William Mackesy’s account of this walk
The Kungsleden (the king of trails), Sweden’s most famous long-distance path, winds for some 440km (275 miles) along the spine of Scandinavia in wild, remote Lapland. The trail runs through an enormous area, said to be Western Europe’s last major wilderness, passing through a World Heritage Site, four national parks and a nature reserve.
The Kungsleden is well inside the Arctic Circle, so is under deep snow for eight dark months. The walking season is short: if you want to avoid the horrors of the mosquitoes, it is just August to mid September. In late winter, there is a good window for skiing the route; dog sledding is also popular. In mid summer, you can see the midnight sun; when we were there in August, I could wander at 2am without a torch.
Life here is adapted to the extreme weather. In the lower valleys you pass through pretty, but at times monotonous, forests of stunted birch and rowan with patches of dwarf willow, fern and willow herb. Higher up, the plant life is still remarkably vigorous and beautiful: ground-hugging shrubs, bilberries to match the best Scottish hillsides, vivid patches of reed, a wide range of bog plants and pretty, delicate alpine flowers. Intermittent patches of grass sustain large herds of reindeer.
As well as reindeer, you may also see majestic elk, the famous (but normally unremarkable) lemmings and a wide variety of birds. Wolverines and brown bear are also to be found.
The indigenous Sami people, sometimes called Lapps, are nomadic herders in these high hills. You will come across their villages of red-painted cabins and traditional tepees and turf-covered huts by lakes and rivers, winter pounds for their semi-domesticated reindeer nearby.
The Kungsleden officially runs from south to north, although the great majority tend to walk it southward. The trail’s most popular section, passing through possibly the finest scenery, is its northernmost one, starting at Abisko on the vast Lake Torneträsk. This section takes around seven days, to a roadhead at Nikkaluokta, the last two days being technically off the Kungsleden. It climbs up two beautiful valleys for three days, then spends two days in the vast, wild, beautiful Tjäkjavagge valley, which bisects the highest mountains in Sweden. These hills are partly composed of ancient Caledonian granite, and are geologically related to the highlands of Scotland and the Appalachians in the USA. More recently, the area was under a vast ice-sheet up to two kilometres thick, which gouged out the extraordinary scenery that walkers now enjoy: huge U-shaped valleys lined with sheer cliffs, waterfalls roaring out of higher, hanging valleys along their sides. Lakes fill every scrape-hole and powerful rivers, some milky from their glacial sources, wind, often in multiple channels, along the boggy valley bottoms.
Everything is in such good proportion here – the high sides matched by the wide valley bottoms – that it is easy to underestimate the grand scale: it can take tiny human or reindeer figures, or surveying your last hour’s walk, to recalibrate your perceptions. The large distances, combined with steady progress with a heavy pack (and poor weather possibly inhibiting breaks to enjoy the scenery) can make, at times, for a disappointing “trudge to experience” ratio.
The Kungsleden is well constructed, with bridges where needed – there are plenty of large, potentially dangerous rivers to cross. There are comfortable huts at the end of each stage, which cannot be booked but never turn people away, so latecomers during peak season may have to sleep on mattresses on the floor. Gas and cooking implements are supplied, and the majority sell basic food. As a result, you do not need to carry a tent, cooker, or much food.
Other sections of the Kungsleden also make superb trekking, and are emptier of walkers, one section not having huts so requiring full backcountry procedures. Some lakes have to be crossed by rowing boat.
Section 3, going south (Saltoluokta to Kvikkjokk) is particularly fine, at the edge of the wild Sarek National Park. There are good side trips here, and the Padjelantaleden trail links up at both ends. The final stage, in the Vindelälvens Reserve, is also very beautiful, with lusher scenery than in the far north.
The first (15km) stage climbs steadily from Abisko through pretty birch forest beside the fast flowing Abiskojakka river. You are below the famous U-shaped Lapporten formation, although the best views of it are, ironically, a long way back from the trail. The forest gradually opens up and you cross glacially scoured rock and thick, verdant bogs on boards, with wider views of the hills and forbidding black cliffs closing in on the valley. Behind you, the mountains of Norway may catch the sun, far away across Lake Torneträsk. Eventually, the river widens into the boulder strewn outflow of Lake Abeskojavri. We saw several groups of (what looked like) little grouse scuttling through the brush, the smallest just old enough to flap a few clucking metres when they realised we were nearby. At the lakehead, across a suspension bridge, the huts await in a glade near a shingle beach. Magical.
The second (20km) stage starts with a steady trudge into a side valley through thinning birch forest interspersed with bog and heath. Big views of the peaks and icefields on the Norwegian border open up to the west as you climb above the treeline, winding round the conical Gárddenvárri. To the east, a steep side valley winds away into rugged mountains. After passing some Sami huts on a plain, backdropped by rocky spines pushing up through a huge icecap just inside Norway, the trail emerges to a wonderful panorama of lakes and craggy mountains with small glaciers nestled high on their northern slopes. This is grand, wild, glorious country with a feel of Mongolia meeting Scotland.
