’s science fiction, Prometheus. The opening scene in the film was shot by Dettifoss. It also appears in The Marvel Studios superhero film, Thor: The Dark World.
You can actually access the waterfall from two sides, and this is something not everyone knows, west side and east side.
Dettifoss is served on its west side by Route 862, a tarmac road. Road 862 gives access to Dettifoss in all seasons. On the west bank there are minimal facilities: a pit toilet, maintained hiking path and a view-platform. Even most locals usually only go from the west side.
The east side how ever has an older gravel road (Route 864) and is usually only passable in summer. On the east bank is an information panel maintained by the staff of Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður (English: Vatnajökull National Park) there is also a public restroom, and a trail to the waterfall.
I always visit both sides, whether I´m there summer or winter. During winter I hire a local super jeep and guide from the capitla pf the North Akureyri and it´s always a great adventure.
Second would be the neighbor of Dettifoss, Goðafoss. It´s also on the North-East Coast.
It is very easy to find as it is located along the country’s main ring road at the junction with the Sprengisandur highland road. The water of the river called Skjálfandafljót (English translation would probably be Trembling River, referring to volcanic activity and earthquakes in the area) falls from a height of 12 meters over a width of 30 meters.
The name of the waterfall is very beautiful Goðafoss and means Waterfall of the Gods.
There is a myth that when Iceland denounced it´s pagan believe of the Nordic Gods one of the countries law speakers threw his statues of the gods in to the waterfall, as poetic as this story is it doesn´t have any support in any historical documents and is believed to be a fabrication.
It´s a beautiful waterfall that´s divided in to two by a great rock pillar, a very photo friendly scene. It´s not as big and heavy like Dettifoss. I once heard a local call those two the Beauty and the Beast … and those are actually great and descriptive nicknames. Goðafoss being the beautiful quiet one and Dettifoss the big, strong beast.
Goðafoss is as beautiful at sunrise as sundown, it´s one of the locations we have in Iceland that you can´t really fail at.
Third one is also on the North-East Coast, Aldeyjarfoss. It´s off the beaten path, or the normal tourist route – making it one of the few hidden gems we have left.
The waterfall is situated in the Highlands of Iceland at the northern part of the Highland Road named Sprengisandur which is a highland plateau in Iceland, defined roughly as the area between the two glaciers Hofsjökull and Vatnajökull. It is an ancient pass and was one of the several important north-south routes that connected remote regions of the island to the parliament, Þingvellir. Original name according to the sagas is simply Sandr (English: Sand) or Sandleið (English: Sand trail) but now only known as Sprengisandur (English: Burst/Explode Sand.) The name has an explanation: because there is no fodder to be found for the horses on the sand and no shelter for humans if needed. Riders in the old days had to pass this way as fast as possible, and some rode their horses to death. The Icelandic saying to run to it´s death is run until you burst (to be on the point of bursting after running for too long) hence Sprengi-sandur / Burst-Sand.
Be aware that Sprengisandur is only accessible during summer, like other parts of the highland desert, it is impassable in winter because of snow, and in spring because of floods. Which means you also need the specialized super jeeps to reach Aldeyjarfoss during winter. For further information on opening of mountain roads please visit website of the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration, Vegagerðin.
The waterfall is on the same river as Goðafoss, the river Skjálfandafljót. The river drops here from a height of 20m.
Aldeyjarfoss is symmetrical features and the contrasts of the pitch black basalt columns the surround the waterfall and the white water makes a great subject.
Forth on my list is the waterfall Brúárfoss. Although situated on the all-time-most-favored Golden Circle, it used to be like Aldeyjarfoss a hidden gem only locals new about.
The only people who made the effort to see it were a few locals, mainly photographers and then came the mass-tourism, blogs, Google maps and social media….not saying they are bad but…for a small waterfall with a very delicate surroundings the publicity wasn´t a good thing. Now how ever the area has been through major upgrade and has a public parking at the main road and a path that leads to the waterfall. It´s a nice walk along river and it will take you 30-50 min to reach the waterfall, depending on your physical state.
