Swedish Lapland, the heartland of the indigenous Sámi people, is Europe’s last wilderness, characterized by seemingly endless forests of pine and spruce, thundering rivers that drain the snow-covered fells and peaceful lakeside villages high amongst the hills. The irresistible allure of this vast and sparsely populated region is the opportunity to experience raw nature at first hand. This unsullied corner of the country is a very long way away for many Swedes; in terms of distance, Gothenburg, for example, is closer to Venice than it is to Kiruna. The reputation of the local people for speaking their mind or, alternatively, not speaking at all, has confirmed the region’s image within Sweden: remote, austere yet still rather fascinating.
The best way to discover more about Sámi culture is to drive the 360km-long Wilderness Way (Vildmarksvägen) from Strömsund, a notable canoeing centre, over the barren Stekenjokk plateau to isolated Fatmomakke, a church town of dozens of traditional wooden kåtor (huts) beside the steely waters of Kultsjön lake. The road terminates at Vilhelmina, another tiny church town which makes an interesting diversion on the way north. Storuman and neighbouring Sorsele have handy train and bus connections that are useful access points for a small handful of charming mountain villages close to the Norwegian border, where hiking is the main draw.Back on the main Inlandsbanan train route, Arvidsjaur offers a fascinating insight into indigenous culture at its lappstad, a diverting collection of religious dwellings and storehuts.
However, it’s Jokkmokk, just north of the Arctic Circle, that is the real centre of Sámi life – not least during its Winter Market when thousands of people brave the chill to buy and sell everything from reindeer hides to wellington boots. Moving further north, the iron-ore mining centres of Gällivare (where the Inlandsbanan ends) and Kiruna share a rugged charm, though it’s undoubtedly the world-famous Icehotel in nearby Jukkasjärvi that is the real winter draw. Beyond, the rugged national parks offer a chance to hike and commune with nature like nowhere else: the Kungsleden trail runs for 500km from the tiny village of Abisko – oddly, yet reassuringly for hikers, the driest place in all of Sweden – to Hemavan, northwest of Storuman, through some of the most gorgeous stretches anywhere in the Swedish mountains.
Stretching northwest of Arvidsjaur out towards the Norwegian border, the municipality of Arjeplog, roughly the size of Belgium, supports a population of under three thousand – two-thirds of whom live in the lakeside town, ARJEPLOG, 85km from Arvidsjaur. Set away from the main inland road and rail routes, it’s a tiny, unassuming sort of place, barely one main street leading to what passes as a main square. The surrounding area is one of the most beautiful parts of Sweden, with nearly nine thousand lakes and vast expanses of mountains and virgin forests. The air is clear and crisp, the rivers clean and deep and the winters mighty cold – in 1989 a temperature of -52°C was recorded here. January and February, in particular, are bitter, dark and silent months, but it’s during winter that Arjeplog is at its busiest: hundreds of test drivers from across the world descend on the town to put cars through their paces in the freezing conditions, with brakes and road-holding being given a thorough examination on the frozen lakes; the ABS braking system, for example, was developed here.
In summer, Arjeplog is a likeable, peaceful little place, where hiking, canoeing and fishing are all popular activities, each offering the chance of blissful isolation, be it by the side of a secluded mountain tarn or in a clearing deep in the pine forest. In late July you can go cloudberry picking in the surrounding marshland, and in the autumn you can hunt for lingonberries, blueberries and wild mushrooms.
Seven hundred and fifty kilometres north of Östersund, the Inlandsbanan finally reaches its last stop, GÄLLIVARE, two and a quarter hours up the line from Jokkmokk. Although the town is not immediately appealing, it is one of the few relatively sizeable ones in this part of northern Sweden, and it’s a good idea to spend a day or two here enjoying the relative civilization before striking out in the wilds beyond – Gällivare is a good starting point for walking in the national parks, which fill most of the northwestern corner of the country. The town is also one of the most important areas for iron ore in Europe – if you have any interest in seeing a working mine, don’t wait until Kiruna’s tame “tourist tour”; instead, take a trip down the more evocative mines here.
