Hiking in Yllas

Anyone who’s ever been on holiday with me will tell you I’m not really the relaxing kind of vacationer. I like a good beach day, but I love experiences more and I am generally trying to cram in as much adventure as I can in a limited amount of time, which makes me an early riser. I had to try and let that go in Lapland. Since we were up every night looking for the aurora, we couldn’t also get up early. So we had a lie-in our first morning in Yllas and got up just in time to take advantage of the free buffet breakfast, which could definitely not be missed.

This was by far the most intense buffet breakfast I’ve ever had in my life. The resort had a full continental breakfast spread with a bread and oatmeal bar, cheese and meat plates, yogurt and fixings, and a whole smoked salmon. Then they had a full hot breakfast bar with eggs, bacon, potatoes, waffles, and even reindeer sausage, plus they had drink machines with all kinds of sparkling juice.


We had 2 full days in Yllas, so our plan for the day was to go skiing. You can ski down either side of the mountain, with the main part of the ski resort on the Yllas side. However, there is a smaller chalet on the Akaslompolo side as well, so we decided to start there. It was a beautiful sunny day when we got up and we were shocked by how few people were on the mountain when we parked. We went through a long questionnaire to rent skis before one of the employees finally informed us that the top of the mountain was totally closed because of wind, which explained why it looked so empty. The bottom half of the mountain was still open, but there’s limited lifts on this side, so we’d have to drive around the mountain to access the rest since you couldn’t ski over the top. Staff thought it likely the top would be closed the following day too, but we decided to take our changes and postponed skiing.


Instead, we backtracked to the visitor centre for Pallas-Yllastunturi National Park. They have a video that shares lots of information about the park and we got some recommendations for snowshoeing from the park staff. Originally we’d been planning to rent snowshoes, but they’re pretty expensive and despite how cold it is, Lapland only gets about 1m of snow base every year, so we decided to save our money and make do with our microspikes instead (which we’d brought from home). People seem to use studs for walking around in the city, but we didn’t see anyone hiking in microspikes. People were either just walking in their winter boots or they were trudging along in snowshoes that weren’t needed.


There’s tons of walking and ski trails in the park and around the ski resort. Nordic skiing is incredibly popular and I feel like we probably should have tried it, but I really have no interest in it (sorry nordic lovers!) so we did an assessment of the walking trails instead. Like I said, it’s not a particularly mountainous region, so a lot of the trails are flat, either through the forest or across the frozen lakes. I like a bit more of a challenge, so we picked Kuertunturi, which is one of the few hilly views. It’s across from Yllas mountain and I figured if the ski resort was still closed the following day, we’d at least get a view from the hike.

We returned to the cabin and re-packed our bags for hiking. There’s a few options for hiking Kuertunturi: you can hike to the summit from either side of the mountain as a there-and-back trip, or you can thru hike it and then make a loop back to your car along the road. We decided to start from the Akaslompolo side, which leaves from the church and is supposed to be more scenic if you only do one side. We figured we could decide at the top if we wanted to hike back or do a loop.


The hike starts off with a gentle incline hiking through the trees. It’s not too steep or challenging and you meander up the side of the mountain. Once you hit the open top (it felt like the alpine, but I think it’s just barren), it gets a lot steeper to the summit. It could be hiked in boots, but I was really glad we had the spikes at this section for better traction on the steep ups and downs.

The views from the exposed section are phenomenal, but the downside was that it was indeed extremely windy. We could understand why the lifts were closed at the top of Yllas while hiking Kuer. But it felt good to be out hiking. I’d been quite cold for most of the trip because we didn’t do a lot of extraneous activities, but I felt really good hiking Kuer. I only needed my fleece on the way up and even at the top, my puffy was still sufficient to keep me warm until we stopped for a break.


We didn’t stay at the top too long because of the wind and found some shelter under a tree. It was an easy decision to forgo the loop trail, but on a less windy day I think I would have gone for it. Instead we hiked back down and found a cafe for some hot chocolate before taking a break at the cabin and going out in search of supper. The KP was supposed to peak on this night, so we went for pizza supper around 6pm when it started to get dark. Before we’d even finished dinner I was getting notifications from my app that the aurora would soon be visible, so we didn’t waste any time in heading down to the lake around 7:30pm.


Holy moly, the aurora on this evening was something to behold. It’s the kind of aurora I only dreamed of seeing. The KP was over 6 and we were in the height of a geomagnetic storm. We later learned that people had been able to see the aurora in Scotland and as far south as England, so you can only imagine how it looked north of the Arctic Circle. Even as we were walking to the lake, the sky was completely lit green by the aurora. I practically ran there and even though it was incredibly windy on the lake, we were overwhelmed by the dancing night sky.


I quickly set up my tripod, but it was hard to even know where to aim it because the aurora was literally everywhere and the sky was filled with green and purple. The sky looked like it was on fire and the photos turned out incredibly vibrant. The first two nights we’d seen the aurora moving, but I’d say this was night where it really looked like it was dancing. It warps across the night sky and we could see it from horizon to horizon. The photos turned out amazing, but it’s hard to capture the scope when you’re surrounded by them.

