Skógafoss, Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrabúi – Rainbows and Secrets

In Iceland’s South are three magical waterfalls – one with the elusive double rainbow, another you can go behind and finally, a secret hiding behind a crack in the earth…

Along the south coast of Iceland, towards the end of our Ring Road tour, we visited some extraordinary waterfalls. There were the two “big hits” Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, and a special “secret”, Gljúfrabúi. These waterfalls were different from the ones we saw up north like Dettifoss or Goðafoss. Those waterfalls were humongous, stretching for miles across cracks in the land. In the south, the land is a little “softer”, and the mountains a little lower.

The crowd of tourists is gathered in front of the Skógafoss waterfall in Iceland
Although there are always people at the Skógafoss Waterfall, we were so lucky with both the great weather and the relative lack of crowds

Waterfalls in Iceland’s South vs. the North

Here, the waterfalls are still magnificent, beautiful things to behold – but they’re different. Up in the north, we felt like we had indeed come to the beginning of the world. To a time when the land was still forming. A time where it seemed it would be many aeons before it found its final shape. Here, it was as if we were transported to a place that had been shaped by magical creatures.

Two rainbows appear in the water spray of the Skógafoss waterfall in Iceland
Beautiful sunny weather caused many rainbows to form in the water spray that surrounded all the waterfalls

The waterfalls seemed to flow over perfectly carved cliffs into pools that invited one to walk into them. (Of course this would be a bad idea unless you really like icy dips). The land around was fertile and green, and on the day we were there, the sun was shining. It reminded me of the enchanted wood in Disney’s Maleficient.

Skógafoss waterfall in Iceland, with a double rainbow in front
The famous double rainbow of the Skógafoss Waterfall, here in its full glory

Skógafoss – Rainbows Aplenty

Our first stop among these falls was Skógafoss. It was majestic, pouring over the lip of a curved cliff surface. A streak of clouds crossed the sky, like a banner welcoming all to visit it. We walked along the pebbled banks of the shallow river that flowed beneath it. Well, at least it seemed shallow to me, as I could see the the riverbed for quite some distance.

Rock in the water below the Skógafoss waterfall in Iceland, with a rainbow over it
Does that rock hide a pot of gold?

Geology of Skógafoss

Its immense cliffs left me wondering. Was the Skógá river responsible for the formation of this waterfall? It was not. Instead, it was tectonic activity which formed the cliffs. When they were formed, they were right by the sea, where the mighty waves of the North Atlantic crashed into them. As the climate on Earth cooled, water became locked up in the poles, which caused the coastline to recede.

Black and white image of the Skógafoss waterfall in Iceland
While black and white images cannot do justice to the colours of the rainbows, the sheer magnificence of the waterfall is perhaps even more pronounced on them

As we entered the alcove Skógafoss dove into, we felt the fresh, cool mist of the spray all over our bodies. This spray deterred people from getting too close to the waterfall. We noticed there were less and less people around the closer we got to the waterfall.

For photographers, its not the best place unless you have a properly weather-sealed camera. But, it’s still worth getting close enough till you catch sight of the double rainbow! Whichever deity is in charge here, he or she is sure generous with handing out pretty artefacts of nature.

Panorama of the Skógafoss waterfall in Iceland, with one person standing in front of it
One of the visitors got as close to the Skógafoss Waterfall as possible – the amount of water in the air is unbelievable at that distance

The riverbanks and river bed around the waterfall are very flat and shallow, and its possible to walk right up to the waterfall itself. However if you decide to walk up to the waterfall, be sure to know you will get completely drenched!

Skógafoss in Movies

Hollywood has featured Skógafoss in many movies, among the most famous is “Thor: The Dark World”. Although this waterfall is not as large as the waterfalls in the North, it has a completely different character. It is beautiful and otherworldly, making it perfect for the scenes shot in the glorious city of Asgard.

The relentless wall of water of the Skógafoss Waterfall
The relentless wall of water of the Skógafoss Waterfall is absolutely mesmerising

Icelandic Folklore Surrounding Skógafoss

Like everything else in Iceland, there is a folk tale about Skógafoss… involving a Viking chief, of course.

