Gullfoss, meaning golden waterfall, is located on Route 35m in the southwest of Iceland and near to the area known as the Land of Boiling Waters. It is a unique natural phenomenon and its conservation, and thereby its existence in its present form, has a unique history.
The origin of the name of the majestic waterfall is unclear. Some suggest that it was given because of the golden evening hue which often colours its glacial waters. Others claim that it was inspired by the rainbow which often appears when sunshine hits the water-spray. Yet another theory is that the name originates from a local farmer named Gýgur, who had lots of gold and couldn’t bear the thought of someone else possessing it after his lifetime. To prevent this he placed the gold in a coffer and threw it into the waterfall.
According to a book by two Danes in the retinue of King Frederick VII after a visit to Gullfoss in 1907; no waterfall in Europe can match Gullfoss and in wildness and fury it outdoes the Niagara Falls. Thousands of unharnessed horsepowers flow continuously into the gorge, year in and year out and it was stated then that the waterfall would be harnessed for electricity production to supply the inhabitants of the south of the country with abundance of light and heat.
In 1907 an Englishman wanted to proceed with this plan to harness the power of Gullfoss for electrical generation. Gullfoss was at the time part of a farm owned by Tómas Tómasson, who famously declined the offer stating “I will not sell my friend!”.
Later, in the 1920s, the waterfall was leased to foreign investors and private plans were drawn up to dam the Hvítá river at Gullfoss for a hydroelectric project. Tómas Tómasson’s daughter, Sigriður Tómasdóttir, sought to have the rental contract voided, but her attempt failed in court. She worked around the clock, made long journeys along mountain roads and had many meetings with government officials. Still unsuccessful, she walked to Reykjavík to protest to the government and announced that she would throw herself into the waterfalls if the construction went ahead. In 1929 the rental contract was cancelled due to non-receipt of payments and in 1975 the government bought the falls and made them a national monument. A plaque at the falls now commemorates Sigriður’s bold actions and she is considered to be Iceland’s first environmentalist.
Sigriður had been living in the area all of her life. When tourists began to visit the falls around 1875, she would guide them, building the first trail that led to the waterfall.
Today, a path from the main upper parking leads visitors down to the deafening double falls, where the River Hvítá tumbles 32 metres (105 feet) into a 2.5 kilometre long (1.5 mile) ravine. Trails climb past the waterfall’s northern face, allowing the bolder of sightseers to get within arm’s length of the awesome flow. The area’s ecosystem is protected, and its vegetation remains untouched. Attempts are made to minimize man’s footprint, to keep man-made structures to a minimum and not to disturb the land and geological formation.
TOP TIP: Make sure to bring a poncho or waterproofs!
- Information provided by Cruise and Maritime Voyages
- Information provided by tour guide on Cruise and Maritime Voyages excursion
- Insight Guides: Iceland
- Reykjavík City Guide
- Information provided by signposts at Gullfoss