Hannes and I spent the first week in September in Lappland in North Sweden, above the Arctic Circle - the furthest north I've ever been. We hiked 90 km on a trail called the Kungsleden - "the King's Trail" - between Saltoluokta and Kvikkjok. It was awesome, and I have to say I'd love to be back there now. (That is, if it weren't snowing there already, which it probably is.)
The trail is actually fairly easy - elevation gains are minimal, and at 800m or so you're above treeline, meaning you have great views with little effort. Like in the Alps, the area is equipped with mountain huts where you can sleep and cook without having to carry a tent or a stove. Unlike the Alps, there's not a village or a ski gondola around every bend - the area is much more remote, which was to our liking. I love hiking and backpacking and being out in the mountains, but this is the first trip where I got home and wished I was back out on the trail - probably because staying in the huts made it so comfortable. Instead of freezing my hands washing dishes by headlamp in icy water, we were sitting by candlelight at proper tables, playing cards and yatzee and being entertained by the tales of fellow hikers. Another major bonus: being toasty warm from the heat of the wood stove. A luxury for backpacking!
I'm quite introverted and don't usually travel with the intention of meeting new people, but this was also one of the few trips where the people we met along the way really helped make the trip. There was a group of 4 smelly Bavarian boys who were taking a break in "civilization" after a couple of weeks off trail in Sarek national park, who were full of high spirits despite all their stories of freezing their butts off and getting lost along the way. I found it entertaining simply to watch how many cookies they could eat in one sitting. There was an older Swedish-Australian couple - in their 70s, at least - who gave us a ride from the end of the trail to the bus station, who had hoped to reach Aktse on their very old, beaten-up bicycles. They hadn't made it all the way but we were impressed that they even tried. (And thankful for the ride, which saved us a 200+ euro taxi ride!) We also enjoyed the company of a self-reliant hiking enthusiast cum Aachener Printen-baker while we spent half the day at the bus stop heading back to Kiruna at the end of the trip.
Days 1-2: Stuck in Kiruna.
Our trip didn't get off to an auspicious start - when we arrived in Kiruna (via SAS), our hiking packs failed to arrive with us. We had planned to take an early bus the next morning to the trailhead, but without our packs we spent an extra day in Kiruna, doing not very much at all. I admit to being rather unfun and grumpy. Kiruna is a mining town, and it's very obvious when you're there that the town wouldn't exist without the mine. In fact, the mine is planning to expand its operations to underneath what is currently the city of Kiruna, and is going to pay to relocate the town so it's not on top of the mine.
Day 3: On the way to the trailhead in Saltoluokta.
Day 4: Finally on the trail! Saltoluokta to Sitojaure (20 km)
2nd day on the trail: Sitojaure to Aktse (4 km rowing, 9 km hiking)
This day was our only really rainy hiking day, and luckily it happened to be our shortest hiking day as well. The day started with a first for me: rowing for part of the "trail." It also featured our first reindeer sightings, which was a nice way to distract us from the rain. When we arrived in Aktse we had some time to dry off, relax, and enjoy the view when the clouds cleared in the evening.
3rd day on the trail: Up the Skierfe (16 km)
We spent two nights at Aktse hut so we could take a day and climb up the Skierfe. It was a great hike. Parts of the way up felt like walking on the moon, and the view from the top was as impressive as it was scary. Plus, lots more reindeer.
4th day on the trail: Aktse to Parte (4 km by boat, 20 km on foot)
Another day that started with a boat ride, only this time we took a motorboat (for a ridiculous sum) because the row boats were all taken. It ended up being a good thing because it was pretty windy out on the water and it was our longest hiking day, so it was nice to get off to an easy and quick start. It was another day of beautiful landscapes but it was SUPER windy above the treeline, which made it a little harder for me to enjoy.
5th and last day of hiking: Parte to Kvikkjok (16 km)
This was a typical day for the last day of a backpacking trip - feeling like the exciting stuff was over and ready to be at our destination. We were in the woods the whole time, so no sweeping views like the earlier days. It was still pretty though, and I think it would be a great place for cross-country skiing (which is what people use the huts for in winter). Despite all the comforts of the huts, I was really happy to get a hot shower at the end of the day!
Do you want to go too??
If you live in the western U.S., there are many other equally beautiful hiking destinations at your doorstep, so there's no real reason to come to Sweden for a hiking trip. However, if you're itching for some European hiking, I would totally recommend the Kungsleden. And in that case, I'm full of advice.
Getting There & Around
We flew into Kiruna, which is definitely the closest airport if you're looking to go to Abisko, which is on the north part of the Kungsleden. If we were to do it again, I'd look into flying into Gållivare, which is closer to where we started at Saltoluokta. From Stockholm, it's at least a 12-hour train ride up north. There are bus connections to many trailheads along the Kungsleden, but don't expect there to be a bus more than once a day. I'd recommend adding a few of days of fudge time at the end of your trip because it could take more than a day to get back from the trailhead to a train or airport connection, AND because conditions on the trail might mean that you may not make it as far as you planned. We heard from some people that in bad weather they had to wait multiple days to be able to do a lake crossing (via boat) to get to where they wanted to go.
The following are transit websites for the north of Sweden. They'll take a little patience and probably the help of google translate, but they're quite helpful.
To get a topo map of where we were hiking, I ordered from the following website, which the Swedish Tourist Federation pointed me to. Topo maps are also available at the mountain huts, but they're not any cheaper (though you could save on shipping costs).
The Kungsleden is above the Arctic Circle, so don't plan on it ever being very warm. We were there the first week in September, and it was around 13°C during the day and close to freezing at night. I wouldn't go during July because the mosquitoes are supposed to be terrible. In August you'd have lots more daylight but I liked being there in September because we got to see a lot of fall colors.
The Swedish Tourist Federation
The Swedish Tourist Federation maintains the cabins and the trails, and are super helpful for trip planning. I emailed them more than once with questions and they always responded (in English) within a day or so. Their website is also useful, though the English language version isn't as complete as the Swedish version. You can always use the Swedish one with google translate.
This is Sweden, so everything is expensive. It cost us about 30 euro per person per night to stay in the cabins, which at face value is quite expensive for a dorm bed in a cabin with no electricity and no running water. However, I LOVED it and it felt like money well spent. If you want to tent camp, you don't need a permit and it's free just about everywhere, except in the areas right around the cabins. Some of the STF cabins also have small stores selling food, fuel, and other small items like first aid supplies and postcards. However, it's all quite expensive, so we bought and packed most of our food ahead of time, and used the cabin shops just to resupply on chocolate and other necessities we were low on.
Along the Kungsleden, there are lake crossings by boat, where there are supposed to be rowboats supplied for you to row yourself over. The problem is, there are far too few rowboats (we saw three per lake), and they have a rule where you're always supposed to leave at least one rowboat on each side of the lake. That means if you show up and there's only one rowboat and you're one person, you're screwed. If you show up and you're two people, you're supposed to row over, row two boats back, and then row one boat back to your destination side. This is a pain in the arsch and also time consuming. At all of the lakes you can find people with motorboats who are happy to take you across - for the ridiculous price of 20 euro per person. That seemed to be the standard price no matter who you asked, and they never wavered. This meant that everyone we met in the cabins along the trail was sharing stories about whether they'd had a rowboat available and coming up with schemes to avoid paying for a motorboat. Some of our companions were only half-jokingly talking about setting up a competing hiker-shuttling service using the rowboats. In practice though, unless you are really short on money and have all the time in the world, occasionally paying for a motorboat ride is probably unavoidable.