It’s not a good idea to go hiking in the national parks of northern Sweden (w sverigesnationalparker.se) on a whim. Even for experienced walkers, the going can be tough and uncomfortable in parts, downright treacherous in others. The best time to hike is from late June to September: during May and early June the ground is still very wet and boggy as a result of the rapid snow melt. Once the snow has gone, wild flowers burst into bloom, making the most of the short summer months. The weather is very changeable – one moment it can be hot and sunny, the next cold and rainy – and snow showers are not uncommon in summer. Hiking trails range in difficulty from moderately challenging to a positive assault course.
Mosquitoes are a real problem: it’s difficult to describe the utter misery of being covered in a blanket of insects, your eyes, ears and nose full of the creatures. Yet the beautiful landscape here is one of the last wilderness areas left in Europe – it’s one vast expanse of forest and mountains, where roads and human habitation are the exception rather than the norm. Reindeer are a common sight, as the parks are their breeding grounds and summer pasture, and Sámi settlements are dotted throughout the region – notably at Ritsem and Vaisaluokta.
Four of Swedish Lapland's parks lie about 120km northwest of Gällivare in the tract of Swedish wilderness edging Norway: the low fells, large lakes and moors of Padjelanta, Stora Sjöfallet and Abisko parks act as the eyebrows to the sheer face of the mountainous Sarek park. Easy Muddus national park lies between Gällivare and Jokkmookk, while Pieljekaise national park lies just south of the Arctic Circle, southwest of Jokkmokk.
“It is one of the last and unquestionably largest and best preserved examples of an area of transhumance, involving summer grazing by large reindeer herds”, said the UNESCO World Heritage Committee when they established Laponia as a heritage area in 1996. Covering a vast area of 9400 square kilometres, including the Padjelanta, Sarek and Stora Sjöfallet national parks, Laponia is the home and workplace of forest and mountain Sámi families from seven different villages, who still tend their reindeer here much as their ancestors did in prehistoric times. The forest Sámi move with their herds within the forests and the mountain Sámi follow their animals from the lichen-rich forests, where they spend the winter, up to the tree line by the time spring comes, then on into the mountains for summer; in August they start making their way down. Come September, many animals will be slaughtered either at the corrals in Ruokto, on the road between Porjus and Kebnats, or at highland corrals between Ritsem and Sitasjaure.
Recommended for novice hikers, Muddus national park is a 500-square-kilometre pine-forested and marshland park between Jokkmokk and Gällivare, hemmed in by the Inlandsbanan on one side and the train line from Luleå to Gällivare on the other. Muddus is home to bears, lynx, martens, weasels, hares, elk and (in summer), also reindeer; among birds, the whooper swan is one of the most common sights. The terrain here is gently undulating, consisting of bog and forest, though there are clefts and gorges in the southern stretches.
The park’s western edges run parallel to Route 45; the easiest approach is to leave the highway at Liggadammen (there are also buses here from Gällivare) and then follow the small road to Skaite, where an easy hiking trail begins; two suggested routes are Skaite–Muddusfallet–Måskoskårså–Skaite (24km) or Skaite–Muttosluobbal–Manson–Skaite (44km). There are cabins along both routes (open April–Sept; at other times the keys can be obtained from Jokkmokk and Gällivare tourist offices), and a campsite at Muddus Falls. There are no outlets for buying food or provisions en route.
Padjelanta is the largest of Sweden’s national parks; its name comes from Sámi and means “the higher country”, an apt description for this plateau that lies almost exclusively above the tree line. The Padjelanta trail (150km) runs from Vaisaluokta through the Laponia World Heritage Area south to Kvikkjokk, and is suited to inexperienced walkers – allow at least a week to finish it.