Urho Kekkonen National Park

View from the top of Sokosti in summer.
Location of Urho Kekkonen National Park

Urho Kekkonen National Park is a national park in Finnish Lapland. With an area of 2,550 sq.km it is the second largest national park in Finland and was visited by 289,000 people in 2009. It has good connections and services near Saariselkä, while the backcountry is popular among wilderness backpackers. Sompio Strict Nature Reserve borders the park and is described here. Also the Kemihaara Wilderness Area borders the park.

Understand

Urho Kekkonen National Park is located along the Russian border in the municipalities of Inari, Sodankylä and Savukoski. The park includes Korvatunturi, where Father Christmas lives – at least according to the Finns (yes, he has a reception in Rovaniemi, but he has to rest too). The park covers fells, broad mires and large wild forests.

The areas near the Koilliskaira Visitor Centre and near Saariselkä have lots of visitors, but outside day trip distance (and by the other entry points) the park is quite quiet and farther into the wilderness zones you will be alone most of the time, except perhaps at wilderness huts and at some common routes.

The park is partly in the Sami native region. There are exceptions in the park regulations for the Sami and for other locals.

History

The park was established in 1983 and is named after the former President of Finland Urho Kekkonen, who was an eager hiker and cross-country skier and often came here.

There are traces of human activity in the area starting from 3000 years ago. The Forest Sami had four winter villages in the area and pitfalls and fences can be found from their era. There are also remainings of Kolt Sami villages of a later date.

In the 16th century the culture of the Forest Sami began to erode, as result of Christianizing and arriving settlers. The area became fishing, hunting and pearl fishing grounds for Finns. The wild reindeer got extinct in the 19th century. The Sami now living in the area are descendants of Norwegian Sami arriving in the 19th century with big reindeer herds.

Landscape

The waterfall in Paratiisikuru.

The heart of the park is the Raututunturi–Saariselkä fell area. It is easily traversed, shaped by the Ice Age, with gorges, fell heaths and boulder fields. The northern part of the park is characterised by the river-valleys of Luttojoki, Suomujoki and Muorravaarakkajoki. The southern part of the park consists of forest wilderness with pine and spruce forest and isolated fells. In the south-west there are also large open "aapa" bogs, difficult to traverse (and off-limits in the bird nesting season). The national park is a watershed area, with some rivers flowing into the Arctic Ocean, some into the Gulf of Bothnia. Kemijoki river, the longest river in Finland, originates in the park.

Flora and fauna

The park is in the reindeer husbandry area.

There is a diverse bird population in the park (130 species spotted), including several endangered species, like the gyr falcon (Falco rusticolus) and the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus). The golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) is the official emblem bird of the park. Most of the birds are migratory, the first of which return in February or early March. The most numerous birds are the brambling (Fringilla montifringilla), the willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus), the meadow pipit (Anthus pratensis), the redwing (Turdus iliacus) and the redpoll (Acanthis flammea). In the forests Siberian jay (Perisoreus infaustus), Siberian tit (Parus cinctus) and three-toed woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus) are commonly seen.

Large mammals in the park include reindeer, bear (Ursus arctos), wolverine (Gulo gulo), wolf (Canis lupus) and lynx (Lynx lynx). The large predators are seldom seen by hikers, but reindeer, hare, moose and fox are often spotted.

Some of the rivers are inhabited by the endangered freshwater pearl mussel ( Margaritifera margaritifera).

Climate

A freezing September morning at Harrijärvi.

The park is in inland Finnish Lapland, clearly north of the Arctic circle.

In midwinter there is Polar Night (Finnish: kaamos), with a few hours of twilight in the day and light by moon, stars and often Aurora Borealis otherwise. Temperatures can drop to -50°C (-55°F), although -20 to -30°C (-5 to -25°F) is more typical. In the fells there can be hard winds also in cold times (which is unusual in the south), adding severe wind chill.

Early spring is ideal for skiing, as the sun is bright and days become warm. Although the weather can be very nice indeed, you should be prepared for changes, especially if you go for the wilderness. Skis for prepared tracks are not suitable away from tracks, at least not if weather changes and you get lost.

In late spring all the snow is melting, which means high waters everywhere. Especially in the remoter areas experience is needed to choose feasible routes and ford unavoidable streams. Use local advice if at all unsure.

The weather is often comfortable in summer, with temperatures mostly about 20°C. It can be much colder, though. The mosquitoes arrive in late June and stay to freezing nights of August–September.

The time of autumn colours, ruska, is popular for hiking. It usually takes place in early September. Be prepared for possibly early winter.

The high season for hiking is the summer and autumn. The skiing season is in November–April. "Off season" for purpose of getting room in the huts is late autumn, midwinter and late spring.

