Words Tomek Mossakowski
Tromsø isn't perhaps the first place that comes to mind when you think "road trip" - but if you want desolate beauty, great hikes and border-hopping all in one long weekend, it's hard to beat the circuit from Tromsø to Treriksrøysa, the point where Norway, Sweden and Finland meet.
People who don't know Tromsø may imagine it as a slightly backward outpost for viewing the Northern Lights, in which case, they may be surprised by the slick, modern art gallery, the great food and a sophisticated party scene that starts late and ends even later. (The city is known as Norway's electronica capital, and has produced the likes of Röyksopp and Bel Canto.)
And if you do decide to leave - as I did with a group of fellow Arctic exploration PhD students based in Tromsø - you can hire a very decent Mazda 6 estate on Tromsdalen, near the centre of town. The delights of winter tyres and heated seats were only slightly offset by the choice of music in the glove compartment: I Smurfeland, a 1970s Norwegian version of the Smurfs' greatest hits. Nevertheless, even a soundtrack of little blue people couldn't deter us as we headed onto the E6 highway that takes you south and out of town.
Day 1 / Abisko National Park
Our first destination was the Abisko National Park, four hours south past Narvik, the scene of many battles between German and Allied forces in World War II, and a good base if you want to ski in the nearby mountains overlooking the fjords. The single-lane roads down Norway's north-west coast are spectacular, bending round the contours of the mountains, with regular signs warning of moose and reindeer crossings.
After we cut inland and headed east on the E10 to Abisko National Park, the landscape flattened, the temperature dropped and the October rain turned to snow. The park, located 195km above the Arctic Circle in Swedish Lapland, is gorgeous at any time of the year: in the summer you can explore the deep canyons and plunging waterfalls under a midnight sun; in winter, you can hire cross-country skis, go dog-sledding and get some of the best opportunities to see the Northern Lights in Sweden. There's also a chairlift up to Mount Nuolja, which offers stunning views across the park, and backcountry skiing when there's snow.
The park is well-maintained, and wooden signposts point to strangely named peaks, camp sites, meditation spots, log cabins and wooden bridges that criss-cross the park's roaring rivers, which freeze over in winter. Despite the orderliness, it's so vast that we felt like the only people there, surrounded by towering mountains and long rows of pine trees frosted white by autumn snow. It's also the starting point for the Kungsleden, or King's Trail, which runs 425km south to Hemavan through one of Europe's largest wilderness areas, and is considered one of the world's top hiking trails.
After walking a brisk 30km in five hours, we stayed the night in the Abisko Fjällturer AB hostel, a large, red cabin in the woods of tiny Abisko town, complete with moose antlers above the door and paintings of huskies on the kitchen walls. (The friendly owner has a husky and is a big fan of the breed.) Despite the cosy, cabin-in-the-woods feel, the hostel does have satellite TV and internet, a blessing when we were planning the next day's drive into Finland.
Day 2 / Finland and the borders
From Abisko, we headed east along the E10, passing Kiruna, Sweden's northernmost city and the site of Sweden Spaceport, where Richard Branson plans to launch the first Virgin Galactic space trips outside the USA. Kiruna is also in the process of shifting 3km east to move away from a major mine, and not far from the world-famous Icehotel at Jukkasjärvi. Heading off the E10 and onto the E45 north, we joined the E6 road, which hugs the Finnish-Swedish border and runs past countless beautiful, silent lakes. In October, the lakes were beginning to freeze over.
Our destination was the small Finnish town of Kilpisjärvi, a series of red cabins hugging a large lake, which is the starting point of the hike to Treriksrøysa, the point where Norway, Finland and Sweden meet. Our first stop was the tourist information centre in the middle of town, where we perused polar-themed knick-knacks (lots of fridge magnets with thermometers), picked up maps and shovelled up a plate of finnbiff, a stew made of thin cuts of reindeer and woody juniper berries.
In winter, locals from all three sides of the joint border come to Kilpisjärvi's lake to race their snowmobiles, creating great plumes of tossed-up snow as they bomb along. In summer, the ice melts into a wide, natural swimming pool, perfect for sailing little boats, picking berries and lazing about in the gentle Arctic sun.
It's an 11km hike to Treriksrøysa (in Swedish Treriksröset, in Finnish Kolmen valtakunnan rajapyykki) - it's not difficult, but it gets cold, even in October, when there is a serious bite in the air despite blue skies. The path gets more wintry as you head up, revealing heaped snow, trickling waterfalls, white forests and impressive icicles. On our hike, the total silence was broken only by the sound of me slipping over on frozen streams or, worse, hard puddles concealed by the last of autumn.
After a good few hours filled with many stops to take in the beautiful views of the Arctic landscapes in the distance, and many slices of bread topped with brunost (caramelised brown cheese), the path approached its final destination, where it runs along a fence that separates the Finnish-Swedish border.
The stone cairn, erected in 1901 to mark the point where Norway, Sweden and Finland meet - Treriksrøysa literally means "three-country border cairn" - is in the middle of the shallow Lake Goldajärvi. Sitting on the wooden walkway that runs around the structure, the five of us sat in three different countries and pondered the fact that we were at Sweden's most northerly point and Finland's most westerly. Surprisingly few people make the trek and there was no one else in sight.
Back in the car, and through yet another deserted border control into Norway, we found Helligskogen Youth Hostel around 30km south of the town of Skibotn. The place offers whole cabins to groups of travellers, though campers, trailers and mobile homes are welcome, too. According to the receptionist, who was channelling Santa Claus with his long, white beard and rotund stomach, people live on the site all year round. That night, we stayed up as late as we could to catch the Northern Lights, drinking make-do aquavit cocktails, which alas sent us to sleep before we saw anything.
Day 3 / The Lyngen Alps and back to Tromsø
The drive back to Tromsø weaves along the Lyngen Alps, whose plunging fj ords and pine-dotted mountains are popular with hardcore skiers and easy-going fishermen. After the vast expanse of Abisko and the blue lakes of Kilpisjärvi, it's a dramatic way to complete a tour of the Arctic north.
Arriving at Skibotn from the border, the E6 and E8 highways run south-to-north and make for some spectacular driving. The thin roads along the Alps cling to the side of the magnificent Lyngenfj ord, zigzagging left and right, offering a new viewpoint at every turn, when we'd slam on the brakes and jump out to take just one more photo.
The road to Tromsø on a Sunday slowly filled with more and more cars, as rows of colourful houses rose up the town's steep hills. After dropping the now-beloved Mazda back, we stopped and rested our tired feet at Backbeat, a café and vinyl record shop with a mean latte - and toasted what felt like a proper road trip.