Like I said in my last post, the aurora goes through cycles, so we hung around for about 90 minutes watching the show. To be honest, it was hard for me to leave even after an hour and a half, but eventually the cold does start to creep in (especially with the wind) and my camera battery kept freezing on me. But it was really special. That was our third night seeing the lights and while we would see them for the next 3 nights, this was by far the best show we got while in Lapland. The aurora always shows up better on camera, but even to the naked eye, it was an amazing sight.


Aurora Hunting in Akaslompolo

After Rovaniemi, it was a pretty leisurely drive to our next stop, Yllas. I’m not sure if it’s just because most of the roads in Lapland were covered in a hard layer of snow, but they were in amazingly good shape. With our studded tires, it made for easy driving, though there wasn’t a lot to look again except flat forest and meadows. The trees were still covered with a thick layer of frost, so they were very beautiful.

There was a reasonable amount of traffic on the road on the main highway, but eventually we branched off the main highway on a shortcut and that road was pretty much deserted. It was still light out and the driving was fine, but it did make me a little nervous to be driving through the freezing cold wilderness without a working cell phone. Nothing happened and it was all fine, but my safety conscious mind tends to wander to these things sometimes.


We arrived in Yllas just as the sun was going down. When we originally booked the trip, I assumed there were mountains in Lapland because of the numerous ski resorts, but overall Lapland is quite flat and Yllas Mountain was one of the only major landmarks in the area. It’s definitely on the small side for someone who regularly skis Whistler, but it is located adjacent to Pallas-Yllastunturi National Park, which has beautiful rolling white hills. Yllas town is pretty much just resort hotels, so we were staying 15 minutes away in the small town of Akaslompolo. This was mostly because it was cheaper than Yllas town, but now that I’ve been to both, I would recommend it because it has more amenities.

We were also staying in a cabin here, but it was part of what I can only describe as a large hotel resort. The hotel had a reception building and a giant restaurant to accommodate the many visitors they receive. There were all kinds of accommodation options and we had a small one-bedroom cabin for our 3 nights there. It was a classic log cabin and was very cozy with both a woodstove and a sauna. The one glaring flaw was that it didn’t have wifi. It was supposed to, but it wasn’t working at the cabins the whole time we stayed there, which was very frustrating for us since we were planning our activities on the go, but we survived.


What made up for the lack of wifi was the restaurant and the location. They treated us to a free buffet supper at the restaurant and we stuffed ourselves on traditional salmon soup, elk stew, and all the fixings you can possibly imagine. But the highlight was the proximity to Akaslompolo Lake, which was recommended as a great place to watch for the aurora and was only a 10-minute walk from our cabin.

Since the previous night, the low KP forecast for the week had done a complete 180 degree transformation and was now forecasting 4-6 for the next three days! Unfortunately, it was looking a little cloudier, so I kept an eye on the app for when the clouds would move out. I think we went down to the lake around 8pm and we had to wait around for a while, but eventually we started catching a glimpse of the aurora through the clouds. It was pretty similar to the previous night and was dancing around, though it was still pretty faint. We watched for a while and then the clouds moved back in and we went back to the cabin to enjoy our sauna.


We were exhausted after the sauna and were getting ready for bed when I got enough of a wifi signal for my app to send me a notification that the aurora was heating up. I popped outside for a minute and could indeed see it dancing around up in the sky, so despite it being 11:30pm and being super tired, I couldn’t resist suiting up again to go outside and look at it. I just walked up the road a little bit at first, but it was much more intense than everything I’d seen thus far, so I immediately got super excited about it! I decided to fully commit and went back to the cabin to tell Seth I was going back to the lake. For safety reasons, I made him set his alarm for 1am and told him if I wasn’t back by then, to come looking for me.


I all but ran to the lake and was panting from the freezing air when I got there, but it was so worth it! The aurora was much more active and visible to the naked eye. Nothing too crazy, but easily the best I’d seen. I set up my tripod and was shooting north for a while when I noticed a pinkish glow coming from the other side of the lake. A few photographs confirmed that I was lucky enough to witness red aurora! Red aurora is supposedly pretty rare, so I was ecstatic about it. I’ve since learned that colour is an indicator of the altitude of the aurora, with red aurora being the furthest outside the atmosphere and blue being the closest, so both of these colours are harder to see. Green and purple hang out somewhere in the middle. We saw purple aurora the following night, but otherwise we mostly saw green.


It was hard to tear myself away from the lake, but I had to get back to the cabin by 1am and my camera battery kept freezing on me (a very annoying problem as I had to keep removing it from the camera to warm it up with my body heat). It took me a while to walk back though because the aurora kept distracting me on the way and I’d have to set the tripod up again. Like I explained in my last post, the aurora goes through cycles and so it will seem incredibly active for a while and then seem to disappear before returning in full force. Eventually I made it back to the cabin with 5 minutes to spare!