Dettifoss is the largest waterfall in the Jökulsá á Fjöllum (River), as well as one of the largest (in terms of scale) in Iceland. Situated on the second step of the Jokulsargljufur - Selfoss occupies the first step just upstream - the river rumbles across a broad exposure of columnar basalt, stretching to a width of about 500 feet, and then hurtles 167 feet in a massive, immensely powerful curtain of water into the canyon below. As the river sources in several huge lobes of the massive Vatnajökull, and flows through areas of active volcanism, there is almost always a high volume of silt in the water. This causes the river to assume a color ranging from slightly gray to straight up chocolate milk during the warmest summer months. As the river plunges over the precipice the color of the water actually accentuates the power of the falls.
Though the Jökulsá á Fjöllum is (apparently) on average only the third largest river by volume in Iceland, because of the height and width of the falls, Dettifoss is often considered to be the most powerful waterfall in Europe. While it may be difficult to quantify such a claim, it's hard to discount such a statement given that there are very few other waterfalls of similar or greater size on rivers of similar volume elsewhere in Europe. Signs at the falls indicate that the river's discharge averages about 14,125 cubic feet per second in the summer months, but most sources we've been able to find suggest the average annual discharge for the river is closer to 6,200 cubic feet per second, which would suggest the volume during the winter is greatly reduced from that number even (however since the roads to the falls are closed in the winter, there seems to be little information to back this up).
In addition to the wildly varying volume of the river, the Jökulsá á Fjöllum has been prone to several immense Jokulhaups, or Glacial Outburst Floods, in the past. Often these floods have been instigated by volcanic activity in the Barðarbunga caldera, which lies beneath the glacier that sources the river. The canyon which forms Dettifoss was likely formed by several such floods repeatedly scouring the bedrock. Some analysis suggests that in order to account for boulders which have been deposited in certain locations throughout the canyon that the volume of water involved in such floods would have had to have been greater than the volume of the Amazon River! Obviously such an event would be short lived however. This hypothesis has achieved recent attention due to the present volcanic activity at Barðarbunga - which in fact began the day we arrived in Iceland, and two days after we visited Dettifoss the roads accessing the falls were closed off in precaution (the volcano didn't begin erupting until after we had left the country). Thus far there has been no indication of an imminent flood, however should one occur as a result of the activity, there is potential for Dettifoss to be permanently altered.
Movie goers may recognize Dettifoss from the opening scene in Ridley Scott's Sci-fi film Prometheus.
History and Naming
Dettifoss is the Official name of this waterfall.
To state the obvious right up front, Dettifoss is without question the most impressive waterfall in Iceland. There really is no comparison or competition of any kind. And while we can't yet say for sure whether it is or is not truly the most powerful waterfall in Europe (if that is a metric that can even be quantified beyond hyperbole), it certainly looks and feels like it's the most powerful waterfall in Europe when you're standing right at its brink. Though it may be a long, long way from Reykjavik and the most touristy areas of the country, Dettifoss really is a must-see location for anyone visiting Iceland, die-hard waterfall hunters or otherwise.
Dettifoss can be photographed from either side of the river - visiting both access points however require as a long detour around the canyon as there are only two bridges spanning the river. The views from the west side provide a more straight-on view of the falls and allow better illustration of its width, however the spray will also be heavier and potentially obstruct the view more. From the east side (arguably the more popular side) its possible to walk right to the unguarded brink of the falls, but the view is from the side and is much more limited (however spray is much less of an issue, though can still be a problem). Because the falls are situated in a fairly deep canyon, the lighting during golden hour will not do a whole lot for the falls itself. Given that the most stunning aspect of the falls is its raw power, it may actually be more advantageous to shoot during mid-day, but there is plenty of potential at any time.
Location & Directions
Coordinates: 65.8146330, -16.3843220 Elevation: 0 feet
Dettifoss is found in the northeast part of Iceland between Myvatn and Egilsstaðir, north of Highway 1. There are two roads which access the falls, one on either side of the suspension bridge along Highway 1 which spans the Jökulsá á Fjöllum, which itself is found 130km west of Egilsstaðir, or 35km east of the Reykjahið (Myvatn). Both roads are signed for Dettifoss.
