Norway’s national parks offer unspoiled nature

Enjoying the great Norwegian outdoors

reindeer

Photo: Guro Lien / Wikitravel
The Hardangervidda is home to about 9,000 wild reindeer. But if you see a herd, consider yourself very lucky: the animals are very shy. You should never try to follow them but stand quietly and enjoy a very special and rare sight.

Synneva Bratland
Editorial Assistant
The Norwegian American

This past November, Per Lykke, CEO of Hardangervidda National Park and member of the Norway House international advisory board, gave a presentation about national parks in Norway. The talk, at Norway House in Minneapolis, gave insight into national parks in Norway, with a special focus on Hardangervidda National Park.

Norway is home to 47 national parks, including seven on the Arctic island of Spitsbergen. Ten percent of mainland Norway is national parklands, making it the “greenest” country in Europe. The oldest of the national parks is Rondane, established in 1964.

Hardangervidda National Park, established in 1981, is the largest park in mainland Scandinavia. It is also the largest European mountain plateau. At 8.6 million decares, the area of the park is between the sizes of Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone national parks. Hardangervidda holds an important place in both the natural and cultural histories of Norway, serving as a home for native biodiversity in Telemark.

According to their website, a primary intention for establishing Hardangervidda was “to secure the areas for the wild reindeer population, which is the largest in Europe. This allows the reindeer to follow their natural migratory routes without significant obstacles.” The park also serves as an important habitat for what they describe as “a rich plant life and a diverse range of animal and bird species.”

bicycle

Photo: Jacobsen / VisitNorway
When winter is over and the snow is gone, the Hardangervidda with its beautiful nature is a popular place for cycling.

Norway has long been seen as a leader in the environmental movement, and at the core of that is the public’s relationship with nature. According to Lykke, Norwegians believe that the country’s natural resources belong to the people. Only two and a half hours from Oslo, Hardangervidda — and its countless opportunities to experience quintessentially Norwegian nature — is a crucial part of the dynamic.

It may seem contradictory, then, to learn that 50% of the land in Hardangervidda is privately owned. However, Lykke points to allemannsretten (the right to roam) as what allows this system to succeed. He says that this “Viking law” and belief in collective ownership leads to good landowners.

On a clear day, visitors to Hardangervidda can take one of two trains through Gaustatoppen, the highest mountain between Norway and St. Petersburg, Russia. From there, you can see 1/6th of Norway. If you choose to travel on foot, Lykke explained that “you can walk for weeks, days without meeting anyone.”

Throughout the park, there are a series of cabins, operated by the Norwegian Trekking Association (DNT). Lykke encourages all young people to take a hut-to-hut hike through Hardangervidda. With options ranging from primitive cabins to full-service hotels, there are options for all types of travelers.

Hardangervidda is not just a place for hikers and skiers, but it is also a hub for nature-focused education. During the summertime, Hardangervidda offers free courses on insects for children ages 3-10. It also collaborates with the local high school in Rjukan, as well as the Norwegian Wild Reindeer Center and the University of South-Eastern Norway, to offer a course in environment and nature. The park serves as a classroom, laboratory, and playground for these students, who come from all over Norway to participate in the program.

ski snow kite

Photo: Unsplash
The Hardangervidda in winter with its unspoiled powder snow is the perfect setting for an adventurous mountain kiteboarder.

Hardangervidda also has two visitor centers in the park—The Hardangervidda National Park Center and the Norwegian Nature Center Hardanger — that allow both locals and tourists to learn more about the history and nature of the park.

The visitor center at Hardangervidda National Park features an award-winning interactive exhibit on nature and wild reindeer, with texts in both Norwegian and English. This seven-part exhibit tells the story of wild reindeer’s journey to and within Norway, starting 17,000 years ago in France to today. The visitor center also houses a café with a panoramic view of the park, a cinema, and a classroom.

Recently, the visitor center opened an exhibit that uses virtual reality technology to give visitors a glimpse of the future. As climate change wreaks havoc across the globe, changes must be made to preserve the natural, biodiverse world of today. This exhibit shows what Hardangervidda could look like in 400 years, encouraging reflection and challenging visitors not to take nature for granted.

At the Norwegian Nature Center Hardanger, visitors can explore a state-of-the-art exhibition across three floors that showcases the interactions between humans and the natural environment that surrounds us. The exhibit takes visitors through a 2.9-billion-year journey to the present, exploring the connections between art and nature. The nature center also houses a panoramic cinema, a restaurant, and a souvenir shop.

Norway’s national parks face many challenges—some natural, some made by humans, and many a combination of the two. Across the country, the desire to build ski resorts poses a threat to the land as it stands today. Lykke compared the Norwegian passion for skiing to the cultural prominence of American football in the United States (albeit more accessible to the public and less of a spectator sport). Although ski resorts are by no means unique to Norway, the popularity of skiing among both professionals and amateurs does pose a threat to the future of the parks.

Also see Telemark is packed with attractions in the August 9, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

This article originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.