Nature’s Bounty: Iceland’s Waterfalls

Iceland's waterfalls are otherworldly.
Seljalandsfoss waterfall at sunset gives visitors breathtaking views. Photo by Flickr/Moyan Brenn

Everything was in its right place. Even now, almost a year later, I can recall the scenes in remarkable detail. I can feel the cool mist caress my face, hear the thunderous roar of water pummeling the earth, and see volcanic landscape unmarred by human touch. Cold. Harsh. Alien. Iceland.

A Suburu Legacy would be our steed. Honestly, it was a heap of junk. Faded purple on the outside and an engine backfire to make sure you didn’t doze off. Yet it had not failed us. The past few days included trips to the famed Geysir (a “geyser” to us Yankees) that hurled boiling water over 200 feet in the air, and the remote Snæfellsnes Lighthouse, which was bright orange against the melancholic landscape. The car we had once considered a deathtrap, we now trusted wholeheartedly.

Along for the expedition were my travel companions Jenna and two New Zealanders, Vera and Jerry, who we sharing the Airbnb service with. Gas (petrol, sorry) was expensive, so we welcomed fellow travelers/króna (Icelandic currency) sources. After packing the usual excess of layers and bologna sandwiches, we set off through the haze of early morning Reykjavík.

Travel in Iceland is glorious. I’m not just talking about the stunning scenery that causes you to stare out the window mouth agape. Maps are practically unnecessary to get to most landmarks. It doesn’t matter if you are traveling up the west coast, inland or the southern coast when leaving Reykjavík. The most common road is Route 1 (or the “Ring Road”). Route 1 is the national road of Iceland (that’s a thing?) and traverses the entire island. There is even an annual bike race that covers the entire route. If you’re lucky enough to travel during the offseason like us, traffic will be minimal as well. Don’t worry; there are places to pull over every few miles for photos. Icelanders know why you’re there.

First stop, Seljalandsfoss. Just stop for a moment and try to say that word. Whatever you blurted out is wrong, I assure you. It took me days to even master “Hello” (sæll, {pronounced sight-l.}. Lucky for us, English was spoken almost everywhere.

Each waterfall in Iceland has a sort of personality.
Seljalandsfoss is a waterfall that drops about 200 ft. off the cliffs of a former coastline. Photo by Landry Harlan

But I digress. Seljalandsfoss is a waterfall about a two-hour drive from downtown Reykjavík along the south coast. It is impossible to miss and never denies an opportunity for a photo op.

Can a waterfall have a personality? If so, Seljalandsfoss is the playful child. The sun seems brighter in the reflections scattered by its mist. It only feels natural to run toward its plumes and embrace them. Tourists giggle and yank out their iPhones to catch the dance of colors that refract through the spray. Seljalandsfoss giggles and strikes its best “Blue Steel.”

We gallivanted around the waterfall and surrounding landscape until midday quickly passed. After agreeing that we had all taken perfect profile pictures, it was time to press on. But first, one last long look. “I love you Seljy, I’ll visit again soon I promise!”

Long before anyone can remember, part of the coastline in southern Iceland began eroding and receding seaward. As this occurred, Mother Nature flexed her fingers and clawed her fingernail into a cliffside. The nearby Skógá River had waited for this moment for eons. Now it could return to its source. It stampeded to the cliff and dove into oblivion. A thunderous roar emerged from the earth. Skógafoss was born.

If Seljalandsfoss is the child, Skógafoss is the world-weary grandfather. He has seen it all. In the span of his lifetime humans are but a mere leaf in the wind. He has become hardened. He turns away the fool who treads to close to his wake yet; to the respectful traveler he will unearth his secrets and true beauty.

Silence falls over our group as we amble towards the falls. The karaoke session is far-gone. In the presence of Skógafoss’s enormous power it feels as though we are walking into a church. Near the alter we halt. Do we dare step any closer? Jenna is the first. The spray grows stronger. The roar grows louder. She slips behind a rock. The rest of us join her. No turning back now. At this point we have no choice but to embrace the torrent. Clear eyes, full hearts! We rush in.

A laugh rises above the cacophony. We’ve done it! We earned Skógafoss’s trust. Drenched and relieved, we look to the side of the falls and see steps. Skógafoss urges us to climb. “You’ve seen nothing yet,” he bellows. We climb the hundreds of stairs with a spring in our step. Gazing up into the searing white sky, it seems we will summit in the heavens. I’m not so sure we didn’t.

What words can I use to describe what we saw there? They would all ring hollow. Perhaps I could compare it to the first experience of a Mark Rothko painting? A Martha Graham dance performance? Mahler 8? They come close, but humans are still the creator. The beauty before us emerged from a realm beyond our understanding. Awe was the only appropriate response.

The spray from the waterfall is so strong that a single (or double!) rainbow can often be seen.
Skógafoss is a waterfall situated on the Skoga River in south Iceland. Photo by Landry Harlan

The hours slipped by without any hint they had gone. Exploring an alien planet will do that to you. Unfortunately, the drive back would be several hours and a change of clothes that were increasingly welcome. We slowly walked back to the car with constant last looks over the shoulder.

So much else followed. A magnificent glacier (Snæfellsjökull) on the western peninsula, chasing seals just outside of Black Sand Beach, a Reykjavík night out full of Viking beer and fish stew…but that’s another story. For now I will just leave you with one final glimpse of Iceland’s transcendent splendor. We weren’t lucky enough to get the perfect weather to view them, but even behind thick clouds the Northern Lights are beyond compare. Everything in its right place.

If You Go:

Flight information:

Best hotel near Reykjavik:

Ring Road Bike Race:

Car rentals:

Planning your trip:

Author Bio: Landry is a freelance writer based out of Tulsa, OK, whose work most frequently appears in TulsaPeople Magazine and the arts recommendation website, “The Thoroughfare.” ( Landry has been lucky enough to travel to over 10+ countries over his 23 years and is passionate about sharing what he discovered. Intrigued? You can follow his adventures on Instagram and Twitter @landryharlan.

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