There’s nowhere else I’d rather be in the summer than up north. As the rest of the world flocks to the seasides of the Mediterranean to indulge in sizzling nights and endless pitchers of sangria and spritzer, I love to sneak away in the opposite direction. Summer in Scandinavia is a slice of heaven, sweeter than any apple pie and purer than the clearest glacial stream. For much of the year, the Nordic region is dark, brooding, downright frigid. But during the months of July and August, it blooms with life’s vivid magic. Fleeting and romantic, before you can even breathe it all in, the winds will already have brushed the leaves in autumn’s gold.
Up in the Arctic Circle, far from the chic cafés and dancing lights of Stockholm, is the land of Scandinavia’s indigenous Sami folk. Over the course of history, it has been known by many names: Nordkalotten, “cap of the north”; Finnmǫrk, “forest of the Finns”; Lapland or Laponia; and Sápmi, the name preferred by the Sami themselves. It is a large area, spilling across country lines. The western portion, lying in Norway, is characterized by fjords and glaciers. To the east, on the Finnish side, the terrain becomes a plateau of marshes and lakes. Between the two is Swedish Lapland, a place of undulating valleys, rushing rivers, snow-licked mountains, and home of one of Europe’s most beautiful walks: Kungsleden, “the king’s trail.” Established by the Swedish Tourist Association (STF) at the beginning of the 1900s, the path stretches over 400 kilometers or 270 miles from Abisko to Hemavan. Divided into five sections, it takes a month to traverse the entire span of Kungsleden, but the majority of hikers and campers content themselves with the northernmost section: a walk starting in Abisko that winds by the cauldron-like summit of Kebnekaise, the tallest mountain of Sweden—and Sápmi.
Day 1: Abisko — Abiskojaure
Distance: 15 kilometers / 9 miles (4-5 hours)
From Stockholm, the village of Abisko can be reached either by flying into Kiruna and then hopping on the bus, or by riding the night train from Stockholm bound for Narvik, Norway. Although the trail starts at STF Abisko Turiststation—30 minutes west of the village center—it’s better to get off at Abisko Östra if you need to stock up on food and supplies. The first day’s walk is easy and almost completely flat, passing through thick birchwood and never veering far from the river of Abiskojåkka (Ábeskoeatnu in Sami). The end of the stage is marked by the tranquil mountain lake of Abiskojaure (Ábeskojávri).
At the end of every stage in the first section of Kungsleden are mountain cottages run by the STF. At some locales, there is a shop which sells dried food, canned goods, and protein bars. Like the rest of Sweden, payment is cashless here and done by card. (Despite this small modernity, don’t expect phone reception, Wi-Fi signal, or electricity until Kebnekaise.) The STF Abiskojaure mountain cabins, or Abiskojaurestugorna in Swedish, are also one of the few shelters to have a sauna. Situated just steps away from the fine sandbanks at the edge of Abiskojaure, it is arguably the best sauna on the trail.
Kungsleden is a long-distance walk with much more to offer. The trip up by rail takes longer, but booking a bed on the night train to Norrland (Northern Sweden) is an experience in and of itself—a step back in time, when travel was done slowly and the journey was also the destination. If you have an extra day in Abisko, you can explore the surrounding region such as the lake of Torneträsk and the mystical Lapporten—the Lapponian Gate—a large glaciated valley and one of the symbols of Swedish Lapland.
Day 2: Abiskojaure — Alesjaure
Distance: 21 kilometers / 13 miles (6-7 hours)
Continuing from Abiskojaure, the second day marks the climb above the forest line. After rounding the mountain of Giron, the birch groves and tumbling rivers give way to a vast expanse of heathland and robin’s-egg-blue lakes: Apparjaure (Áhpparjávri), Miesakjaure (Miesákjávri), Radujaure (Rádujávri), and Alesjaure (Álisjávri). The trail crosses a reindeer fence marking the boundary between two Sami communities, the siida of Gabna and the siida of Laevas. Upon reaching Alesjaure, there is the option to board a small motorboat for the final few kilometers. Operated by a Sami entrepreneur who spends his summers at Laevas near the STF Alesjaure, the boat business will one day be taken over by his daughter, he says.