The waterfall is on the river Brúará (English: Bridge River) and only approximately 2 km north of the main road Laugarvatnsvegur (road 37).
This waterfall is beautiful all year round, it´s small, it´s quiet and yet it´s so diverse. This hidden gem becomes bluer than you can imagine during the „blue hour“.
Last but not least as Kvernufoss waterfall is very special, it´s special because it´s the least known waterfall on the list.
It is on the South Coast of Iceland which is the most traveled part of the island. It´s very close to the ring-road yet it is very often or almost always overlooked by travelers. It is located on the east side of the popular Skógafoss waterfall, you can even see it it from the ring-road when driving east if you know it´s there, but most people don´t notice. To be completely fair it is half-hidden away in a very beautiful gorge and you have to stand right by the river and look into the gorge to see it. But never the less this hidden gem deserves it should be mentioned with the big ones.
The hike into the gorge to visit Kvernufoss is easy and only takes approx. 20 minutes from the Skógar Museum, and it´s a nice walk along the river but be advised it can be a little tricky if you aren’t steady on your feet. You will need climb a small ladder to cross the fence.
Like it´s better known neighbour Seljalandsfoss it has a small cave behind it and you can walk behind Kvernufoss, at least during summer be very careful and don´t try it during winter unless you have appropriate gear like crampons. Of course we recommend a rain coat too.
Kvernufoss is on the river Kvernuhólsá or usually in short called Kverna. It falls 30-meters (98 ft) in the beautiful gorge named Kvernugil. It is worth to mention that you have to be careful if you are using a GPS for an instance to find this waterfall it´s name is KVERNUFOSS and not “Kvernárfoss in the river Kverná”. You see the similarity in the names, you can easily be confused but the waterfall Kvernárfoss in Kverná is on the Snafellsnes Peninsula on the West Coast.
Kvernufoss is of course not a hidden gem any more as it´s been covered in all sorts of blogs and social media. But it´s a very quiet scene because only a few people take the time to hike up there. This gives you a great advantage, you´ll probably have all time you want in the area all alone.
We have so many waterfalls in Iceland it would be easy for me to make a much longer list. But this isn´t a blog about all the beautiful waterfalls in Iceland, it´s only about our 5 all time favorite ones.
Please keep in mind that photographing those waterfalls, or any waterfall, requires that you show the surroundings the respect it deserves. Give locals the same respect, it´s thanks to them we can visit such places, appreciation costs nothing. And above all remember during the winter season traveling around waterfalls can be extremely slippery and dangerous. You´ll need crampons and sufficient security equipment when visiting these beauties, and the northern giants even require a super jeep. We have a great local guide based in the region who has excellent knowledge in the area and mountain travels in winter. Waterfalls and Northern Lights are a great combo, if that´s your gain you should check out blog 7 CRUCIAL SETTINGS FOR SHOOTING THE NORTHERN LIGHT
Remember that Iceland is a young volcanic island
We aim to preserve the value of our land and protect the vulnerable and barren nature of our precious island as we introduce you to its wondrous and sometimes concealed gems. Please always treat them with love and respect. We are eager for you to experience the best of our country and enjoy all of its gifts as well as to meet up with locals and get a little feel for the Icelandic lifestyle.
We ask you to do like the locals, all trash you bring in with you needs to leave with you again, recycle all that´s possible and never loiter because this will definitely ruin the original feel to our nature gems. None of us are out there to photograph other peoples garbage.
So if you want to visit Iceland for the scenic and majestic waterfalls I recommend the North Coast which is less traveled and where you´ll find 3 out of the mentioned 5 of Our most Favored Waterfalls in Iceland.
Check out a recent video we made about winter travels in the north region.
You might also be interested in oour other blog Winter Workshops in North Iceland.
Iceland En Route – bringing you an experience of a lifetime, again and again.