Waterfalls Bonanza – Dettifoss, Goðafoss and Rjúkandi

Fed by springs from Iceland’s wild highlands, Dettifoss, Goðafoss and Rjúkandi are testaments to the raw power of nature…

Dettifoss and Goðafoss

When I saw Prometheus, I did not think that the waterfall providing the backdrop for the prologue was real. It was too beautiful, too epic, the landscape too alien – it couldn’t possibly be here on Earth. I thought that that scene was completely generated in a CG program. I was surprised to discover I was wrong. Dettifoss and the accompanying landscape in that scene were all shot in Iceland.

The west side view of the almighty Dettifoss

Detifoss is the most powerful waterfall in Europe. Its power is measured by the volume of water and the distance it falls as it tumbles over the edge. You don’t actually have to measure this to know it’s true. Even as we were driving up to the waterfall, some miles away, we could already see the spray and the fog rising from the crack in the Earth into which Dettifoss tumbles into.

The crack in the Earth that guides the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river towards Detifoss

The waterfalls in the Northeastern region of Iceland are the result of hundreds and thousands of years of geological activity. Volcanic eruptions first formed the basaltic columns that make up most of the cliff faces in Iceland, then further geological activity continued to shape it.

Iceland is so beautiful because the country is located on geologically hyper active land. The Dettifoss fissure and the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river that flows through it, were formed by repeated floodings, when Bárðarbunga volcano,  located under Iceland’s largest glacier, the Vatnajökull, erupted multiple times, causing earthquakes and floods. Although the land around Detifoss and its sibling, Goðafoss is old, the waterfalls themselves are not that ancient, having mostly been the result of three catastrophic glacial floodings two, five and nine thousand years ago.

The otherworldly landscape surrounding Dettifoss

During these floods, large amounts of water arrive suddenly, tearing off the fragile basaltic columns and depositing them farther down the water flow. We often think such dramatic landforms are shaped by erosion over a long period of time, but in fact cataclysmic events like floods and eruptions have perhaps a larger part to play in the shaping of the face of our Earth.

Permanent cloud of water spray covers the area around Dettifoss, make sure you have some rain gear with you

Standing at one of the many lookout points that surround the waterfall, I can only imagine how wild these floods must have been. Already, the flow of the river and the force of the water falling on a normal day in Iceland felt like it could knock you off your feet.

Panorama of Goðafoss, a much more approachable affair than Dettifoss

We had to take extra care as we walked around the lookout points. The force of the waterfall produced strong gusts of wind, and the surrounding area was permanently slippery and wet from the spray. It was tricky trying make sure our camera gear was kept safe and dry!

As close to Goðafoss as one may come safely, on its top point

The visiting area around Goðafoss is smaller, but viewing it was more exciting than Detifoss. Goðafoss has two viewing levels. The highest one gives you the best view of the entire waterfall, from where the Skjálfandafljót river first falls into a large basin; then, there’s another, lower level that gives you a closer look at the basin and the second waterfall as the river continues its fall onto the final level.

We stood at these lookout points for a good, long time, marvelling at how powerful nature is compared to us puny humans.

Pastoral landscape just across from Goðafoss, such a typical Icelandic contrast

Dettifoss is a much longer waterfall, stretching a hundred metres wide. A hundred metres isn’t so long in walking terms, but when you are walking by the waterfall, it feels a great deal longer, perhaps because it’s a lot more exciting.

The east side, on which you may walk to the very edge of Dettifoss, is visible here

There are two views of the waterfall to be had, we took the west side view following the road signs. It was only later, while we were walking along the paved trail, that we saw some people on the facing side and realised there was another angle you could view the waterfall at. The west side view is the opposing view that gives you a look at the waterfall head on. The east side view does, however, let you get closer to the waterfall. In case you are wondering, the engineer in Prometheus was standing on the east side. Apparently the road leading to the east side isn’t as good, which probably explains why there were more people on the side we found ourselves at.


Rjúkandi is much smaller but no less exciting than the other two falls. It is the most impressive waterfall that can be seen directly from the Ring Road. We didn’t just observe it from our car, of course. It’s definitely work walking up the short path to view the waterfall head on. From some angles, it made me think of a champange tower.

Rjúkandi, now a shadow of its former self, due to unfortunate industrial exploitation

Rjúkandi is served by the Jökulsá a Brú river. The power of the river and the waterfall itself is a fraction compared to Detifoss and Goðafoss. This is due to the Jökulsá a Brú river having been harnessed in the massive Kárahnjúkar Dam project, which is a hydropower plant used to service an American aluminium smelter. There have been a lot of disastrous consequences from this project and similar projects like it, one of which is the complete annihilation of wildlife in lakes like the Lagarfljót, that have been affected.

Panorama of Rjúkandi, it is way steeper than it appears here

Neverthless, you can’t see these troubles while visiting these beautiful waterfalls. Driving along the Ring Road in Northern Iceland, you are completely surrounded by imposing cliffs formed from dark volcanic rock, constantly reminding you of the powerful presence of nature in this rugged island state.


Beautiful wild flowers cover the area around the Rjúkandi waterfall