I have to admit I’m biased since this is where I grew up. At the same time, it took moving away to realize what an amazing part of the world this is.
I guess growing up I took for granted that there would be forests where you could walk and walk and never reach an end, an ocean with scads of islands to explore and mountains from the top of which you can watch the midnight sun.
Sweden has a unique tradition that is called “Allemansrätten” or “Every man’s right.” This means you have the right to walk and camp pretty much everywhere within reason, pick the berries and mushrooms and use the dry twigs for your campfire.
The summers are magical (although sometimes full of mosquitos), but the winters are amazing, too. People always ask me if it’s too dark and cold in the winter, and having lived in more southern locations for most of my adult life, I thought maybe I just didn’t realize it when I was a child.
However, I recently lived in Sweden for 6.5 months with my children and I can honestly say that I still love the winter in northern Sweden. The snow makes everything seem brighter, there are excellent cross-country ski trails, plenty of downhill skiing hills and you can skate or drive your car on the ocean ice for miles in coastal cities like Luleå.
Plus, the Swedes are as good as the Danes at practicing “hygge” during the dark months of the year. (Hygge is a Danish word that roughly translates to “coziness” and “well-being” and encompasses a way of life that includes warmth, safety, and community.)
However, despite the general appeal of northern Sweden, the best kept “secret” is the vast wilderness in the mountains of northwestern Sweden. The mountain range extends all the way along the border to Norway, but I am most familiar with the northernmost area called Laponia.
Here, the Swedish Tourist Association (STF) in the early 1900s established a 250-mile trail called the King’s Trail (Kungsleden) in order to provide better access to the wilderness for the general public. There are huts along the trail that are maintained by a hut keeper during both the summer and winter season. The huts include a bed in a shared room, a kitchen with gas-powered stoves and water from a local well. There is usually a small store to buy food and supplies and often a wood burning sauna.
There are also bigger lodges called mountain stations where you can sleep in either a private or shared room. The lodges have modern conveniences like running water (think showers and indoor toilets) and electricity, cozy common spaces, a shared modern kitchen and at least one sauna. Each also has an excellent restaurant featuring locally-sourced food.
This is real wilderness. The King’s Trail is right on the edge of major national parks, where you can hike or ski for a week and not meet a single person. In 1996, Laponia was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site as one of the last remaining wilderness areas in Europe. The area mostly consists of national parks and nature reserves and is basically a landscape of mountains, small and large streams and lakes. For the majority of winter, everything is covered in a thick blanket of snow.
You may think this doesn’t sound very child-friendly, but this is part of the secret which not even many of the Swedes have figured out. It is in fact quite child-friendly and an amazing experience for the entire family.
Depending on the season, more adventurous families can hike or ski from hut to hut with young children in baby carriers or tucked into special sleds pulled by skis and older children can walk or ski themselves (and feel very proud of their accomplishment).
A few months ago I finally had the opportunity to realize my dream of taking my family to Laponia in the wintertime, and while we opted for the less adventurous option of staying at a mountain lodge, we had an incredible time.
We chose to stay at Saltoluokta Mountain station because of its easy access, old time charm (the main station was built in 1912), proximity to national parks and excellent restaurant. Other great options are the further north Kebnekaise or Abisko mountain stations, both of which have their advantages.
Driving was our pick. It is also easy to take the train or fly to Gällivare and then take the bus to Kebnats. From there, it’s a 3.5K (a little over two miles) ski trip across Lake Langas to the lodge, or you can arrange to get a ride with a snowmobile in connection with the bus arrival. Bags and other belongings will be picked up for free, as long as you make arrangements in advance. It’s the perfect distance for a stubborn just-turned-5-year-old to ski.
We had arranged to stay in the main building and were very pleased with the room and the view. My children will pretty much love any room that has bunk beds and probably would have been happy with other arrangements as well, but it was nice not having to go outside to get to the restaurant and common areas and the adults appreciated the old-time charm of the building.
