Iceland

Gullfoss

Not every tourist who visits Iceland has the time to take a road trip around the entire country - So, for those with limited time, the Golden Circle day trip is one of the best solutions for an excursion out of Reykjavík offering visitors a sampling of the beauty of Iceland’s natural environment.

There are a number of options for travellers to tour the Golden Circle, so whether your rent a car, hire a taxi, or get yourself a spot on a tour bus, you’ll easily be able to see all of the beautiful sights that the Golden Circle has to offer in a day.

After visiting the beautiful Öxaráfoss waterfall in Iceland’s iconic and historic Þingvellir National Park and stopping by Geysir Geothermal Park to see the spectacular Strokkur geyser it’s time to move on to to what is likely to be the highlight of your day - The iconic “Golden Waterfall.” 

Gullfoss

The majestic Gullfoss waterfall, located in southwest Iceland’s Hvítá River Canyon, is one of the largest and most powerful waterfalls in Iceland.

The water from the river originates high above from the Langjökull Glacier and is said to surge an estimated 140 cubic meters over the waterfall every second.

The total height of Gullfoss is 32 meters and is generally measured in two different stages:

  1. The first stage is a shorter cascade waterfall that is about 11 meters (36 feet) in height.

  2. The second stage is about 21 meters (69 feet) in height.

Likewise, the width of the waterfall is divided into two stages:

  1. The upper left side of the waterfall stretches to around 243 meters (800 feet) at its crest.

  2. The lower right side portion of the falls is half that size at 120 meters (400 feet).

There is an interesting bit of history related to Gullfoss which helped to spark an early environmental movement seeking to protect Iceland’s natural environment from over-development.

Gullfoss was originally the property of a man named Tómas Tómasson who was approached in the early 20th century by foreign investors seeking to harness the power of the falls to generate electricity. Tómasson was initially hesitant to sell the land but later compromised and decided to lease it out.

Tómasson‘s daughter, a woman named Sigriður Tómasdóttir vigorously opposed the usage of the waterfall for this sort of development, which she believed would cause irreparable damage to Gullfoss.

Using her savings to hire a lawyer in the capital, she spent several years engaged in a lawsuit with the investors attempting to prevent them from ruining the waterfall. Even though she would fail in her legal attempts to save the land, the original lease expired before any construction took place. 

In 1940, the waterfall was acquired from Tómasson by Sigriður‘s adopted son who later sold it to the Icelandic government which in turn designated the area as a protected nature reserve.

Sigriður’s struggle to preserve the waterfall inspired the people of Iceland to take the issue of protecting their country’s natural environment more seriously and the world is a better place today thanks to her efforts.

While visiting Gullfoss you’ll find a small monument in honour of her efforts.

Photography

The biggest obstacle to taking photos of the waterfall (and this applies to most of the waterfalls in Iceland) is that if you’re too close both you and your camera are going to get wet thanks to the mist that constantly engulfs the surrounding area.

Photographers should be prepared to protect your camera and lenses from the spray, especially if you are planning on taking long exposure photos.

There are various view-points set up around waterfall for people to take photos as well as a well-developed and (more importantly) safe walking trail that allows people to get as close to the falls as possible. 

Most of the shots that you will have seen of the waterfall will have been taken from a viewpoint near the lower parking lot with the use of a telephoto lens. This area is where you can get the widest view of the falls and are also safest from the mist. 

If you prefer to get closer to the falls, there is a walking trail that will bring you next to the top cascade where both you and your camera will undoubtedly get a bit wet. The experience of being so close to such a powerful force of nature though is highly worth the walk.

Depending on the time of the year you visit, the mist may not be the only factor that makes taking photos of the waterfall difficult - During the high season for tourists, you are likely going to have to contend with having a bunch of people in your beautiful landscape shots.

As one of the most popular tourist destinations in Iceland, you may have to put up with sharing the waterfall with hundreds of other people. One of the best ways to combat this issue is to time your visit for very early or very late in the day.

