Heading north from Oslo, both the E6 and the railway thump across the lowlands, clipping the international airport at Gardermoen before following the east bank of Lake Mjøsa to skip past the amenable little town of Hamar. Thereafter, it’s a short haul to ski-crazy Lillehammer, home to one of the best of Norway’s many open-air folk museums, and then road and rail sweep on up the Gudbrandsdal valley, within sight of a string of modest little towns and villages, the first significant attraction being Ringebu stave church. Pushing on, it’s just a few kilometres more to Sjoa, a centre for whitewater rafting, and then, a little further north, Otta, an undistinguished town but one that is within easy reach of two particularly magnificent national parks, Jotunheimen and Rondane. Further north still is the rugged Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella Nasjonalpark, which is most pleasingly approached from tiny Kongsvoll. All three parks are networked by an extensive and well-planned system of hiking trails.
From Kongsvoll, Trondheim is within comfortable striking distance; alternatively, you can detour east to Røros, a fascinating old copper-mining town on the mountain plateau that stretches across to Sweden.
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832–1910) was a major figure in the literary and cultural revival that swept the country at the end of the nineteenth century. Bjørnson made his name with the peasant tales of Synnøve Solbakken in 1857 and thereafter he churned out a veritable flood of novels, stories, poems and plays, many of which romanticized Norwegian country folk and, unusually for the time, were written in Norwegian, rather than the traditional Danish. He also championed all sorts of progressive causes, from Norwegian independence through to equality of the sexes and crofters’ rights, albeit from a liberal (as distinct from leftist) viewpoint. Nowadays, however, his main claim to fame is as author of the poem that became the national anthem.
Running west towards the coast from the railway and the E6, Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella Nasjonalpark comprises a great slab of wild wilderness, 1693 square kilometres in extent, its mountains becoming increasingly steep and serrated as they approach the jagged spires backing onto Åndalsnes. Hiking trails and huts are scattered across the park with Kongsvoll making an ideal starting point: it’s possible to hike all the way from here to the coast, but this takes all of nine or ten days. A more feasible expedition for most visitors is the two-hour circular walk up to the mountain plateau, or a two-day, round-trip hike to one of the four ice-tipped peaks of mighty Snøhetta, at 2286m. There’s accommodation five hours’ walk west from Kongsvoll at the unstaffed Reinheim hut (all year). Further hiking details and maps are available at the Kongsvold Fjeldstue.
Hamar is as good a place as any to pick up the 130-year-old paddle steamer, the DS Skibladner (t61 14 40 80, wwww.skibladner.no/hjem), which shuttles up and down Lake Mjøsa during the summer offering wide views over rolling forested hills to east and west. Travellers heading north may find the trip to Lillehammer tempting at first sight, but the lake is not particularly scenic, and after four hours on the boat you may well feel like jumping overboard. The best bet is to take the shorter ride to Eidsvoll instead.
Sailings run from late June to mid-August. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays the boat makes the return trip across the lake from Hamar to Gjøvik and on up to Lillehammer (just under 8hr; 320kr); on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays it chugs south to Eidsvoll and back (4hr 30min; 280kr); there’s no Monday service. Sailing times are available direct or at any local tourist office. Tickets are bought on board; one-way fares cost a little over half the return fare. In Hamar, the Skibladner jetty is handily located about 600m to the west of the train station along the lakeshore. In Lillehammer, it’s on the west side of the lake, across the bridge from the centre of Lillehammer, beside the E6.
Carsten Ankers (1747–1824) was a close friend and ally of the Danish crown prince Christian Frederik, a connection that has given Eidsvoll national importance. Towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Russians and British insisted the Danes be punished for their alliance with the French, and proposed taking Norway from Denmark and handing it over to Sweden. In an attempt to forestall these territorial shenanigans, the Danes dispatched Christian Frederik to Norway, where he set up home in Carsten Ankers’ house in 1813, and proceeded to lobby for Norwegian support. In April of the following year more than a hundred of the country’s leading citizens gathered here near Eidsvoll to decide whether to accept union with Sweden or go for independence with Christian Frederik on the throne. The majority of this National Assembly chose independence, and set about drafting a liberal constitution based on those of France and the United States.
Predictably, the Swedes would have none of this. Four years earlier, the Swedes had picked one of Napoleon’s marshals, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, to succeed their previous king who had died without an heir. As King Karl Johan, Bernadotte was keen to flex his military muscles and, irritated by the putative National Assembly, he invaded Norway in July 1814. Frederik was soon forced to abdicate and the Norwegians were pressed into union with Sweden, though Karl Johan did head off much of the opposition by guaranteeing the Norwegians a new constitution and parliament, the Storting.
