If you turn off the Golden Circle Road in southern Iceland a few hours east of Reykjavik, you will arrive at two waterfalls tucked into overhanging cliffs separated by a short walk through a farm meadow. Not speaking Icelandic, Magellan and I call them S & G. As Magellan says, “It’s rare you can experience a waterfall. Here, there are two.”
Seljalandfoss, because of its unique position over a cavern, is one of the few waterfalls in the world that you can walk behind and fully encircle. Arguably Iceland’s most famous waterfall, its beauty has even been turned into a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle.
Stairs with handrails cleaving the side of the canyon lead up to a good-sized alcove behind the waterfall. You stand, enchanted, in a perpetual mist before a beaded curtain of water cascading in front of you.
It’s child’s play. How much closer can I get without being (completely) wet?
The water, clean and cold from the spring-fed Seljalands River, flows underground for seven kilometers before edging over the escarpment in a single tier into a pool before it meanders calmly through the meadow of the Seljaland farm.
Magellan and I arrived early in the morning, a bonus because there are fewer people, a minus because afternoon is when cameras are tripoded to capture the waterfall bedazzled with sunlight from the west, one of the most photographed scenes in all of Iceland.
If you continue counterclockwise around S, the circle path becomes precarious; there are no handrails or stairs on this side. The elderly, the frail and the timid avoid this section. They, and others, retrace their steps to the carpark, unaware or overlooking Gljúfrafoss, even though it’s only a ten-minute walk away.
Gljúfrabúifoss (also known as Gljúfrabúi) is the lesser-known waterfall; neither of our guidebooks include it. The name means “canyon dweller”, appropriate as an overhanging cliff they call Franskanef (“French nose”), conceals the view of G’s lower half. Many consider G the hidden gem of the two falls.
When you first get a peek at the narrow cleft in a rock with a stream running through it—your only passageway into the cavern—the thrill of what you’re about to experience comes alive.
Did I want to do this?
I watched the couple in front of us navigate their way, walking in single file, stepping carefully in the shallow river bottom of wobbly rocks, bending to avoid slimy rock walls angled inward, standing upright after about ten metres where the cavern widens onto a large boulder beneath the open sky. I treaded onto the slippery lava stones, a hiking pole in my left hand to steady my foothold.
Inside the cave, the light is minimal, the moisture maximal, the spray constant. Breathtaking.
People took turns posing on the boulder, offered to snap pictures of strangers and lent a hand to those who needed help when more visitors turned the passageway became a two-way street.
We don’t know how many people visit S & G these days. The last count I found was 400,000 in 2014, so it’s not surprising that at that time a planning group organized by the local government was looking at how to improve the facilities.
In 2017 their report announcing plans to build a seven-metre high, 2,000 square-metre information centre near the S waterfall incited controversy. The report stated that locals know the risks, but visitors who walk behind the S waterfall aren’t aware of the danger of falling rocks.
“How will a visitor centre prevent that?” Magellan wonders.
A translation (the use of “healed” and “hammers” is pretty funny) of an article about the controversy reads:
Those of us who have a beautiful little untouched land and tourists admire it—are we going to be stupid and build on natural pearls?” asks Guðrún, who has founded the Facebook page Verndum Seljalandsfoss, which almost five thousand people have healed…“Seljalandsfoss, Gljúfrabúi and the hammers between them are on the natural heritage register…
Guðrún and the other co-owners of Seljaland farm identified an area on their land for the proposed centre that would avoid spoiling the view of the S waterfall, motivated, she says, not by the money they’d get for it but rather, “it’s about nature being given the benefit of the doubt.”
Safety and guidance are now being championed, according to news articles during the pandemic.
Among the suggestions for improvement is installing a sign that warns of dangers, building permanent steps, improving access by building better trails and observation platforms, putting up warnings about the risk of falling rocks, installing ropes or chains for support, enacting measures to protect people against rocks falling from the rock face, and preventing people from hiking to the upper edge of the waterfall, due to danger they create for those standing below.
The project remains in limbo, stalled in the hands of government.
“I really think it’s a lawsuit just waiting to happen,” wrote TDSuperstar from Toronto online.
Not if you go to S and G and act sensibly Guđs bænum¹!
¹ Guđs bænum (“For God’s sake)
Bokamerki, Setja. “Gera sér ekki grein fyrir hættunni.” MBL, November 18, 2021.
Dadason, Kolbeinn Tumi. “Rauði bragginn gefur mjög svo ranga mynd“ af þjónustumiðstöðinni.” Visir. May 9, 2017.
Sigurdadottir, Krisitn. “Telja að bygging skyggi á Seljalandsfoss.” RUV. May 6, 2017.