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How to spend a long weekend in Salla, Finland’s 41st national park

Finland's latest national park in Salla is home to a plethora of adventurous opportunities for a wild wintery weekend.

The traditional, atmospheric Lappish hut at the summit of Iso Pyhätunturi, which, at more than 1,500ft above sea level, is the highest point in Salla National Park. After a 40-minute ascent to the top, the old-growth forest gives way to dwarfed vegetation and heath, revealing panoramic views of the park, the Russian border and beyond. 

Photograph by Visit Salla
By Sacha Scoging
Published 22 Jul 2022, 06:03 BST

Chocolate-box log cabins, puffing woodsmoke from pine-fragrant fires. The howl of huskies racing across the frozen tundra. Spruce, fir and silver birch trees stretching out into infinity — their trunks frosted and branches buckling under the weight of crystalline snow. This is Salla — an enchanting winter wonderland tucked inside the Arctic Circle, where wild reindeer outnumber people.

Situated in the wild, mystical north of Finland, Salla is a remote Arctic region characterised by eskers, ravines and old-growth evergreen forests. The village resort of Sallatunturi is the region’s beating heart, providing visitors with all the important amenities and restaurants within walking distance, but stray beyond that and Salla’s bucolic charms unfurl. More than 180 miles of twisting mountain trails and 99 miles of cross-country skiing tracks, along with swamps and snow-topped fells, mean there’s more than enough terrain for a long, adventurous weekend. It’s no wonder the area, which covers around 25,000 acres, has recently been named Finland’s 41st national park

Old-growth evergreen forests, stream banks and marshy low-lying areas provide ideal conditions for the capercaillie — Salla's most iconic resident.

 

Photograph by Visit Salla

Day one: morning hikes and moonlit snowmobiling
 

Morning
Salla National Park is home to miles of marked winter trails, from well-prepared paths to off-piste snowshoe hikes and forest skiing. Rise early, pile on the layers and lace up your walking boots to tackle the trails, either on a self-guided hike or in a guided group tour. Nature lovers should opt for the latter on a hike through the silent Sallatunturi Fell area to Iso Pyhätunturi, which, at more than 1,500ft above sea level, is the highest point in the national park. A meander through Sallatunturi’s old-growth forest reveals works of natural Arctic art: pine, spruce and fir trees resemble towers of whipped cream and white candyfloss, which, on a clear day, offer a striking contrast against the azure-blue sky. In spring, expect to see willow grouse, mountain hares, capercaillies and reindeer, while in the summer months you may spot bears, wolves, lynx and even the elusive elk.

After a 40-minute ascent to the top of Iso Pyhätunturi, the old-growth forest gives way to dwarfed vegetation and heath, revealing sweeping, panoramic views of Salla National Park, the Russian border and beyond. Take some time to soak in the surrounding views from a traditional, atmospheric Lappish hut, or venture back here at sunset to watch the snow-loaded trees light up in dusky shades of orange, purple and pink.

Afternoon
For a well-deserved, locally sourced lunch, head to Keloravintola, a cosy log cabin overlooking the slopes, whose seasonal menu blends Lappish traditions with sustainable methods. Here, you can sample every imaginable variation of reindeer, from sautéed reindeer pizza to blood pancakes and fried meatballs, plus triple-smoked moose burgers, pike steaks and rainbow trout.

Once refreshed and refuelled, head over to the Salla Ski Resort to get suited and booted for a spot of afternoon skiing. The resort’s highest point is only 1,453ft, so skiing in Salla doesn’t take the form of hair-raising Alpine descents, but its 15 gentle downhill runs are complemented by almost 100 miles of cross-country jaunts. At these altitudes, cross-country skiing has been the preferred means of locomotion here for over a millennium and is part of the rhythm of everyday life. In the low season, the pistes are less busy, the queues are non-existent and the only traffic jams are caused by reindeer walking across the road. What’s more, 25 miles of cross-country tracks are illuminated, so come nightfall, you can ski through the tranquil, pearl-white wilderness beneath a sky scattered with stars.

Evening
For a true sense of Salla’s natural beauty, motor out into the descending darkness on a snowmobile with Arctic Circle Safaris. This adrenalin-filled trip will have you bouncing from side-to-side through gullies, leaning into bends and hurtling through the snow-loaded forests to reach the icy observation post at the top of Ruuhitunturi Fell. Once here, your local guide will make you switch off your engine so that all you can hear is the crunch of ice underfoot, and if the Aurora Borealis dance overhead, the click of camera shutters. Treat yourself to a warm tipple at the atmospheric, candlelit Ruuhitunturi Wilderness Café, located just below the fell, before driving back down to Salla village.

Round off your evening with a visit to Kiela restaurant — a cosy restaurant serving authentic Lapland flavours with a modern twist. Dishes such as the reindeer ramen and fried Naruska rainbow trout are a must, washed down with a warm goblet of glögi — the locals’ beloved fruity punch. Take note, a single beer here might turn into several when a gig or karaoke is taking place.

Motoring out into the descending darkness on a snowmobile is an exhilarating way of exploring Salla's snow-loaded wilderness.

Photograph by Visit Salla

Day two: reindeer rides and rolling fells
 

Morning
Start your day with an invigorating plunge in Holiday Club Salla’s fitness pool and whirlpool bath, where large windows provide breathtaking views out onto the fells and of the skiers tackling their first slopes of the day. Follow up your dip with a burst of heat in the spa’s traditional Finnish sauna, before refuelling at the Holiday Club’s breakfast buffet, when you can expect all the sumptuous flavours of the Arctic, from locally foraged berries to Kursulainen bread from Salla.