Heading north from Lillehammer, the E6 and the railway leave the shores of Lake Mjøsa to run along the Gudbrandsdal, an appealing 160km river valley, which was for centuries the main route between Oslo and Trondheim. Enclosed by mountain ranges, the valley has a comparatively dry and mild climate, and its fertile soils have nourished a string of farming villages since Viking times; even today, despite the thunderings of the E6, the Gudbrandsdal remains predominantly – and distinctly – rural.
Norway’s most celebrated hiking area, Jotunheimen Nasjonalpark (“Home of the Giants” National Park), lives up to its name: pointed summits and undulating glaciers dominate the skyline, soaring high above river valleys and lake-studded plateaus. Covering no less than 1152 square kilometres, the park offers an amazing concentration of high peaks, more than two hundred of which rise above 1900m, including Norway’s (and northern Europe’s) two highest mountains, Galdhøpiggen (2469m) and Glittertind (2452m). Here also is Norway’s highest waterfall, Vettisfossen, boasting a 275-metre drop and located a short walk from the Vetti lodge on the west side of the park. A network of footpaths and mountain lodges lattices the Jotunheimen, but be warned that the weather is very unpredictable and the winds can be bitingly cold – take care and always come well equipped.
North of Hjerkinn, the E6 slices across barren uplands before descending into a narrow ravine, the Drivdal. Hidden away here, just 12km from Hjerkinn, is KONGSVOLL, home to a tiny train station and the delightful Kongsvold Fjeldstue, which provides some especially charming accommodation and can serve as a great base for hikes into the neighbouring Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella Nasjonalpark.
Besseggen ridge (1743m).
DNT produces an excellent map of the Jotunheimen in its1:50,000 series.
Nor-Way Bussekspress operates the Valdresekspressen (#160; 4–6 daily), which runs from Oslo to Sogndal, passing through Fagernes on the way. At Fagernes, change to the Nor-Way Bussekspress bus to Beitostølen (3 daily), where you change again for Gjendesheim (late June to early Sept; 2 daily). The boat from Gjendesheim to Memurubu is also seasonal (mid-June to mid-Sept; 6 daily; t61 23 85 09, wgjende.no).
Gjendesheim, full-service DNT hut; Memurubu, full-service private hut.
The one-day hike across the Jotunheimen’s Besseggen ridge high above Lake Gjende is one of Norway’s most popular excursions. Starting at the Memurubu jetty, the first part of the hike involves a stiff haul up to the base of the Besseggen ridge (2hr 30min), which is a good spot to take a break and enjoy the views over the surrounding wilderness before tackling the ridge itself. Thereafter, the thirty-minute scramble up to the peak of the ridge is very steep, with ledges that are, on occasion, chest high; you need to be moderately fit to negotiate them. In places, the ridge narrows to 50m with a sheer drop to either side, but you can avoid straying close to the edge by following the DNT waymark “T”s. The views are superlative, but the drops disconcerting – and a head for heights is essential. Beyond the peak of the ridge, the trail is less dramatic as you cross a couple of plateaus and clamber up the slopes in between before reaching the Veltløyfti gorge. Here, a slippery scramble with steep drops requires care, though the trail is well marked and the final destination, Gjendesheim, is clearly visible.
If you do the hike in the opposite direction to the route described here, you can return by boat to Gjendesheim in the evening, but you’ll have to calculate your speed accurately to meet the boat at Memurubu – and that isn’t easy. Whichever direction you take, be sure to confirm boat departure times before you set out, and check weather conditions too, as snow and ice can linger well into July.
In preparation for the 1994 Winter Olympics, the Norwegian government spent a massive two billion kroner on the town’s sporting facilities, which are now among the best in the country. Spread along the hillsides above and near the town, they include several dozen downhill ski trails catering for everyone from beginner to expert, floodlit slopes for night skiing, ski-jumping towers and multiple chairlifts, an ice hockey arena, and a bobsleigh track. There is even a special stadium – the Birkebeiner – where skiers can hone their skills before setting off into the mountains, which are crisscrossed by 350km of cross-country ski trails. As you would expect, most Norwegians arriving here in winter come fully equipped, but it’s possible to rent or buy equipment locally – the tourist office will advise, but note that advance booking is strongly recommended.