Get in

You can enter the park anywhere, any time. A visit at a visitor centre is probably worthwhile, though, for most people. You can call them beforehand for any advice you need.

The opening hours of the visitor centres are limited. Check.

The western border of the park is by national road 4, i.e. E75 (RovaniemiSodankylä–Vuotso–Tankavaara–Kakslauttanen (Kiilopää)–SaariselkäIvalo), with several coaches daily, including coaches from Ivalo to Saariselkä and Kiilopää and coaches from Nordkapp, Karasjok, Vadsø and Tana bru to Rovaniemi. You could come e.g. by plane to Ivalo or Rovaniemi or by train to Rovaniemi and continue by coach.

Thus Kiehinen Customer Service at Saariselkä, the entry at Kiilopää (some of the coaches make the detour) and the main entrance, Koilliskaira Visitor Centre at Tankavaara, are easily reachable. These three are 230–260 km from Rovaniemi, 30–60 km from Ivalo (by coach some 3 hours or 25–45 minutes, respectively).

There is a coach from Ivalo to the border-station Raja-Jooseppi north of the park a few times a week, continuing to Murmansk (Mon, Wed, Fri; Finnish Gold Line). The border guard station is suitable to get to Luttojoki Skolt grounds, the customs further on is near the grounds of Raja-Jooseppi. The bus comes from Murmansk in the morning and goes back in the afternoon. You can spend the first and last night at the lean-to at Luttojoki bridge (4 km from the customs, 6,5 from the border guard station) and have a day or a weekend (or more, of course) for the hike. This is the starting point for the Anteri 25 km biking route (one way, bike parking at the endpoint). By foot there are several routes with campfire sites etc., but no marked trails. The next lean-tos are 5 km from Luttojoki bridge. If you skip Raja-Jooseppi and head directly for the Skolt grounds and Suomujoki, the first lean-to is at Harrimukka, 8 km from the border guard station. You might want to camp at the campfire site on the north side of Luttojoki on the way back, not to be in a hurry at the ford.

There is a coach from Kemijärvi (railhead) to Savukoski (with Korvatunturi Visitor Centre) daily. The connection to Tulppio is handled by a taxi acting as coach (Korvatunturi taxi, phone +358 40-730-6484). To reach Kemihaara you have to continue 30 km from Tulppio by car or taxi (probably the same vehicle, but now paying by taxi fare). The road is regularly kept open in winter.

Lake Aittajärvi at the north border of the park can be reached by car or taxi in summer: drive 13 km from Saariselkä towards Ivalo, turn to Kuutua forest road (look for "Luttojoentie"). Some 35 km along the forest roads. Ask about the road's condition at the visitor centre.

There are free parking areas at all the above mentioned entry points. There are one or more marked trails leading into the park at all of them, but Aittajärvi.

Fees/Permits

The park borders Russia and there is a border zone, which should be strictly respected. To climb Korvatunturi you therefore need a special permit, but there is a trail to Korvatunturinmurusta, where you get a view. The border zone is very close at the grounds of Raja-Jooseppi, check your route carefully.

Sompio is a strict nature reserve, keep to the trails.

Entry to some (minor) areas is prohibited in the bird nesting season, 15 May to 15 July.

Leave-no-trace camping principles should be observed in most parts of the park. Although there are waste bins also in the remote areas, you should mostly carry your waste out of the park yourself. Food scraps and similar small quantities of organic waste can be put in composting toilets, where available.

Get around

Maps are sold at the visitor centres and probably at bigger book and outdoor stores in all the country.

There are marked trails in some parts of the park, especially in the west. Local businesses offer guided and assisted tours and excursions and help with e.g. canoe tours. You can get advice at the visitor centres. Otherwise you are on your own. Even when following marked trails you yourself are responsible for finding your way, should you be caught in fog or a snow storm.

In the park you are advised to use marked trails where such are provided. Otherwise you are free to choose your route, except for a few restricted areas: the border zone, Sompio strict nature reserve and, in bird nesting time 15 May to 15 July, a few mire areas (Pajuaapa, Repoaapa and Lamminaapa). There are trails through Sompio.

There are unmarked established routes, often between huts, and reindeer paths, which lead nowhere. Use the paths where you can, but be sure you know where you are going.

Biking is allowed on a few routes (see biking below). Using a dogsled is allowed on the route around Pieranvaara. Horseback riding is allowed on the Kemihaara–Mantoselkä and Kemihaara–Vieriharju trails. Grazing is probably not allowed.

There are waterways suitable for canoeing.

