Traveling abroad is not an ethical option this year. Luckily, Norway offers access to many world-class travel experiences. I’ll show you a five day road trip, a total of 1,700 kilometers of driving, taking us from Oslo to the north-western fjords and back.
Spoiler: It is great!
After an hour in the car, it’s time for a quick rest stop. Near Brandbu we find Nes church.
It’s located on a hill above lake Randsfjorden. Back when people arrived by boat, this gave the church a central location. Now it’s a lonely church surrounded by a farm and these beautiful fields. If this view doesn’t get you into summer vacation mode, I don’t want to be you.
Another hour in the car brings us to Etna railway station. It’s on the Valdres Line, which closed down some 30 years ago. Parts of Valdresbanen can still be traveled on a draisine, a cross-over between a bicycle and a train car.
I love discovering gracefully abandoned places like this one. Thank you, geocaching!
Another hour along, and we’re brought even further into the past. Here’s Lomen stave church, from the 12th Century.
This trip goes through the deepest stave church country. There are not many of them left, partially because they burn so easily.
The walls are covered in tar to protect the planks against the elements. These are some of the oldest wooden buildings on the planet, and the tar has kept them in great shape. However, the tar also makes the buildings highly flammable, so we lost a lot of these churches on the way, thanks to lightning strikes and satanists. It’s a calculated risk, I suppose.
Just up the road, in Vang, we find another stave church, Øye. It’s not as spectacular, but the surroundings are.
The landscape tells us that we’re approaching the fjords. For now, though, we’re still in the mountains, at Vangsmjøse lake, 460 meters above sea level.
And here’s a third stave church. It’s the dark one in the back; Borgund stave church from the 1180s, one of the prettiest we have.
At one point it became too small for the local population, so in 1868 they built a “modern” red one next to it. If you’ve been to Disney’s Epcot in Florida, you have basically seen a copy of this church. It was chosen as a model because it has barely been modified since medieval times.
Our goal for the day is Sogndal. To get there, we have to cross Sognefjorden, Norway’s longest fjord. There are many tunnels and bridges in the area, but the fastest way across is the ferry from Fodnes to Mannheller. It’s not a delaying annoyance; it’s an enjoyable and inexpensive mini cruise.
The next day we drive straight north to Luster municipality, to find another particular geocache. Getting up early around here is often rewarded with windless vistas of resting water surfaces, like here at Barsnesfjorden.
The photo may or may not be upside-down.
More vertigo, still at Barsnesfjorden. These peaceful mornings are the best.
We continue north-west, stopping at the Vatnasete rest stop. It has everything we need. A heated toilet seat to rest our butt on, and the mountain Barnakona to rest our eyes on.
At the end of a long tunnel, we’re immediately greeted by this awesome view of Fjærlandsfjorden.
There’s no need to buy postcards here, as you can just as easily make your own.
Nearby is the Norwegian Glacier Museum and Center for Climate Science. If you don’t have the time or the legs to hike a glacier, this is a good place to get intimate with old ice and learn why it’s important to pay close attention to what goes on with the glaciers of the Earth.
Also, you can ride a mammoth.
A short drive from the Glacier Museum is Fjærland village. It’s tiny, but it calls itself a “book town”, and it certainly has more books around here than can be read in a human lifetime. There are bookshelves everywhere. Just sit down and read, or buy a book by leaving some money in an honesty box. I love the trustiness almost as much as the scenery here.
We drive past many farms that look like they’re in impossible locations. Here’s Spjonarhaug, in Sogndal municipality. It takes a lot of hard work, often throughout centuries, to make these things happen.
It’s time for another ferry on our way north. From Koparnes to Årvik we’re treated to this view towards the Sandegga ridge on the east side of Syvdefjorden. The sunny weather is about to leave us, but dramatic spots of sunlight still shine through from above, making for a somewhat more intriguing landscape.
We end our day at Runde, where 113 humans share a small island with up to 700,000 seabirds during the nesting season.
You can drive through tunnels and across bridges from Ulsteinvik far into the ocean via 4 or 5 other islands, almost all the way to the center of this birding paradise. The last hour or so must be hiked on this steep, but easy-to-follow trail.
After completing the climb, you stand at the top of a tall cliff. The sheer cliff below you is an ideal place for birds to build their nests and bring up their young. No predator, except the occasional eagle, can bother them here.
