From Jotunheimen to Svalbard

Norway’s national parks offer unmatched access to spectacular landscapes and nature


Photo: CH /,
The Snøhetta-designed pavilion near Hjerkinn gives a wonderful sheltered view across Dovrefjell.

David Nikel
Trondheim, Norway

Some of Norway’s 47 national parks are so large that about 10% of mainland Norway has protected status. While protected, Norwegian law allows the public the right to use these areas for outdoor activities that do not harm the environment. That’s great news for those of you who like hiking, fishing, or hunting. You are free to pick berries and mushrooms (just make sure you know what you’re doing!), and camping is permitted in most parts of the parks, slashing the cost of accommodation if you don’t mind roughing it.

There’s no way I can cover even the best of Norway’s national park system in just one article, but I’ve done my best to pick out some of the more intriguing highlights.


Established in 1980, Jotunheimen National Park covers around 450 square miles of Sogn og Fjordane and Oppland counties at the heart of Norway. Known for its spectacular natural scenery, the park is also home to diverse wildlife including reindeer, elk, mink, and wolverine.

But it’s the mountains that get top billing here. The name Jotunheimen—“Home of the Giants” in English—aptly describes Norway’s 20 taller mountains, all of which are located within the park. That includes Galdhøpiggen, the tallest mountain in northern Europe.

Despite its height of 8,100 feet above sea level, Galdhøpiggen is a popular hiking destination. That’s because you can drive to the starting point for the hike, Juvasshytta mountain lodge, at around 6,000 feet elevation. You do need a guide for the hike, though, as a rope-assisted crossing of a glacier is part of the Galdhøpiggen experience.

One of Norway’s more iconic hikes, the narrow Besseggen ridge, is also here in Jotunheimen. The ridge runs between the Gjende and Bessvatnet lakes and is known for its spectacular panoramas. This is one for the experienced hiker; the 13-km trail gains more than 3,600 feet in elevation and is an all-day undertaking.


The mountains of Dovrefjell are steeped in folklore. The area is referenced in the “Eidsvoll oath” of 1814: Enige og tro til Dovre faller (United and loyal until the Dovre mountains fall), used to promote a Norwegian national identity after the Scandinavian unions came to an end. The phrase has been adopted by Rosenborg soccer fans, who display it on a banner before their matches at Trondheim’s Lerkendal Stadium.

The national park itself—a couple hours south of Trondheim—is home to herds of wild reindeer with ancient genes. You can also find musk oxen here, a species that was reintroduced from Greenland around 80 years ago after dying out in the last Ice Age.

You can learn more about the extraordinary reindeer at the Norwegian Wild Reindeer Center at Hjerkinn. Here you can also visit the award-winning pavilion that provides shelter for wildlife and birdlife enthusiasts and a terrific view of the Snøhetta peak, once believed to be Norway’s tallest mountain.


Photo: Thomas T. Kleiven /
Adventurous types can hike or ski across Jostedalsbreen and even venture into ice caves.


Known for the vast Jostedals glacier, the largest icecap in mainland Europe, this national park is visually stunning. Steep mountains and lush valleys make this another top spot for hikers. The more adventurous can even hike on the glacier itself or inside some of the remarkable blue ice caves, although you’ll need to engage the services of an authorized guide to do so.

Because of its southerly latitude, the glacier itself melts a lot but is maintained by a high rate of snowfall. That said, the glacier is retreating fast and some of the ice climbing activities are regularly stopped due to the high rate of melting. At present, the thickest part of the 37-mile-long glacier stands at around 2,000 feet.


Sixty percent of Svalbard’s land is protected. The seven national parks in the archipelago are: Forlandet, Indre Wijdefjorden, Nordenskiöld Land, Nordre Isfjorden, Nordvest-Spitsbergen, Sassen-Bünsow Land, and Sør-Spitsbergen.

The mountains, glaciers, and islands of Nordvest-Spitsbergen National Park are home to historical monuments including former whaling stations, burial grounds, and the remains of the launching point for the failed 1897 attempt to reach the North Pole in a hydrogen balloon by Swedish engineer Salomon August Andrée.


The country’s newest national park was announced barely 12 months ago. Lofoten is well known for its natural beauty, but less known is the historical and cultural value of the area. The new national park will include traces of settlements dating back to the Stone Age, including cave paintings at Kollhellaren and Bukkhammerhola.

Many residents were opposed to the move and even voted no in a referendum a few years prior to the decision. The opposition was due to the importance of the traditional fishing industry. Locals—many still relying on fishing for their income—feared it would be replaced by ever-increasing tourism.

This is just a tiny look at the diversity of Norway’s national parks. If you’re looking to do something a little different on your next trip, exploring the opportunities lying within the country’s national parks is a great place to start.

David Nikel is a freelance writer based in Norway. He runs the popular website and podcast and is the author of the Moon Norway guidebook, available now in all good bookstores.

This article originally appeared in the May 3, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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David Nikel

David Nikel is a freelance writer based in Norway. He runs the popular website and podcast and is the author of the Moon Norway guidebook, available now in all good bookstores.