Iceland has an impressive number of waterfalls — an estimated 10,000 throughout the country. These falls, known as foss in Icelandic, range in volume from the most powerful waterfall in Europe, Dettifoss, to those that plunge into swirling blue-green pools, cascade down black basalt columns or trickle through green landscapes and lava fields. The surreal landscapes of this Nordic island — and its mesmerizing waterfalls — have been formed over millions of years by active volcanoes and melting glaciers. Iceland is one of the most active volcanic regions in the world with geothermal energy, hot springs, geysers, lava fields and shifting tectonic plates that create this otherworldly scenery, giving the country its nickname, the Land of Fire and Ice. If that’s not enough to inspire a visit, Iceland is also known for its mystical folklore and elves or “Hidden People” — and it’s one of the best places in the world to see the aurora borealis or northern lights, especially between September and April.
While some of the most famous Icelandic waterfalls are reachable by a vehicle on a self-drive or guided tour, others are only possible to see on foot. Travelers exploring on their own will also need to become familiar with Iceland’s unpaved roads ? known as F-roads or Fjalla, which translates to mountain in Icelandic ? that are located in the remote highlands and mountainous regions. These roads are only open to visitors (even with the proper vehicle) during the summer months, due to the extreme road conditions. That is, unless you’re traveling with a licensed operator in a four-wheel drive super jeep. One of these spectacular, must-see remote areas is Landmannalaugar, or the “People’s Pools,” which is located in Iceland’s southern highlands and home to another beautiful waterfall, Hjálparfoss.
If you’re hiring an outfitter to explore Iceland’s waterfalls, you’ll find that many guided tours pair stops at some of the country’s most popular attractions along routes like the Ring Road, the Golden Circle and the Diamond Circle with visits to popular waterfalls — and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to chase the northern lights as they dance across the nighttime sky.
Located in Southwest Iceland in the Hvítá river canyon, approximately 70 miles northeast of Reykjavik, the Gullfoss Waterfall or Golden Falls is one of Iceland’s best-known and most dramatic waterfalls. It’s also one of the highlights along the 190-mile-long Golden Circle sightseeing drive. This iconic and majestic waterfall has two tiers, with the first drop measuring 36 feet in height and the second cascade thundering down 69 feet into the 230-foot-tall Gullfossgjúfur canyon. The glacial waters travel from the Langjökull glacier down the Hvítá river before reaching the canyon, which was known to have formed during an interglacial period. Gullfoss is accessible year-round by car as the roads are well maintained, or you can take a Golden Circle tour with a guide. If you visit on a sunny day, you may witness even more natural beauty as a rainbow magically appears over the falls. In the winter months, it’s important to note that not all viewing points may be open due to snow and icy conditions. If you’re touring along the Golden Circle, another must-see stop is Pingvellir National Park’s Geysir geothermal area.
Regarded as the most powerful waterfall in Europe, Dettifoss originates from Jökulsá á Fjöllum, a glacial river that flows from Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull. This not-to-be-missed 330-foot-wide falls in Vatnajökull National Park in North Iceland boasts an impressive average water flow of 6,186 cubic feet per second as it plunges 150 feet down into Jökulsárgljúfur canyon below. Two roads lead to Dettifoss from the Ring Road but viewing the falls from the west side is the more popular option as there’s a paved road (Road 862) leading to the parking lot. In addition, there’s a designated natural hiking trail (made of sand and rocks) and there are restroom facilities. If you’re on a self-guided drive, Road 862 is closed from January until the beginning of April and the alternative route, Road 864 on the east side, is a gravel road that’s not open until early summer (the end of May). Another option to view the falls and the other natural highlights of northern Iceland is to take a guided daytrip from the town of Akureyri.
Situated in northern Iceland, Selfoss is also fed by the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river. The height of this falls is much shorter than the width at 36 feet tall and 330 feet wide. And this beautiful waterfall is mighty year-round, even when the water flow decreases in the winter. Visitors that get close will likely get wet, and it’s advisable to be cautious around the slippery rocks. While Dettifoss is the more popular fall to visit, Selfoss is worth seeing while traveling along the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon and in the Vatnajökull National Park. You’ll also find another waterfall downstream from Dettifoss; the thundering falls of Harragilsfoss. You can visit the waterfalls in this area by driving on a self-guided tour or taking one of the escorted waterfall tours. Selfoss is typically included on Diamond Circle excursions or look for northern Iceland tours from the town of Akureyri in the Mývatn area.
