Sarek. The legendary untouched wilderness in Swedish Lapland. It might not be as well known to the general public as Patagonia or Yellowstone, but in trekking circles it is famous. It is a vast wilderness park without trails and cabins (well, almost). No supplies available and when you are in the middle of it, you have three days walking in any direction to get to a road.
Sarek is definitely one of the great wilderness experiences in the world. No kidding.
Destination: Sarek National Park, Lapland, Sweden
When: 14 to 22 July 2012
Duration: 9 days
Entry point: Ritsem/Änonjamlme
Exit point: Saltoluokta Mountain Station
Sarek National Park
Sarek National Park was establish in 1909 and encompasses 1.970 square kilometers of mostly alpine terrain. Together with the Kebnekaise massif further north, Sarek is the most alpine area in Sweden with seven summits over 2.000 meters and, by Swedish standards, a high concentration of substantial glaciers. The landscape is majestic and untouched. Sarek offers both dramatic peaks and game rich valleys.
The virgin nature of Sarek has throughout the history remained more or less unchanged by man. There has probably never been any permanent settlers here, no roads have ever been built, no power lines exist and most importantly, no tourism buildings are allowed. The valleys are famous for its big game sightings. Bear, wolverine and lynx live here, but it is very difficult to spot them. Moose is much more common – especially in the Rapa Valley (Rapadalen).
The topography of Sarek is very inviting for trekkers. The valleys build a network through which you can travel between the alpine massifs.
Due to its untamed nature and total lack of facilities, Sarek is a demanding hiking area and should be approached with humility. It is highly recommended that you acquire experience from hiking alpine areas before attempting to enter Sarek. A few very important things to consider:
- You absolutely need to carry with you EVERYTHING you need.
- You MUST have river crossing experience.
- There is only one emergency phone inside the park (at Skarja) and no mobile phone connection. You should definitely consider carrying some kind of emergency device such as a SPOT or a satellite phone. This is also one of the main reasons why you should think hard before you enter Sarek alone.
- Your gear should be high quality and in very good condition. Bring a high quality four season tent, reliable rain clothes and a warm sleeping bag.
Time planning in Sarek
There are no marked trails in Sarek. With decent map and compass reading skills it is not difficult to navigate in Sarek as long as you follow the valleys, but typically hiking in Sarek takes longer (meaning it will take more time to cover distance) than elsewhere. Let’s make a comparison. When hiking for example on Kungsleden or in Yosemite National Park in California, I will typically cover 18-21 km a day split into six one-hour long effective walking sets (3-3,5 km/h). In Sarek, I typically walk 12-15 km (2-2,5 km/h). Do not aim to cover too much distance each day, because you will inevitably be slowed down by rocks (not the odd rock here and there, think more like a football field full of rocks), snow, willow bushes and streams that you need to cross.
Take the time to enjoy sarek. Don’t rush. The trip that my wife and I did in 2012, which I will tell you more about below, took us 9 days and we both wished that we would have put in at least an extra day just to be able to take it easy one day in the middle of the park.
Summer was late in 2012. The winter had been hard with lots of snow. This was the first hike my wife and I did together and I was constantly checking the weather updates and various hiking forums anxious about the weather (of course) but especially the water levels. The week before we were leaving, a friend of mine came back from Sarek saying that he and his friends had to turn around in the middle of Routhesvagge because of the high water levels. I had a Plan B, a Plan C and maybe even a Plan D…
We took the night train to Gällivare and continued by bus to Ritsem close to the Norwegian border. Our plan was to enter Sarek from the north and that is what we did. Our route was the following:
- Ritsem to Änonjalme (by boat)
- Änonjalme to Treparksmötet along the Padjelanta Trail
- Enter Sarek through Routhesvagge
- Routhesvagge south to Skarja
- Skarja to Bielavalda
- Snavvavagge to Rapadalen
- Rapadalen to Aktse
- Aktse to Saltoluokta along Kungsleden (the King’s Trail)
Day 1 – Ritsem to below Ahkka
A wet day. It was raining pretty hard when we left the bus at Ritsem and continued to rain throughout the day. This first day was pretty easy walking along the Padjelanta Trail that circles Sarek around its western edge. Our backpacks were heavy with all food for 10 days and we made camp pretty early along the trail. We went to bed hoping for the rain to stop.
Day 2 – Below Ahkka to below Nijak
We were very happy that the rain had stopped in the morning and eager to get going into Sarek. After a few hours in the birch forest along the Padjelanta Trail, we arrived to Treparksmötet. Treparksmötet translates roughly to “the meeting of three parks” and that is exactly what it is. The three national parks of Sarek, Padjelanta and Stora Sjöfallet cross borders here. We head south into Sarek.
We soon left the forest behind (and below) as we slowly ascended above the tree line. After a while, the small path disappeared at the same time as we caught sight of the impressive mountain Nijak that stands alone and marks the entrance into the valley Routhesvagge. The first of an impressive list of wonderful camp sites in Sarek was across from Nijak. It was a truly lovely spot and a great way to end our first “real” day in Sarek.
Day 3 – Routhesvagge
On our third day we entered Routhesvagge – one of the longer valleys in Sarek. From its entrance in the north, it stretches southeast west of the great Sarektjåhkkå massifs. It is fairly easy to walk, but there is no clear path and you have to deal with willow bushes and make at least one river crossing. Routhesvagge is beautifully green and lies completely above the tree line, so all the green colors are from grass and willows. Patches of snow were still around on the valley floor after the long hard winter. Herds of reindeer were grazing down by the valley floor. The weather was quite cold which is a good thing when fording rivers. The rivers are fed by melting snow and glaciers, so warm temperatures normally means high water levels.
