The land above the Arctic Circle is not the most well-known bikepacking destination, not even for Finns or Norwegians. Despite the fact that she’s snowboarded on these mountains outside Ylläs for years, Henna Palosaari was no exception. When she heard about the 400km Arctic Post Road route from Ylläs, Finland to Alta, Norway’s northernmost town, she knew she had to see what was under the snow.
In June, Sami Sauri received a message from Henna: ‘I’m planning to ride Arctic Post Road in August, would you be keen to join? I was thinking of doing the mountain biking version of the route with a gravel bike.’ Sami was in.
The Arctic Post Road bikepacking route follows the remnants of the old Copenhagen-Alta post road. Starting in the fells of Pallas-Ylläs National Park in Finnish Lapland, it runs through the Finnmark highlands all the way to Alta on the Arctic Ocean. The wilderness area created by Finnish and Norwegian Lapland is three times the size of Belgium and one of the largest wild spaces like this in Europe.
With a reindeer-to-human ratio of 5:4, you’ll likely encounter more reindeer than people on the trails. However, reindeer are not here to be adorable entertainment for bikers, they are economically important for many Lappish and Sámi. As such, the route is closed during the critical season in late September when herds of thousands of reindeer are gathered together for autumn.
Then there’s Räkkä – the season in the Arctic with a high population of mosquitos, black flies, biting midges and horse flies. If you’re spending a lot of time outdoors, it’s a time in which you could wear a full body mosquito net. Despite never having been to Lapland before, Sami had heard all about the mosquitoes and came duly prepared with a mosquito head net and repellent. Typically, Räkkä starts in late June, lasting usually until about mid-August, which makes the end of summer and fall a great time for bikepacking in the Arctic. By which time, the Northern lights are starting to light up the night sky too!
Forest dirt roads and occasional tarmacked roads lead us from Ylläs to Pallas, where we get the first glimpses of the beautiful seven fells of Pallastunturi. While the original plan was to avoid all roads, I knew that the next section from Pallastunturi would be tough on a mountain bike, let alone a gravel bike, so we made the decision to go by road and stop off at Restaurant Loimu instead. When we turned into the parking lot at Loimu, it felt like we had stepped back in time – a really charming and modest spot, but the gas pumps and interior radiate a serious 70s vibe. Experiencing the simplicity of life up north and the local culture combined with the tranquility of the wilderness creates a bikepacking experience that takes you a million miles away from the city hustle.
The sky started to clear after some rain showers and we get back on the forest road that leads us to our camp spot by the lake. A quick dip in the clear watered lake and mosquito nets on before dinner, grateful that there are so many lakes and rivers to make our lives easier when it comes to camping and resupplying our water. In Sami’s signature Spanish style, dinner is accompanied by a cheese plate and I’m not sure bikepacking dinners have ever been so good!
The simplicity of life up North and the local culture combined with the tranquility of the wilderness creates a bikepacking experience that takes you a million miles away from the city hustle
The first two kilometers of the second day gave a taste of what lay ahead on the Arctic Post Road – steep trails, rocky sections and loose sand that forces you off the bikes from time to time. It slowed us down but we were pleased to be away from the road, especially as we were rewarded with amazing vast views in every direction. The route is more well-known as a hiking route so the hikers of the Hetta-Pallas hiking trail were surprised to see two girls with gravel bikes up there riding down the rough trails, balancing on the wooden boards and carrying their bikes over rocks.
We stopped to enjoy local treats at the wilderness cafe and learned from the local lady that there had not been a mushroom year like this in 60 years, which explained why we saw mushrooms wherever we looked. In Hetta, we restocked and made a decision to keep riding the mountain biking route even though we had heard that the next 25 kilometres were going to be rough. The rumours proved to be true! Not so much because of the rocks, but because of the endless swamps and bogs that we couldn’t ride through. Tired and a bit broken, we stopped at the wilderness hut halfway through the section to rest and reassess our options but with the promise of heavy rain in the forecast which we knew would only make the trail worse, we decided to keep riding.
