7 Waterfalls in Southern Iceland That Will Give You Wanderlust
I could easily share 100 dreamy waterfalls, maybe 1,000. It’s true, Iceland is a waterfall chaser’s dream. Driving the Ring Road (that’s the main highway that loops the island), you just have to glance inland every few seconds, it seems, to see another huge, dramatic cascade flowing down toward a pasture or farm. I wondered aloud a few times whether you can buy a waterfall – I’ll take the darling red farmhouse and all the funny sheep too. Hello, summer home!
If your Iceland road trip takes you along the South Coast (and it should) make sure you add these seven stunning falls to the itinerary. Some are popular (for a reason) and easy to get to, others a bit off the beaten path, and some so quiet and secluded that you could twirl around with the fairies and not worry about another soul. The best part – they’re all so very different. Read on and try to pick your favorite from the bunch.
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Haifoss wins the toughest to reach by car award. It’s more than 40 miles off the Ring Road (2 hours from Reykjavik), and five miles down a super bumpy gravel road that you’ll want a 4x4 (and some insurance) for. The effort is well worth it, though, as the landscape quickly changes from a rocky, barren-looking expanse full of power lines to a stunning river valley as you walk the few steps from the parking area to glimpse down into the gorge (just don’t get too close to the edge!). You’ll hear Haifoss called the second-tallest waterfall on the island, but actually it was bumped down a peg to third when glacial retreat revealed Morsarfoss, now considered the highest, in 2007. What’s neat about the 400-foot-tall Haifoss, or “High Falls,” and it’s companion Granni, or “Neighbor,” is that you can see the whole thing from top to bottom clearly as you walk along the rim. If you’re going to take an inland detour off the Ring Road, this direction (Route 30 to 32) offers a much quieter experience than the nearby Golden Circle and has a breathtaking oasis called Gjain, along with other smaller waterfalls (look for Hjalparfoss) that you’ll want to explore.
It’s not surprising that Seljalandsfoss attracts tons of visitors. Only about 75 miles from Reykjavik, and right off the main highway, the easy-to-access waterfall draws South Coast bus tours and day-trippers from the capital city. Don’t let the crowds deter you though – and let’s face it, “crowds” in Iceland are still a far cry from the hoards of tourists at places like the Eiffel Towel – as Seljalandsfoss offers a different experience than many of the other falls in Iceland with a path that takes you behind the gushing water. Be warned: you’ll get pretty wet walking back there. Also be warned: falling rocks sometimes cause the path to close.
Also called Gljúfurárfoss, this somewhat hidden waterfall is just a few steps away from its popular neighbor Seljalandsfoss (look for a path to the left). For some reason these few steps, and perhaps the fact that you can’t really see if from the main attraction, keep the masses away – we only encountered half a dozen people at any given time. A cliff conceals most of Gljúfrabúi, with only the top peeking out, so you’ll have to wade (or rock-hop) through a shallow stream and crevice to see the whole thing, but the enchanting, misty aura once you’re inside makes the small effort worth it. Climb the boulder and face the falls to feel surrounded by the haze – your face will get completely soaked in the most invigorating way.
Visible from the Ring Road, Skogafoss is another popular tourist spot. It’s definitely worth a stop though, as you can easily walk right up to the thundering water, and the mist spraying from it produces dreamy rainbows. If you have a little extra time (and energy), head up the steps to the top of the falls. We counted 430 of them, but it’s easy to lose track when your thighs are throbbing. If you’re not into climbing, I’d save the effort for a different waterfall. It’s peaceful to sit at the top and watch the water flowing, but you’re basically just staring at a river from the top (and a little bit of ocean off in the distance), and it would feel nice to sit anywhere after taking on that many stairs! The best view is from the bottom, in my opinion. Plus, it’s said that a Viking hid his treasure down there under the falls so … it might be your lucky day. We felt so lucky to get sunshine and a double rainbow that we forgot to search for the pot of gold at the end!
The main attraction here is a more than 300-foot-deep canyon that spans 1.25 miles. A well-maintained walking path (with rope rails and everything) runs along the top and leads to a couple of lookouts where you can stare down into the windy gorge. Follow it to the end to run into a waterfall of which I cannot find a name – let’s call it Fjadrargljufurfoss, because that word needs to be even longer. You can also sometimes walk along the bottom of the canyon, but it requires a bit of wading to get to the end and it seemed to be roped off when we visited in October, so it might just be a summer option. The upper path offers stunning views of the patchy green cliff walls and almost fluorescent blue water that pools up under the waterfall. Because this attraction is a couple miles off Route 1 and down a gravelly road, it doesn’t get very crowded, though you should be able to drive there in a regular car and it’s not scary or difficult at all. Look for the sign for the Hunkubakkar guest house to know where to turn off the Ring Road, as the signage leading up to it is a bit lacking.
If you’re looking for a waterfall where you might not run into another soul, here’s a winner! Located in a little village with almost as many people as letters in its name – Kirkjubæjarklaustur – the falls are named for the sisters (systra in Icelandic) of the Benedictine convent that existed here hundreds of years ago, or perhaps for a couple of them in particular that legend says drowned in the lake at the top. Overflow from that lake – Systravatn – feeds the falls, so they do sometimes run dry. When it’s gushing, though, it’s worth a climb to the top, which involves some 300 steps (made of roots, rocks, etc). At the top, you can cross a cute little wooden bridge over the stream and get up really close to the crest if you’re not too scared of heights. The views up here are incredible – countryside below, the ocean out in the distance and glacier land to the east.
This one is a bit popular, due to its location in Skaftafell National Park, but didn't feel crowded since the hike to the waterfall keeps everyone spaced out. Glacier walks and ice cave tours along the Vatnajokull ice field take off from here, so the parking lot bustles and often fills to capacity. I read after we left that there is a fee to park, but we never encountered a place or person to pay, so I’m not sure what we missed. An uphill trail from the visitor center runs for about a mile or so to Svartifoss, whose name “Black Falls” refers to the dark, basalt columns that hug the drop, and gather around the base in small, jagged pieces. I’ve heard that you used to be able to walk right up to it, but a guard rail now keeps visitors a few yards back (and thankfully out of your photos). There are other lengthier paths throughout the park if you want to spend the day hiking. Though Svartifoss is in the Eastern Region, any South Coast itinerary should lead you all the way to the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon and Diamond Beach, and you’ll pass this on the way.