We had to ford an unnamed stream early on, but the crossing we were looking forward to (with some dread) was the stream Smajlajåhkka. It feeds on a glacier west of Routhesvagge and the best way to cross it is over its large cone before it meets the valley floor. When the water levels are high it may be unpassable and this is where my friends turned around just two weeks earlier. We were lucky. It was pretty easy to ford Smajlajåhkka and we made camp shortly thereafter.
Day 4 – Routhesvagge to Bielavalda
We were now closing in on the central parts of Sarek. I really like (in a very humble way) the feeling I get when I know I am at least three days walk from anything that resembles civilisation. Skarja – sometimes called the heart of Sarek – lies where three of the main valleys meet; Routhesvagge, Goupervagge and Rapadalen. At its center lies a small emergency cabin – Mikkastugan (yes, it is man made) – that houses the only emergency phone in Sarek. This is the place where you are most likely to meet another human being. We had lunch close to Mikkastugan and then continued east towards the high plain Beilavalda and its lake country.
Before reaching Bielavalda, we had to cross two famous (or rather infamous) streams called Mahtujågåsj and Tjågnårisjågåsj. Again the late summer and cold weather played us well. Both these streams had large snow bridges over them that we could cross on. Be very ware of snow bridges though. If you do not have experience evaluating them, it can be very risky to cross on them especially if they are narrow.
Bielavalda is a very beautiful and peaceful place. The plain with its little lakes and streams opens up wide between the surrounding peaks. The lakes are turquiose and the plain is deep green. The contrast between the plain, the lakes and the the surrounding snow clad mountains is fantastic. We made camp with a spectacular view of the plain, the lakes and the dramatic mountain Bierikpakte. Just beside a little waterfall. Another stunning campsite. We were surrounded by a herd of reindeer, peacefully grazing.
Day 5 – Bielavalda to Rapadalen through Snavvavagge
After breaking camp we made our way south, crossing the river that runs through Bielavalda and heading along the upper reaches of Rapadalen towards a high pass valley called Snavvavagge. The path was pretty clear and easy to follow, but the ascent up into Snavvavagge was very steep. We both felt lucky to ascend this path rather than descend it. Snavvavagge itself is a harsh stoney and narrow valley with a dark lake. It is pretty short and is a great shortcut from Bielavalda to the lower parts of Rapadalen.
At the southern part of Snavvavagge, you ascend again pretty steeply up to the valley threshold. The view that opens up on the other side is truly majestic. The mountain Biellorieppe on the other side of the fairy tale looking Rapadalen (the Rapa Valley). On the valley flow a delta of turquoise water forms a stunning scene. We just had to pitch our tent high up just on the other side of the Snavvavagge threshold beside a little stream (in which I actually took a very quick bath). I love this place so much it merits two photos in a row…
Day 6 – Rapadalen
This was one of the most demanding days. The Rapa Valley is beautiful. From above. Down in the birch first at the valley floor it is a mosquito infested jungle. If I ever walk the Rapa Valley floor again, I will do it in September when the mosquitos have gone away.
Honestly, we suffered down there and anxiously longed to get up above the tree line again. After lunch, when the rising east side of the valley was a bit less step, we headed straight through the bushy forest in one exhausting boost. What a relief! We came out of the forest just before the river Alep Vassajajågåsj and forded it without problems (although the water was over the knees). On the other side of the river we found another great campsite with views over the valley. As I said, Rapadalen is stunningly beautiful. From above.
Day 7 – Along the eastern rim of Rapadalen to Aktse
Physically, this was the most demanding day. Most of all because we wanted to reach the mountain cabin Aktse (lying along Kungsleden) and had to walk until 9 pm. We stayed high (maybe to high) on the rim along the edge of Rapadalen and encountered fields of rocks, large swatches of snow and otherwise pretty difficult terrain.
Mid afternoon we reached the cliff Skierffe. This dramatic cliff with an almost sheer drop of 800 m hangs above the lowest part of Rapadalen and its impressive delta landscape where the river connects with the lake Laitaure. The view from Skierffe is famous. And for good reason. Take a look for yourself.
After the humbling and awesome Skierffe view, we continued along the trail towards Aktse and finally reached the cabins that evening. We decided that we were worth a nights’ sleep in beds and checked in to a cabin. And bought lots of candy.
Day 8 – Aktse to the shelter along Kungsleden near Saltoluokta
We started early on the eight day. Now on a well marked and well used trail – Kungsleden. It is amazing how much faster you automatically walk when on a good trail. The trail starts with a rather demanding uphill before you reach the lake Sitojaure where you can take a speedboat (which we did) to the other side. Alternatively, you can row, but this lakes is difficult to cross in a rowing boat. The route is difficult to follow and the boats are unstable in the wind.
On the other shore of Sitojaure, we set out with renewed speed and walked all the way to the shelter a few hours before Slatoluokta mountain station. Here we had our final campsite.
Day 9 – To Saltoluokta
A short leg to Saltoluokta concluded our Sarek trek. We reached the mountain station at lunch time and had a wonderful cooked meal (with fresh vegetables!), a sauna and letter a three course dinner. A perfect end to a great trekking expedition.
Sarek is truly spectacular. On this trek, we stayed in the major valleys and got to see the varying landscape that this pearl of a national park offers. I was happy to have followed the Rapa Valley, but will think again before I venture down into it in mid summer again. There is so much left of Sarek to explore and this trip only scratched the surface.
So was it worth it? Yes! Most definitely! There are few places in the world where you can experience virgin nature like in Sarek. In my view Sarek is up there with the absolutely top hiking experiences available on our globe. For any avid trekker, Sarek must be on the bucket list.
Hope this was helpful!