Gullfoss is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland. The wide Hvítá rushes southward. About a kilometre above the falls it turns sharply to the right and flows down into a wide curved three-step “staircase” and then abruptly plunges in two stages (11 m and 21 m) into a crevice 32 m (105 ft) deep. The crevice, about 20 m (66 ft) wide, and 2.5 km in length, extends perpendicular to the flow of the river. The average amount of water running over this waterfall is 140 m³/s in the summertime and 80 m³/s in the wintertime. The highest flood measured was 2000 m³/s.
As one first approaches the falls, the crevice is obscured from view, so that it appears that a mighty river simply vanishes into the earth.
During the first half of the 20th century and some years into the late 20th century, there was much speculation about using Gullfoss to generate electricity. During this period, the waterfall was rented indirectly by its owners, Tómas Tómasson and Halldór Halldórsson, to foreign investors. However, the investors’ attempts were unsuccessful, partly due to lack of money. The waterfall was later sold to the state of Iceland, and now the waterfall is protected.
Sigríður Tómasdóttir, the daughter of Tómas Tómasson was determined to preserve the waterfall’s condition and even threatened to throw herself into the waterfall. Although it is widely believed, the very popular story that Sigríður did save the waterfall from use is not true. A stone memorial to Sigriður, located above the falls, depicts her profile.
Together with Þingvellir and the geysers of Haukadalur, Gullfoss forms the Golden Circle, a popular day tour for tourists in Iceland.
Gullfoss appears on the cover of the album Porcupine by the British band Echo and the Bunnymen. Additionally, the falls are referenced in the novella, The Odd Saga of the American and a Curious Icelandic Flock; during a dinner, Snorri expresses a preference for Gullfoss, while Dr. Gustafsson favors Glymur.
Gullfoss features in the music video for the single “Heaven” by the band Live. During the video a young man and a young woman separated by the Hvítá river exchange written messages carried on rocks that they throw to each other over the river and the falls. At the end of the music video the young man attempts to swim across the Hvítá river downstream from the Gulfoss. His young lady friend is so horrified by seeing him being washed down the Hvítá river that she also jumps into the river in order to help him. They then float down the river holding onto each other.