Located just north of the 67th parallel, Gällivare has a pretty severe climate: as you stroll around the open centre, have a look at the double-glazed windows here, all heavily insulated to protect against the biting Arctic cold.
The site the town occupies was once that of a Sámi village, and one theory has it that the name Gällivare comes from the Sámi for “a crack or gorge (djelli) in the mountain (vare)”. You may also come across the alternative spelling, Gellivare, although the pronunciation is the same – “yell-i-vaar-eh”.
While in Gällivare do try to take a tour to the top of Dundret hill, one of the two peaks dominating the town, to see the midnight sun (early June–early Aug daily at 11pm; 200kr return; tickets available from the tourist office). Special taxis run from the train station to the end of the winding road which leads up to the top of the hill. Remember that the sky needs to be free of cloud for you to see the midnight sun properly. Whatever the weather, though, there are free waffles and ice cream available before the return down to Gällivare.
Tucked away at
, one of the two hills that overlook the town 5km to the north, the modern mines and works are distant, dark blots, towards which the tourist office ferries relays of tourists in summer. There are two separate tours, both running from mid-June to mid-August: one tour explores the underground
, the other the open-cast
, the largest of its kind in Europe (and also Sweden’s biggest gold mine – the metal is recovered from the slag produced during the extraction of the copper). The ear-splitting noise produced from the mammoth-sized trucks (they’re five times the height of a human being) in the iron-ore mine can be quite disconcerting in the confined darkness.
If you’re in Arjeplog with your own transport, it’s worth making every effort to see the jaw-dropping panoramic vistas from the top of
(808m), which lies 15km north of the village. On a clear day from the peak, you can see over 130km in all directions across the surrounding marshland and forest with views extending even into Norway. From this amazing vantage point, you start to realize just how sparsely populated this remote part of Sweden is: if Stockholm, for example, had the same population density as Arjeplog it would have just fifty inhabitants.
From Karesuando it’s a drive of 510km to the North Cape in Norway, routing via Enontekiö in Finland and then Kautokeino and Alta in Norway; it will take at least six hours with your own car. By public transport, the easiest option is to walk across to Kaaresuvanto in Finland and pick up the bus for Tromsø which operates from June to mid-September, departing at 4.25pm. Change buses in Skibotn on Norway’s E6 highway and then head east towards Alta for connections to the North Cape. Finnish bus timetables are at w eskelisen.fi, Norwegian ones at w snelandia.no.
The Kungsleden (literally “King’s Trail”) is the most famous and popular hiking route in Sweden. A well-signposted, 500km-long path from Abisko in the north to Hemavan, near Tärnaby, it takes in Sweden’s highest mountain, Kebnekaise, en route. If you’re looking for splendid isolation, this isn’t the trail for you; it’s the busiest in the country, though it’s the section from Abisko to Kebnekaise that sees most hikers (one of the least busy sections is between Jäkkvik and Adolfström). Most people start the trail at Abisko, but it’s equally feasible to begin further south.
The ground is easy to walk, with bridges where it’s necessary to ford streams; marshy ground has had wooden planks laid down to ease the going, and there are either boat services or row-boats with which to get across several large lakes. The route, which passes through the national parks, is traditionally split into the five stages described below. For the distances between the places mentioned on each segment; the best map to have of the entire area is Lantmäteriet Kartförlaget’s Norra Norrland (scale 1:400,000).
Stage 1: Abisko to Kebnekaise (6 days; 105km)
From its starting point at STF Abisko fjällstation, the Kungsleden winds through the elongated Abisko national park, which contains some of the most lush and dense vegetation of the trail, including beech forest lining the valley bottom. From the Alesjaure cabins, perched on a mountain ridge 35km from the start, you’ll get a fantastic view over the open countryside below; there’s a sauna here, too. The highest point on this segment is the Tjäktja pass (1105m), 50km from the start, from where there are also wonderful views. This section of the trail finishes at Kebnekaisefjällstation, from where it’s possible to leave the main trail and head to Nikkaluokta, 19km away (served by buses to Kiruna).
