Places:Start at Lon 18.5201, Lat 67.394, end at Lon 17.7205, Lat 66.9547 60km SW from Start Logged as completed by 2
The Kungsleden (King’s) Trail in northern Sweden traverses 425km of parts of the last remaining wilderness area in Europe. Much of the trail is north of the Arctic Circle and crosses the Laponia (Lapland) World Heritage Site which is part of the Sámi homeland. Also known as Laplanders, the Sámi are the only recognised indigenous European group and they call their land Sápmi. The 105km northern section of the Kungsleden, between Abisko and Nikkaluokta, is the most popular and takes 5-7 days to walk. We opted to walk the middle section between Saltoluokta and Kvikkjokk which covers 73km over 4-6 days. Both of these sections are well serviced by huts owned by the Svenska Turistföreningen (STF). This was founded in 1885 as a voluntary group and developed the Kungsleden Trail in 1887. Nowadays STF operates more than 320 hostels throughout Sweden and some of these huts offer services to hotel standards, whilst others simply provide bunk beds and cooking facilities. If you are using the huts (or camping nearby) it is worthwhile joining STF for discounts on the prices. Most mountain huts are open from mid-June to mid-September and again from mid-February to the beginning of May (for winter based activities).
We flew to Kiruna, a town ringed by iron ore mines, whose inhabitants have been told for health and safety reasons they must move from their homes when the town centre is relocated several km away to accommodate the expansion of the underground workings. Kiruna is a good place to stock up with any last minute provisions such as camping gas, liquid fuel and food (and if you want to take along a wee dram to help you on your way, the Government liquor store sells alcohol at reasonable prices!). Excellent bus services from Kiruna connect via Gällivare to the start of the middle section of the trail at Kebnats. Here we took the STF boat across a lake to the Saltoluokta Mountain Station which can accommodate up to 100 persons in a mix of bedrooms, and has an excellent licenced restaurant, a well-stocked shop and sauna. Not long after arriving at Saltoluokta we were gobsmacked to bump into intrepid Irish adventurer and explorer, Paul Sheils from Navan. He has walked parts of the Kungsleden and crossed the adjacent Sarek National Park several times, and his inspirational videos on YouTube were the reason we chose to visit this area. It was great to be able to thank him in person for bringing Arctic Sweden to our attention.
Day 1 (21km): From Saltoluokta to Sitojaure, the Kungsleden Trail heads south, initially through birch forest, something of a fairyland with golden leaves drifting down on us like confetti and the undergrowth in its dazzling autumnal attire flecked with deep red and purple berries and scarlet fly agaric mushrooms. Although the trail is not hard it was also not quick as I was carrying a 25kg+ backpack of which about 5kg was camera gear and associated electrical equipment for capturing the walk – it is not easy to hike and take high definition photos, timelapse and video. The trail soon climbs above the forest and for much of the rest of the way was a good path across the alpine tundra before descending slightly into the birch forest again before reaching the Sitojaure hut. As the weather was threatening rain we stayed in the hut that night and I visited a nearby Sámi family to arrange for a boat transfer across the lake the next day (the family also sell some provisions including beer). The Sámis were the first settlers in Scandinavia and now number about 70,000 persons spread across northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Their main livelihoods are fishing and reindeer herding. The Sámi family that I spoke to live in the nearby town of Jokkmokk in the winter and spend 7 months living by the lake in the summer. They own a herd of 4,000 reindeer and September was a busy month for them as they round up the deer (on foot), mark new calves and select animals for sale. Because of this they had stopped the regular boat transfers across the lake and it is necessary to pre-arrange transfers when they are herding the reindeer, or you will be rowing yourself, not something to be relished in aging boats.
