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The population of Iceland is about 300,000. This remote island in the North Atlantic attracts about double that number in tourists and most of them visit Gullfoss. This magnificent waterfall is one of the sights visited on the famous Golden Circle tour which is offered by most of the tour companies on the island. When you travel outside of Reykjavik the majority of vehicles on the road are tour coaches and minibuses so you might understandably expect that these natural attractions are going to be besieged by tourists but, at least when we visited on a freezing Sunday afternoon in April, ours was the only bus at the visitor centre at that time.
Getting to Gullfoss
While itís possible to hire a car in Iceland, most visitors use organised excursions to see the sights outside the capital. There are all kinds of options and too many to list them all here. Using public transport to get to Gullfoss is not really an option.
Coaches pull in at the purpose built visitor centre, a modern building but one that has been designed to have as little impact as possible on the environment. Youíll find a gift shop, a cafť-restaurant, and some super clean loos.
Itís a short walk from the visitor centre to the nearest viewpoint. Youíre quite high up here so it does get very cold, even in Ďsummerí and very windy; warm clothes are advisable, especially a hat (I had neglected to bring one and regretted it each time my hood was blown off and my eyes were assailed by the bitter winds). Sturdy shoes are also advisable, particularly if you want to get closer to the waterfall because the wooden steps can be wet and slippery.
Gullfoss Ė The Golden Waterfall
Gullfoss gets its name because on sunny days the water cascading over the stepped falls looks golden in colour. Actually itís a murky brown colour because the river which is carried over the falls, the Hvita, originates from a glacier and contains a lot of the natural sediments which are thrown up and carried along by a glacier as it rasps along its bed. When we visited, however, the water crashing over the falls was pure white, a torrent of angry water crashing over the cliffs, the spray freezing on the sides of the canyon.
The canyon is 32 metres deep and the water falls down three steps and then plunges dramatically two stages; you get very different views of the way the water drops down as you change viewpoint. From a distance it looks as if the Hvita has vanished; itís not until you move round and position yourself in front of the falls that you see how it drops into the crevice.
We walked about two thirds of the way from the visitor centre to the falls but we didnít feel we had sufficient time to go right to the falls and get back to the coach. On a warmer day I would have done but our progress was hampered by doing battle with the strong winds. If you are particularly keen to get right to the top of the falls (and you can get very close) you should check which tours give you the most time at Gullfoss.
Sigridur Tomasdottir Ė Gullfossís Champion
In the first half of the twentieth century the waterfall was jointly owned by Tomas Tomasson and Halldor Halldorsson; they rented it to foreign businessmen who eventually came up with a plan to harness the potential of the falls to generate electricity. Thereís a popular story that Tomassonís daughter Sigridur was so against the idea that she threatened to throw herself over the falls if it was allowed to happen. The truth is that the foreigners were unable to raise sufficient funds for the project so it was abandoned.
One good thing came out of the whole affair, regardless of whether it was really Sigridurís dramatic threats that thwarted the project; Gullfoss was taken into state ownership and remains the property of the Republic of Iceland and enjoys special protection.
A plaque bearing a profile image of Sigridur Tomasdottir stands at the bottom of the stairs near the visitorsí centre.
Most of our group sought sanctuary in the cafť-restaurant at the visitorsí centre. You can get a warming bowl of soup, hot or cold sandwiches, a variety of cakes and other sweet items, fruit and hot and cold drinks. The prices were quite reasonable which I found surprising as Iíd have expected to have paid through the nose at this remote location.
Although you canít actually see Gullfoss, the building has been designed to make the most of the views of the surrounding countryside and we found it rather enjoyable to sit with a hot chocolate watching the wind blow a gale outside.
The gift shop is extensive and carries all manner of authentic locally made items such as knitwear and other handcrafted items, as well things like t-shirts, key-rings and other novelty items. You can also pick up hats, scarves and other cold weather gear if you have been persuaded that you donít really come out dressed for the occasion.
Gullfoss is a must
If youíve booked for the Golden Circle tour then youíre going to Gullfoss whether you want to or not. Even if you donít want to walk all the way to the falls I would recommend you try to catch at least two of the viewpoints as the differing aspects are really quite remarkable.
Visiting Gullfoss can be quite exhausting because of the wind but thereís also something energising about these magnificent falls that has you coming away feeling invigorated and somehow refreshed. I wouldnít have missed it for anything.
Pictures of Golden Falls (Gullfoss), Geysir
Golden Falls (Gullfoss) - from the first viewpoint