Stage 2: Kebnekaise to Saltoluokta (3 days; 51km)
One of the quietest sections of the trail, this segment takes in beech forest, open fells and deep valleys. First of all you backtrack 14km from Kebnekaisefjällstation to Singi, before heading south again with an unobstructed view of the hills and glaciers of Sarek national park. You then paddle across the river at Teusajaure and climb over a plateau into Stora Sjöfallet national park, from where you drop steeply through beech forest to Vakkotavare. From Vakkotavore a bus runs to the quay at Kebnats, and then a short boat trip brings you to Saltoluokta and the start of the next section.
Stage 3: Saltoluokta to Kvikkjokk (4 days; 73km)
This segment involves skirting a tame corner of the inhospitable Sarek national park. It crosses two lakes and also passes through a bare landscape edged by pine and beech forests. A long uphill climb of around five to six hours leads first to Sitojaure, on a bare high fell. The shallow lake here, which you have to cross, is choppy in the strong wind; take the boat service operated by the cabin caretaker. You then cross the wetlands on the other side of the lake, making use of the wooden planks laid down here, to Aktse, where there’s a vast field of yellow buttercups in summer. Using the row-boats provided, row across Lake Laitaure for Kvikkjokk; as you approach you’ll see pine forest.
Stage 4: Kvikkjokk to Ammarnäs (8 days; 166km)
Not recommended for novices, this is one of the most difficult stretches of the trail (distances between cabins can be long, and there are four lakes to cross); it is, however, one of the quietest. From Kvikkjokk you take the boat over Saggat Lake and walk to the first cabin at Tsielejåkk. It’s 55km to the next cabin at Vuonatjviken. You then take the boat across Riebnesjaure and walk to Hornavan for another boat across to the village of Jäkkvik. It’s a short hike of 8km to the next cabin, then on to the village of Adolfström, passing through Pieljekaise national park en route. Then you get another boat over Iraft Lake and on to the cabins at Sjnjultje. From here there’s a choice of routes: 34km direct to Ammarnäs, or 24km to Rävfallet and then another 20km into Ammarnäs.
Stage 5: Ammarnäs to Hemavan (4 days; 78km)
This is the easiest part of the trail: you’ll pass over low fells and heather-covered moors and through beech forests and wetlands, the horizon lined with impressive fell peaks. The only steep climb is 8km long between Ammarnäs and Aigert, where there’s an imposing waterfall and a traditional steam sauna in the cabin. On the way to the Syter cabin, 48km from Aigert, you’ll pass a network of bridges, which cross the various lakes in what is called the Tärnasjö archipelago.
No other man has made a greater impression on northern Scandinavia than Lars Levi Laestadius (1800–61), the Swedish revivalist preacher who dedicated his life to saving people in three countries from the perils of alcoholism. Born in Jäkkvik in 1800 and educated in Kvikkjokk, the young Laestadius soon developed a close relationship with the indigenous Sámi, many of whom had turned to drink to escape the harsh reality of their daily lives. It was while the priest was working in Karesuando (1826–49) that he met Mary of Åsele, the Sámi woman who inspired him to steer people towards a life of total purity. Following Laestadius’s death in Pajala in 1861, the movement continued under the leadership of Juhani Raattamaa before splitting into two opposing branches: a conservative western group in Sweden and Norway, and a more liberal eastern one in Finland. Today tens of thousands of teetotal Swedes, Finns, Norwegians and Sámi across the Arctic area of Scandinavia still follow Laestadius’s teachings; as well as not drinking, they’re not allowed to have flowers or curtains in their homes, nor are they permitted to wear a tie, listen to the radio or watch TV.
Whilst Lapland’s strong cultural identity is evident in every town and village across the north, it’s a much trickier task to try to pin down the region geographically. The word Lapland means different things to different people. Mention it to a Swede (the Swedish spelling is Lappland) and they’ll immediately think of the northern Swedish province of the same name which begins just south of Dorotea, runs up to the Norwegian and Finnish borders in the north, and stretches east towards (but doesn’t include) the Bothnian coast. For the original inhabitants of the north, the Sámi, the area they call Sápmi (the indigenous name for Lapland) extends from Norway through Sweden and Finland to the Russian Kola peninsula, an area where they’ve traditionally lived a semi-nomadic life, following their reindeer from valley bottom to fell top. Most foreigners have a hazy idea of where Lapland is; for the sake of this guide, we’ve assumed Swedish Lapland (the English spelling) to be located within the borders of the administrative province of Lappland but have included all of Route 342 – The Wilderness Way, or Vildmarksvägen – beginning in Strömsund, which crosses into Lappland, as well as the Torne Valley, which also lies partly within the province.
