Tarfala: Hiking to the Mysterious Glacier Valley in Swedish Lapland

Tarfala: Hiking to the Mysterious Glacier Valley in Swedish Lapland

I finally walked on the black stones of Lake Tarfalajaure. A huge rosette had been built on the beach, I headed towards it. A bold eagle soared over Lake Tarfalajaure.

The mysterious Tarfala valley in northern Sweden is hidden in the armpit of several 2,000 m high mountain peaks. At the bottom of the valley glitters the turquoise Lake Tarfalajaure (Darfáljávri), the mountains are covered by some of the largest glaciers of Sweden. The rugged and barren Tarfala is one of the most beautiful valleys of the Kebnekaise mountain massif area.

Tarfala (in Swedish: Tarfaladalen or Tarfalavaggi, in Sámi: Darfalvággi) is a popular hiking destination that also attracts mountaineers and skiers. Svenska Turistföreningen STF has a mountain cabin in the valley by the lake and close to the glacier. The STF Tarfala mountain cabin is the most high-alpine cabin of all the country’s STF cabins.

Tarfala Research Station is also situated in the Tarfala valley at 1135 m.a.s.l. The research station is Stockholm University's centre for glaciological and alpine research. The Tarfala valley is known for its strong winds. When tenting in the valley, prepare for all kinds of weather.

Hiking to Tarfala valley had fascinated me for years, as it was one of the first hiking destinations I read about in Swedish Lapland, besides Abisko and Kebnekaise. The year before, I didn’t reach Tarfala from my Kebnekaise and Vistas hike due to the bad weather, so I tried my luck again before going backpacking in Sarek National Park.

How to get to Tarfala?

The easiest way to get to Tarfala is from Nikkaluokta:

  1. By car. It is about 70 km from Kiruna and less than an hour's drive to Nikkaluokta. Nikkaluokta Sarri offers plenty of parking space (for a fee) for cars and RVs.
  2. By bus. Nikkaluoktaexpressen goes from Kiiruna to Nikkaluokta twice a day during the summer. Travel time is about an hour. Ticket prices vary by age group, and a ticket bought online is cheaper. For example, an adult 26-64-y.o. a one-way ticket purchased in advance costs SEK 200.
  3. By plane. The nearest airport to Nikkaluokta is in Kiruna. There is a bus connection from the airport (Nikkaluoktaexpressen) directly to Nikkaluokta.
  4. By train. The nearest train station to Nikkaluokta is in Kiiruna. Night trains between Stockholm and Kiruna are often fully booked during the hiking season. Nikkaluoktaexpressen's timetables always match the train timetables, but not necessarily the Finnair and SAS flights.

From Nikkaluokta to Tarfala you can take either Dag Hammarskjöldsleden trail or your own routes via Cievrraláhku and Darfaláhku. On the latter route, you can visit the Kekkonentoppen peak and view Tarfala from above. You can also reach the Kebnekaise mountain station by helicopter.

The marked route to Tarfala runs from the crossing of Dag Hammarskjöldsleden trail and the River Darfaljohka up to Tarfala valley. The length of the route from the suspension bridge to the STF Tarfala hut and Lake Tarfalajaure is about six kilometers. From the Kebnekaise mountain station, you can take a day trip to Tarfala. The length of the route is about eight kilometers in one direction.

You probably can't get lost on the Tarfala trail marked in red. The high water levels in August 2022 damaged the beginning of the route, repairs will be made in 2023.

Hiking in the Čievrračohkka and Cievrraláhku area

Since on my hike to Kebnekaise I took the easy and popular Dag Hammarskjöldsleden trail, I wanted to see new landscapes. I knew almost nothing about the area of Čievrračohkka and Cievrraláhku beforehand. There are no actual trails in the area, but recommended routes between Kaskavagge, Tarfala and Kebnekaise are marked on the map.

I left Nikkaluokta quite late at 5:20 in the afternoon. I had calculated in advance how far I would roughly make it before it got dark. My intention was to head near the cabin of the reindeer herders, which is located on the south side of the River Čievrrajohka, between the Cievrraláhku and Darfálláhku plains.

From Nikkaluokta, I walked a couple of kilometers along Dag Hammarskjöldsleden trail. After the first crossing of the slightly larger river and the bridge, there should be some kind of path on the right. I couldn't find the trail head, but the terrain was relatively easy in the forest. The lush green birch forest was full of juicy billberries.

After hiking a few hundred meters, I stumbled upon the trail. It had probably started from some bush right next to the bridge.

For around one and a half kilometers the trail run through the forest on fairly flat terrain. After that, the leg training started, first through a birch forest, then in the fell highland. The weather was a hiker’s dream: a warm and windless gentle summer evening.

I took my first break by a beautiful babbling brook about three kilometers from the crossing of Dag Hammarskjöldsleden trail. Although there were a lot of people in Nikkaluokta, there was no one here, only reindeer running closer to the gorge. The landscape also started to to look amazing.