Goðafoss, one of Iceland’s most picturesque waterfalls, is situated in northern Iceland on Skjálfandafljót, the fourth-largest river in the country. The origin of the name Goðafoss has a fascinating mythical history dating back to A.D. 1000, and it translates to waterfalls of the Gods or waterfall of the “goði,” which means priest or chieftain in the Old Norse language. The glacial blue waters that reach this spectacular 98-foot-wide semicircular arc waterfall plunge 39 feet downward, surrounded by walls of lava, creating blue-green swirls on the water’s surface below. Goðafoss is one of the stops on Iceland’s 155-mile Diamond Circle route, which includes otherworldly sights like the waterfall Dettifoss, Lake Mývatn, Ásbyrgi canyon and more. And don’t miss a visit to the coastal town of Húsavík on the eastern shore of Skjálfandi Bay, known as the The Whale Capital of Iceland — and the starting point of the Diamond Circle. You may also recognize it as the setting of the Netflix movie “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga,” starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams.
You can reach Goðafoss year-round via the Ring Road, although a four-wheel drive vehicle is recommended in the winter. A paved parking lot is available on-site, and walking paths and platforms allow visitors to easily view the falls. Guided daytrips or extended tours from Akureyri are also an option for travelers that don’t want to drive.
The unique feature of Seljalandsfoss, which sits along the coast of southern Iceland, is the walking path that runs behind the steep cliffs, providing an opportunity to view the waterfall from behind. The 200-foot-tall cascading falls are fed by waters from the glacier-capped Eyjafjallajökull volcano and are part of the river Seljalandsá. Visitors can encircle the falls in the summer months, but the constant mist makes the rocks on the pathway slippery, especially when the temperatures drop in the winter. Access to the falls is via the farm of Seljaland along the Ring Road — or many vacation packages to Iceland include a stop at the falls as one of the highlights. If you arrive after dark or when there’s no midnight sun ? typically between mid-May and mid-August ? Seljalandsfoss is brilliantly illuminated on both sides at night. If you’re traveling through South Iceland, you won’t want to miss the other beautiful waterfalls along the Þjórsá river, Iceland’s longest and second-most powerful river at 143 miles in length.
Located within the Borgarfjörður district of West Iceland, this eerily beautiful series of waterfalls flowing into the Hvítá river was formed by streams rushing through the Hallmundarhraun lava field. These lava formations were created by the eruption of one of the volcanoes lying beneath the second-largest ice cap in Iceland, the nearby glacier of Langjökull. The lava fields are also known for their hidden caves, with the longest cave in Iceland close to the falls, Víðgelmir. Spanning an incredible 5,200 feet in length, this cave is 52 feet high and 54 feet wide. One of the best ways to visit Hraunfossar is by a self-drive tour of the country. Travelers can see the falls and the river from a viewpoint at the parking lot, and the restaurant and souvenir shop are open year-round.
The narrow and fast-moving rapids of Barnafoss are a stark contrast to the serene and mystical falls of Hraunfossar, but they’re located just a short walk away. There is a tragic legend around this winding and churning waterway along the river Hvitá, earning it the name Barnafoss, which means Children’s Falls in Icelandic. The optimal view of the waterfall is from above as the rapids rush down into the valley. It’s best to combine a trip to see Barnafoss with a visit to nearby Hraunfossar.
Southeast Iceland’s Svartifoss, or Black Falls, sits in the Skaftafell nature reserve in Vatnajökull National Park. Formed by volcanic activity, this unique waterfall has about a 65-foot drop cascading over the basalt columns. The dramatic columns at this famous waterfall have even inspired the architectural designs of the Icelandic National Theatre in the historical center of Reykjavik and Hallgrímskirkja, the famed Evangelical-Lutheran church, also located in Reykjavik. The national park is just a short drive off the Ring Road and travelers can get directions to the exact location of Svartifoss at the visitors center. The hike to the falls is less than 2 miles round-trip. Along the way, travelers can expect to see other waterfalls in the gorge and the lush green landscape of the nature reserve in the warmer months.
