Only 4 more weeks until this strange, ominous year will become history, and not a moment too soon. If you’re like us, you’re more than ready to get back on the road. Any road. But healthy would be a bonus, wouldn’t it? Just now, healthy sounds right. Feels right. Healthy – and outdoors. Using our muscles. Breathe fresh air.
So I thought I’d tell you about a road that is really more of a path, a stony path up a mountain side. And a day of summery alpine hiking. In Norway. Because we know it well.
Here’s a beautiful day hike a few hours from Oslo. And it’s not too terribly demanding, so you can bring the little ones along if you’d like.
Known as Norway’s loveliest mountain, Gaustatoppen rises above Rjukan in Telemark. If the name Telemark sounds familiar, you may have heard of (or seen) the film The Heroes of Telemark (UK, 1965), or you may know Telemarkskjøring (Telemark skiing).
From the top, on a clear day, you can see 1/6 of the entire country. Now, you may think Norway is small, and it is – in terms of people. Fewer than 6 million of us. But those 6 million, you see, have a whopping 385,000 km2 to play with, meaning we’re not even 15 per square kilometre. (Here’s a map of population density around the world, if you’re into stats. And why wouldn’t you be.)
From the top of Gaustatoppen then, you could be looking out at 64,000 km2 all at once; that’s like taking in all of Latvia at a glance, a pretty decent chunk of landscape.
Starting out at the car park at Stavsro, you’re already 1,100 metres above sea level. The mountain is 1,883 metres, so you’re looking at a 700-metre altitude difference. The incline is steep, especially the last few kilometres, but not too bad. If you are fairly active and used to walking, it’s very doable. I’d say it’s on par with hiking Pulpit Rock; medium strenuous.
The hike is 4.3 km one way; that’s a 2-3 hours’ ascent. The descent will take a little less. Or a lot less. (All will become clear).
The path starts here: across the road from Stavsro car park
The path is wide, rugged and mostly rocky. It’s clearly signposted with the characteristic red T, which guides you all around the Norwegian landscape, most often painted on rocks.
Hiking Gaustatoppen, 2006
Same kid, 12 years later:
A brief stop on the way to enjoy the view –
– then on we go.
The smallest amongst us is better off in a backpack, most of the way
We’re 1.5 km from the top here. This is the steepest part of the climb, so dig out those mental reserves for the remaining bit.
Notice the giant dentist’s drill on top there? That’s an old NATO radio station.
Spot the T here as well? T stands for Turistforeningen, the Norwegian Trekking Association. Or – if your name begins with T, by all means, take it personally. I would! The track is calling you. Come hither. Let the mountain seduce you.
Nearing the top, the view seems to get better with every step. Also, that’s a handy excuse to stop, turn around and snap photos – or just breathe. At the very summit, you have 360° views. On that clear day, you can see all the way to Oslo in the east, and the Hardangervidda Plateau to the west.
Someone runs ahead, and is sat waiting for mum at the top.
I took about 2 hours going up, my 17-year-old did it in 1.5 – and would have done it even faster had she been on her own.
Here’s our route on a nifty fatmap:
We sit on top for a bit, enjoying the views of the landscape – and also of folks climbing those last few kilometres, feeling pretty pleased with ourselves, and deserving of a snack.
Been there today, done that today
At the summit, you’ll find Gaustatoppen turisthytte, a stone cottage, built in 1893, using local materials. As you’ve seen by now, there are plenty of stones around.
Try a waffle in the cafe, it’s as Norwegian as it gets. In fact, this cafe sells more waffles than any other place in Norway.
Waffle irons are running non-stop
Coming down the mountain
So, you’ve had a well-earned waffle and coffee, or maybe a beer. Are you ready to walk back down those rocky slopes?
Well, luck is on your side!
Perhaps you’ve noticed a few people at the summit here, with canes or even walkers, and wondered how in the world they managed the climb?
Instead, they took a cable railway. Inside the mountain! And you can, too.
You now have a choice: A 2-hour downhill trek – or 15 minutes by cable rail. You could have taken it up as well. (Whaaa!? Now, I tell you?)
Gaustabanen was built by the military and completed in 1959. The railway was originally meant for tourists, but as this was during the Cold War, NATO took over, and used it for access to the top secret radio relay station inside the mountain.
When we were here in 2006, the cable rail wasn’t an option. By 2018, it had opened for commercial operations. Cat and I took it going down, an interesting experience in itself. And easy on the knees.
Gaustatoppen odd facts
- The Alpine Ski World Cup was scheduled to take place down Gaustatoppen Mountain in 1940, but was cancelled due to World War II.
- The nearest town is Rjukan, a gateway to the Hardangervidda Plateau. The town is also a UNESCO-listed industrial World Heritage site, and it has some rather exciting wartime history. Heavy-water (D2O) is an important component in nuclear weapons, and Norway was the first country to produce it commercially, here in Rjukan. One of the most important acts of sabotage during World War II took place here, when local saboteurs blew up the plant, thus preventing the Germans from getting their hands on it. The Heroes of Telemark, that I mentioned above, is about that brave sabotage action. The film is available on YouTube here. Have a look; it has the feel of some of the first James Bond films.
- Gaustatoppen is about 2.5 hours from Oslo.
- Parking at Stavsro is free.
- Hiking season is June to September
- This is Norway, so bring rain gear AND sunscreen. You never know.
- The cafe has wifi and toilets, and souvenirs for sale, in addition to a simple menu (hot dogs, grilled sandwiches, cakes, etc), as well as hot and cold drinks, beer, wine and even Irish coffee.
- You can spend the night at the stone cabin at the summit, but need to book in advance, tel. + 47 35 09 41 50
- The cable railway doesn’t operate every day, so if you want to have this option, check this website for prices and opening hours. (In 2020, adult price is 300 NKr one way / 390 NKr round-trip.) No advance bookings.
- And, finally: always, ALWAYS, remember the Norwegian Mountain Code. I’ve mentioned it before, and I’ll repeat it here. It really can’t be said often enough:
There is no shame in turning back!
Fjellvettreglene (The Mountain Code) is a set of common sense rules to follow when you’re in the mountains. The code is probably more familiar to Norwegians than the Biblical 10 commandments. Here it is, translated to English, just for you:
- Plan your trip and inform others about your intended route.
- Adapt the route to your ability and the current conditions.
- Pay attention to weather- and avalanche warnings.
- Prepare for harsh weather and frost, even on short journeys.
- Bring necessary equipment to help yourself and others.
- Choose safe routes. Make sure you know how to recognise avalanche terrain and unsafe ice.
- Use a map and compass. Always know where you are.
- Turn back in time. There is no shame in turning back!
- Conserve your energy and seek shelter if necessary.
I’ll add some specifics:
- Re no 2: Don’t overestimate your ability, especially in challenging conditions. Also, don’t underestimate the journey. It can quickly become longer than you think.
- Re no 5: Wear proper shoes, preferably hiking boots. Also, remember to bring food, drink, and extra clothing (layers are good). Even if you won’t need it, you may encounter someone who does.
For even more details and specifics, VisitNorway has got you covered here.