To reach the east side (easier access) of the falls, take Route 864 - which branches from Highway 1 just east of the bridge - north from Highway 1 for 32km, then turn left where a sign points to Dettifoss, the parking area will be found another 0.75km down the road. A trail then leads about one-third of a kilometer down to the first viewpoint, and continues further to the very brink of the falls. Note that Route 864 is gravel and as of August 2014 was in pretty rough condition (2wd vehicles are allowed on this road, it just needs to be driven slowly).
To reach the west side of the falls, take Route 862 - which branches from Highway 1 about 9.5km west of the bridge - north from Highway 1 for 22km - then turn right where a sign points to Dettifoss, the parking area will be found just over 3km further. A trail then leads down to the rim of the gorge opposite the falls in another kilometer. Note that Route 862 was formerly classified as an F-Road (4wd high clearance only), but that does not appear to be the case any longer.
Other Nearby Waterfalls
By The Numbers
The information presented in this table is meant to help identify and clarify the physical aspects of the waterfall for comparative purposes. While we try to ensure this information is as accurate as possible, sometimes it will prove necessary to either estimate or flat out guess at certain characteristics where either enough information isn't readily available, is not known, or we were not able to confirm a given trait upon surveying. This information may be changed at any given time to ensure accuracy.
The Total Height listed for the waterfall represents the difference in elevation from the top of the uppermost drop, to the bottom of the lowermost drop of the waterfall, including all stretches of interstitial stream in between. Stream between two tiers of a waterfall is counted in its overall height regardless of whether or not that section of the stream would be legitimately considered a waterfall on its own right, were it to be isolated. Waterfalls with only one drop will of have the height of only the single drop listed here.
The Tallest Drop figure represents the height of the largest single drop within a multi-stepped waterfall. Waterfalls with only one drop will have the total height of the waterfall repeated here.
Num of Drops
The Number of Drops in a waterfall is a tally of the total number of distinct drops which make up the waterfall. Stretches of interstitial stream in between two or more distinct drops of a single waterfall are NOT considered to be distinct drops of the waterfall unless the section of stream in question would otherwise qualify as a waterfall were it to be isolated.
The Average Width of the waterfall represents the breadth of the waterfall from bank to bank under typical flow conditions, or if the waterfall has been Cataloged, under the conditions which it was most thoroughly surveyed. Often this number will be approximated because of a lack of approachability to many waterfalls. We often utilize Google Earth to measure the width (where imagery is of sufficient quality and resolution to allow it.
Maximum Width represents a hypothetical measurement of roughly how wide a waterfall could get during peak streamflow or flood conditions. For smaller waterfalls, this figure will generally not differ much from the Average Width measurement, but for broader waterfalls - especially those that feature a crest that isn't constricted - this figure can at times be consideraby larger. Like the Average Width measurement, this measurement will take into account the difference in width at the top and bottom of the waterfall as much as possible, but will often be made based on the width of the crest of th falls alone.
The Pitch of a waterfall is an estimated - often very roughly - measure of the average slope or steepness of a waterfall. The Pitch figure only takes into account sections of stream which are actively falling. Pools or stretches of level stream in between two or more successive drops of the falls will not factor in this figure. As an example, a waterfall which features two truly free-falling leaps separated by several dozen yards of flat stream will have a Pitch of 90 degrees. Similarly, a waterfall with two drops separated by a pool, one with a true free-falling drop, and one with a Horsetail type fall will average the two, so while the Plunging drop has a Pitch of 90 degrees, if the Horsetail drop has a Pitch of 45 degrees, the total Pitch will be roughly 67 degrees.
The Run of a waterfall is a measurement representing the total linear distance on the ground between the top and bottom of a waterfall. This figure is not often easy to establish with a high degree of precision and as such will often be estimated. Waterfalls with a longer Run will usually either be less steep, often cascading type waterfalls, or will feature multiple steps separated by shorter stretches of a more gradual gradient streambed.
