Waterfalls

Goðafoss

While traveling around Iceland’s ‘Diamond Circle’, one of the last major stops before heading back to Reykjavik is the beautiful northern port city of Akureyri - Known as Iceland’s “Northern Capital” the city was a welcome respite after countless hours of driving through northern Iceland.

Coincidentally we happened to be travelling through Iceland at the same time as when the 2018 World Cup was being held and the Icelandic national team had earned a spot for the first time in its history. It was somewhat of a cultural thing for me as I’m from Canada and the whole football / soccer thing never really interested me. I find its to be a far too dramatic sport. The collective attention of the Icelandic people however was focused solely on the World Cup.

We knew that Iceland had a relatively small population, especially compared to what we’re used to living in Taiwan, but when almost half of the country had packed up and left for Russia, the small town of almost 20,000 seemed eerily empty.

Nevertheless Akureyri is a picturesque harbour-side city surrounded by mountains and the ocean and compared to the capital, has a much better system of urban planning, which means getting around is a lot less confusing for tourists.

Our accommodations in town were stunning and included a geothermal jacuzzi which was much appreciated after driving hundreds of kilometres from the rather desolate area where we stayed near Dettifoss.

Another highlight was having access to a nice supermarket where we picked up some fresh juice, Icelandic craft beer, fresh bread and more supplies for the road.

Due to time constraints we hadn’t planned many stops for the last leg of our trip between Akureyri and Reykjavik, so just before arriving in Akureyri we more or less made our final stop along the Diamond Circle at yet another waterfall, but not just any waterfall - The Waterfall of the Gods.

With a name like that, who wouldn’t want to stop and check it out?

Godafoss

Goðafoss as it is known locally just so happens to be one of the most spectacular and well-known waterfalls in Iceland. Even though it is not as large, wide or powerful as all of the others it is certainly one of the most beautiful and that is true for every season.

There’s a reason why the waterfall is known as the “Waterfall of the Gods” but before I get into that I think I should talk about its physical attributes:

Godafoss is a 12 meter high, 30 meter wide set of cascading falls, similar to Canada’s Niagara Falls.

The water flows from the river Skjálfandafljót, one of Iceland’s longest rivers. Originating from the Vatnajökull Glacier, the river also happens to be the water source for several other waterfalls including Hrafnabjargafoss, Aldeyjarfoss, Barnafoss and Ullarfoss.

During the summer the area around the waterfall is lush with green grass which reflects in the colour of the water. In the winter the area is usually covered in snow, the falls may freeze and if you’re lucky you can see the Aurora Borealis in the night sky.

The waterfall is attractive year round and when I visited it was really beautiful.

However I would have loved to have the opportunity to watch the Northern Lights at the same time.

So how does it get its name?

Well, like a lot of things in Iceland, it has to do with a bit of a legend. Whether or not the story is true is up for debate, but in Iceland it is widely accepted as fact as it is chronicled in the Íslendingabók (Book of Icelanders), a 12th Century work that tells the early history of human settlement in Iceland.

The first people to settle in Iceland were Norwegian explorers, more commonly known as the Vikings. When they settled on the island they brought with them their culture and their old Norse religion which consisted of deities like Thor, Odin, Loki, etc.

No, not the superheroes that you’ve seen in the movies.

As Christianity spread throughout Europe, societies that practiced what was considered “pagan” religions were often forcibly converted. The Christianity of a thousand years ago was much different than it is today, no one bothered with slogans like “God is Love” to convert people - The good word was spread primarily by the sword.

By the time the Icelandic Commonwealth was established in 930AD, pressure to make Christianity the official state religion became an issue as Norway threatened to invade if the people of Iceland didn’t conform.

Around the year 1000AD, when the annual meeting of the parliament met at Þingvellir, it was decided that for the good of the people, Christianity would become the state religion with the caveat that pagans could still practice in private.

That decision was placed on the shoulders of an “Ásatrú” priest (or goði) named Thorgeir Ljosvetningagodi Thorkelsson who was said to have spent days meditating and praying to the Old Gods before it was clear what path would be taken. When the decision was made to make Christianity the official state religion Thorkelsson returned home to the north of Iceland where he tossed his idols of the Norse Gods into a beautiful waterfall.

Since then that waterfall has been named Goðafoss.

Photography

Like most other destinations in Iceland there are a few things you’ll want to take into consideration if you’re planning on visiting and taking photos at this waterfall.

Similar to Dettifoss, the last waterfall you’re likely to have seen before this one, there are two different sides to view Godafoss from. In this case however getting to either side doesn’t take an much time - You’ll just have to get in your car, cross a bridge and park at another parking lot to enjoy the view from the other bank.

