As mind-boggling statistics go, reading that there are estimated to be 10,000 waterfalls in the relatively small country of Iceland is up there with the best! From tiny streams trickling down a hillside to cascades as wide as they are tall, Iceland has everything a waterfall lover can want.
Why so many? Well, the combination of a wet Atlantic climate; a land mass of which ten percent is covered by glaciers, creating ice melts that flow to the sea; mountains to provide height down which all that water can cascade; and an ever-shifting landscape caused by the island’s position straddling two tectonic plates. All these come together to create the perfect recipe for a land strewn with waterfalls.
For this week’s Sunday Stills theme of Water, let me introduce you to five of them; four very well-known, one a little less so.
Gullfoss means ‘Golden Waterfall’; but on my first visit with Chris, on an icy February day, the scene was more silver than gold. Although the falls themselves weren’t frozen, the land around them was; the whole scene was awesome in a wintry fashion – just beautiful! The paths around the falls were rather icy so we had to take care exploring and couldn’t get as close as would have liked; but we certainly got close enough to feel the power of the torrents.
Gullfoss is Europe’s largest waterfall. It is actually two separate waterfalls; the upper one has a drop of 11 metres and the lower one 21 metres. The lower falls drop into a canyon at a right-angle, so appear almost to disappear into the depths of the earth.
On my second visit some years later it was unfortunately hard to see the falls at all, as the rain was torrential. I was here with Virtual Tourist friends for our annual Euro Meet; I was so disappointed for those that had never seen this spectacle. For my part I was content to take a couple of photos from above, and then shelter in the warmth of the visitor centre.
Maybe on a third visit to Iceland I may strike lucky and see these falls at their best?
The story of Sigrídur Tómasdóttir
Having seen the power of the falls it is hard to imagine that they were ever threatened; but so it was. In the middle part of the last century such wonders were perhaps less appreciated than they are today. At one point there was talk, and even some plans, of harnessing the power of the river here to generate electricity. A local woman, Sigrídur Tómasdóttir, campaigned against these plans and even threatened to throw herself over the falls. Whether it was her threat, or a simple lack of money, is not clear; but the falls were saved and today are protected as they should be, while a memorial to Sigrídur stands in the upper car park area. Iceland would certainly be the poorer, despite all its other magnificent scenery, without this dramatic sight.
This is probably my favourite of the five falls I am presenting here; and unlike Gullfoss I’ve been fortunate to see it twice in good weather. On the first occasion the sun was just touching the upper parts of the falls as Chris and I arrived on a bright if chilly February morning. We parked our car, finding ourselves the only ones here, and followed the easy path toward the water.
As we came closer we could hear the roar of the falls getting louder, the air filled with spray. The path goes very close to the falls indeed; although it got so icy that we didn’t go as far as we might have otherwise have done. Actually, the best views were to be had a little to the side, with a rainbow appearing in the spray.
To the right of the falls is a flight of wooden steps leading to the top. These are well-maintained and were far enough from the spray to have escaped icing over, so we decided to go up. They are reasonably easy, but there are a lot of them, and you can’t see the falls themselves at any point on the way up; so if you’re going to climb you will want to do the whole lot. The reward is a wonderful view of the surrounding countryside, and the water tipping over the top of the falls.
My second visit again was with my Virtual Tourist group. There was no rain that day, but it was still quite dull. There were a lot more people here than when I had visited with Chris, including our large group; but not so many as to make photography difficult and I appreciated being able to include people, friends as well as strangers, in my shots for scale.
As well as taking lots of photos, I shot a short video here; no still photo can really capture the power of these waters.
The treasure chest of Prasi Pórólfsson
Skógafoss is one of the biggest waterfalls in Iceland, 25 metres wide and a dropping of 60 metres. There is a legend that tells how the first Viking settler in this area, Prasi Pórólfsson, buried a treasure chest in a cave behind the waterfall. Locals are said to have found the chest years later; but they were only able to grasp the ring on the side of the chest before it disappeared again. The ring was supposedly given to the local church. The old church door ring is now on display in the Skógar museum.
My friend Regina has a full account of this story, and the many other legends associated with these beautiful falls, on her Guide to Iceland blog. Do check it out!
Seljalandsfoss can be seen from some distance away as you drive towards it; but it is only when you park and walk closer that you get the full sense of its size. The water pours over a cliff and drops about 60 metres into a surprisingly calm pool, before flowing away across the meadows.
The water here flows from the now-infamous glacier Eyjafjallajökull. It was an eruption of the volcano that lies beneath this ice cap that caused so much chaos to flights all over Europe back in 2010.
Here it is possible to walk behind the falls, but unlike some of our Virtual Tourist group I chose not to do so. This was partly because I was unsure of my footing on the wet rocks; partly because I felt I had got wet enough on the previous day (see the photos of Gullfoss above!); but mainly because it seemed it would occupy most of our time here and restrict the number of photos I could take. Instead I wandered around happily, trying with only limited success to capture the majesty of the falls, in both photos and video.
And the video …
Kirkjufell is one of the most picturesque, and most popular, spots on the beautiful Snaefellsnes Peninsula. The name means Church Mountain. It takes its name from its resemblance, from certain angles, to a church steeple. But from other sides it looks quite different – like a witch’s hat perhaps.
Here a beautiful waterfall, Kirkjufellsfoss, tumbles down under a bridge in front of one of the most photographed mountains of Iceland. Unfortunately the weather had turned hazy on what had been a sunny day out with my VT friends, and the light was rather flat; it was hard therefore to get a good version of the classic ‘waterfall and mountain’ shot. I preferred to focus on the falls themselves, trying (not always successfully) to avoid including too many other visitors in my shots. This is a popular spot!
The views of the surrounding landscape from the top of the falls are wonderful too; a beautiful lake reflecting the snowy ice-caps, distant waterfalls and the nearby village of Grundarfjörður.
I’ll finish with a brief look at another of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula’s many waterfalls. And a brief look will have to suffice, as we didn’t have time on our short roadside stop to hike to Bjarnarfoss from our roadside stop. I needed my good zoom lens to get these shots.
These falls are the largest of several which tumble down the sheer face of what appeared to me to be a natural amphitheatre of basalt columns, above which loomed a volcanic crater.
So, five falls seen (three of them twice). I will need to spend a lot more time in Iceland if I’m to see even a fraction of the remaining 9,995!
I visited Iceland in 2012 and again in 2018. The photos and videos in this post are a mix of those taken on both visits.