In typical Norwegian fashion, nothing but your own sanity prevents you from being stupid and falling off the cliff. Do not be too enthusiastic about observing the nests with your own eyes. Until now, there has been little need to fence off most places on Runde.
There’s one exception, though. And that’s where we’re going, of course.
The most popular guys on Runde island are also, incidentally, the cutest; the puffins. These parrots of the north arrive here in huge numbers in the summer months to breed. Many bird spotters also arrive to enjoy the view, so there are a few fences here. Not for the safety of people, but for the privacy of the puffins.
It’s important to plan your visit here. First, make sure you arrive between May and July, because that’s when there are many puffins here. At other times of the year, you may see just a few, if any. Also, make sure you are here late in the evening. During the day the birds are far out in the ocean, catching fish. It is only towards the end of the day they return to the island to play with each other and care for their young ones.
If you arrive too early, you may be disappointed. Sit down and wait, and wonderful things may start to happen. First there will be just a few puffins flying back and forth near the island. Eventually they start landing and sitting around for a few seconds before taking off again, like the bird in the photo. Often they immediately disappear into cracks between the rocks, to feed their offspring.
Puffins are excellent air acrobats, but they seem to have skipped landing class.
Enjoy the view. I imagine this must be what made penguins give up their aerial abilities.
Eventually there will be as many puffins as you could ever wish for. Thousands of puffins fly around your head before literally crashing for the night.
Watching this show is one of the most incredible sights in nature I have witnessed in Norway.
Leaving the puffins is difficult, but a major rainfall and the approaching darkness convince us to get off the mountain and the island.
It’s a beautiful descent. We take our time to enjoy it. Around midnight we can at last enjoy a warm shower back at the hotel.
Day three turns out to be a rainy one. Every fjord and valley comes with its own micro-climate, so we drive around more or less by random, hoping to find places that are drier than this, the port of Volda.
Horndøla bridge was built in the early 1800s as part of a then new main road between Bergen and Trondheim. It was used by cars until 1971. Now it’s just another picturesque rest stop. On a sunny day I’m sure you can see some impressive mountains behind it as well.
Following route 60 eastwards from Hornindal, we reach Hellesylt. From here you can travel on this ferry to the heart of fjord country; Geiranger. It’s the same route that all the major cruise ships follow, with the same views, but without a buffet.
We’re tempted, but we’re not doing that today.
Most shops in Hellesylt are closed. Even the gift shop and a hot dog stand. It feels a bit eerie, knowing that in any normal year, tourists from all over the world would be swarming this area.
In the center of Hellesylt they have this magnificent waterfall.
At Ljøen, a roadside viewpoint looks out towards Geirangerfjord. It looks pretty, but then again, it’s pretty in every direction from here. So we continue north.
On the waterfront in Stranda, there’s a monument that has nothing, or at least very little, to do with Game of Thrones. It’s a sculpture to commemorate one of the main industries in this area: Furniture. For some reason, furniture is one of the main exports from this area. The other main export is an astonishing number of Grandiosa frozen pizzas. We learn a lot on this road trip.
It’s getting late in the day, so we head back towards Ulsteinvik for a second night there. The clouds briefly clear up just enough to reveal the huge mountains looming over the many towns and villages that fill these valleys. Here’s Brunstadhornet, a peak in Sykkylven municipality.
Our second to last final ferry today takes us across Storfjorden, north from Sykkylven. It might as well have been Mordor. I will not raise an eyebrow if a fire-breathing dragon suddenly appears and chases us across the water.
It’s still raining heavily next morning, so day four begins with a visit to the Atlantic Ocean Aquarium in Ålesund, just over an hour from Ulsteinvik. The displays are good, but thanks to the many exploring fatty fingers of children, you can’t really get good photos here. It’s still worth a visit. There aren’t many places where you can see this many fish species from the colder oceans. You won’t find Nemo here, but many codfish and herrings.
After two hours surrounded by screaming children, we feel as exhausted as this starfish looks. We head into Ålesund to check out the city instead.
The single most popular thing to do in Ålesund is to hike up that hill. It’s an easy climb, with several opportunities on the way to sit down and enjoy the gradually grander view of the city.
