Hiking This Arctic Canyon Comes With a Spectacular Payoff
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Sometimes the best sights come from looking down.
By Terry Ward
Consider brushing up on your Norse mythology before venturing to northern Norway for one of Europe’s most surprising hikes. “It’s like God himself took his ax and made a mark in the Earth.” That’s how Trygve Nygård of the Finnmark-based adventure company Glød Explorer prepares his guests for the views during walks to the rim of Northern Europe’s largest canyon, which stretches more than 7 miles long.
Nygård isn’t talking about any old god, however. He’s quick to clarify that the ax-wielding deity he imagines at work here must have been a Viking one. After all, “the one in the Bible is probably much more peaceful,” he says.
And if you’re wondering why you should head to roughly 70 degrees north on the globe (that’s above Alaska) to hike, it all has to do with the stunning scenery that awaits. After a nearly treeless trek over a section of the Finnmarksvidda plateau, where you’re lucky to run into another hiker, you are met with a shockingly verdant view into a canyon below — one cut through by one of the world’s most famous rivers among intrepid anglers.
But first you’ll need to find the trail, which begins 20 miles west of Alta on the western side of the canyon. The last few miles of the road to the trail’s start are unpaved and best navigated with a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and the small sign marking the trailhead is easy to miss.
So while you can embark on the 8-mile round-trip walk on your own, a guide service is advisable — to better understand the area’s unique history and for help weathering the elements in the world’s northernmost latitudes. “This is the Arctic. We are far north of Hudson Bay when it comes to latitude, so you need to know what you’re doing here,” says Nygård. “People have died [on the same mountain where the canyon is] during a blizzard in July.”
It’s like seeing a hole in the landscape.
Trygve Nygård, Glød Explorer
The trail itself is a natural one of rocks and marshy, muddy patches. It begins on a mountain plateau, with relatively flat and undulating terrain and almost no trees at all. Keep an eye out for stout and sturdy reindeer owned by an indigenous Sami herder. Relatively easy, the path winds for about 1 1/2 miles to the canyon’s rim, along which you’ll walk for another 2 miles or so to reach the grand finale viewpoint.
“To the south [of the rim] you can see the Alta River and, most likely, the traditional long wooden boats used here for fishing Atlantic salmon,” says Nygård. The view to the north, he says, is less impressive, because the river disappears from view.
One of the best sights, though, comes from looking straight down. The famous river isn’t so far below the canyon’s rim (roughly 1,500 feet), but it’s the steepness of the cliffs you’re standing atop that makes for the dramatic views. “It’s like seeing a hole in the landscape,” Nygård explains, and since the temperature is warmer down in the canyon, the slopes are carpeted in rich emerald hues and trees that contrast greatly with the barren landscape above.
Iconic Norwegian wildlife thrives in the canyon’s relatively balmy climes too, and you might see eagles, hawks and even moose down below. Heading down to join them, however, is not recommended. With almost no tracks going along the river, “you can walk down, but as soon as you’re down in the canyon you more or less can’t go anywhere,” Nygård explains.
The canyon is also famous for being the site of a controversial hydroelectric plant and dam, completed in 1987, that precipitated massive protests across Norway in the late 1970s and ’80s and ultimately led to the indigenous Sami people creating their own Parliament. The dam and power plant can be visited only on guided tours.
Another benefit of going the tour group route? Having lunch provided, cooked over a fire. “We might make some reindeer or some salmon; it depends what we have available,” Trygve says in a manner that would make it seem as if all worldly walkers should have access to such trail treats.
If you don’t consider that trail menu a religious eating experience straight from a Viking god or goddess, then you can always pack your own PB&J.
Go There: Alta Canyon
- How to get there: Take a group tour or drive yourself (four-wheel drive is advised) south of Alta to near Beskades and the start of the trail. Taxis and buses do not travel the final few unpaved miles of the road to the trailhead.
- Cost: Group tours with Glød Explorer (roughly 5 1/2 hours) include lunch and transportation from Alta to the canyon and start around $120 per person.
- When to go: Mid-June to mid-September is the best, most snow-free time to visit. At that time you can take advantage of the long daylight hours of summer (the midnight sun shines here from around May 25 to July 25), eliminating the time crunch of “getting back before darkness falls.”
- What to bring: Sturdy hiking boots and layers are always advised, including a light down jacket (summer temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit are not unheard of during inclement weather). Don’t forget bug spray: There’s usually wind above the canyon, but when it dies down, mosquitoes can be an issue.
- Pro tip: You can fill up your water bottle straight from the small river you’ll cross along the way — no filtration system required.