Day 2 (9km): Sitojaure to Aktse. Anna, the Sámi lady, took us the 4km across the lake in her boat at some considerable speed, weaving between partially submerged rocks. Back in the birch forest the trail ascends gently for 3km before leaving the forest and entering the alpine tundra again. Here saw our first real glimpses of the huge reindeer herds. The path reaches a plateau at about 950m elevation and we had originally planned to detour from here westwards to the summit of Skierfe (1179m) and to camp out overnight. Skierfe has spectacular views of Rapadalen (Rapa Valley) into Sarek and its braided rivers. Unfortunately low cloud and a bad weather forecast made us change our plans and head directly to the Aktse hut. At Aktse we choose to camp, and had an unfortunate visit from a local rodent (probably a vole) in the night who tore some small holes in the groundsheet of the tent (easily repaired when we got home).
Day 3 (21km) Akste to Pårte. This was a long day, much of which was in dense forest with few views. The day started with another 3km boat transfer across the lake, this time provided by the STF hut warden. It was also a day of almost continuous, at times buckshot rain, which was sapping for both of us. There is an emergency shelter half way along the section and we made good use of this to cook a hot lunch and take a few slugs of the whiskey we were carrying! After the shelter the trail initially crosses a large boulder field (which was very slippery due to the rain) before descending rapidly over rocks which was hard on tired minds and limbs. As the trail flattens, the ground becomes very wet and much of this section has wooden planks to walk on which were installed some time ago and many are broken and poorly supported, rotted through or totally missing. By the time we got to Pårte, twilight was descending and we opted to stay in the hut where we could light the wood burning stoves and dry out our soaked boots and clothing.
Day 4 (5km) Pårte to Stuor Dahta Lake. It is possible to do the section from Pårte to Kvikkjokk in one day, but as we had a day to spare and the first really good weather of the trek we decided to camp overnight by the Stuor Dahta lake which is only a short hike from the Pårte hut. However the day didn’t start off well for me as I slipped on a board into a brackish pool of water just after leaving Pårte and was rewarded with a dunking down one side and a sodden boot. Luckily the warmth of the sun soon dried my clothes. We found a scenic camping spot beside the lake and managed to forage enough wind-dried wood for a roaring camp fire that night as we watched the sun set over the lake. During the night we were treated to a spectacular display of the Northern Lights which I captured on timelapse.
Day 5 (11km) Stuor Dahta Lake to Kvikkjokk. Another shortish day as the route leaves the lakeside and weaves its way through beautiful mixed conifer and birch forest with occasional mossy clearings boasting a magnificent array of colourful wild berries and fungi. The trail is quite rocky and rough in places and rolls up and down small hills and across several rivers by rustic bridges. We met a lone hiker on this section who was walking the complete 425km of the Kungsleden trail with his dog. The dog was carrying 7kg of dried food in ‘Ruffwear’ packs on her back! We reached the Kvikkjokk Mountain Station in the early afternoon and had to wait for the reception to open at 4pm. The nearby rapids on the Gamajåhkå River provide a spectacular backdrop to the hut which serves hot snacks to order, craft beers and al a carte dining in the restaurant. We chose the traditional Sámi dish of Souvas as a starter (lightly smoked and salted reindeer meat which is thinly sliced and served in a creamy horseradish sauce on toast) followed by Elk (moose) patties. A hot shower and comfortable beds made for a pleasant night’s sleep.
The following day we were up at stupid o’clock to catch the 5:30am bus to Jokkmokk where we had some free time to visit the excellent Ájtte museum about Sámi life before taking onward buses to Gällivare and Kiruna. A final night was spent at the STF accommodation in Kiruna before the flight back to Dublin.
We will certainly visit Arctic Sweden again, to walk other parts of the Kungsleden (and hopefully see the views) and perhaps venture into the wilds of Sarek. Perhaps we might go slightly earlier (late-August or very early-September, but no earlier as the insects are pestilential in the high summer). A winter visit would also be magnificent but would pose different challenges of crossing snow covered terrain on snowshoes, skis or dog sleighs. This magnificent wilderness area is just a few hours away by plane from Ireland, yet it is an area virtually unknown to Irish trekkers. It deserves far better exposure. If you’re looking for a real wilderness experience, but on a well-signed, well-serviced route, then Kungsleden could be just the ticket for you. For a taste of the Kungsleden see our trailer at https://youtu.be/-mtpWBgFj6E
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