We thought there was accommodation in the next village, but when we arrived in Näkkälä there were no signs and with no phone signal Google Maps was of no use. We were tired and starting to feel the chill when finally, a quad bike driver told us the owner of the place we had hoped to stay was out fishing without his phone and he was the only one who had access to the key. Knowing that the next accommodation was 13km away in the wrong direction, we decided to pitch our tent in the parking lot of the hiking trail at which point the rain began to pour, lasting the entire night.
Endless hours and endless kilometers on the bike without seeing anybody or anything, not even an animal or a bird
The cold and rainy morning meant that the start of the third day was not the most inviting but we hopped on the bike with the goal to reach Kautokeino and sleep somewhere warm and dry for the night. The rocky trails changed into sandy trails but the big puddles from last night’s rain as well as the swamp and river crossings kept the pace slow. In this section, we really felt like we were on our own in the middle of nowhere.
‘The most surprising part has been how long you can go on a gravel path before you see a house again. Endless hours and endless kilometres on the bike without seeing anybody or anything, not even an animal or a bird,’ said Sami pensively. The border between Finland and Norway could easily have been overlooked; there was just a reindeer fence following the line but nothing particularly official. Welcome to Norway.
Finally, after what felt like hours and hours of riding we saw huts on the other side of a lake. First, we just had to cross a thigh-deep river mouth to get there. When we got to the other side, the owner of the house welcomed us in Norwegian and invited us in for a coffee. Starving and tired, we were thrilled to have a break and meet the family.
It was idyllic. The grandma was sitting on a deck knitting, the young boy spoke perfect English, sheep were roaming the backyard. We shared stories over local food, including reindeer tongue, dried reindeer meat, cold-smoked salmon, brown cheese sandwiches, cloudberries and blueberries – Norway at its finest. Meeting this family made our day. Riding is fun but getting to meet local people along the way makes it memorable. When we asked if we could pay something, the answer was a resounding no from the dad of the family, who instead opened his arms for a hug. When we are ready to leave, the dad runs outside with a big piece of dried reindeer meat to take on our journey.
Given the openness of the landscape, there’s a unique tranquility here – it’s magical almost
The hardest part of the route was now done. The final 145 km to Alta would be on a gravel road so we were confident we would be able to pick up our pace a little bit. After a hot shower and a good night’s sleep, we were refreshed, following the river out of the town. By midday, we get above the treeline and enjoy the vast mountainous views. We made lunch at a reindeer herder’s tipi before riding along some of the longest straights we have ever seen.
Given the openness of the landscape, there’s a unique tranquility here – it’s magical almost. True to tradition, we don’t make it to the Suolovuopmi fjellstua, an old mountain hut, with dry feet today either. The previous night’s rain had left big puddles on the road – some of which I especially seemed to get experience particularly thoroughly. The Fjellstua provided us a cosy stay and let us enjoy a delicious local dinner of Arctic char and potatoes before going to bed.
We had been faster than we expected – there was only 65 km to go to Alta and the gravel road was reportedly in great shape.
We started with a climb up to the fells where crispy northern winds welcomed us. On the horizon, we could see the high snow-covered mountains of Norway while we were cruising along these rolling hills above the vast highlands. A couple of reindeers soon turned into hundreds. Even as a Finn, it was such a cool experience to ride among the reindeers and to see Sami turn into a proper reindeer whisperer.
We ran into a mum and daughter duo with a dozen huskies that they were training to compete in the famous Finnmarksløpet, the longest dog sled race in Europe. Compared to our gravel bikes, they were moving at such a pace, but were happy to let us stop and cuddle the dogs.
Reenergised, we pushed forward to reach our final destination, Alta. Not to make the final part too easy, we hopped back onto the singletrack of the mountain biking route along the river Alta. It’s hard to say for certain if we made the right decision here as some sections were great fun while others were too muddy to ride, but eventually we made it to the famous Alta church to finish our 380 km ride through one of the largest wilderness areas in Europe.
The weather may not have been the warmest but the vast landscapes, reindeers, friendly locals and magical light made it an unforgettable trip – the kind that warms you more from the inside, than the out. And isn’t that why we all do this sort of thing?