The path headed more to the left towards Čievrračohka. I had drawn my own route to go north of the mountains in the direction of the Čievrragorsa gorge valley. Since the terrain seemed more comfortable to walk higher up, I continued hiking along the path decorated with rosettes all the way to the west side of the small lakes. There I moved to my own paths towards the north side of Čievrračohkka.

The terrain was fell highland with small vegetation and it was easy to walk. There were few wetlands and streams and they were easily bypassed. However, I still had a long way to hike and the clock ticked mercilessly. At the same time, fog started to fall from the mountains.

I hastened my steps and prepared to set up the tent in any satisfactory place. When I was crossing a stream and crouching down to fill my mug, I got a severe cramp in my right leg. And when I was stretching the leg, the same cramp hit my left leg as well. I bet I was a sight howling on the ground. The joys of a long journey combined with the heavy exercising, ah!

I put the compass hanging to my neck and started navigating to the Kekkonentoppen peak. The sun goldened the river valley, the water steamed lightly as the warm rays caressed the surface of the water.

Night in the mountains in the Cievrraláhku and Darfálláhku area

As the last rays of light of the evening were already escaping, I finally saw a black spot on the opposite slope. I had reached the reindeer herders’ hut just in time. But, it took a long time to find a tent spot. The slope was steep and bumpy, the riverbed just a stone field.

A satisfactory spot the size of a tent was finally found on the eastern side of a branch of the River Čievrrajohka. Even though it was calm, I carefully nailed the tent to the ground from every side. An evening meal prepared by the light of a headlamp ended the first day of hiking nicely.

The route I drew using a map application was just under ten kilometers. Since the drawing did’nt take into account the variation in elevation, I estimated the actual distance to be closer to twelve kilometers. In the end, the distance was 14.5 km and it took a total of four hours and three quarters.

Either this year, I didn’t have much luck with weather. Clouds and rain were arriving in Tarfala already in the afternoon. I woke up while the moon was still shining in the sky so I could see the magical Tarfala valley. The moon was a giant yellow ball above the fell in the middle of the deep blue sky.

I made breakfast and packed my stuff pretty quickly. However, I had to photograph the incredibly beautiful sunrise for a while. The river was easy to cross by hopping on the rocks.

I put the compass hanging to my neck and started navigating to the Kekkonentoppen peak. The sun goldened the river valley, the water steamed lightly as the warm rays caressed the surface of the water. I noticed that there were plenty of good camping spots on the west side of the river.

Kekkonentoppen and Darfálčorru in clouds and fog

Kekkonentoppen (1481 m) is a peculiar mountain peak in Swedish Lapland, in the area of Kebnekaise mountain massif. It is the only natural site named after a politician – and a Finn! – on Swedish maps.

According to the story, the President of Finland, Urho Kekkonen, was on a tour in the area of the Tarfala research station in the company of the governor of Norrbotten. The president had asked the name of the mountain peak, and since the name was not known even by the local Sámi, it was named after Kekkonen.

Kekkonentoppen offers views of the southern peak of Kebnekaise and Sweden's largest glacier, the Storglaciären glacier. Descending from the route over Darfálčorru to the glacier research station, beautiful landscapes would also open up to the Tarfala valley from above.

It was nice to climb the gentle slope. The sky clouded over a bit, but the air was still clear. The orange dry grasses of the fell highland rustled underfoot.

It didn't take long to climb a steeper and rocky slope, when I was already standing in complete darkness. Visibility disappeared in seconds and it started to drizzle, so I packed the camera away. At the same time, I ran into snow and ice.

I could walk right on the edge of the ice sheet, but there was no way up without ice crampons. The ice was terribly slippery. I had only climbed to 1300 meters and most of the journey was still ahead.

I walked along the steep and rocky edge of the ice. Because of the zero visibility, it was impossible to estimate how long the ice would last. In the worst case, I wouldn't be able to cross the mountains to the Tarfala side, but would have to turn back. I would miss both Kekkonentoppen and Tarfala.

I made a quick decision to turn down towards the slope that runs between Darfálčorru and Darfálláhku. A recommended route is marked on the slope, which leads down to Darfálvággi and to the River Darfáljohka bridge. I would have to walk the entire marked route of Tarfala from the bridge to Lake Tarfalajaure, but a good and straight path might be faster than hustling on the rocky mountains.

It was staggering to descend from full fog only a hundred meters lower and see blue sky and bright sunshine again. The weather was so wonderful that I thought I could easily reach Tarfala before the rains.

At first, the slope was just full of small rocks that could be traversed quickly. The landscapes looked great in the direction of Kebnekaise even from these heights. As the green Ládjuvággi appeared, the ground turned into grass and low fell vegetation. And lots of billberries. The very last stretch included an adventure in a willow bush.

Majestic two-thousander mountains were rising around me. The ancient glaciers descending from the mountains seemed to whisper their secrets. It was like being in some mystical fairy tale.