The only sight in town is the Silvermuséet, housed in a yellow wooden building in the main square. It’s home to fascinating collections of over 700 pieces of Sámi silver, including several ornate silver collars that were handed down from mother to daughter; if a mother had several daughters she would divide her chain amongst them. Whilst in the museum, make sure to visit the cinema in the basement, where you can see a slide show about the surrounding countryside and nature, and find how people in this remote part of Sweden learnt to adapt to the harsh climate.
The next major stop on the Inlandsbanan and bus route north of Storuman is SORSELE, 76km away – a pint-sized, quiet little town on the Vindelälven River. The town became a cause célèbre among conservationists in Sweden when activists forced the government to abandon its plans to build a hydroelectric power station, which would have regulated the river’s flow. Consequently, the Vindelälven remains in its natural state today – seething with rapids – and is one of only four rivers in the country that hasn’t been tampered with in some way or other.
The big event here is the Vindelälvsdraget, a 400km, four-day dog-sled race from Ammarnäs to Vännäsby held in the third week of March. Sorsele is an ideal base for fly-fishing: the Vindelälven and the other local river, Laisälven, are teeming with grayling and brown trout, and there are a number of local lakes stocked with char. Ask at the tourist offices for details.
If you’re looking to get well off the beaten track, Sorsele provides ready access to the Sámi mountain village of Ammarnäs, which is about as remote as you get by road in this part of Swedish Lapland.
Heading north for Treriksröset – the three-nation marker post where Sweden, Norway and Finland meet – walk over the bridge to Kaaresuvanto in Finland, from where a daily bus leaves at 2.35pm (Finland is an hour ahead of Sweden) for Kilpisjärvi (journey time 1hr 40min). From June to mid-September a second daily bus leaves at 4.25pm for Tromsø in Norway, travelling via Kilpisjärvi. From Kilpisjärvi, there are two ways to get to Treriksröset. One of these is a hike of 11km down a track which passes through an area of dwarf woodland before running around a small lake to reach Sweden’s northernmost point; don’t forget your camera and mosquito repellent. Alternatively, you can shorten the hike to just 3km by taking a boat ride from Kilpisjärvi across the lake on M/S Malla (late June–early Aug 10am, 2pm & 6pm Finnish time; 45min; €25 return); note that the boat requires at least four passengers to sail.
From Treriksröset, the path continues (14km) towards the northernmost peak in Sweden, Pältsan (1445m); the going here is rocky in parts. The STF cabins (no advance booking; March, April & late June–early Sept; dorm beds 390kr) at the foot of the mountain boast thirty beds and a sauna. There’s an easy hike (40km) from the cabins to Keinovuopio, where you cross the river to the village of Peera, on the main E8 road in Finland; from here you can catch the bus back to Karesuando (daily at approximately 1.45pm, also June to mid-Sept daily at 11.25am; check Finnish bus times at wmatkahuolto.fi).
The Inlandsvägen and the Wilderness Way meet up again in the pretty town of VILHELMINA, 54km north of Dorotea. Once an important forestry centre, now a quiet, unassuming little place with just one main street, it is named after the wife of King Gustav IV Adolf, Fredrika Dorotea Vilhelmina (as is its southerly neighbour, Dorotea).
On the main street the Sámihandicraft store, Risfjells Sameslöjd, Volgsjövägen 46 (Mon–Fri 10am–5pm, Sat 10am–2pm; W sameslojd.se), is worth a look.
The principal attraction is the church town, nestling between Storgatan and Ljusminnesgatan, whose thirty-odd wooden cottages date back to 1792 when the first church was consecrated. It’s since been restored, and the cottages can be rented out via the tourist office.