It’s no surprise that Alta is home to awesome beauty. Almost all of Norway is full of mountains, rugged coastlines and natural viewpoints that take your breath away. One of the hidden gems in this area can be found around 25 kilometers to the south of town: Alta Canyon. Carved by the Alta River, Alta Canyon has the distinction of being Northern Europe’s largest. It’s absolutely worth a visit when you come to the area.
The Sami name for the place is Sautso (which means “canyon”, so if you say “Sautso Canyon” you are actually saying “Canyon Canyon”. Just calling it “Sautso” or “Alta Canyon” is probably best). It stretches south along the river for several kilometers, where it is interrupted by a dam at a power station. Inland from there, the canyon does continue for a while but it now serves as part of the dam’s reservoir and is mostly underwater.
From Alta, there are two established ways to get to Sautso, neither of which is as simple as “I’ll just jump in my car and head over there.”
Reaching the Canyon by Foot
The first route is an overland hike. You drive south of Alta, past Gargia Fjellstue, and up a dirt road onto the Beskades area of the Finnmarksvidda mountain plateau. Once you are out of the forest, you’ll find a parking lot on the left side of the road with a sign at the start of the trailhead.
The trail follows the gently rising and falling hills of the vidda, taking you along ridges, down into valleys with waterlogged soil, and across rocky streams. After just the first hilltop, you’ll be virtually on your own – no cars, no road, no houses, no power lines, no paved trail., and often no other people. It can feel like you are exploring another planet! At the end of the trail, the canyon will open in front of you and you can walk right up to (and down into, if you’re not careful) the deep cut.
The hike’s distance is around 6 kilometers in each direction, so bring appropriate clothes and something to eat, and give yourself a couple of hours for the walk each way unless your walking pace is unusually brisk. Though it is most popular as a summer tour, the hike MAY be possible in winter depending on snow conditions and the weather. But be very sure you know what you are doing, and have protection against bad weather if you go hiking out into the vidda in the winter!
Many people do the walk on their own, but others choose to go with a guide. Gargia Fjellstue offers guided tours in the summer, which you can read about here.
Reaching the Canyon by Car or Bus
The other way to the canyon from Alta involves a fun guided tour. You leave from city center with your guide, either in a private car, your own car if you have one, or by bus for larger groups. As the road winds its way through farm valleys, past slate mountains and up onto the vidda, the guide will talk about life in the area, point out sites, and talk in depth about the controversy that surrounded building the dam and the power station. That conflict was a watershed event both for Alta and for the local Sami population, and there are many people in town today that still have strong opinions about the project.
About six kilometers before you reach the canyon, you’ll reach a locked gate blocking the road. Thankfully, the guide has a key. (You can drive yourself to this point, but then you have a long walk along a road to get to the canyon – take the scenic route instead!).
The first stop inside the gated area will be at a viewpoint that is perfect for taking pictures. No matter what the weather, the view from this spot is delightful (though of course, there is almost always something interesting to see as you travel around this area). From there, you will head back to the car and drive over to the dam across the river.
The guide will escort you inside the access tunnel carved into the mountain at the side of the dam. Though the power station is active and usually generating electricity, there is normally only a small maintenance crew on site (or nobody at all) – the chances are good that it will be just you and the guide inside.
You’ll walk down into the mountain half a kilometer to the visitor center, and there you’ll learn more of the details of the construction of the dam from the guide, and see a film from Statkraft, the power company. After that, you’ll be able to walk out and onto the dam for more pictures or just to enjoy the view. And finally, it’s back to Alta and more conversation with your guide.
The tour takes between three and four hours, and can run both summer and winter, though in winter the roads must all be open to the dam, and the tours normally only run with car- or minivan-sized groups. You can get pricing and other information for this tour here.