It seems like there's a stunning waterfall at every turn in Iceland. From towering to teeny, water is cascading all over the place.
Sometimes waterfalls plummet into emerald pools. Other times, they seem to dribble over stone terraces, slow and languid. And while there's no official record, estimates say there may be as many as 10,000 waterfalls in Iceland. Astonishing!
Foss is the Icelandic word for waterfall, and the names of some of the waterfalls are delightful in themselves. There's Gufufoss (Steam Falls), Barnafoss (Children's Falls), Hjalparfoss (Helping Falls) and Goðafoss (the Waterfall of the Gods).
So, why are there so many? What about Iceland lends itself so consistently to cascading water? Well, it all comes down to geology and geography.
- Climate. The North Atlantic is a cold, wet and windy place. That means there's a lot of rain and snow in Iceland, falling quite consistently throughout the year. All that water needs somewhere to go.
- Glaciers. The large amount of rain and snow accumulates and much of it falls on to already-existing glaciers. In Iceland, more than 10 percent of the land mass is covered in glaciers, some dating back thousands of years. These glaciers have been retreating over the past 100 years. Ice melts into rivers that flow towards the sea.
- Mountains. Tall mountains in the middle of the country provide the elevation required to get all that melting ice and rainwater moving downwards. Some mountains are conical volcanoes, some are part of a high mountainous lava desert. In the Western Fjords, mountains are more like high plateaus. The elevation plunges dramatically—often at impressive cliffs. This forges a pathway for all that runoff to make it's way down to the coast.
- Tectonics. Iceland sits atop the intersection of North American and Eurasian plates. The landscape here is ever-changing. Layers of the earth's crust (much of it solidified lava, or basalt) give way in sudden ridges and cliffs. Water that's flowing outward drops dramatically over the edge. And there you'll find a waterfall.
Touring Iceland is a journey in waterfall-appreciation. Some are right at the side of busy tourist areas and draw hundreds every day. Others are tucked deep in the backcountry, awaiting adventurers with their unparalleled serenity. Whether you make the journey to experience them first hand or simply delight in knowing they're there, the waterfalls of Iceland are unforgettable.