Getting There

 

If you are following the popular Golden Circle route, Gullfoss is about a two-hour drive from the capital of Reykjavik. As mentioned above, most tourists will first stop at Öxaráfoss and then visit the Geysir Geothermal Park before arriving at Gullfoss. The waterfall is a 14km drive from Geysir and there are several signs along the route that point tourists in the right direction. 

There are two parking lots (free of charge) for visitors to Gullfoss - The lower parking lot is not marked by a road sign and won’t show up on your GPS, but it is probably the best place to park your car.

The upper parking lot is next to a restaurant / cafe that serves a wide variety of Icelandic fare as well as having a gift shop where you can purchase some souvenirs.

After visiting Gullfoss, many people will continue on to one of the areas many hot springs, Faxi waterfall or Crater Kerið before heading back for the day.

If you’ve decided that you won’t bother renting a car while visiting Iceland, you’re going to have to rely on public transportation to get to the waterfall. There are tours out of the capital offered by tour groups like Reykjavik Excursions which offer tourists access to several different stops for around $100USD. It is important to remember that if you want to book a tour that you should do so well in advance as the seats on the daily tours tend to fill up quickly.

As one of the most iconic waterfalls in Iceland (as well as the whole of Europe) Gullfoss is an extremely busy tourist destination for anyone visiting Iceland. The waterfall is certainly one of the most beautiful that you’ll ever see and will undoubtedly be one of the highlights of your trip to Iceland. 


The Geysir Geothermal Area

It should be no surprise that when directors were looking for filming locations for the upcoming television series ‘The Game of Thrones’ that the fictional ‘Land of Ice and Fire’ be filmed in a spot where both ‘ice’ and ‘fire’ are so prevalent in the natural environment - Iceland was the perfect location to ensure that the words of George RR Martin translated so well to the screen. 

In the years since the television series became a worldwide phenomenon, tourists have been attracted to the country wanting to experience the real-world ‘Land of Ice and Fire’ where massive waterfalls, hikes over vast glaciers and active volcanoes and the raw power of the earth is always on display.  

The nickname is a fitting one but the major difference is that in real life, Icelanders have learned to harness the so-called ‘fire’ to construct beautiful hot spring baths and swimming pools all over the country. In addition to to hot springs, the people of the country are afforded the luxury of drinking volcanic tap water and taking their daily showers in some of the cleanest water on the planet.

This is possibly why Icelanders are some of the healthiest in the world!

The Geysir Geothermal Area however is not a place where that power can be harnessed (people have tried) and its also not one where you’ll be able to enjoy a relaxing hot spring bath. The water is so hot that even in the middle of winter, the pools are boiling and often erupt with massive geothermal power. 

You do however get a front row seat to the power of the so-called Land of Ice and Fire and its a show that you’re not going to want to miss.  

What Are Geysers?

North American visitors to Iceland are likely familiar with the geysers of Yellowstone National Park - it’s unlikely however that most travellers are aware that the word “geyser” originated in this exact location.

Coming from the old Norse word “geysa” which means to gush or rush forth, the word has been borrowed by the English language to describe these beautiful forces of nature. 

Geyser’s are essentially a rare geological phenomenon that are found only in a few locations around the Earth - To make an analogy, geysers are like natural “teapots” which boil and build up immense heat and pressure before they eventually burst with steam.

The sight of that steam and hot water bursting out of the earth in such a spectacular fashion is a natural event that has fascinated people for probably as long as humans have existsted. 

To put it simply, there are a few factors that must be met before a geyser can be formed:

  1. They are always found in areas rich in volcanic activity.

  2. There is an ample supply of groundwater as well as subsurface water reservoirs.

  3. There has to be fissures in the earth that allow hot water to travel to the surface.

There are currently around a thousand ‘active’ geysers in existence around the planet with the highest concentrations found in the United States, Russia, Chile, New Zealand and Iceland. The ‘temporary’ nature of geysers though means that over history many of them have already gone extinct or entered long periods of dormancy which makes counting them somewhat difficult.

When all the conditions are met for the formation of a geyser, it spends the next thousand or more years acting as a temporary vent allowing the earth to periodically release steam that has built up beneath the surface.