Located along the north shore of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in West Iceland, Kirkjufellsfoss is one of the top photographed waterfalls in the country. Sometimes referred to as Church Mountain Falls, the three waterfalls that comprise Kirkjufellsfoss all originate from the volcano Helgrindur and the river Kirkjufellsá. One of the reasons for its popularity is the dramatic setting, with the peak of Kirkjufell mountain standing at 1,519 feet high in the background. And fans of the HBO television series “Games of Thrones” will recognize the backdrop as one of the filming locations for season seven.
The falls are located off Route 54, just a short driving distance from the small town of Grundarfjörður. There’s an area for parking and it’s an easy walk to view the falls and the mountain. While in West Iceland, don’t miss visiting the rest of the peninsula, Snæfellsnes National Park and one of the area’s highlights, the Snæfellsjökull glacier. This magical region is known for its folktales and stories of elves, and the glacier is regarded as one of the seven energy centers of the world.
This basalt column waterfall — located by Stuðlagil Canyon in Efri-Jökuldalur in Fljótsdalshérað, East Iceland –was discovered after the creation of the Káranhjúkar hydro-dam. Once the Hálslón reservoir started to fill, the levels of the glacial waters of the Jökulsá á Dal River dropped to reveal the surprising and dramatic basalt columns of Stuðlagil Canyon. The Jökla (as local residents refer to it) stretches more than 90 miles in length from the Vatnajökull glacier to Héraðssandar beach, making it one of the longest glacial rivers in Iceland. And this area boasts one of Iceland’s most impressive displays of basalt columns.
The best way to reach this off-the-beaten-path waterfall is by heading south of the Ring Road along Route 923 to get to the east side of the river. After driving approximately 9 miles, turn toward the Klaustursel farm and proceed over the bridge. After crossing the bridge, you’ll drive an additional 1.5 miles to the parking area, which is close to the falls. From this point, it’s about a 1.5-mile hike to the canyon. You can visit both Stuðlafoss and Stuðlagil Canyon within the 3-mile round-trip route.
Located in Iceland’s remote Westfjords, Dynjandi is also known as the Jewel of the Westfjord, and it’s the largest waterfall in the region. Another name for the falls is Fjallfoss. Dynjandi sits at the top in a series of seven falls — with the cumulative height at nearly 330 feet high. The trapezoid shape of Dynjandi at 100 feet wide at the top and 200 feet in width at the bottom creates a beautiful bridal veil cascade. The name Dynjandi is the Icelandic word for thunderous, which is how visitors describe this impressive collection of falls originating from the melting waters of Dynjandisheiði, a glacial mountain plateau in the upland, which feeds the river Dynjandisá. The falls are located approximately 30 miles south of the port town of Ísafjörður. Once there, you can hike up to the base of the falls from the car park. There are marked trails and it’s best to follow those for safety and for the preservation of this pristine area.
Reachable only by foot, Glymur is Iceland’s second-tallest waterfall at nearly 650 feet high. Glymur is situated about 45 miles northeast of Reykjavik and fed by the river Botnsá in Hvalfjörður, a fjord located in West Iceland. To reach the area, you’ll need to head north on Route 1 (the Ring Road), then turn right onto Route 47, which is before the Hvalfjörður tunnel. The views along this road include scenic stretches of the mountains, coastline, small waterfalls, verdant landscapes and more. The long round-trip hike from the parking lot — at about 3.5 hours — can be challenging with steep and rocky terrain, wading through a river, walking along narrow pathways and passing through a cave. It’s best to be in good shape and prepared for the hike — with proper gear and warm layers of clothing — and watch for the markers to Glymur as it’s easy to wander off onto other trails en route.
You might also be interested in:
More from U.S. News
The 12 Most Beautiful Waterfalls in Iceland (and How to Reach Them) originally appeared on usnews.com