I took that last photo from the small lighthouse you can see down there on the pier. The lighthouse is actually a hotel room, priced high enough to make it unlikely you’ll stay there unless it’s your wedding night or some other special occasion.
Anyway, this is what you see if you get up on Aksla for the sunset. It’s a decent reward for the effort.
We sleep in Ålesund, and then head out for a Monday morning walk. This provides us with a lot of street scenes like this one.
The entire city of Ålesund was consumed by a massive fire in 1904. The last emperor of Germany, Wilhelm II, was fond of the city, and immediately sent aid. Eventually this led to everything being rebuilt between 1904 and 1907, consistently in the Jugendstil, an architectural style that was popular in Germany and Europe at the time.
In this city of old styles, a 1980s hairdresser sign is a perfect fit. I didn’t see many citizens of Ålesund looking like this today, though.
Before leaving Ålesund, we head up on Aksla again. This time by car. It’s a major detour, and takes a lot longer than hiking straight up from the city center. Still, we’re on a road trip, and the car deserves to see some views, too.
I think it’s safe to say that Ålesund looks best from Aksla in the morning, when you have the sun behind you. Here I’m zooming in on the most Ålesundy part of Ålesund. Pretty.
Zooming out again, you see some of the many islands surrounding the city. You can drive to most of them, thanks to long tunnels and bridges.
Ålesund is itself on the island of Aspøya, and from here we drive north through a tunnel to Ellingsøya island. Another tunnel takes us to Valderøya island, and at last we cross a bridge to yet another island, Vigra.
We do all this island hopping just to reach Blimsanden beach. Yes, there’s a geocache here, but it’s also an excellent beach. Especially if you like your baths ice cold.
We’re heading almost straight home now. The first couple of hours takes us through this kind of landscape.
This is the village Innstranda, with Gråfonnfjellet and Skjervan mountains behind it, both about 1,500 meters tall. The mountains hiding in the clouds in the back are even higher.
Grisetskolten has less altitude, but it is a relatively quick climb, and the west side is an almost vertical wall. So when I think I spot some movement at the top of it, we quickly pull over at the foot of the mountain to see what that might be.
Just a few minutes later, people start jumping off the mountain.
They’re not suicidal. This whole area is famous for its many BASE jumpers.
Sometimes the BASE jumpers wear wingsuits, allowing them to fly long distances. These guys are not, but they still manage to spend much time in the air, coming almost disturbingly close to us before they open the parachute. If something goes wrong, I’m not sure there would be time to go for the spare one.
The jumpers are not maniacs lacking a sense of safety. Every jump is celebrated with an adrenaline rush and a good hug.
Continuing east, we stop at the Trollveggen/Troll Wall massif. As you can imagine, this used to be a popular spot back when BASE jumping got going in the 1980s. After too many accidents, jumping here became illegal. That doesn’t stop people from doing it. The equipment they use now is much better, so there rarely are accidents anymore.
Even if nobody’s jumping when you’re here, the view of the wall is great enough in itself. And opposite this wall is Romsdalshornet, an even higher mountain. It’s a much tougher climb, though, so the jumpers prefer this one. It can be hiked with relative ease from the Trollstigen viewpoint on the other side of this ridge.
Many tourists stop at the Troll Wall, but most of them completely ignore Mongefossen, a little bit further up the Romsdalen valley.
This is one of the highest single-drop waterfalls in the world, at 773 meters. We have seen so many huge waterfalls the last few days that we almost make the mistake of just driving past it. If this waterfall was in any other country, it would be a major tourist attraction of that country.
That’s it. Four hours later we’re back at Oslo Airport.
I think this view of Mongefossen is a good summary of the qualities of any road trip through the western parts of Norway. It looks magnificent. Come back tomorrow, and it will probably look different, but still magnificent. The light and the weather changes the scenery from hour to hour. I’m not going to lie; it does look its best in sunshine, but even on a rainy day it is a pleasure to visit the fjords.
And it’s indisputable that the waterfalls certainly are at their best and most powerful during heavy rains.
Here’s the route we followed in this post. Plan lots of time for making stops to take in the view and go on various hikes.
“Live” Google Maps route.
My personal highlights
- Watch the puffins come in at Runde before sunset.
- Peruse a mix of books and scenery in Fjærland.
- See Ålesund from the Aksla viewpoint.
- Stop at all the stave churches.