Besseggen (Jotunheimen National Park, Norway)
Norway is a country of notable extremes: Its winters are brutally cold and filled with polar nights, while its endless summer days shine on with the midnight sun; its prices are sky-high, and its wealth – with one of the highest per capita incomes in the world – is immense. But for us it's Norway's arguably unparalleled natural beauty that is its most impressive and attractive superlative. Our bias was confirmed (and rewarded) on a recent trip to Jotunheimen National Park, where we hiked the most famous trail in all of Scandinavia.
Featuring the country's highest peaks, including the 8,100 feet-tall Galdhøpiggen (and the tallest in Northern Europe), Jotunheimen – literally meaning "The Home of the Giants" – is the country's premier destination for top-notch hiking trails. Its crown jewel is Besseggen, a seven-hour climb awash with stunning views of glaciers, lakes, and snow-capped peaks that climaxes with a trek across a thrillingly perilous, narrow ridge (described by the locals as a "knife ridge") that is nothing short of magnificent. Less than seven feet wide at its narrowest, it slices through the scenery revealing a truly awesome juxtaposition: To one side is the emerald green glacier water (or brevann) of Lake Gjende, while the dark-blue surface of Lake Bessvatnet contrasts it on the other.
The Besseggen hike begins at Gjendesheim Tourist Lodge, where you can choose to sleep and swap travel tales with fellow hikers in a cozy dorm-like atmosphere (prices start around $30 a night for a bunk in a shared room). Or, if you're more in tune with nature, you can do what we did and set up your tent somewhere near the lake outside of the lodge – which is free of charge, thanks to Norway's right-of-access camping law known as allemannsrett (All Men's Right). You'll likely start the hike alongside a fair number of the 30,000 people that make the trip each year if you go during peak season (between June and mid-September, when the temperature is just right), but don't let that number turn you off. Sure, you may not experience the absolute sense of solitude you find on other more remote ventures (though you could always try a visit in the winter, when it drops to minus 30), but we found that the crowds added a sense of camaraderie, especially during the steeper sections of the journey. Although the hike is considered challenging, small children and men and women of all ages attempt to climb the trail's highest point on the steep ascent up Veslfjellet, at 5,700 feet. In our climb, we witnessed a man take a break to offer his hand in aid to a few strangers struggling with the last few rocks. It somehow made the experience of Besseggen even more beautiful.