The story goes like this. About one thousand years ago, there was a Viking adventurer, Þrasi Þórólfsson. He was one of the first few people to settle the area. Throughout his lifetime, he had amassed a great store of gold, which he never did anything with. When he knew he was going to die (probably in battle) he hid the gold in a chest behind the waterfall.

A lone seagull flying close to the rim of the Skógafoss Waterfall
A lone seagull flying close to the rim of the Skógafoss Waterfall

Throughout the centuries that followed, villagers have made many attempts to retrieve the gold. One group of villagers pulled very hard on the ring attached to the chest, trying to drag the darn thing out. They pulled so hard the ring broke off, and the treasure disappeared. If you visit the Skógasafn Musuem, you will see this ring on display there.

The view from the top of the Skógafoss Waterfall
This is the view that you get should you brave the five hundred or so steps to the top… worth it? – totally up to you, but we loved it!

Skógafoss Hike – 500 Steps to the Top

The waterfall is lovely from down below, but don’t forget to climb the stairs to the top. It’s well worth the five hundred or so steps to see this impressive waterfall tumbling into the pool below. Also, you might catch sight of even more brilliant rainbows!

The river that feeds the Skógafoss waterfall in Iceland
Some of the most amazing waterfalls, like Skógafoss for example, are fed by rivers that do not look all that impressive, even at the very edge of the precipice

Not many tourists make the effort to climb up the stairs. Most of them prefer to stay at the base of the fall, which is only a short walk from the carpark. This makes it even more reason to climb up. Up here, you’ll have plenty of space here to soak in the majestic nature that surrounds Skógafoss.

Panorama of the Skógafoss waterfall in Iceland, with a person in braght yellow jacket standing in front of it
As we were leaving, one last glance at the waterfall, and there was yet another brave tourist, in a fittingly bright yellow rain jacket

Seljalandsfoss – Going Behind a Waterfall

Seljalandsfoss is another unique waterfall in the area. It’s sought after by visitors because of one particular feature. In essence, you can walk right behind it and experience the curtain of water crashing down from the other side. It’s a bit like getting a backstage view to all the action.

View of the Seljalandsfoss waterfall in Iceland, tumbling over a sheer rock wall
Apart from the main waterfall, Seljalandsfoss actually can spawn numerous smaller ones, depending on the season and the amount of rainfall

When I was a kid, I always imagined I had a secret hideaway behind a waterfall. It seems like a pretty good place for a safe house – that’s if you don’t mind the damp and cold.

Rainbow in front of the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall in Iceland
Seljalandsfoss also has its own rainbows – due to the amount of water spraying around, they can pop up pretty much anywhere

It was indeed slightly damp and cold behind the wall of water. Still, nevertheless, it was an enjoyable experience walking behind it. It did help that it was a brilliantly sunny day as well, so rainbows were being cast everywhere.

Path that leads behind the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall in Iceland
Getting very close to fulfilling everyone’s childhood dream – going behind a waterfall

Childhood Dreams Come True

The area was a little crowded with visitors, but I didn’t mind it too much. Everyone, regardless of age, seemed to have found a certain childlike wonder as they walked through this magical place.

On the path leading under and behind  the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall in Iceland
On the path leading under and behind Seljalandsfoss, the roar of the water almost deafening in this natural acoustic chamber

We were there when the sun was high up in the sky. It gave a surreal, bright quality to the misted air. Light glinted off all the shiny wet surfaces, from spray on rocky cliffs to dew on blades of grass. The next time though, we might try and get to this place at sunset. A view of the setting sun and the red horizon behind the waterfall would be exceptional and something to behold.

Standing right behind the Seljalandsfoss waterfall, looking at the vast Icelandic expanse behind
Standing right behind Seljalandsfoss, looking at the vast Icelandic expanse behind, one really feels transported to an entirely different space and time

Geology and Location of Seljalandsfoss

Seljalandsfoss is located in the South Cost of Iceland, and is just off Golden Circle. It is about 20 miles from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which is in sight when you drive up to the waterfall. In fact, it is the glacier of Eyjafjallajokull which feeds the waterfall.

The Seljalandsa river is made of meltwater from the volcano, which flows across flat heathland before plunging 60 meters over the volcanic cliff. Like Skógafoss, this cliff was part of the coastline of Iceland before sea water receded due to global cooling.