Unfortunately due to the amount of people that visit, you’ll probably want to find a spot to set up your tripod away from the wooden platform - The problem with the platform is that when people walk it creates a shake which will ruin your long exposure shots.

To solve this problem you can walk a bit further past the waterfall onto the grass bank for a bit more stability. Likewise you could also consider taking the path down to water level.

If you do take the path down to water level though, you’ll be confronted with a whole new set of issues with the amount of spray and mist that will cloud up your lens. In this case you’ll need to bring something to safely wipe down your lens with between shots.

Most of the shots I’m sharing here today were taken on an overcast and somewhat dreary day with a wide-angle lens and an ND filter attached. The shots are a range of long exposures that are anywhere between 2-10 seconds each.

If you don’t have an ND Filter on-hand it is important that you know how to manually control your camera if you’re looking to take photos similar to these. You may be able to get up to around one second exposures if the light is right.

To do this you’ll want to ensure that your ISO is as low as possible. Preferably at ISO 100. You’ll also want to have your exposure set to -1 or -2 so that your shot won’t be blown out.

Take some test shots and play with the settings to find out what’s best and then have fun!

If you visit during the summer and want long exposure shots like the ones here, I highly recommend investing in a Natural Density filter for your lens. However if you visit during the winter when there isn’t much light, you could get away without one.

If you visit in winter you’re going to be in luck because it’s likely that you’ll have the added bonus of the Northern Lights overhead. You won’t need lens filters for taking photos of the waterfall and the Northern Lights, but you’re definitely going to need a tripod, a remote control (or cable shutter release) and a lens capable of f/2.8 apertures.

For a handy introduction on how to shoot the Northern Lights click this link - Northern Lights Photography Settings

Getting There

 

Godafoss is located in northern Iceland along the Ring Road that circles the country.

Situated along the ‘Diamond Circle’ sightseeing route it is about a 53 kilometre (45 minute) drive from the northern city of Akureyri.

If you’ve first travelled south along the Diamond Circle and made your way north, the waterfall is about a 50km drive west of Lake Mývatn or the town of Húsavík.

In both cases you will drive along Road N.1 which is the highway that circles the country. The waterfall is a simple stop along the road and there will be adequate signage on both sides that notify travellers that you’re approaching the falls.

If you’ve decided that you’re not going to bother renting a car while visiting Iceland, you’re going to have to rely on public transportation or tour groups to get to where you want to go. There are tours out of the capital offered by tour groups like Reykjavik Excursions or Arctic Adventures which offer tourists access to several different destinations. 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.

There are public buses that run between Akureyri, Myvatn and Egilsstadir that you may want to consider but you should know in advance that these buses don’t come that often, so you may get stuck waiting around for quite a while which is probably not the wisest way to use your time in Iceland. 

Bus Link: SBA-Norðurleid route 62 and 62A.

As one of the highlights of any travellers trip through Northern Iceland, Godafoss is one of those must-visit locations when you’re in the area. The waterfall is beautiful all year long but even though it is one of Iceland’s most popular destinations, it is rarely packed with people. If you visit, make sure to check out both sides of the fall and enjoy the beautiful scenery. Likewise if you are in Iceland during the winter months, try to visit a bit later at night so that you can not only enjoy the waterfall but the beautiful Northern Lights as well.


Dettifoss

Iceland is a country that is often defined by superlatives - Home to the world’s northernmost capital, Europe’s largest glacier, most powerful waterfall, one of the world’s leaders in energy efficiency and coincidentally one of the most stable economies and oddly enough Europe’s largest banana plantations.

Among many more.

If you are planning on travelling to Iceland, one thing you’ll quickly realize is that it is also one of the most expensive places in the world to visit.

Even though most of the destinations you’ll want to visit are free of charge - Eating, sleeping and getting around is likely to cost you an arm and a leg.

There are of course ways to save money and travel on a budget while in Iceland, but cost tends to be one of the most important factors that prevents people from visiting, or just limiting their travels to the “Golden Circle” route.

If you’re a good at planning and you have the time and resources to travel (What has become popularly known as) the “Diamond Circle” you’ll discover that the northern portion of Iceland is just as amazing as the rest of the country and if you skipped it like many others have, you will have really missed out.

For most, the most important destination on the northern stretch of the Diamond Circle just so happens to be one of those ‘superlatives’ mentioned above - Europe’s most powerful waterfall.

You may be thinking, “I’ve already seen dozens of waterfalls in Iceland, why would I travel hundreds of kilometres north to see another one?” and I wouldn’t blame you if you asked that.

I started feeling a bit weary of waterfalls after a few days in Iceland.

But, its important that you realize that there are waterfalls, and then there is Dettifoss.

Dettifoss is a force of nature.

Standing next to this waterfall is probably one of the most humbling experiences that you’ll ever experience. The sheer size and power of this waterfall in addition to having the ability to just walk up next to it and see it so close is reason enough to make the long journey north.