The shop at STF Alesjaure, or Alesjaurestugorna, is the last one until Sälka, which is two days away. Alesjaure also has a wood-burning sauna with river access at the bottom of the hill. During the summer evenings, mosquitos are abundant, especially by the water, so make sure to have repellent. I found this one made with lemon eucalyptus oil from Sjö&Hav to be quite effective.
Day 3: Alesjaure — Tjäktja
Distance: 13 kilometers / 8 miles (4 hours)
As the distance between Alesjaure and the STF Tjäktja is only 13 kilometers and the shelter has neither a shop nor a sauna, many hikers skip it and press on to Sälka. The walk to Tjäktja (pronounced SHEK-sha) is easy and effortless, with a large portion of it running alongside the river of Alesätno (Aliseatnu).
I was the last one to wake up at Alesjaure and the first to arrive at Tjäktja. It was a short, four-hour trek, but I felt fortunate as it was the day the weather turned. A cold drizzle shrouded the Arctic landscape. It lasted the entire day. At two points, the path crossed the river and dipped into the water. For the first fording, I took my shoes and socks off to keep them dry, but my feet froze. I kept everything on the second time.
The STF Tjäktja, or Tjäktjastugan, although small and simple, is my favorite cabin. Unlike the other mountain shelters on the trail which are composed of several small wooden houses, all of Tjäktja’s beds and rooms are contained in a single cottage, or stuga. (This is why in Swedish, Tjäktja is suffixed by the definite singular stugan instead of the definite plural stugorna.) There is one communal kitchen for all guests which I found extremely cozy. Outside, the nearby waterfall tumbles into a gentle natural pool, creating a breathtaking place for a polar plunge.
Day 4: Tjäktja — Sälka
Distance: 12 kilometers / 7 miles (3-4 hours)
From Tjäktja, it is a four-kilometer walk across moorland and stone fields to the Tjäktja Pass. Known in Swedish as Tjäktjapasset and in Sami as Čeakčačahca, you may even come across the seldom used and humorous Swedish transcription, Tjäktjatjattja. At 1,150 meters above sea level, the pass is the highest point of Kungsleden. The views from atop to both the north and the south are stunning, but be prepared for face-biting wind.
After laughing into the night at Tjäktja, I was delighted by the company I had on this day: Helena, a well-spoken Czech translator with a British lilt; her friend Katarina, who said little but understood a lot; and Marius, a social worker from Germany with whom I could chatter endlessly and about everything. After making our way down the into the seemingly infinite valley of Tjäktjavagge (Čeakčavággi), Katarina spotted a reindeer in the distance. At first just one, and then another, followed by another, until we realized they were roaming all over the valley.
STF Sälka has a small shop and had a sauna until April 2022, when the woodshed caught fire over Easter. Since then, the sauna has been repurposed to house wood. Even without a place to warm up, the stream next to the mountain cabin is a worthwhile place to bathe and watch the reindeer graze. Speaking of reindeer, the Tjäktja Valley was the first place on the trail where I had seen them. In Sweden, all reindeer are tagged and belong to the Sami, whereas in neighboring Norway, there are still some wild herds. Even domesticated, they are still skittish creatures, so it’s best to admire them quietly.
Day 5: Sälka — Singi — Kebnekaise Fjällstation
Distance: 27 kilometers / 17 miles (7-9 hours)
The trek along the floor of the Tjäktja Valley towards the cottages of STF Singi is without a doubt one of Kungsleden’s prettiest stretches. The swaying green grasslands and sparkling rivers are set to a picturesque backdrop of veiled Arctic peaks. Look for the mountain massif of Sälka (Sealggá) after which the shelter is named and the long, frozen tongue of its glacier, Sealggaglaciären.
Five days out on the trail surrounded by absolute wilderness, I think I’ve stumbled upon a rare sort of happiness. I’ve become good, or duktig as the Swedish might say, at finding the positives of every day. Disconnected from work and the world, I felt fresh and unweighted by both my own and the world’s problems. It seemed as if I could once again catch a glimpse of all of life’s promises which I’d lost sight of. I caught up to Stefan, whom I had first met at Tjäktjastugan, and I was more than happy when he chose to speak with me in German. We walked together, talking, admiring the reindeer, until we stumbled across Marius near the river of Kuoperjåkka (Guobirjohka). We took it as a sign to break for a pause and pooled our snacks: Marius’ nuts, Stefan’s keks, and my salami sausage. We were strangers speaking with no barriers. Who would have thought that in one of the most remote places on earth, I would find such warm human connections? As we joked and quaked, the clouds pulled back to reveal a sky of cornflower blue.
