Overview: The Svartisen Glacier is the lowest in Europe, dropping nearly to sea level. Like most glaciers on Earth, it has been slowly receding over the past 100 years or more. "Svartisen" translates from Norwegian to "Black Ice", and was named due to the very dark blue color of the oldest and deepest parts of the glacier. Svartisen actually consists of two glaciers side-by-side which total nearly 150 square miles. This hike visits "Engabreen" (which basically means "the Enga flow"), one of several glacial "fingers" which reach down toward the sea. The ice is as much as 450m/1500ft thick, and the highest point on the glacier reaches 1600m/5200ft above sea level.
Warning: In Norway, Darwin rules. So there are no restrictions at Svartisen. You can walk right up to it, climb it, and go into it's crevasses and under it's overhangs. Of course, most of these activities are potentially life threatening, so if you want to actually go on the glacier, it is highly recommended that you hire an experienced local guide at the Brestua visitor center. Crampons and other equipment are included in the price, and the experience of the guide will keep you from falling into dangerous crevasses, being killed by calving ice chunks, or any number of other hazards.
Hike: From the dock at the end of Holandfjord, follow the flat dirt road toward the glacier. It's about 1.25km to the Brestua Visitor Center where you can get a bite to eat and sit on the edge of the Engabrevannet glacial lake and enjoy the view. From Brestua, the road continues an additional 1.5km to it's terminus. The road is not particularly exciting, and I recommend renting a bicycle at the dock. In the event of a large tour group, there is a bus which drives the length of the road, but if you're not part of a tour, the bus does not run. There are generally no other vehicles on the dirt road.
At the end of the road, the trail leads up the exposed granite previously carved by the ice. The friendly tourism folks paint white lines on the rocks to mark the path. I assume this must be re-done annually since this area is buried under at least 30 feet of snow each winter. The rock can be quite slippery when wet and proper footwear is essential. At the beginning of the hike a chain has been added to help when slippery, but an avalanche had flattened it in the past winter rendering it useless.
In general, just follow the white paint markings while stopping to marvel at how the ice has carved the rock, and the resulting patterns, textures, and formations. Steadily climb until you reach the lower point of the glacier. From here, there's really no description I can write. Just enjoy, explore, experience. Head back the way you came when you've had enough, keeping the ferry schedule in mind for your return trip.
The Melting Ice: I've attached a GPS route to this hike. It does not include the bike/walk on the road, just the hike up to the glacier. At the time of this posting, the satellite view provided by Google shows a photo from 2003. The amount the ice has receded in the past 8 years is amazing to see when the GPS track is viewed on the satellite view. I walked only up to the current edge of the glacier, not onto the ice at all. Similarly, there was a photo from the visitor center showing the glacier in 1948. Again, the amount of change in the past 63 years is truly astonishing.
Camping: It is legal to camp in Norway just about anywhere. Even on private land. You must be at least 50m from any building or developed land (a maintained yard/garden or farm fields). But if you want to camp near here, there are plenty of areas to do so with no permission or fees required. Keep in mind that if you are on private land, and you wish to stay for more than two nights, you must ask the landowner for permission. Campfires are not permitted in wooded areas in the summer.
The Norwegian Trekking Association (DNT) maintains hundreds of cabins throughout Norway that are open to the public. There is such a cabin at the top of the Engabreen, at 1073m elevation called Takeheimen. It can be reserved on the DNT website for NOK190 (~$45). The price includes wood or fuel for heat.
Cost: Visiting the glacier is free. It is part of the Saltfjellet-Svartisen National Park. Of course, to visit for free, you will have to hike, kayak, or swim. More realistically, you will have to pay the NOK110 (~$25) ferry trip across Holandsfjord from Holandsvika. The ferry generally runs hourly from 8am to 9pm and takes about 15 minutes. Renting a bike saves 3km of boring flat dirt road walking and costs an additional NOK40 (~$7). Prices quoted are from 2011 and likely will change over time. Getting to the ferry is another matter altogether and will certainly cost you additional money in cruise, coach, or rental car fees. The nice thing is that you will often have this place to yourself. No long lines of irritating tourists, screaming kids, etc. Maybe just a handful of other people who have put in the same time and effort you have to get there and experience this natural wonder.
Check out the Official Route and Triplog.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.
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