The frequency of a geyser’s eruptions depends primarily on the geothermal activity happening deep underground - Some geysers may erupt a few times every hour others may only become active once every decade.

Hundreds of years ago, visitors would have to wait around all day hoping for something to happen but today scientists are able to predict the average intervals between each eruption, their duration and their height making a visit to a geyser much more rewarding and less time consuming.

Links: What is a Geyser (Scientific American) | What is a Geyser (geology.com)

The Geysir Geothermal Area

Even though Iceland’s ‘Great Geysir’, the namesake for all of the world’s geysers, is currently dormant, the area around it has several other active geysers and hot spring pools that are still very much active.

Currently the most active geyser in the park is known as “Strokkur” which erupts every five-to-ten minutes each of which reaching heights of anywhere between twenty to forty meters.

The Great Geysir on the other hand (a short walk from Strokkur) only erupts once every few years - When it does though it reaches heights of anywhere between seventy to eighty meters.

One eruption almost two decades ago was recorded as having a height of 122 meters.

Written records indicate that the area has been attracting sightseers since well before the 13th century but studies indicate that the Great Geysir has existed for much longer dating it at around 10,000 years. Its activity however has slowed down within the last two centuries due in part to tectonic activity and human stupidity.

In 1916, to the dismay of many, the frequency of the Great Geysir’s eruptions started to decline. In order to give it a bit of a ‘helping hand’ a few different attempts were made to get it to become active again:

  1. People threw rocks and coins into the pool - This had an adverse effect and blocked the pool.

  2. People then decided to dig a channel around around the edge of the pool to lower the water table - This worked for a short time until the channel became clogged.

  3. People then decided to pump soap into the pool to force an eruption which was a practice that lasted for almost a decade before coming to their senses and realizing the terrible impact on the environment that it was causing.

In the absence of activity at the Great Geysir, Strokkur has become the main attraction of the geothermal park thanks to the frequency of its eruptions. The Great Geysir however will someday make world headlines when it finally wakes up. 

Thankfully people have learned from past mistakes and have set up barriers to keep both tourists and the Geysir safe from further bouts of stupidity. When you visit the area you’ll notice that there are warning signs that strictly prohibit visitors from throwing objects into any of the geysers or hot spring pools around the park.

Depending on the direction the wind is blowing and where you’re standing, it is possible that you may get wet when Strokkur erupts. When I visited it seemed like tourists enjoyed their hot steam baths when the geyser erupted. I’m not sure I’d want to get wet in the middle of winter though.  

While visiting you may want to consider walking up the short trail that will take you to the top of Mount Bjarnafell. At the top you can get a different perspective of the geyser erupting as well as panoramic views of the beautiful Haukadalur Valley.

The hike should only take you about five to ten minutes and is well worth it. 

The area near Geysir is currently being developed with restaurants, resorts and shops nearby - In the future there will be a mixture of high-priced hot spring resorts as well as log cabins and camping grounds for people to stop and spend the night. The area is especially beautiful during winter when the Northern Lights come out.

Already completed is a beautifully constructed ‘shopping centre’ of sorts that sells Icelandic souvenirs, has a gas station, convenience store and a restaurant-cafe on site.

If you’re feeling hungry or need a coffee, this is one of the only spots in the area to get something. You will unfortunately have to pay a premium price to get something - A bottle of beer for example was around $16 USD!

Getting There

 

The Geysir Geothermal Park is about a 100km drive away from Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavík along the Golden Circle via route 35 or 36.

The geothermal area is the second major stop (after Öxarárfoss) along the Golden Circle route which for most people culminates with the Gullfoss waterfall.  

A stop at the Geysir Geothermal Area won’t really take much time out of your busy day of travelling around the Golden Circle.

You’ll want to stick around to see the geyser erupt a few times before taking a walk up the mountain and visiting the shopping centre across the street.

There is no admission fee for the geyser area, but depending on where you park your car, you might have to pay a fee.

Geysers are an uncommon natural sight and if you’re in the area, I highly recommend taking the time to stop by before heading on to your next location!