That’s right! Forget what you heard about Norway. I say skip the fjords and visit Gaustatoppen, a mountain in the town of Rjukan, located smack dab in between Oslo and Bergen. After more than a week in Norway (visiting Bergen, Rjukan, Kristiansand, and Oslo), Rjukan was by far my favorite place. So much so, that I’d like to go back and spend at least an entire week in the tiny Telemark town.
Rjukan is accessible by train, but we (my parents and I) went by rental car, and this is also the best way to be able to get to the attractions in and around the town (it is possible to visit using only public transportation, but you’d have to plan very effectively as it doesn’t run often). We stayed at a great AirBnB located at the edge of town which had more than enough room for 3 and could probably comfortably sleep 6-8. Many of the remarks in the guest book included comments about how great the local ice climbing was. So not only is Rjukan a great summer destination, but also a winter wonderland!
The town is listed as a UNESCO site for its industrial heritage. Rjukan was built around the Vemork power plant which was established by the Norsk-Hydro Company to manufacture artificially nitrogen-rich fertilizer for the growing agricultural industry in the western world in the 20th century. The entire layout of the town was carefully planned to include transmission lines, factories, and transport systems.
On our first day we went up the Krossobanen, a cable car which brings you up to the top of the Gvepseborg. We were able to walk to the cable car station from our AirBnB, but it might be a little too far if you’re staying at the other end of town. From September to March, the little town of Rjukan does not receive a single ray of sunlight because it is so deep in the valley that the sun is unable to reach it during the short winter days. To give the people a little bit of sunlight, Norsk-Hydro funded the Krossobanen cable car to get them to the top of the valley. When it first opened people complained that the price was too high, so it was halved and remained unchanged for 30 years! The man operating the cable car told us that even today many people in Rjukan cook Christmas dinner below and bring it up to one of the many cabins at the top to enjoy some sunlight on December 24.
At the upper Krossobanen station, there are a few trails to hike now that you’re on top of the Hardangervidda Plateau. We decided to hike the Solstien and Gvepseborg trails which were less than 5 km long in total. Hiking up the Solstien path brings you to a spot high on the plateau with an incredible view of Gaustatoppen.
The wind was so forceful, we couldn’t hear one another talking. There are a few protective gullies where you can take a break from the wind to enjoy the view. The Gvepseborg trail takes you quickly back down to the upper cable car station. There we had hot chocolate and THE BEST chocolate cake ever. The waffles and other pastries looked just as tasty.
After the pick-me-up, we walked the 21 winding switchbacks down into the valley under the Krossobanen. Next, we piled into the car and drove to Vemork to learn about heavy water and Rjukan’s role in WWII. Hearing about heavy water at the visitor center, I just assumed it was hard water. But heavy water is water with an extra neutron in it (water typically has no neutrons), making it actually heavier than normal water (by about 10%). In the museum we went through interesting exhibits about the town and the factory’s role in World War II. The Norwegians had to sabotage things in their own town to prevent the Nazi’s from getting the heavy water which may have helped them to build a hydrogen bomb.
We spent day two in Rjukan at Gaustatoppen. It is possible to hike up, but we decided to take the Gaustabanen train to the top. It’s quite expensive, but a very neat experience. First, one train takes you almost a kilometer (half mile) horizontally INTO the mountain. Then, you disembark and get into another train that takes you the rest of the way vertically.
Once at the top there are a few more steps before you get to a viewing platform with the most amazing view! We were so lucky that we had a gorgeous, clear, and almost windless day, so we were able to see one sixth of Norway from the top! ONE SIXTH OF NORWAY! Incredible.
There is a very rocky ridge that continues on after the platform. If you’re brave enough to inch your way around the tower at the top, you can hop over to the ridge and continue to the highest point on the peak. The first part of the ridge isn’t any more difficult than the hike down, but eventually the rocks become really large and you have to do a bit of climbing and jumping to get to the end. From there, you can see Rjukan in the valley below. I was unable to find where we had been on the Krossobanen the day before because it’s so far below it’s blocked by the base of Gaustatoppen.
When I reached mom and dad at the platform about an hour later, it was time for waffles at the Turisthytte. My personal recommendation would be to make sure you put the raspberry jam on it as opposed to strawberry, but that’s just me 😉 They’re probably delicious either way.
Now was the moment of truth. Would we hike down or take the train back to the bottom? After some small deliberation we decided to hike down, as the woman selling tickets told us that “families with small children do it”. The path to the top is rocky and uneven the whole way, so if you’re not into hiking this path is probably not for you. It takes approximately one and a half hours to hike back down to where the Gaustabanen begins.
If I were to do this day again, I would plan an entire day for Gaustatoppen – hike all the way up and back. If you’re hiking from Rjukan center, you would probably need to camp along the way. It’s more than 10 km from town to the bottom of the train with a lot of vertical gain.
Being pretty exhausted from the exhilarating hiking during the day, we opted to skip going to the Hardangervidda National Park Visitor Center which is supposed to have a great exhibit on reindeer and the wildlife of the plateau. This is located about a half hour west of Rjukan in Møsvatn. Next time, I would also like to plan some hiking in the Hardangervidda because it looks so pretty and I just love saying its name. Something else I would like to visit on a return trip would be the Tinn museum, an open-air folk museum displaying Norwegian architecture from the 11th century onwards.
Leaving Rjukan, we stopped at the Heddal Stave Church in Notodden. It’s about an hour away from Rjukan, but is still included in within the UNESCO heritage boundary.
The church was built in 1150, was expanded in 1250, and was renovated in the 19th century. Very few of these churches still exist in Norway because when they needed to be expanded for a growing town, the old one would just be burnt down in order to build a bigger one. This one is the largest surviving such church in Norway. Included in your ticket to the church is a visit to the nearby open-air museum of 18th and 19th century Norwegian farm buildings, including one house with an intricately painted interior. Also on display are traditional costumes and other artifacts of Norwegian life from this time.
From Notodden we drove to Kristiansand. The town itself wasn’t worth the drive all the way down there for just one day, but the drive itself was worth it. The views the entire four hours we drove from Notodden to Kristiansand were jaw-dropping.
Dad and I had our noses glued to the windows, while mom navigated all the sharp curves between the mountains and water.
We stopped a few times to get out and take pictures and I attempted to take lots of pictures while we were still moving. It was just so incredible!
While we found Kristiansand nice and we really liked Oslo (for a city), Rjukan just took the cake (and had the cake!). Although the town and its attractions are more easily accessible by car, it is definitely worth making the effort to go! Gaustatoppen was pretty popular, since we visited on a Saturday, but otherwise Rjukan is not overrun with tourists (we hardly saw any) which makes it a really enjoyable place to experience some authentic Norway. Even after several days in Rjukan, I could easily visit again for an entire week.