A 10-minute drive away lies Salla Wilderness Park, which is the gateway to Salla National Park. Here, you can choose from an exhilarating array of Arctic adventures, including husky sledding and fairy-tale reindeer rides, where you’ll be cuddled up inside a blanket-laden sleigh. The latter is the only ride in Lapland where you’re able to drive your own individual reindeer through the frozen wilderness, guided by a local, knowledgeable herdsmen and a golden winter sun. Both excursions pause at crackling campfires and traditional kota huts dotted along the route, so your guide can share stories of the Sámi and countless tales of Lappish life. There’s also the chance to meet and feed the young reindeer, deep in their forest hideaway.

Afternoon
Back at the Reindeer Park, settle into the cosy, onsite cafe to receive your reindeer driving licence and sample local delicacies, such as hearty fish stews and freshly baked cinnamon doughnuts. While here, check out the ever-changing art exhibitions before stocking up on goodies from the souvenir shop, such as reindeer leather products to traditional wooden kuksa cups and Lappish puukko knives.

This far into the Arctic Circle, darkness descends early. But don’t let that deter you from tackling a late-afternoon electric-fatbiking adventure with a local guide. Of the three winter biking trails to choose from, opt for the intermediate, 11-mile Pahakurun kierros trail — a route that takes in the spruce forests, fell landscapes and deep gorges of Salla National Park. The climax of the trail is the Pahakuru rest stop, where a panoramic view of ancient pines, a rocky ravine and the hills of Aatsinginhauta valley opens out through the trees. All the winter cycling trails are well signposted — and groomed by a snowmobile — but make sure you pack suitably warm clothing, a fully charged phone, a map, food and drink.

Evening
Situated directly beneath the Earth’s band of maximal auroral activity, Salla is the perfect region in which to view the Northern Lights. If it’s a clear evening, head over to the Arctic Phenomena Observation Point, at the edge of Sallatunturin Tuvat, to catch a glimpse of the otherworldly spectacle. Seeing the aurora for the first time can be unnerving: suddenly the sky will shift in mind-bending ways, with flashes of green and, if you’re lucky, pink, red and violet. They’re best spotted from September through to April, but, like most subarctic regions, Salla’s winter evenings remain mysterious and unpredictable.

If you’re flying home from Rovaniemi Airport, drop into Mestarin Kievari, in Kemijärvi, to taste some of the landscape’s most delicious bounty. Opt for smoked and salted pike with rye bread as a starter, reindeer fillet with thyme sauce and white fish with morel sauce as a main, and, if you’ve room left, try the Lappish cheese sautéed in cream and served with Arctic cloudberries.

There are three winter biking trails to choose from in Salla National Park, all of which are well signposted and groomed by a snowmobile. 

Photograph by Visit Salla

Four cycling trails to try in Salla National Park


1. The Hangasharju trail
This eight-mile biking trail to the top of Hangasharju fell weaves through beautiful pine forests, undulating eskers and a variety of challenging terrains — from steep, rocky ridges to swamp crossings, bogs and groves. On route, cyclists can refill their water bottles from the Sotka spring and stop by the shelter at Hangasjärvi lake to soak up the panoramic views towards Ruuhitunturi fell. Keep your eyes peeled for the deer hunting pits and the remnants of Stone Age houses found on the shores of Hangasjärvi’s waterways.

2. The Husumaa trail
Starting and ending in Salla town centre, the seven-mile Husumaa loop cuts through dense heath forests, two swamps and overlooks three idyllic lakes, including Iso-Ruuhijärvi, which is a popular spot for local fishing competitions and outdoor recreation. On route, cyclists can tie in a visit to the Salla Museum of War and Reconstruction to learn about the Winter War and the Moscow Peace Treaty which handed almost half of Salla’s territory to the Soviet Union. Look out for the battlefields of the Winter War on the shores of Iso-Ruuhijärvi.

3. The Kaunisharju trail
Situated on a wide ski-track base, the seven-mile Kaunisharju trail is ideal for advanced mountain cyclists looking to reach high speeds. The route, which follows the steep-sloped, glacier-carved eskers of Kaunisharju, leads through an atmospheric, old-growth spruce forest, crossing several lakes, mires and streams. Cyclists should keep a look out for the signposts detailing the local legend of Kaunisharju — a hermit who was said to wander this path. 

4. Salla to Lapajärvi
This extensive, 15-mile biking trail from Salla town centre to the remote village of Lapajärvi is not for the faint-hearted. The route, which consists of varied terrain and small, winding forest roads, combines idyllic mountain scenery with an introduction to local culture at the Isäntä Matti’s Museum. Here, visitors can view a reconstructed log cabin, hay barn and cowshed porch from the 1950s, including traditional farm tools, textiles, kitchen utensils and machinery. Check the opening hours before arriving; traditional, Lappish meals can even be arranged upon request.

Essentials


Getting there
Finnair flies from London Heathrow to Helsinki with connecting flights to Rovaniemi and Kuusamo airports. From here, public buses run from Kuusamo to Rovaniemi and Rovaniemi to Salla, or private transfers can be arranged. Rental cars with winter tyres can be picked up at either airport.

Where to stay
Salla Holiday Club, located at the foot of the ski slope, has a range of modern, comfortable rooms and apartments, many with private saunas. Studios, sleeping a maximum of six people, start from £85 per night, while two-bedroom apartments, also sleeping six, start from £130 per night, minimum two nights.

For more information on the range of accommodation and experiences available, see Visit Salla and Visit Finland.

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