Road Trip Through Reindeer Country

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I can’t deny, it was exciting to plan a trip to Swedish Lappland this past July. Partly because I had never been so far north, but mostly because of the mystic surrounding the land of the Midnight Sun — a region known for its snowy landscape, countless glacial lakes, and massive moose.

My friend and I took a 6 day road trip through Lappland, beginning and ending in Luleå, one of the last ‘big’ cities north of Stockholm.

On our journey, we covered over 900 kilometers (560 miles). As it turned out, our chosen route looks deceptively shorter on the map.

For those wanting to try our route (which I would definitely recommend): Luleå is roughly a one and a half hour flight from Stockholm. Car rental agencies are located on the ground floor of Luleå airport. If possible, reserve ahead for reduced waiting time.

Midnight Sun

We spent two days sightseeing in Luleå, a town situated in Norrbotten county near the Baltic archipelago.

The weather was fantastic with a temperature of 23C (76F), bright sunshine and a fresh ocean breeze. Wandering around downtown with my eyes peeled for Lappland handicrafts, I almost couldn’t believe that this was the land of snow and ice.

So we found some — ice cream. We also visited the Culture House, a large ship-shaped building housing art exhibitions, tourist information center, a cafe, and the local library. With a day of exploring behind us, my feet were happy to reach our downtown hotel.

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Around 12:45 a.m., I pulled back the room curtain, and saw the city buildings illuminated by the soft azure sky — my first glimpse of midnight sun. For those unaccustomed to daylight until 2 a.m. and sunrise less than two hours later, the concept might seem a bit strange, but all the same, strangely beautiful.

Later we took a ferry to Klubbviken, the largest island of the archipelago. During the summer the ferry runs six times a day, and takes roughly forty-five minutes to reach the island.

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The boat holds about 100 people, so I recommend arriving at the pier at least thirty minutes before departure time. If you miss the ferry, a water taxi will run you about 750 SEK one way. All boat transport is cash payment only.

The beach on Klubbviken was packed with young families and sun bathers. Beyond the designated swimming area, numerous speedboats, sailboats, paddle boats, and a surprising amount of jet skis careened around the island.

We lunched at the archipelago restaurant, a clubhouse-style establishment harborside serving local fish, daily specials and Norrland brand beer.

Camping is popular in the Norrland region, and Luleå and environs are no exception. Just next to the restaurant, you can rent a row cabin on the water. In the nearby town of Karlsvik, you’ll find First Camp Luleå, a full facility campground with pool and activity calendar. For those who want to sleep among the birds, the peacefully exclusive Treehotel north of Boden is one to book.

Luleå also hosts an annual Midnight Swim, an ocean race where participants can choose to compete in either 1500 meter or 3000 meter distances. This year’s event was July 1st and 2nd. We missed it but maybe next year, fins-crossed.

Hooves and Highlights of the Road

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Next stop was the UNESCO World Heritage site, Gammelstad, a church town dating back to the 1400s.

According to our tour guide, the town was built around a fortified church before Sweden’s northern border was established. It was also a thriving social scene and cottage quarters for young and old who traveled great distances to attend mass.

You can reach Gammelstad by car, or simply catch Bus 9 from downtown Luleå. The tourist office is located across from the church.

From here, we hit the open road toward Jokkmokk, a long stretch of highway lined with birch, pine and no shortage of moose and reindeer warning signs. Watch your speed once outside Luleå city. We saw many roaming reindeer in pairs or small groups along the roadside, or trying to prance haphazardly across. No red-nosed fella among them, but there was one big, white buck. He was special, too.

Quick Facts:

  • Lang: Swedish, English
  • Currency: SEK, kronor
  • Time zone: GMT +1 h
  • Tel. country code: +46

For a photo op and a snack, we pulled off at the Polar Circle rest stop. Then it was onward to Storforsen Natural Reserve near Älvsbyn, to see Scandinavia’s largest rapids.

Visitors can reach Storforsen falls via a wheelchair accessible boardwalk spanning the Pite River. Placards displayed along the path describe the logging industries use of the river for transport up until the 1980s.

If you want to stay in the area, Hotel Storforsen lies conveniently across the river. We instead opted for the buffet lunch at their restaurant.

Above the Polar Circle

Our third night was spent at the Skabram camping cabins near the town of Jokkmokk. A great choice, which included a kitchenette, a tv, and plenty of space. Before arriving, we made a quick stop at the local ICA grocery store for mosquito-repellant candles and the local dinner speciality, reindeer steak.

In the morning, I was itching (ok, that came later) to hike through the taiga forest, a coniferous wonderland special for this polar region. Snapping pictures and walking the velvety soft path through pine groves and peat moss bogs, it was easy to lose track of time. A little advice to avoid feeding the Jurassic-sized mosquitos — wear light colors, long sleeves and a netted hat.

The Ájtte museum in Jokkmokk was next on the agenda. The museum holds a beautiful collection of historical artifacts and displays about the cultural life of the Arctic indigenous Sámi people of Sweden. After perusing the exhibits and the gift shop, I would definitely recommend a reindeer dish at their adjoining cafe (I think I’m getting hooked on the stuff).

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Continuing north toward Gällivare, we passed Muddus National Park and began looping back toward Luleå. There wasn’t time for a hike, but driving to the summit of Dundret point offered a spectacular view.

Day five found us in Överkalix on our way to meet the king of the forest. We stopped at the Arctic Moose Farm for a few hours to meet n‘ greet their resident moose, including Artur a big 3-year-old not at all shy toward visitors.

Afterward we caught the annual Sikfesten (a.k.a. salmon party) at Kukkolaforsen near Haparanda. During the 2-day only event at the end of July, fishermen pull sik, a species of white salmon directly out of the Torne River (Finland lies just on the other side). Try it smoked or grilled on a stick. There was also a local reggae band to entertain the crowd, and a jungle gym for the children.

To round out the trip (read: indulge a bit), we booked at the Cape East Hotel & Restaurant in Haparanda. The full-service spa, billed as the easternmost point in Sweden offers a range of treatments for face, body, and mind. We spent the last day enjoying the Finnish and stone saunas, whirlpool, and outdoor pool, even daring a dip in the 4C (38F) ice bath. Considering the spa facilities, comfortable room and ample buffet breakfast, a return visit might be in order.

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Driving back to Luleå airport, there’s a busy outlet shopping center that’s worth a look — for sporting equipment, pet supplies, and especially for those with a sweet tooth. Get your sugar rush at Candy World.

On that note, I hope you enjoy your trip through reindeer country. We sure did!