Oxararfoss (or more accurately Öxarárfoss; I think is pronounced “UEWX-ar-our-foss”; meaning “Axe Falls”) was a waterfall that seemed to be more of a side attraction in the historically important UNESCO World Heritage Site of Þingvellir (“THING-vet-lur”).
That said, this was more of our waterfaller’s excuse to check out the site of what was perhaps Europe’s earliest form of a parliament.
In addition to its historical importance, it also sat right on the Mid-Atlantic Ocean Rift, where the valley continues to be pulled apart as North America and Europe continue to drift away from each other.
The result of this geological quirk were interesting cliff formations and chasms as well as the country’s largest lake – Þingvallavatn.
In fact, such geology might have made the conditions to even host the assemblies (or Þing; pronounced “THING”) possible in the first place!
But all these factors eventually resulted in the realization of Öxarárfoss, which people can now visit and enjoy.
Water Diversion and the Assemblies
A sign within the park suggested that according to the Sturlunga Saga, the Öxará River had been diverted to the plains of what would become Þingvellir to ensure there was adequate water for the assembly’s attendees.
While details concerning this ancient water diversion remain sketchy, apparently there’s geological evidence of an old riverbed west of the river’s current location.
The assemblies were important for Iceland’s eventual independence because this was where consensus decisions were made (so it could even be construed as an early form of democracy).
While the water diversion supported the assembly’s attendees, we also noticed the presence of additional cascades as well as a drowning pool (Drekkingarhylur) during our exploration of the park.
Apparently, the drowning pool was used to drown women accused of infanticide, adultery, or other crimes.
Given the historically significant nature of Þingvellir, it was fitting that we also learned there was a saga related to how the waterfall and river (Öxará) got their names.
It was said that during the settlement period in Iceland’s early human history, some settlers encountered a frozen river.
They then dug a hole in the ice and put an axe in it to claim the land, and thus the falls was so named since the word öxi means “axe” in Icelandic.
Regardless of its origins, we found that the diverted river over the cliffs resulting in the 20m Öxarárfoss to be quite attractive, which we could access on a pretty easy trail and boardwalk leading to a platform right at its base.
We started our visits from the P2 car park (see directions below), and from there, we walked 100m to approach a signed trail junction.
The path on the right ascended briefly before reaching another junction, where we then ascended steps to another well-developed boardwalk and trail (about 200m from the first junction).
Once at the top of the steps, we then kept left and walked the remaining 150m to the viewing platform area in front of Öxarárfoss.
If the goal was to just visit the waterfall and come back, then this out-and-back walk would be less than a kilometer and maybe take no more than 30-45 minutes.
By the way, on our June 2007 visit, we happened to show up late in the afternoon under clearing skies, where we learned that this east-facing waterfall was against the sun.
We actually waited for the sun to sink behind the cliff containing the falls to get the photos you see on this page, but I’d imagine that the best color and light would probably be in the morning.
Experiencing the Mid-Atlantic Rift and the Rest of Þingvellir
To really understand how Iceland came to be, especially in the context of the national identity and its system of government, you really have to visit the key Þingvellir sites here and imagine yourself being in this place over a thousand years ago.
Going to just the waterfall and missing out on the rest of this historically important place is a lot like going to a Sigur Rós concert without hearing any of their music – you’d be missing out on the place’s soul.
So we’ve found it worthwhile to explore not only the Öxarárfoss but also the places that gave rise to this UNESCO World Heritage site in the first place!
Going back at the first junction by the P2 car park, we’d then take the other path, which brought us towards a WC as well as the rest of the key Þingvellir sites.
The WC and main car park (which was closed during our visit) was roughly 150-200m along this mostly flat walk.
Beyond the WC and neighboring car park, the walk then started to ascend into the Almannagjá (The People’s Chasm) where the pleasant walkway continued between cliffs that hinted at the geological legacy of the Mid-Ocean Rift here.
At a little over 300m from the WC, we reached the Drowning Pool (Drekkingarhylur), which sat between a pair of minor cascades.
At around 200m from the Drowning Pool, we then reached a small loop encompassing the Law Rock (Lögberg), which was where the Law Speaker would address the assembly below and recite the laws before the assembly would make decisions about them.
I found the cliffs around this section to be particularly interesting, which included some peep-hole arches that I hadn’t noticed before on our first visit here back in June 2007.
Beyond the Lögberg, the trail kept going through the Almannagjá, which would eventually get to a lookout with a view towards the head of the lake as well as a cathedral in the distance.
The rest of the visit can be as long as you want or as little as you want, but this was the extent of our combined explorations in both June 2007 and August 2021.
I’d allow at least a couple hours or more to take it all in.
Oxararfoss (Öxarárfoss) resides in the Southern Region of Iceland near Reykjavik, Iceland. It is administered by the municipality of Bláskógabyggð. For information or inquiries about the general area as well as current conditions, you may want to try visiting their website.
Þingvellir is one of the major attractions on the Golden Circle and is about 54km east of Reykjavik via the shortest approach from the west (along Route 1 to Route 36 to Route 361 and finally Route 362).
Back in June 2007, we parked at a car park for the Law Rock, but there was a separate car park at the trailhead for Öxarárfoss just a few minutes of walking further to the northeast.
It’s that latter car park that was as far as we could drive to when we came back in August 2021, and that’s the destination we’ll use in this section.
Coming from Reykjavik, we’d drive east on the Route 49 for about 7km as we kept left to stay on the Ring Road (Route 1).
After passing through several roundabouts, the Route 1 will eventually junction with the Route 36 on the right (about 15km from downtown Reykjavík).
We’d then follow Route 36 (Þingvallavegur) east for 33km before leaving the 36 at Route 361 (Þingvallavegur).
Then, we’d drive on Route 361 for about 1.2km before veering right and driving the remaining 750m to the P2 car park, which was the nearest one to Öxarárfoss.
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