Spreading north and east of Otta, Rondane Nasjonalpark was established in 1962 as Norway’s first national park and is now one of the country’s most popular hiking areas, its 963 square kilometres, much of which is in the high alpine zone, appealing to walkers of all abilities. The soil is poor, so vegetation is sparse – lichens, especially reindeer moss, predominate – but the views across this bare landscape are serenely beautiful, and a handful of lakes and rivers plus patches of dwarf birch forest provide some variety. Within the Rondane, the most obvious target is Rondvatnet lake, a lazy blue flash of water surrounded by wild mountain peaks. To the west of the lake are the wild cirques and jagged peaks of Storsmeden (2017m), Sagtinden (2018m) and Veslesmeden (2015m), while to the east of the lake rise Rondslottet (2178m), Vinjeronden (2044m) and Storronden (2138m). Further east still, Høgronden (2115m) dominates the landscape. The mountains in the vicinity of the lake, ten of which exceed the 2000m mark, are mostly accessible to any reasonably fit and eager walker, thanks to a dense network of trails and hiking huts/lodges. Note though that parts of the park are out of bounds during the reindeer calving season, from early May to the middle of June.
There are score of hikes to choose from in the Rondane, but one popular choice is the haul up from Rondvassbu mountain lodge to the top of Storronden (2138m), the first peak to the right of Rondvatnet. This makes a fine excursion for the beginner, since – except for a short steep and exposed section just below the summit – there is no really difficult terrain to negotiate and the trail is clearly signed; the round trip takes about five hours – three up and two down. Neighbouring peaks involve more arduous mountain hiking, with the finest views over the range generally reckoned to be from Vinjeronden and nearby Rondslottet, both to the north of Storronden.
If visibility is poor or you don’t fancy a climb, you can take the delightful summer boat service (July & Aug 2–3 daily; 30min each way; 100kr each way) on the vintage Rondegubben from Rondvassbu to the far end of Rondvatnet, from where it takes about two and a half hours to walk back along the lake’s steep western shore.
RØROS, glued to a treeless mountain plateau some 160km northeast of Kongsvoll, is a blustery place even on a summer’s afternoon, when it’s full of day-tripping tourists surveying the old part of town, which is little changed since its days as a copper-mining centre. Mining was the basis of life here from the seventeenth century onwards and although the mining company finally went bust in 1977, its assorted industrial remains were never bulldozed, making Røros a unique and remarkable survivor of the resource towns that once littered Norway’s more isolated regions. Copper mining was dirty and dangerous work and even if the locals supplemented their incomes with a little farming and hunting, life for the average villager can’t have been anything but hard.
Remarkably, Røros’ wooden houses, some of them 300 years old, have escaped the fires which have devastated so many of Norway’s timber-built towns, and as a consequence the town is on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Firm regulations now protect this rare townscape and changes to its grass-roofed cottages are strictly regulated. Film companies regularly use the town as a backdrop for their productions: as early as 1971, it featured as a Soviet labour camp in the film version of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a choice of location that gives something of the flavour of the place.
Røros makes for a pleasant overnight stay, which is just as well given its solitary location. The uplands that encircle the town are good for hiking, with one of the more popular being the five-hour trek east to the self-service DNT hut at Marenvollen. In winter, the uplands are popular with cross-country skiers; the tourist office has a leaflet mapping out several possible skiing routes.
On the first part of any hike west from Kongsvoll into the Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella Nasjonalpark, you’re quite likely to spot musk ox, the descendants of animals imported from Greenland in the late 1940s – which are also viewable on a musk-ox safari (see Hiking the Besseggen ridge). These hefty beasts have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years, protected from the cold by two coats of hair and using their hooves to dig through the snow to reach the roots, lichens and mosses on which they depend. So far so good, but their habit of herding together with the adults surrounding the young when faced with danger proved disastrous when they were hunted by rifle. By the mid-1940s, the future of the Greenland herd looked decidedly grim, so some were transferred to Norway to help preserve the species, and here in their new home they have prospered in a modest sort of way and now number about one hundred.
Conventional wisdom is that they will ignore you if you ignore them and keep at a distance of at least 200m. They are, however, not afraid of humans and will charge if irritated – retreat as quickly and quietly as possible if one starts snorting and scraping. Incidentally, there’s no truth in the rumour, promulgated by the mockumentary film Trolljegeren (“Troll Hunter”; 2010) that the musk ox serve as a handy larder for local trolls; or is there?