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Alta Canyon, Norway

Alta Canyon

A rewarding hike to a spectacular geological feature, and a stay in a traditional mountain lodge. Penny Bunting visits the Alta Canyon

Up in the far north of Norway is a spectacular geological feature that few people know about – and even fewer visit.

Sautso Canyon – also known as Alta Canyon – is northern Europe's biggest canyon. It can be found some 45km south of Alta, one of Norway's northernmost towns.

Requiring a hike to reach, it's not a place you can just jump into the car to visit – but, as with most things, a little effort pays off. Because, while the canyon itself is breathtaking, the walk to get there is stunning too.

Cairn at beginning of Alta Canyon trail

We set off early one summer's morning from Gargia Lodge – the best place to be based for visiting the canyon, as it's the closest accommodation and just a short drive away from the hike's starting point.

Following a clear seven kilometre path (around 14km hiking to get there and back) across the Finnmarksvidda mountain plateau, the walk to Alta Canyon is a high-level, undulating trail through hills, along ridges and over streams.

Following the trail, Alta Canyon, Norway

It's a hauntingly beautiful landscape: there are no roads or houses, and you may not see any other people either – just views to distant snow-capped mountains and natural wilderness all around.

The route is above the treeline, so there are few trees – but this is not a bleak or barren landscape. When we walked the trail in summer, the path was lined with many different mountain shrubs and wildflowers. We saw delicate pink twinflowers blooming amongst wild blueberry bushes, and walked through seas of fluffy white cotton grass rippling in the breeze.

Cotton grass, Alta Canyon, Norway
Hare bell, Alta Canyon, Norway
Twinflower, Alta Canyon, Norway
Mountain shrub, Alta Canyon, Norway

As we walked we heard the plaintive piping call of a golden plover – and a few moments later we spotted it in the foliage.

There are sometimes small herds of reindeer grazing in this area during the summer – but although we kept a keen eye out for them, we weren't lucky enough to see them.

Although at times the going was soggy – with parts of the path marshy, and little rivulets to wade through – we were mostly able to bounce along the stony track at a good pace. Where the ground was particularly boggy – or where there was a deeper stream to cross – makeshift plank bridges had been placed strategically, preventing us from getting our boots too wet.

A lone tree on the Alta Canyon trail

Approaching Alta Canyon, the scenery became even more dramatic. The landscape seemed to disappear into the sky – so we knew the canyon was near. Streams became rivers, these carving deep clefts through the rocks, like mini versions of the main event – giving us a tiny taste of what was to come.

Getting across these mini canyons was a challenge, with wooden planks perched precariously onto rocks in the water. We realised it was safer for one of us to stand on one end of the plank as the others crossed. This stopped the little bridge from rocking too much – but it was still a case of taking it slowly, one wobbly step at a time!

Crossing the river, Alta Canyon, Norway
A mini canyon, Alta Canyon, Norway
Planks over the river, Alta Canyon, Norway
The winding trail, Alta Canyon, Norway

Just before we reached the viewpoint canyon, we were surprised to find a large patch of snow in the lee of a hill – a reminder of how high we were, and that we were well within the Arctic Circle. We took a break to enjoy a quick snowball fight – in the middle of August, this was a unique experience!

Not long after the snowy hill we began a steady descent, with the path winding through woodland to a viewing point. From here we could see the canyon in all its spectacular glory, with the Alta River snaking through tree-cladded cliffs and the thunderous sound of the rapids drifting up through the valley.

To get back to Gargia we retraced our steps, enjoying the return journey in glorious sunshine – and taking the time to appreciate the fantastic mountain views.

Alta Canyon, Norway, from the viewpoint

Gargia Lodge is a great place to relax after a long day's hike. The lodge consists of five buildings, all built in traditional Norwegian mountain style to offer a fantastic, authentic atmosphere.

The lodge dates back to the 1700s – it was an important lodge for Finnmark, connecting the inland with the coast, and a place for the native Samí people to rest and repack their goods on their way to the market in Alta. Having been fully renovated in 2000, the accommodation nowadays offers all modern comforts, while retaining plenty of character.

Mountain scenery near the Alta Canyon, Norway
Gargia Lodge, Norway
Apartment at Gargia Lodge, Norway
Northern Lights Cathedral, Alta

We stayed in an apartment that had plenty of space for our family of four, as well as cooking facilities and a large dining table. The traditional box bed, Nordic textiles and comfortable sofas made it a welcoming and cosy place to relax after the day's exertions.

Across the lane – in the main building – is a licensed bar, communal lounge with books, board games and puzzles, and outdoor hot tub and sauna.

Gargia Lodge is just 30 minutes from Alta city centre, a town perched at the edge of the Arctic sea. Here you'll find a great range of shops and restaurants, and the eye-catching Northern Lights Cathedral (pictured above, top right). It's also well worth making the trip to Alta to visit the excellent Alta Museum, which showcases a vast number of fascinating, ancient rock carvings in a beautiful setting by the sea.

Rock paintings at Alta Museum

Green Adventures September 2018