View from behind the main drop of the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall in Iceland
If not for immense dampness, one could stay behind the main drop of the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall for hours, it is so mesmerising

Tips for Walking Behind the Seljalandsfoss

Although the path that cuts behind Seljalandsfoss is not very difficult, it still requires some caution. Because the waterfall covers it in spray all the time, it is very slippery and muddy. We highly recommend you have hiking shoes for this adventure. Sturdy shoes will also help prevent you stubbing your toes on the uneven and rocky ground!

There were also some bits which were quite steep. I found myself having to wait for the crowds to spread out before I could climb up safely. What can I say? It does get pretty crowded backstage at the Seljalandsfoss!

Side look at the sheer cliff edge the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall tumbles over
One more look back at the sheer cliff edge the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall tumbles over

When to Visit Seljalandsfoss?

It’s probably best to attempt going behind the fall in the summer, since the wet, muddy backstage path gets iced up in winter. To attempt this path in the colder months, you might have to bring shoe spikes.

We were there in summer, but we’ve read that Seljalandsfoss is gorgeous in winter too. The waterfall is lit up by light beams which give it an epic feel and you might also catch the aurora borealis from behind the curtain of water!

The cliff where Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrabúi Waterfalls are, stretches for miles in either direction
The cliff that “hosts” both the Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrabúi Waterfalls stretches for miles in either direction, and looks glorious on a beautiful day like this

Gljúfrabúi – the Hidden Gem

Just a little ways off from Seljalandsfoss is Gljúfrabúi, the hidden waterfall. It’s a waterfall that’s trapped behind a narrow passage flanked by two high cliffs. You’ve got to be a little bit lucky when visiting this fall because it’s pretty tricky to get into, and there’s not a lot of space for everyone.

Small rainbow at the entrance to the narrow canyon where the Gljúfrabúi Waterfall is
This crack in the cliff face hides the Gljúfrabúi Waterfall, the rainbow gave it away – it would otherwise be quite possible to miss it

Walking into Gljúfrabúi

To get to Gljúfrabúi, we had to start walking in the river bed. We had to be careful not to get our shoes wet in the icy water which flowed around the stepping stones. These led us into the cove where the waterfall tumbled into.

Standing inside the cove of the Gljúfrabúi Waterfall, looking up at the patch of sky and the water cascading over the far edge
Standing inside the cove of the Gljúfrabúi Waterfall, looking up at the patch of sky and the water cascading over the far edge – neither photographs, nor words can do it justice

It’s a narrow space inside, so it’s challenging to do it justice in a photograph – what’s really special about Gljúfrabúi is the cavern it falls into. When you’re alone in it, it feels almost as if you’ve entered a portal that would take you to another place. I suppose it’s that special feeling of being closed off from the rest of the world, surrounded by the scent of water over fresh moss and cold rock. The enveloping sound of the waterfall rushing down to meet the earth encompasses you in its magical embrace.

Patch of bright yellow flowers, reflected in a little stream
There is an unbelievable amount of lush vegetation this close to the waterfalls, and the beautiful weather seemed to have drawn all the colours out to the surface

As we left Gljúfrabúi, we walked past the narrow stream that flowed from it, with beautiful golden flowers growing on its banks. It did seem that when we left, we had entered another world altogether, one in which it appeared nature would remain unspoilt forever.

FAQs for Skógafoss, Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrabúi

How many steps to the top of Skógafoss?

To get to the top of the Skógafoss Waterfall, you have to climb about 500 steps. They are not too steep and will take about 10 to 20 minutes, depending on your fitness level.

How much time do I need for Skógafoss, Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrabúi?

These three waterfalls are side by side and you can visit them all in one go. We spent the whole afternoon here enjoying the waterfalls.

Where are the Skógafoss Waterfall and the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall?

These waterfalls are located in the south of Iceland, as the Ring Road meets up with the Golden Circle. If you are only in Iceland for a few days, it is feasible to make a detour from Reykjavik to visit these waterfalls.

Are Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss part of the Golden Circle?

These waterfalls are not part of the Golden Circle, although many tour packages include them since they are not that far away from the Golden Circle.

Do I have to choose between Skógafoss or Seljalandsfoss?

These waterfalls are only 30 minutes away from each other by car, so if you are going to visit one, I reckon you might as well catch the other!