The trail heads up the broad Aliseatnu valley, past a series of lakes linked by a wide, shallow river. A 10km stretch of the valley appears as you crest a ridge, the winding river and many lakes a single sheet of brushed pewter in the arctic sun, offset by dark cliffs and mountains. The night’s hut is perched on a pile of vast moraine at the lake head, the river’s many strands winding in from the south amid marsh and dwarf willow. The early evening sun illuminates a Sami village on the hillside across the lake, its large, circular reindeer pound grazed down and empty. There is no sign of life from this distance.
The third (13km) stage continues steadily up the Aliseatnu valley. For the first hour, the trail overlooks meanders, multiple streams and lakelets; the river is now milky with glacial grit. We really feel we are in the Arctic. After a further hour crossing low hills of moraine, we come upon a fine perspective of the valley receding into the mountains. But for its scale, this could be a Scottish glen: but then you spot a little glacier up a side valley or hear the thunder of some nameless waterfall, or some reference point reminds you that this place is vast.
Today is a wildlife success. We see a small herd of free-moving reindeer and their youngsters, which watch us carefully, then bound away up the hillside; scurrying lemmings and delicate flowers in the bogs and sheltered patches of grass: varieties of yellow, blue and mauve and even some little white ones.
We climb up a side valley towards the “high” pass. To our right, the Aliseatnu winds away through a series of little lakes before disappearing into what looks like an extraordinary jumble of moraine. And then we see our hut, again perfectly placed on an outcrop above a waterfall, with long views back down the valley.
The fourth (12km) stage climbs steadily over broken stone to the Tjäktjapasset pass, the highest point on the Kungsleden at 1,140m. We find a wonderful view down the upper reaches of the 32km Tjäkjavagge valley. It is a perfect specimen of a glacial valley, the river meandering, often many-channelled, through small marshes and lakes between heaps of moraine in its lush, boggy bottom. The mountains on each side have been carved, at intervals so regular that they look like they are on parade, by what once must have been subsidiary glaciers. Frequent waterfalls tumble out of the side valleys. The play of shadow on the long valley can be sublime.
The rest of the walk was a long, steady ramble along the valley, enjoying its many splendours, subtly arranged colourings and patches of delicate little flowers. The Sälka hut is perhaps the best positioned of all the huts we used, on an outcrop above a side river with views in both directions along the valley. That evening, a large herd of reindeer browsed, seemingly at the trot, along the hillside behind us. One loped through the stream just below our hut and almost tangled horns with a naked Swede emerging from the sauna hut (they do things in a certain style here): it is hard to tell who got the biggest shock. Different cultures’ attitudes to nudity one always instructive: it would have been unthinkable to walk around our hut unclothed, but it was entirely acceptable to leave the sauna, just below the hut’s viewing windows, stark naked to dunk oneself in the stream. Not since my wife blundered, completely unclothed, through a wrong door into the coffee shop of a Japanese onsen - hot spring resort - where a works outing was in progress (sharp hissing of collectively drawn breath), have I witnessed such a paradox.
The fifth (12km) stage continues to wind southward down the Tjäkjavagge amid grand scenery. To the east, the Kebnekaise massif, with its snowfields and glacier, opens up between the high ridges that end with the sentinels ranked along our valleyside.
We encounter several herds of reindeer, including a stag with an impossibly large tree of antlers. Near our hut at Singi is a large Sami village of red cabins and turf wigwams with large, reindeer pens. It is deserted – are they off on some high pasture with their reindeer, or getting tanked up in Kiruna?
We have driving rain in our faces most of the day we are on this stage and miss the Kebnekaise views. The streams are brimming and we fill our boots on a couple of the crossings. We are very happy to reach our hut.
If you are leaving the Kungsleden at Nikkaluokta, as we did, the sixth (14km) stage turns east, away from the Kungsleden and the Tjäkjavagge, climbing steadily up a long, rough slope for an hour and a half or so, before tipping over into the tremendous Läddjubahta Canyon, huge cliffs of dark red to black stone dwarfing the wide bottom. While eating our lunch, we saw seven different waterfalls spilling down the crags.
As the valley widens out, another deep, narrow, threatening gorge of vast black cliffs cuts back to the left. Up the next valleys on the left we can see the ice fields and glaciers of the Kebnekaise massif itself. Whether the crest, some 1,400m above us, can be seen remains a mystery to me as we experienced a day of low cloud and showers. And then, amid the first trees for four and a half days, the welcome comforts of the mountain station.
The seventh (19km?) stage meanders along the Läddjuvaggi valley beside the widening river and its numerous lake-spawn, through increasingly dense birch forest. It is a lovely walk, but we have left the grand, wild high country.
We had planned to climb Kebnekaise today, but with the weather set for low cloud and rain, it is pointless, so we head for the roadhead. We reach the Sami settlement of Nikkaluokta with relief and satisfaction.
© William Mackesy 2007