In wintertime there are maintained tracks for cross-country skiing near Saariselkä and Kiilopää, mostly also with free-style lanes. For backcountry skiing you need appropriate skis and skills.

See

Do

Buy

Supplies are available at Saariselkä and in the villages of Savukoski, Vuotso and Tulppio (?). These are not towns but small villages, so check beforehand if you want or need something special.

At Saariselkä there is a supermarket and an outdoor equipments' store.

Savukoski, two supermarkets:

Vuotso:

Eat

There are restaurants and cafés especially in the Saariselkä area, but also in the other villages around the park. Some tourist businesses offer meals in the park by agreement.

There are stoves for preparing food in the wilderness huts. Take own pots, pans and cutlery with you.

In the Basic Zone, the Saariselkä wilderness zone and the Nuortti wilderness zone making fire is allowed only at the specially designated campfire sites (e.g. at the lean-to and cooking shelters). In the Kemi–Sompio wilderness area lighting fires using twigs and branches found on the ground is allowed. When there is a forest fire warning in effect, open fire is prohibited everywhere. In really dry periods fire should be avoided even in huts (the gas stove in huts can be used for cooking).

You are advised to carry a camping stove on any longer hikes. It can be used (with due care) also during wildfire warnings.

Drink

The water in ponds, streams and rivers should be potable, but it has not been tested. To be safe you might want to boil it. There is water available at the visitor centres and customer service points.

Sleep

View from the bed of Jyrkkävaara open wilderness hut.

There are some 50 huts of different types in the national park, those close to Saariselkä mostly day huts, not meant for overnight stays in normal conditions. Except for day trips and short trips with reserved beds you should be prepared to sleep in your tent. Off season there is usually room in the huts, but there is no guarantee. If you get lost or caught by bad weather you might have to camp before getting there. There are no blankets in the open wilderness huts, usually not mattresses.

Use the guest books of the huts.

Lodging

There are lodging services in the villages surrounding the park, including hotels. There is no lodging with any services in the park itself. Note that the huts in the wilderness are heated by wood, by you. In the winter it will take some time before they get warm.

There are two rental huts in the park (47 and 57 €/night, for 4 and 5 persons), which can be rented for up to a week off season, two nights otherwise.

There are reservation huts in the busier areas, where you get a guaranteed bed for 11 euros a night (at most two consecutive nights, up to a week off season). A few huts can be reserved for a group at a group discount. Reservations are handled by Tankavaara and Kiehinen visitor centres (check where to get the key, there are many options).

There are quite a few open wilderness huts in the area, mostly in the backcountry, and open turf huts working by the same principles. You are allowed to stay two consecutive night in any of them. Off season you are allowed to stay up to a week in some of the huts. There are saunas (self service) at some of the huts. Remember that the last to arrive has an absolute right to the facilities: be prepared to arrange room for anybody showing up in the night.

There are also day huts, primarily meant for breaks. They can be used for lodging in emergencies.

There are also lean-to shelters and Lapp pole tents, mostly along the Suomujoki, Luttojoki and Nuorttijoki rivers. They are suitable for overnight stays mainly in the summer and autumn.

There are firewood sheds and dry toilets by all these facilities.

There are six saunas open for use by all (at Luirojärvi, Anterinmukka, Tahvontupa, Vieriharju, Härkävaara and Karhuoja) and one at a rental hut for those lodging there (Tikkasen Vieriharju). They work by self service, get directions if you are not used to wood heated saunas. There is also a museum sauna, which may not be used.

Camping

There are no campsites with any service in the park.

Backcountry

In the Basic Zone of the park, camping is allowed only at campfire sites and designated areas near the huts. For Sompio nature reserve, camping is allowed on the shores of Lake Sompiojärvi, for a maximum of three days.

In the wilderness areas camping is permitted except at treeless fells, surroundings of ancient structures, the areas of Paratiisikuru and Lumikuru and possibly other areas sensitive to erosion. There are designated campsites near the lean-tos and on the shore of Lake Luirojärvi.

Stay safe

General advice for wilderness hikes in Lapland apply.

The weather may change rapidly on the fells. Be prepared for fog or storm.

Always take a good map, compass, knife and matches with you, even on the shortest day trips along marked trails. Prepare well and do not go without experienced enough company. GPS is no substitute for orienteering skills and a map.

Tell about your plans to a friend or e.g to the visitor centre (including a dead line when a rescue operation should be started). Tell about any changes to the plans and remember to tell when you do return. Use the guest books.

There are areas in the park without mobile phone coverage. Try fell tops. The emergency number 112 can use any provider, remove the SIM card if necessary.

A 9V battery for the fire alarms of the huts may be needed.

Beware of avalanches at gorges.

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