Tarfala route from the bridge to Lake Tarfalajaure

There was no need to descend all the way to the bridge, because I found a trail that descended to the Tarfala route about a hundred meters higher. The route goes up north at the bottom of Darfálvággi valley, right next to the river. Roughly halfway, the river is crossed twice via suspension bridges.

The first part of the route was quite easy. The gravel path had large puddles and mud in places, as well as almost overgrown willow and dense birch. After the bushes were left behind, the whole beautiful valley opened up in front of me. The suspension bridges could already be seen in the distance.

As the landscapes became more bold, the slopes became steeper. The river roared in the canyon in shades of gray and turquoise, full of glacier meltwater. The trail run higher and higher on the slopes of the valley. Sometimes the path was very steep, very narrow and with loose stones.

Along the way, there are several larger and smaller streams flowing from the mountains, from which you can get drinking water. Clear water is more difficult to find near Lake Tarfalajaure.

More and more clouds began to accumulate. The mountains of Tarfala were still far away. I tried to hurry, but with a full two-week backpack, I had to stop sometimes to take a break, even though I was hiking with lightweight equipment.

After a steep stretch, shortly before the smaller lake, the terrain flattened out and became very rocky. The massive lower edge of the Storglaciären glacier showed beneath the low-hanging clouds. The Tarfala research station is located north of the small lake. The whirring of the red helicopters could be heard in the valley.

From the research station, it is still about a kilometer to the STF Tarfala mountain cabin. The red spots were hard to spot in some places in the rocks. A few stone walls had been piled up in the middle of the rock field to protect the tents from the winds blowing from the lake. If you are equipped with an adventurous spirit, you can camp on the relatively flat spots behind the stone walls.

The journey to Lake Tarfalajaure from my tent site was 15.5 kilometers, it took six and a half hours. In retrospect, it would have been best to skip the ice hiking of Kekkonentoppen.

The turquoise Lake Tarfalajaure disappears into the fog

I finally walked on the black stones of Lake Tarfalajaure. A huge rosette had been built on the beach, I headed towards it. A bold eagle soared over Lake Tarfalajaure. Majestic two-thousander mountains were rising around me. The ancient glaciers descending from the mountains seemed to whisper their secrets. It was like being in some mystical fairy tale.

The turquoise color of Lake Tarfalajaure is probably best seen in clear air, now it reflected the grayness and gloom of the clouds. I put my hand in the water, it was freezing cold. At the same time, it started to drizzle.

My original plan was to tent by the lake, somewhere on its northern shore, and continue hiking to Lake Gaskkasjávri or Black Lake (Svarta Sjön) and down the Guobirvággi valley to Kungsleden (King’s Trail). Heavy rains and storms were coming to Swedish Lapland, and the weather services had red warning signs all over. I decided to skip Guobirvággi valley.

The most amazing thing is the speed with which the total fog arrives and it’s pouring rain. There was no more than five minutes between relatively clear weather and total darkness. The whole valley disappeared, visibility was five to ten meters.

I probably did the fastest change to rain gear of my life: I covered the camera with a raincoat, took off my shoes one by one while pulling on rain pants, put the camera in a waterproof bag and pulled the raincoat over me. I wanted to capture the change in the weather and took a couple more pictures with a tripod, the camera safely in its new rain cover. (However, the humidity was about 500% and at the end of the day the Canon was broken again, sigh.)

I quickly set off on the return trip along the same route along Darfálvággi. There were still a good 11 kilometers of rainy hiking waiting ahead. It is nice to hike back from Tarfala, because the entire journey is practically downhill. There would have been several wonderful lunch spots along the clear streams, but the weather was not enough tempting to take a break.

Down at the suspension bridge leading to Kebnekaise, the ’pouring rain’ took on a new meaning: it was profusely pouring rain. I jumped in a dry toilet next to the bridge to escape the flood and had snacks. In the evening, while I was tenting, a fierce thunderstorm arrived. That certainly maximized the exciting Tarfala hike.

Conclusion: I saw the magical Tarfala: the barren black rocky valley, the Storglaciären and Isfallsglaciären glaciers and the turquoise Lake Tarfalajaure. Since the scenery was only visible for a couple of minutes and I missed the northern shore and the Black Lake as well as Kekkonentoppen, I will probably return to Tarfala for a third time!


Tarfala trail and map
STF Tarfala mountain cabin
Tarfala Research Station

Tarfala valley hiking info

  • Destination: Norrbotten, Lapland, Sweden
  • Distance: 6 km, from Kebnekaise mountain station 8 km
  • Difficulty: physically demanding but quite easy
  • When to go: from June to August for a summer hike
  • Duration: a daytrip, or part of a multiday backpacking trip
  • Where to stay: camping with or without facilities, or at STF's mountain cabins

Sweden Tarfala Kebnekaise Nikkaluokta Backpacking Solo Backpacking Hiking Mountains Summer Multi-day adventure


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