Experienced walkers agree that they have not truly hiked in Sweden until they complete the Kungsleden. Devotees return year after year as if lured by the irresistible challenge of the wilderness.
The Kungsleden is Sweden’s most famous long-distance skiing and walking trail. About 450km long, it can be divided into several shorter sections. Stretching through Lapland, from Abisko in the north to Hamavan in the south, it is mostly well marked and punctuated by cabins. Originally, the trail was about half its current length but when the northern railway was built at the end of the 19th century, improved accessibility encouraged the STF (Swedish Touring Club) to extend the path.
The trail’s special character
Initially named Kungsvägen – Royal Road, implying its importance as a national treasure – the route has attracted crowds of walkers since the 1930s. Passing through several national parks and a huge nature reserve, the trail cleaves glacial valleys ranging from the narrow, rocky canyons to wide, flat plains. Valley floors may be scored with brooks, widening into rivers spanned by precarious hanging bridges.
The mountains that tower on either side are part of the Caledonian folding system that forms the backbone of Scandinavia. Their snow-capped peaks jut into the sky, contrasting with the mottled colours of the grassy plains and mysterious forests. Huge boulders and smaller ridges of gritty moraine are evidence of an even colder time, when glaciers enveloped the land. It is a pristine wilderness that is rarely experienced even in the Alps. Few other places in Europe seem so utterly untouched by the modern world.
The STF-run cabins offer a bed for the night as well as, in many cases, provisions and a sauna. Camping gear can therefore be left at home, although a lightened rucksack may not seem such a good idea when there is a sudden spell of bad weather and nowhere to shelter from the storm. The cabins also have a tendency to become crowded during the holiday season and although nobody is ever turned away, nothing quite matches the peace and privacy of a tent perched beside a tumbling stream. However, the Kungsleden requires careful preparation and an awareness of the immensity of the wilderness it penetrates. The weather, particularly at higher altitudes, is likely to be unpredictable.
Yet novice hikers should not be discouraged. Regular Kungsleden walkers and cabin hosts are usually on hand to offer advice, and the companionship and fireside stories of fellow enthusiasts is always reassuring. In fact, very few people complete the entire trek in one attempt, preferring to take it in smaller stages so that time can be devoted to enjoying the scenery, returning another year to explore a new part of the trail. Buses, ferries and helicopters often prove invaluable. Whilst allowing for a sudden change of plans, these alternative forms of transport reveal facets of Lapland not usually seen by hikers.
The midnight sun
The region is beautiful in different ways according to the changing seasons. In winter and early spring, when deep snow makes the path impossible to follow on foot, hikers are replaced by skiers who often practice the telemark method, a traditional downhill technique using cross-country skis.
The popularity of the route makes it difficult to become lost except in the very worst weather – the path is marked not only by distinctive red crosses on posts but also by the tracks of others. By May, streams are fed by the melting snow and the ground can be boggy. Most people find that June to September is the best time to undertake the walk, when the midnight sun glints on the alpine flowers and, later, when the landscape turns golden in the clear autumn light. Temperatures hover around freezing point for most of the year and are unlikely to top 10?C even in high summer.
While it is possible to walk for days without a hint of sunshine, rain clouds that fill one valley may be absent in another. As long as hikers are prepared for sudden changes in weather conditions, these unpredictable elements may be regarded as part of the area’s charm.
Despite the region’s apparent desolation, there are many species of plants and wildlife to be found if the time is taken to look for them. Small alpine flowers such as purple saxifrage and moss campion grow close to the ground, while higher up, lichen and small mountain bushes carpet the rock. Trees grow in protected corners, most notably the dwarf willows that are typical of the low alpine zone. Small mammals and birds of prey are likely companions, and larger animals are represented by reindeer and the occasional elk.
Abisko and Lapporten
The first and by far the most popular section of the trail stretches for 86km between Abisko and Kebnekaise. Abisko Tourist Station, to the north of Abisko National Park, welcomes 12,000 visitors each year. A large wooden arch and the first of the red crosses herald the start of the path, leading to a track so well maintained that it seems to be more of a road. Out of the realm of day-trippers, however, it is soon possible to be accompanied only by the reindeer that are herded nearby. Winding through the splendid Abiskojokk valley, gentle mountains and beech forests rise on either side of the trail to the Kungsleden’s highest point. The Tjäktja pass (1,105m) provides wonderful views of the national park and the Norwegian mountains beyond.
However, if visitors had to choose just one sight to remember, many would pick Lapporten. The most distinctive and most photographed natural landmark in Sweden, Lapporten is a glacial U-shaped valley between the mountains of Tjuonatjåkka and Nissotjårro. It is known as ‘the gateway to Lapland’.
The double peak of Kebnekaise is an unmissable landmark. While not technically part of the Kungsleden, many walkers cannot resist the opportunity of tackling its slopes. Its southern peak rises to 2,117m, making it not only the highest mountain in Sweden but also, being 90 km north of the Arctic Circle, the highest northerly point in the world.
It is said that a tenth of Sweden can be seen from the top, although as it is often obscured by clouds, this claim usually goes unchallenged. Kebnekaise was first conquered by Charles Rabot in 1883 but today tourists and experienced climbers alike enjoy its challenge, affectionately referring to the mountain as ‘Keb’.
The central sections
The central sections are the least frequented of the route and are therefore often regarded as the most attractive. This is where the true wilderness can be found. Between Kvikkjokk and Ammarnäs, there are no STF-run cabins at all and at times the path even disappears. Rivers and lakes here must be forded.
The landscape slowly becomes more fertile as the route continues southwards and the Arctic Circle is left behind, yielding some of the most beautiful scenery on the trail. The valley and lake of Kaitumjaure is a particular treat whilst an extra day taken to climb the cliff-like Skierfe mountain is well worth the views of the shifting Rapadalen delta.
Covering an area greater than Luxembourg, the diverse terrain of Vindelälvens includes heather-covered moors, rushing waterfalls, dense woodland and, most notably, the archipelago of Lake Tärna. The channels of this deep fishing lake are linked by a series of wooden bridges that successfully blend the natural with the man-made. Spectacular scenery is present right to the end of the trail, from the U-shaped valley called Syterskal with its sheer sides, to the fine vistas afforded on the final slopes, far above the tree line. The final descent can be made by cable-car, although it is also pleasant to savour the last few birch covered kilometres of the Kungsleden before returning to everyday life.
The trail ends at the village of Hemavan which crouches in a narrow valley between two mountain ranges. Although hardly a metropolis, the attractions here may appear overwhelming after so many days in the wilderness. Hemavan Mountain Park boasts a ten storey golden tower, along with the Sinneriket museum, ‘The World of the Senses’, which presents the history of the region through multimedia formats.
Hemavan’s botanical gardens are adjacent to the park and are the most northerly botanical gardens in the world, displaying 400 species of flowering alpine plants in their natural surroundings. It claims a threefold purpose: to make alpine flora accessible to the public, to be a genetic bank of such species and to be a place of inspiration. After experiencing the wonders of the Kungsleden, most visitors surely will have had sufficient inspiration to last until their inevitable return.
© Walk Europe
Walk Europe is a guidebook which provides holiday ideas for single travellers, couples, families and groups of all ages and abilities.