Winter snow at Oxararfoss

Öxarárfoss Waterfall at þingvellir – West Iceland

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Öxarárfoss Waterfall

Öxarárfoss waterfall falls between the continental plates at þingvellir National Park. The park is a UNESCO heritage site that holds many historical claims. þingvellir means “Parliamentary Plains,” and as the name suggests, the location was the stage for the earliest Icelandic assemblies.

The þingvellir plains are regarded as the site of the world’s first parliament, established in A.D. 930. The land was confiscated from a Viking lord who killed one of his slaves. Grímur Geitskór chose the site for the general assembly.   Close to Öxarárfoss, it is possible to see the drowning pool and hanging rock. These grim execution tools were implemented by the first Icelandic Christians. The site also claims the origin of Christianity in Iceland (999–1000 A.D.).


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Tectonic Plates

Öxarárfoss falls from the Öxarár river and then runs between the tectonic plates for about half a kilometer. The river then works it’s way to þingvallavatn. A scenic lake, þingvallavatn is Iceland’s largest and coldest lake. After Oxarafoss, the river winds its way to the lake via a man-made waterfall, which diverts the flow of water onto the lower plains. The man-made waterfall was created by early Icelanders to create a water source for horses attending the early parliament assemblies.

Oxararfoss dreamy

The waterfall photographs beautifully because the dark rock provides fantastic contrast. The waterfall is part of some Golden Circle tours. Although it rarely features on other Golden Circle tours because it requires a bit of hiking and guidance, The walls of the tectonic plates offer shelter in windy conditions. Access to Öxarárfoss is easy; there is a designated path from one of the smaller car parks on the lower plateau. The path turns into a boardwalk, which now terminates at a huge wooden platform.

North American Plate

Oxararfoss hiker

The upper plateau is the North American side of the gorge. This view is looking down on the site before the building of the huge wooden platform. It might be possible to climb up to this point, although the Tourist Board frowns on this kind of activity. Instead, I got to this point by following the Öxarár river, marked by a bridge on the road leading through Thingvellir National Park. Following the river will (naturally) lead you to the top of Öxarárfoss waterfall. The river is quite significant, so unless you are a talented long jumper, you better pick which side of the river to follow carefully. In the picture above, I am sitting on the west side of the Öxarár River.

Öxarárfoss waterfall top
Öxarárfoss waterfall from the top of the falls.

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In the picture above, facing east, you can see the rocky outcrop that protrudes further than the waterfall. If you follow the Öxarár river on the other side, you will have a view facing west, which could include the river and Almannagjá (every-man gorge).  Legend has it that the conspiracy to burn down the house of Njall, in the Saga of Burning Njall, took place in the Almannagjá.

Top of Öxaráfoss
Top of Öxaráfoss waterfall facing West.

If you are not nervous of heights it is possible to stand on the protruding rocky outcrop, if is possible to photography the whole waterfall.  Having this elevation gives a totally different perspective of Öxarárfoss waterfall.  Having soft light reflect on the clam surface of the river before it plunges over the rocks is quite satisfying.

Öxarárfoss vertical photo
A vertical photo of Öxarárfoss Waterfall from the protruding rock.

Frozen Öxarárfoss Waterfall

Öxarárfoss is about the right size to freeze.  During prolonged periods of -4 degrees and under, the waterfall will become thicker and thicker with ice until only a small part is flowing.  With reasonable caution, it is possible to get close to the falls and photograph the fine details of the icicles and the blue of the pure water.

Öxarárfoss Frozen
A frozen Öxarárfoss with lots of blue.
Star-trails over Öxarárfoss
A frozen Öxarárfoss waterfall at night with a 4 minute exposure for star trails.

Parliamentary Plains

The literal translation of “þingvellir ” is “Parliamentary plains”.  The water from Öxarárfoss continues as a river through the Almannagjá for about half a mile before cascading down a smaller waterfall. This smaller waterfall was made by the Icelanders over 1000 years ago, when the first parliament was set up.  The land was a good fit for the world’s first parliament as the low lying grassland was good for camping and grazing horses. The smaller waterfall was used to divert the path of the Öxarár River onto the plains for the horses. The parliamentary plains extend under Lake þingvallavatn (currently Iceland’s largest lake). The damming of þingvallavatn for hydroelectric power raised the level of the lake by about a meter. The gorge between the tectonic plates continues under the lake. The Silfra Gorge is now a famous freshwater diving site.

How to get to Öxarárfoss Waterfall

Self Drive

Leave Reykjavik on the ring road, heading north. Almost immediately, you will be in Mossfellsbaer with several round-a-bouts. When you are away from the last roundabout, take a right turn into Mossadalir on road #36 (Þingvallavegur). The speed limit will drop to 50 kph as you enter the National Park. Continue down to the lower plateau and then take a right turn. Take the next right turn (almost straight) and park in the first proper car park. Öxarárfoss Waterfall is directly in front of you but hidden by the walls. There is a footpath from the car park to the falls. Th drive takes about 50 minutes from Reykjavik.

Golden Circle Tours

Note: Not all bus tours to Thingvellir include Öxararfoss. Some might allow you enough time to hike to the waterfall. These tours and activities include Thingvellir, Geysir, and Gullfoss waterfalls. The private tours will definitely include Oxararfoss and more. Booking is made through Viator, and a small commission supports this website.

Private Tours

Minibus Tours

Silfra Diving

The snorkel diving at Silfra is for active tourists with a generally good level of fitness. The scuba tour is for qualified divers only.

Öxararfoss Waterfall After Rain

After heavy rain, the Öxarar river can flood the land. This was only a feature before the viewing platform was constructed. Now all this reflected beauty goes unnoticed beneath your feet. I took full advantage of the floods back in 2009. For this photo, I used a polariser filter (CPL) to see the rocks below the surface of the water.

Vertical Reflections at Oxararfoss Waterfall.
Vertical Reflections at Öxararfoss Waterfall.
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