Venture far inland from Alta and you enter the Finnmarksvidda, a vast mountain plateau which spreads southeast up to and beyond the Finnish border. Rivers, lakes and marshes lattice the region, but there’s nary a tree, let alone a mountain, to break the contours of a landscape whose wide skies and deep horizons are nevertheless eerily beautiful. Distances are hard to gauge – a dot of a storm can soon be upon you, breaking with alarming ferocity – and the air is crystal-clear, giving a whitish lustre to the sunshine. A handful of roads cross this expanse, but for the most part it remains the preserve of the few thousand semi-nomadic Sámi who make up the majority of the local population. Many still wear traditional dress, a brightly coloured, wool and felt affair of red bonnets and blue jerkins or dresses, all trimmed with red, white and yellow embroidery. You’ll see permutations on this traditional costume all over Finnmark, but especially at roadside souvenir stalls and, on Sundays, outside Sámi churches.
Despite the slow encroachments of the tourist industry, lifestyles on the Finnmarksvidda have remained remarkably constant for centuries. The main occupation is reindeer herding, supplemented by hunting and fishing, and the pattern of Sámi life is still mostly dictated by the biology of these animals. During the winter, the reindeer graze the flat plains and shallow valleys of the interior, migrating towards the coast in early May as the snow begins to melt, and temperatures inland begin to climb, even reaching 30°C on occasion. By October, both people and reindeer are journeying back from their temporary summer quarters on the coast. The long, dark winter is spent in preparation for the great Easter festivals, when weddings and baptisms are celebrated in the region’s two principal settlements, Karasjok and – more especially – Kautokeino. Summer visits, on the other hand, can be rather disappointing, culturally speaking at least, since many families and their reindeer are kicking back at coastal pastures and there is precious little activity in either town. Still, your best bet for spotting small herds are along the road to Hammerfest and in the area around Nordkapp.
The best time to hike the Finnmarksvidda is in late August and early September, after the peak mosquito season and before the weather turns cold. For the most part the plateau vegetation is scrub and open birch forest, which makes the going fairly easy, though the many marshes, rivers and lakes often impede progress. There are a handful of clearly demarcated hiking trails as well as a smattering of appropriately sited but unstaffed huts; for detailed information, ask at Alta tourist office.