Dettifoss

Known to locals simply as “The Beast”, the name Dettifoss actually translates loosely to English as “The Collapsing Waterfall.

I’d submit that its nickname is probably much more fitting.

Dettifoss is 100 meters (330 ft) wide and 45 meters (144 ft) high, making it among Iceland’s largest waterfalls. The more important measurement though (and the defining feature of this waterfall) is that over 500 cubic meters of water plummets over the falls every second creating a cloud of mist that can be seen from miles away.

It also makes for some really beautiful rainbows.

The water comes from the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river and has travelled hundreds of kilometres from its origin at Vatnajökull, Iceland’s largest glacier, to get to the falls.

The river, which is Iceland’s second longest at 206km in length then continues to flow north until it meets the Greenland Sea on Iceland’s northern coast.

Another one of the waterfall’s defining features is the odd greyish white-coloured water that flows down the river and gives the falls its distinctive colour. You might look at the photos and think that the water is dirty or polluted but the colour is actually common for glacial rivers as they are carrying volcanic sediment out to sea.

Visitors to Dettifoss are able to enjoy the waterfall from two different vantage points - namely on the West or East side of the river. It is important to note that when you are planning your visit that you will to have to keep in mind which side you want to view the falls from.

If you’ve got time to spare, you could check out the waterfall from both sides, but that will require a few extra hours of driving in order to cross the river canyon.

Whichever side you choose, there are parking lots, hiking trails and public restrooms made available by park authorities making your visit rather simple. It should go without saying that no matter which side you visit, you are going to be able to fully enjoy the waterfall.

There are however Pros-and-Cons for each.

By now you may have noticed that all of my photos were taken on the same side of the falls.

I strategically planned where I would stay the night before we went to Dettifoss so that we could wake up early in the morning and take the long gravel road out to the East Bank.

From my research I felt that the view from the East side not only would allow me to get very close to the falls but would also offer me a better view of nearby Selfoss as well.

The road to the east bank is terrible and if you’re driving a rental car you’re going to have to take it easy so that you don’t cause any damage. Likewise the hike from the parking lot to Dettifoss and further on and can be dangerous, especially during winter.

On the East side, the height of Dettifoss will be much more prevalent than the width and you’ll be able to stand next to the river at the base of the falls.

The view on the western side of the falls is a bit higher than that of the east side, so you’ll be able to better enjoy the width of Dettifoss. The view of Selfoss on this side however isn’t as good and you’ll miss out on some of its beauty on this side.

The road to the parking lot is much better and the hiking trail on the western side is much more well-developed as well as being considerably safer if you’re travelling with children or seniors.

No matter which side you visit, if you are planning on visiting both Dettifoss and Selfoss when you’re there, it is about a 2-2.5km round trip from your car!

Getting There

 

If you are driving directly from Reykjavik, it should take you a little over seven hours to arrive at Dettifoss.

I sincerely hope you aren’t driving directly from the capital just for this waterfall though - That’d make for a really long day and you’d pass by so many other interesting things!

The route you take to the waterfall depends on which side you intend on visiting, but both roads are a simple turn off of Ring Road #1, the highway that circles the country.

East Bank - Road 864 (Hólsfjallavegur)

The road to the East Bank of Dettifoss is a well-developed paved road that is open to the public year round. From the Ring Road it is about a 30km drive to the parking lot.

If you are travelling to the waterfall in the winter months, you’re likely going to be forced to drive this route due to road closures or the type of car you’re driving.

It is possible however that this road will be closed due to weather.

West Bank - Road 862 (Dettifossvegur)

If you like a bit of adventure you’re going to love this road - Road 862 is a simple turn off of the Ring Road and is a bumpy 25km drive to the parking lot.

If you’re driving a 4WD you’ll be able to fly down the road and have a pretty good time.

For everyone else, take it slow and try not to cause damage to your rental car.

The drive from the Ring Road to the parking lot is a flat and rather desolate ride that seems like its never going to end.

There are some resources online that claim that the authorities will close the gate on Road 862 during the winter months while others say that road closures depend on weather conditions. Before you go, make sure to bookmark and regularly check the road conditions and road closures on the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration site which provides you with real-time information on all of the roads around the country.

Link: Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration.  

You’ll find Roads 862 and 864 listed under ‘Northeast Iceland.’

Dettifoss is the highlight of every travellers journey through the northern section of Iceland’s Diamond Circle. It might be a bit of the way and somewhat of a hassle to get to in comparison to most of Iceland’s other destinations but it is highly worth the time and effort it takes to get there. This waterfall is definitely one that you’re not going to want to miss.

Just don’t try to go for a swim. You may end up in Greenland.