The system of classification of waterfall forms we use is a heavily modified derivative of the classifications outlined by Greg Plumb in his "Waterfall Lover's Guide to the Pacific Northwest" books. While plumb uses eight distnct forms, we wanted further granularity and opted to break down the hierarchy twofold: first based on the overall pitch of the waterfall, and then based on what shape the fall takes as it makes its descent. There are five primary Categories of falls in this system: Plunge, Horsetail, Steep Cascades, Shallow Cascades, and Rapids. Additional deliniation is then applied depending on characteristics such as the breadth of the falls, whether it splits into two or more channels, whether it falls in multiple successive drops, etc. For more information on our waterfall form classifications, see the Help page.
The watershed which a waterfall occurs within, if it is specified, will be based on the ultimate distributary watercourse to the ocean. For example, Washington's Palouse Falls occurs along the Palouse River - which is a tributary to the Snake River, which is itself a tributary to the Columbia River, which ultimately enters the Pacific Ocean, so Palouse Falls would then fall within the Columbia River watershed. Streams which empty directly into the ocean, or into a minor basin which then empties to the ocean will often have this field left blank.
The name of the watercourse which the waterfall occurs along. If the watercourse is not known to have an officially or colloquially recognized name, this field is left blank.
The volume of water present in the stream at the location of the waterfall. This is often the most difficult figure to pin down because accurately measuring streamflow is not a simple process. We will rely on USGS data as much as possible, and attempt to take into account seasonal fluctuations in stream levels if possible. There is no guarantee that this figure will be accurate, and in cases where there is no USGS data to use, it may be a very, very rough estimate at best.
If known, the primary source of the watercourse which produces the waterfall will be listed here. This is helpful in determining whether a waterfall may flow more consistently during certain periods of the year - streams which originate in Springs, Lakes, or Glaciers will often flow more consistently throughout the year than those fueled by simply Runoff. The source of the stream may also be either unknown or undetermined.
A rough estimation of how many months out of the year the stream which produces the waterfall will actually hold water. The vast majority of waterfalls featured on this website will technically be truly perennial waterfalls (those that flow all year long), but some may see their flow dwindle greatly in the late summer months. This figure will not take into account the winter months when the waterfall may freeze, because in such cases the waterfall will very often be inaccessible. Entries which specify a Flow Consistncy of 12 Months should in general have an acceptable flow at any time of year (but may be better during certain periods - see below).
A general estimate of the best period of the year during which time the falls will be considered at optimal conditions, or flowing at their best. There may be variance within the range specified where the flow will be better or worse, but visiting at any time in the range specified (if available) will generally present the waterfall in its best light.Close
CatalogedWaterfalls which are Cataloged we have visited and surveyed in person. Statistical information should be quite accurate (for the most part), and exact measurements will often be available (information is not guaranteed to always be up to date). Detailed information, directions, and photographs will almost always be available.
ConfirmedConfirmed Waterfalls are known to exist, should be relatively accurately mapped and geotagged, and the statistical information available will often be dependable. If height information is presented, it may be estimated but should be accurate. Directions will not likely be available.
UnconfirmedUnconfirmed Waterfalls are often marked on a published map, but we have yet to confirm the exact location and / or whether or not its stature is significant enough to qualify for listing in the database. Statistical information may be estimated and may be inaccurate. No directions.
UnknownWaterfalls marked as Unknown are either suspected to exist based on heresay or a hunch, or we have received unverified information suggesting a waterfall may exist near the location provided but cannot corroborate it in any way. Geodata may not be accurate, the location may not be known at all, and statistical information will be estimated and highly inaccurate.
InundatedInundated Waterfalls have been submerged beneath lakes or reservoirs, usually a result of impoundment of a river behind a dam, and most often no longer functionally exist (there may be rare exceptions). We maintain records for these features out of historical importance.
SubterraneanThough not common, some waterfalls can be found entirely underground within cave systems. Access to subterranean waterfalls can vary from easy via developed walkways to requiring a high level of extremely technical spelunking skill, including familiarity with ropework and a distinct lack of claustrophobia.
DisqualifiedWaterfalls which have been marked as Disqualified do not have the necessary stature or features to qualify as a legitimate waterfall according to our criteria. We will maintain records for entries with this status where the feature is well known and / or may have been historically referred to as a waterfall at some point in time.
PostedPosted Waterfalls are known to exist, and we may have a large amount of information associated with them, but are located on private property and are not legally accessible to the general public. Accessing waterfalls with this status should not be attempted without first being explicitly granted permission of the property owner.