A change of seasons makes it the perfect time to explore one of Scandinavia’s wildest hiking regions, says Sarah Marshall.
What would the oldest tree in the world look like? A sprawling oak with broad branches and a gnarled trunk; a tall pine that soars as far as the eye can see; or a spindly Norway spruce whose bare branches are the only outward indication of advancing age.
Confronted with 9,550 years of ancient arboreal history, I must admit to being somewhat overwhelmed. A lone stalk on a vast mountain, I couldn’t imagine this tree could survive a gentle breeze, let alone the turbulent passage of time.
But despite its weedy vegetation, Gamla Tjikko has become a strong attraction for Sweden’s Fulufjallet National Park.
– We receive almost 100,000 visitors a year, says Maria, guide at the park’s information center Naturum.
Many come to see the world’s oldest tree, identified by tree scientist Lisa Oberg using carbon dating.
“What’s above ground is of course just a clone, but it’s the root system that’s being measured,” Maria explains, registering confusion and doubt in my expression.
Regardless of its size, the tree is part of a much larger primeval landscape. Fulufjallet is one of several peaks that roll through Dalarna, a four-hour drive from Stockholm on the border with Norway. Although relatively unknown to the British, the county is a childhood favorite for nostalgic Swedes and hiking nations who have realized that there is more to Sweden than the Northern Lights and city breaks.
To get a feel for the area, I start my trip in Orsa at Smidgarden (smidgarden.se; £100 a night for two), a log cabin resort favored for its forest trails outside the snowy cross-country ski season. The scene is idyllic: tractors idling in dairy farms, red wooden houses reflected in the perfectly still lakes and crouching ponies grazing in sloping paddocks – mimicked by the painted wooden valley horses that adorn so many windowsills.
Perched on a hillside, my mezzanine cabin overlooks a patchwork of rich greens and watery iridescent blues. Blankets hang like curtains in the windows, above cupboards painted in folkloric designs.
At night I grill salmon over a barbecue and in the morning I top off my tea with fresh mint from a vegetable garden. The smell of burning wood drifts from an underground sauna, enhanced by the crisp, biting air.
The surrounding forest is red with autumn’s first scarlet flames, blueberries are bursting from bushes and mushrooms are sprouting from the moist, cool soil.
There is a stillness bestowed by the break between seasons, a slow farewell to summer before winter takes hold.
Even more dramatic are the forests of Fulufjallet, home of Gamla Tjikko. A two-hour drive from Orsa, it can be a tangle of ferns, fallen trunks and swamps that rival the temperate forests of British Columbia or Alaska for beauty.
Seeking true isolation, I take a 6km hiking trail from Naturum to Rosjostugorna’s overnight cabins and campsite, passing the famous tree and Sweden’s highest waterfall along the way.
Climbing up, I clamber over an ankle-twisting assault course of dusty pink boulders and float through clouds of lichen that foam like sea foam. Lambs run erratically along a final stretch of boardwalk, while red-eyed eagles parade majestically across my path.
Tommy Lonnebacke runs the cabins and campsite as a concession leased by the park.
Dressed in a beanie and wearing thick socks and a pair of Crocs, I find him chopping wood for the sauna. Under a thick beard, a dark tan suggests a long summer outdoors.
“It’s the best fisherman around,” he says, pointing to an osprey flying above the lake, where, he insists, species of trout and char have flourished since the Ice Age.
Tommy gives the impression very little changes on the mountain, where he has seen evidence of bears stopping to feast on blueberries in October, before entering dens for their long winter sleep.
“This was one of the best fishing camps in the 1950s,” he says, leaning against a stream to check the water temperature on a thermometer dangling from a pontoon.
“11 degrees. Still summer, perfect for an evening swim.”
After a sauna and a very quick swim, I cook in a kitchen equipped with electricity but no running water – everything has to be collected in buckets from the stream. All the food I have was carried up the mountain in my rucksack and all waste was carefully separated into composts and recycling bins.
My shelter for the night is one of two ice fishing tents (rosjostugorna.se/english; £240 per night for two), heated by a gas heater and cozy enough to use all year round. Tommy tells me that new tents will have solar panels to charge phones and skylights to view the northern lights, often visible this far south due to strong solar activity that will continue until 2025.
In winter it is possible to go dog sledding. But there is also an innovative way to interact with friendly Alaskan huskies during snow-free months.
The barking of over 90 dogs is deafening when I reach the Fjallaventyr dog park in Salen, a 90-minute drive away. Despite the fact that everyone has comfortable pens – in accordance with rigorous welfare rules in Sweden – everyone is desperate to run.
“It would be impossible to bring them all into the mountains,” says driver and mountain guide Axel Skotte as dogs bounce up and down. “So the company came up with the idea of renting them out to hikers a few years ago.”
More popular than ever since the Covid lockdowns, the initiative allows visitors to borrow specifically selected dogs for the day (fjallaventyr.com; £64).
Axel introduces me to Lykke, a four-year-old turbo sled dog with a halo of white fur to match her angelic temperament. Despite a touch of bad breath from a strict salmon diet, she is irresistibly affectionate and happy company on a hike.
After a cross-country ski trail, we stroll through grassy edges strewn with berries and cool off by shallow rocky mountain pools. As a non-dog owner, it’s a novelty to explore with Lykke as she sniffs every new scent and pulls me in directions I never knew I wanted to go. Her presence is also soothing.
Just like the eternal beauty of the Dalarna landscape in all seasons, there is a timeless pleasure in taking gentle walks through nature – perhaps even more deeply rooted than the world’s oldest trees.
How to plan your trip
For more information about the destination, go to visitsweden.com and visitdalarna.se.
SAS Airlines (flysas.com) flies to Stockholm from London Heathrow from £52.50 return.