Everybody Goes to the Golden Falls

Gullfoss, a tourist attraction since the late 19th century
Gullfoss, a tourist attraction since the late 19th century

Everybody who goes to Iceland, well okay, almost everybody, goes to Gullfoss, the “Golden Waterfall.” 

It’s the most popular waterfall in the country, one of its best-known national wonders and an easy five-minute walk from the parking lot. “Icelanders, being keen travelers themselves, will insist it is the most beautiful waterfall in the world,” says one of the country’s photographers. Gullfoss is free—and unlike visiting many natural attractions in Iceland, there’s no cost for parking either. 

It’s also on the classic Golden Circle, which begins in Reykjavik and takes you to three top attractions in a half-day, a tour ranking near the top of almost every list of “Things to do in Iceland.” Gullfoss is the turnaround point, the highlight of the Golden Circle. 

Because we had an arduous full-day offroad trip planned to Hverdalir, to ease the amount of driving Magellan spent two nights at Geyser, only ten km from Gullfoss. We planned to see the falls in the afternoon after a rough trip on a gravel road and an exciting hike were behind us. 

As we neared Gullfoss about 8:30, the morning sun ablaze, Magellan said, “Let’s see the falls now instead,” and turned into the parking lot. Which held a mere handful of cars. The lower lot, reserved for buses and handicapped visitors, was empty. What a nice surprise. Attendance averages 850 people a day—so on a Saturday in late August when we were there, you could expect double that number and that more of them would be early birds like us.

From the flat landscape around Gullfoss, the crevice is obscured; you’d never know there was a powerful waterfall pouring into a narrow canyon. In fact, you have to walk down to get to the top of the waterfall.

The turbulent white water of Gullfoss originates at Hvítárvatn Lake 40 km away, the glacial Hvítá (White) River rushing through the Icelandic Highlands and tumbling into a double cascade across a two-step gorge. The left side cascades, the right side plunges into a narrow throat.

The power is incredible, the flow averaging about 110 cubic meters per second. In springtime when it’s twenty times that, the current can get so powerful that water fills the gorge and the lower waterfall disappears. 

Afternoon sunlight sometimes turns the glacial water into a golden cascade, a theory for how Gullfoss got its name. 

This being the land of sagas, there’s also an old tale about a farmer named Gygur who was so rich he didn’t know what to do with all his gold. Unable to bear the thought of someone else possessing it after he died, Gygur flung his gold into the waterfall. 

But the best story is about a woman who helped nix what her father deemed a golden opportunity. 

Her name was Sigríður Tómasdóttir, the daughter of sheep farmer Tómas Tómasson. The family lived in the nearby village of Brattholt but owned the land that included the waterfall and Hvítá water rights. 

Sigríður loved Gullfoss. As a young girl, she and her sisters created a path to the falls and often guided visitors to see them.

In 1907 her father agreed to lease his land to an English firm that planned to build a hydroelectric plant at the falls. Sigríður, by then 36 years old, was so incensed she threatened to throw herself into the falls if her father didn’t withdraw the contract.

Officially uneducated but well read, she fought to overturn this damn project, arranging protests and often travelling to Reykjavík on horseback attempting to persuade government officials to cancel the contract. She hired a young lawyer (Sveinn Björnsson, who later became Iceland’s first president) to help her submit legal claims. While the case attracted positive public attention, it dragged on for years. Luckily, lack of funds and project failure caused the speculators to let the contract lapse. After her parents’ death, their foster son took over the farm. In 1945, it was sold to the Icelandic government, which subsequently designated it a nature reserve. A memorial was erected at the falls commemorating Sigríður. And in 2010, her story was adapted into a children’s book, The Gullfoss Legends.

Magellan’s decision to see Gullfoss early in the early morning was brilliant. By 9:30, a lineup was forming at the best photo spots on the lower observation deck. 

Everybody was arriving. The golden time for us to leave.

Navigation

Buttons, Billy Bob. The Gullfoss Legends. United Kingdom: Wishing Shelf Press, January 1, 2010. Edward Trayer, aka Billy Bob Buttons, was a runner-up for the prestigious UK People’s Book Prize in 2014.

Gottlieb, Jenna. Moon Iceland. Berkeley: Avalon Travel Hachette Book Group, 2020.

Nowack, Dr. Christian;  Kluche, Hans; Hug, Odin; Mecke, Andrea; and Fischer, Robert. Marco Polo Iceland. United Kingdom: Marco Polo Travel Publishing Ltd, 2019. 

Parmar, Neil. “The Badass Woman who Saved this Icelandic Treasure.” Ozy, May 23, 2017.

Sigríður Tómasdóttir Memorial. Wonder Woman Project.

Svavarsson, Einar Pall. “Gullfoss Waterfall in Iceland.” Hit Iceland.

5 Responses

  1. Quite the sight – and a great story.

    Found this video :

    https://youtu.be/pE1FouPISgk

    The “viewing platform” looks quite small and appears to have an absence of railings etc that we often see at natural sights around the world. Gives one a chance to “get up close and personal”.

    1. TY so very much for posting this excellent drone view of Gullfoss. (Magellan left his at home.) Iceland must have fewer lawyers than here in North America as in many spots there are no guardrails or legal warning signs, etc.—they expect you to use your common sense.

    2. Any safety protection on the natural platform would be wiped out each winter, so in the spring they stick a few 1-inch pipes in the rock, and string a few ropes between them to give you something to grab if you were to slip.
      Gullfoss Natural Viewing Platform

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