Gullfoss – The Waterfall that named the Golden Circle

Along with Thingvellir and Geysir, Gullfoss forms one of Iceland’s most popular Golden Circle tours. The water melting from the second largest glacier in Iceland, Langjökull travels through the plateaus before finally dropping into the canyon, creating the most magical scene at Gullfoss.

Written by Ashmita. Edited by Andrea Gylfadóttir.

The Origin of Gullfoss

Gullfoss Waterfall is one of the most iconic attractions to see when youvisit Iceland. Known as the Golden Falls or the Golden Waterfall, Gullfoss tops the list of the most spectacular waterfalls throughout Iceland. Gullfoss is one of the three main landmarks of the most popular tourist trail Golden Circle. The Golden Circle, in fact, derives its name from Gullfoss. Located in the enormousHvítá (white) glacier river in south-west Iceland, the Gullfoss river water travels from the Langjökull (long glacier), where it drops down into a narrow river. A clear weather allows you to walk close enough to the waterfall to feel the water spray on your face. The energy with which the water surges down the gorge excites visitors as they revel in getting drenched. While there are other higher waterfalls all over Iceland, the Gullfoss Waterfall offers too attractive and breathtaking a view to be missed.

Geographical features

Nature’s beauty and raw power manifest themselves in this marvel called Gullfoss, attracting most tourists to the Golden Circle, apart from the Geysir geothermal area and Thingvellir National Park. Golden Circle tours include ascending the mighty glacier Langjökull, entering its ice tunnels and snowmobiling along its glistening, pristine white surface. Ever wondered how deep the crevice of the Gullfoss plunges? The Gullfoss Waterfall is divided into two separate tiers. One is a shorter cascade of 36 feet, while the other is of 69 feet. The walls on both sides of the gorge reach up to a height of 230 feet, with the water descending into the great Gullfossgjúfur canyon. The Hvítá River disappears from the surface and plummets into the very earth itself. It is prudent not to venture too close to the edge, since a fall into the crevice can prove fatal. It is largely believed by geologists that this canyon was formed by glacial outbursts. This fissure was created by catastrophic flood waves at the end of the Ice Age and continues to be deepened by 25 centimeters a year due to the constant erosion.


Would you believe that there were plans to harness electricity from the Gullfoss Waterfall? Gullfoss found itself at the center of a controversy in the last century when foreign investors attempted to derive profit from Iceland’s bounties. An English businessman called Howell in 1907 sought to utilize the natural renewable energy of the Gullfoss Waterfall. Howell harbored ambitions to establish a hydroelectric plant there. Tómas Tómasson, a farmer who owned Gullfoss, refused to sell the land initially, but later agreed to lease the land to Howell without knowing that a loophole in the lease would prevent him from using it. 

Tómas’ daughter, Sigríður Tómasdóttir, led the charge to stall Howell’s ambitions. Having helped her father pave the first road to Gullfoss, she sought to get the contract nullified quickly. The subsequent legal battle dragged on for several years, forcing Sigríður to travel over 100 kilometers to Reykjavík on foot. The rigours of the climate forced Sigríður to issue threats of throwing herself into the waterfall if any construction began. Her sticking it out to not allow Iceland’s natural beauty make way for a plant construction resulted in Howell withdrawing from the lease in 1929. 

The First Step towards Environmental Preservation

Sigríður is hailed as the first environmentalist of Iceland and recognised for her perseverance in protecting Gullfoss. Being one of the most famous figures in the history of the country, her contribution is forever etched in stone at the top of Gullfoss. Incidentally, Sveinn Björnsson, the lawyer who assisted Sigríður in her battle, became the first president of Iceland in 1944. Gullfoss is too close to the hearts of Icelanders. Unsurprisingly, the hydro-electricity generating potential has left the countrymen divided on whether the site must be preserved as it is or exploited for plant construction. 

Essential part of Iceland Tours

Along with Thingvellir and Geysir, Gullfoss forms one of Iceland’s most popular Golden Circle tours. The water melting from the second largest glacier in Iceland, Langjökull travels through the plateaus before finally dropping into the canyon, creating the most magical scene at Gullfoss. The water travels further into another canyon named Brúarhlöð, which is not only fertile and gorgeous, but also celebrated for excellent River Rafting rapids. As a part of the Golden Circle tour, it is thrilling to visit the well-equipped camping grounds near Gullfoss. Located between Gullfoss and Geysir, the Skjól campground is the closest camping ground with provisions of electricity, free Wi-Fi, good car park, a hostel, a bar and a café. The stopover at Geysir allows you to enjoy the view of Strokkur and is an endless source of exhilarating nature shows. The showers, public conveniences and other standard camping ground amenities including a kid’s playground enable you to a delightful adventure  in the nature’s bounties. 

Depending upon the season and the meteorological conditions, the water in the Hvítá River changes its color from white, to light brown to a deep blue. On a sunny day, the river water takes on a golden-brown color, rendering Gullfoss as the Golden Waterfall. The golden-brown color is a result of the sediments that glacial icy water carries chipping off the earth over the years. It is a treat to travel to Iceland on sunny days as you feel greeted with thousands of rainbows as a result of the natural reaction with the clouds generated by the spray from descending falls.

But this is not to say that winters in Gullfoss would not be thrilling. Winters in Gullfoss are, in fact, gorgeous in their own pristine way. The winter view is spectacular especially due to the frozen waterfall with undulating waves of glistening ice. Since the Gullfoss is located in the interior and high above the sea level, it can get quite icy. Grabbing a hot cup of cocoa or a bowl of hot Icelandic lamb soup at the Gullfoss café will warm you up instantly. The café has a mouth-watering menu. Visiting Iceland in winters has another added advantage of witnessing the majestic Aurora Borealis Northern Light. While you may not necessarily be used to driving in the icy conditions, you may consider joining a tour. A best seller, family friendly Golden Circle day tour with Tröll includes Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir geothermal area, Thingvellir, Kerid crater and a stop at an Icelandic dairy farm for free Ice cream (here).  Not enough exhilaration ? How does snorkelling in Iceland sound? For those seeking a little bit more adventurous expedition we would recomend a Golden Circle day tour that includes Silfra snorkelling (here).  

Haven’t packed your bags already? Visit Iceland and escape the ordinary, drab routine. Feed your excitement and immortalize your experience. 

Tours mentioned in the article : 

Golden Circlem Kerid Crater and Farm visit. Small Group & family friendly (click here).  

Snorkel between Continents in Silfra. Free underwater photos. Small group (Click here).