Leaving Kiruna, it’s 98km northwest along the E10 to ABISKO. Although accessible by both rail and road, it’s by train that most people arrive at the start of the Kungsleden trail. The train line from Luleå, via Kiruna, to Narvik, known as the Malmbanan, is Europe’s northernmost line, and would never have been built had it not been for the rich deposits of iron ore around Gällivare and Malmberget.
The idea to construct the Malmbanan, which connects the Bothnian coast with the Atlantic coast (170km), passing through some of the remotest and most inhospitable parts of Europe, was talked about on and off throughout the nineteenth century, when the only means of transporting the ore was by reindeer and sleigh. Finally, in 1884, an English company was awarded the contract to build it; by 1888, the line had reached Gällivare from the Bothnian coast and the company was bankrupt. Ten years passed before the state took over the project; in July 1902, the navvies – who’d been subject to temperatures of -30°C and lower and incredibly harsh conditions – finally shovelled their way through deep snow at Riksgränsen to cross the Norwegian border. A year later the line was officially opened by King Oscar II.
Even if you don’t intend to walk the Kungsleden, there are a couple of attractions right on Abisko’s doorstep. Departing from directly opposite the Turiststation, you can take a chairlift (195kr return) 500m up Nuolja mountain (1169m), from where there are fantastic views of the surrounding wilderness, including the 70km-long Torneträsk Lake, the spectacular U-shaped mountain-tops of Lapporten, which have come to represent the gateway to Lapland and are used as landmarks by the Sámi for guiding their reindeer between their summer and winter grazing land, and the vast wooded land.
Aurora Sky Station
Tucked away in one corner of the café at the end of the chairlift, the Aurora Sky Station is the best place for miles around to observe the northern lights; Abisko lies in a rain shadow and the sky is consequently often free of cloud. Containing all kinds of equipment to measure and hear the lights (they often emit a series of hisses and clicks), it’s a perfect introduction for the non-initiated into this most complicated of scientific phenomena, since experts are on hand to explain what you’re seeing and hearing. For 2950kr it’s possible to spend the night on a camp bed up at the Sky Station and be woken by your guide once the aurora is visible; the price includes transport on the chairlift and breakfast the next morning.
Nuolja is the starting point for an easy walking path (7km; 2–3hr) leading downhill to nearby Björkliden, 9km away by road, comprising nothing more than a few houses gathered around the train station. From here, the Rallarvägen (Navvy Road) leads to Rombaksbotn, near Narvik, in Norway; the road was built alongside the Malmbanan, then under construction, in order to transport materials needed for the line. Today it provides a walking or mountain-biking route between Abisko and Narvik – though it can be fairly narrow and rough going in parts.
From Abisko and Björkliden, the train line and the E10 continue on to RIKSGRÄNSEN, 34km from Abisko, a self-contained mountain ski and spa resort 400km north of the Arctic Circle in the shadow of the Norwegian border. The proud claim of Riksgränsen is that plentiful precipitation means there’s never any need for artificial snow; you can ski and snowboard until midsummer. Although the minuscule settlement consists of barely a couple of houses supplemented by a top-notch hotel it’s the chance to explore the only high alpine area in Sweden – sixty peaks over 1350m – that brings trainloads of people here, predominantly during the winter season (mid-Feb to late June). During the summer months, there’s some great fishing and hiking to be had in these parts; the youth hostel can supply detailed information as well as rent mountain bikes (350kr) for cycling along the Rallarvägen or canoes for use on the lake here (350kr). Bear in mind, though, that Riksgränsen is one of the wettest places in the entire country in summer, subject to frequent heavy downpours due to its proximity to the mountains that form the border with Norway.