We parted ways not long after Kuoperjåkka. My itinerary, which continued south to STF Singi, would place me a day ahead of theirs. I felt a sudden breeze of wistfulness as we hugged out our goodbyes, knowing that our happenstance—a sui generis combination of timing and setting and characters—will never occur again. In the past, I was naive to believe that I could recreate these moments. Now I know better. I resumed my march along the Tjäktja Valley. Marius and Stefan headed up the perpendicular Siŋŋivággi.
The cabins of Singi, or Singistugorna, signal the official end of Kungsleden’s first section. Those not walking the second section leave the trail here via the valley of Ladtjovagge (Láddjuvággi) in the direction of the STF Kebnekaise Fjällstation.
STF Singi has neither a shop nor a sauna, but the next mountain lodge, Kebnekaise Fjällstation, has both and more, including electricity, hot water, Wi-Fi, and even a restaurant. Pre-booking a stay guarantees you a bed, but the Swedish Tourist Association also keeps a certain number of beds free for spontaneous trekkers. If you reserve a bed at one of STF’s cottages and want to adapt your itinerary during the course of your walk, it is possible to ask the warden to use the payment for one reservation as credit at another locale. Originally, I planned to spend a night each at Singistugorna and Kebnekaise Fjällstation, but ended up spending two at Kebnekaise in order to summit the mountain.
Day 6: Kebnekaise
Distance: 18 kilometers / 11 miles (9-14 hours)
The climb up Kebnekaise (Giebmegáisi) is not included in the official itinerary of Kungsleden, but it is a rewarding apex to conclude a week-long trek across the sublime Arctic landscape. Sweden’s rooftop is actually made up of two peaks of almost exactly the same height: due to meltwater, the northern peak can sometimes be a few meters higher during the summer. Summiting Kebnekaise’s north peak can only be done with a certified guide, whereas the south peak can be done freely by taking the trail marked Västra leden, “the western trail.”
The Sami named the mountain Giebmegáisi, or “cauldron crest,” after its shape, as north and south peaks are connected by a curved icy ridge. Compared to Kungsleden’s long but leisurely tempo, the hike is strenuous. A round trip to the top of the south peak via the Västra leden takes between 9 to 14 hours and consists of three ascents and three descents, as the mountain of Vierranvárri first needs to be climbed before even starting upon Kebnekaise.
The mountain lodge Kebnekaise Fjällstation has a service center for those who bring their own food, but if you want to experience the unique flavors of Northern Sweden in an authentic and convivial setting, then a dinner reservation at the lodge’s restaurant, Elsas Kök, is highly recommended. The menu du jour during my stay was slow-cooked reindeer gammon steak with Norrland potato cakes, parsnip purée, and buttered blueberry sauce. And for dessert: cloudberry crumble with fresh cream cheese.
Day 7: Kebnekaise Fjällstation — Nikkaluokta
Distance: 19 kilometers / 12 miles (5-6 hours)
The final stage is a slow and gradual descent back into the birch forest. Upon reaching Ladtjojaure, more commonly known by its Sami name, Láddjujávri, another boat ride can cut several kilometers off the walk to Nikkaluokta (Nihkkáluokta). However, the path flanking the lakeside hides a wonderful last chance to swim and soak in the absolute tranquility of the Arctic summer. At the other end of the lake, you’ll discover more of Northern Sweden’s Sami heritage. Among them, Restaurang Enoks serves both reindeer burgers and suovas—lightly salted and cold-smoked reindeer meat consumed by Sami herders on long trips. (For a more typical Swedish fika, or coffee break, try their waffles with whipped cream and cloudberries.) The journey ends at Nikkaluokta. Overlooking a valley floor blanketed by mountain birch, you’ll find a bucolic copper-red chapel constructed with features inspired by traditional Sami huts and tents—the goahti and lávvu.
From Nikkaluokta, the nearest train station and airport are in the mining town of Kiruna. Nikkaluoktaexpressen buses depart twice daily for Kiruna’s bus station, railway station, and airport.