Feeling somewhat indulgent, I decided not to do any cooking on this trip. We ate breakfast and dinner at the restaurant and packed lunches on days we were going on excursions. A couple times we changed the lunch packs for actual lunches at the restaurants (at no extra cost after we talked to the staff after breakfast). The food was excellent and interesting and sitting down for a three-course meal at the end of a day of fun winter activities was an amazing treat. My children are mostly not adventurous eaters but found enough food they liked to be able to enjoy their meals. My middle child still talks about how great the food was. It really was delicious!
I had of course dreamed of the sunny, beautiful weather and light breeze we were going to have on our trip while fully realizing this was a big gamble. As it turned out, we didn’t get very lucky with the weather during this trip. We had a LOT of wind and a full day of an actual blizzard (my husband and I went skiing and could sometimes only see a few meters in front of us).
Luckily, the kids still had fun. There was a path down to the lake which in the winter is a sledding hill and the lodge has sledding equipment. There is also a small library with some board games. We sat by fires and read books and, if all else failed, there was also Wi-Fi and the possibility of screen time.
During the days when the weather was nicer, we explored the surrounding area on skis. There is a Sami village (the Sami people are the indigenous, reindeer-herding population of northern Scandinavia) quite close to the lodge, with a tiny church built in the traditional style of the Sami. The kids did a good job skiing uphill and were rewarded by both pretty views and a very fun downhill return home.
The sauna was another bonus activity. It feels amazing to get really warm and clean after lots of fun in the snow, and the sauna has large windows featuring views of the lake surrounded by mountains on either side.
At least two of the nights of our stay we saw the Northern Lights. One night there was a really spectacular display, and I learned from other guests that there are apps you can download that will predict the likelihood of Northern Lights at your location in advance. Next time I will plan ahead.
Each day we met people from all over Europe: German, French, British, Czech, Finnish and of course Swedish people. We even met another Swedish-American couple and their child. Some had come to Saltoluokta after spending many days skiing through the neighboring national parks, sleeping in tents in the snow and some had done the less extreme hut-to-hut skiing along the King’s Trail. Others were just about to embark on their adventures in the wilderness and it was great listening to all the stories and plans over dinner at night.
I went on many trips to the mountains with my family as a child, and I think those experiences are a big part of why I love nature so much as an adult. I feel so fortunate to have had this experience together with my children, and hope it’s something that will be a foundation for their future adventures.
- Ideally, go to Sweden for about two weeks. Maybe plan to visit Stockholm for a couple days to get over the jet lag before embarking on the trip to the mountains. It’ll take at least two nights to adjust reasonably well. Taking melatonin before bedtime helps my kids and myself.
- Get an STF membership. It’ll pay for itself as it gives you discounts on overnight trains to northern Sweden and on the stay itself. Plus it helps support this wonderful resource.
- Make a reservation at least six months in advance for the most popular months of March and April in order to have the utmost room selection.
- Reserve skis and boots if you don’t have any or don’t want to schlep them along, but make sure you reserve them well in advance.
- Consider taking the train. STF discount applies when you reserve through the STF website and enter your membership info.
- Take a trip back and forth to a hut if you have older children that are comfortable skiing about 6-9 miles in a day.
- Prepare for bad weather – there will be at least one day.
- Download an Aurora app to see when Northern Lights are most likely to occur.
- There is currently a special offer for families with children (recommended age 4-12) who want to experience winter in Saltoluokta, where there will be scheduled activities for the children with personnel from the station, separate dinner for the children and evening gatherings to talk about the following day’s adventures. This is for a six-night stay that includes ski packages for children that’s available from Feb. 21 to April 21, 2018.
- Another special offer: this is the more general “skiing with children” experience that’s available anytime between March 4 and April 24, 2018, for an all-inclusive 4-night stay that includes ski rentals. (Unfortunately, these sights are in Swedish, but I’m sure STF could help make reservations if you contact them.)