Located to the east of the Golden Circle, Gullfoss has come to be recognised as Iceland's most famous waterfall. As well as its location on this popular tourist route, Gullfoss enchants locals and visitors with the breathtaking power and impressive landscapes of the falls in both summer and winter.
Gullfoss actually means "Golden Waterfall" in Icelandic, and there are a number of theories behind its name. Some say it was named for the golden light that reflects in its waters at sunset, others say it was inspired by the rainbow created by the sun hitting the water spray.
A third legend states that many years ago, a local farmer named Gýgur, worried about what would happen to the wealth he'd amassed during his lifetime when he died, threw a chest full of gold over the falls so that no one else could take it. Do you think Gýgur's treasure is buried at the bottom of Gullfoss?
Gullfoss is made up of two spectacular tiered waterfalls: the upper one plunges 36 feet (11 metres) from the Hvítá River, before falling again. The second Gullfoss waterfall falls 69 feet (20 metres), making the total height of the canyon 105 feet, or 31 metres.
The waterfall formed in such a fascinating way thanks to the unique composition of Icelandic geography. The earth here is made up of different materials and some are harder than others, like basaltic lava. Over time, the force of the Hvítá River eroded at these different layers in different ways, gradually carving the "staircase" that forms the base of Gullfoss.
How did tourism arrive at Gullfoss?
Before 1875, it was practically impossible to access Gullfoss, but at the end of the 19th century, Icelandic environmentalist Sigrídur Tómasdóttir and her sisters built the first footpath down to the waterfall, making it enjoyable for everyone. Near the waterfall, you'll find a plaque and sculpture dedicated to Tómasdóttir.
Gullfoss was saved from danger!
After the arrival of tourists, the majestic landscapes of Gullfoss and its powerful water flow caught the attention of foreign investors. A plan to build a hydroelectric dam on the waterfall was devised to harness its power to generate electricity.
Thankfully, the investors failed to come up with the funds and eventually the waterfall came to be owned by the Icelandic government, who have protected it so we can all enjoy it today. Legends also say that the one and same Sigrídur Tómasdóttir threatened to throw herself over the falls if the plan went through - while it's generally considered to be a myth, it does add to the enchanting power of Gullfoss.
How to visit Gullfoss?
Gullfoss is located 75 miles (120 km) north east of Reykjavik, and 43 and 6 miles (70 and 10 km) from Thingvellir and Geysir respectively. If you're renting a car in Iceland, take Route 36 to Route 365, then continue on Route 37 and end up on Route 35.
If you'd prefer someone else drive, we recommend booking an organised tour of the Golden Circle to see all of its incredible sights in one day. Book our Golden Circle Tour to visit Gullfoss and its surrounding landmarks with transport from Reykjavik and an English-speaking guide - all you have to worry about is enjoying the excursion!