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For centuries, forests have been portrayed in art and literature as magical realms where supernatural beings test the fates of mere mortals. On the eastern border of Norway, about a two-and-a-half-hour train ride from Stockholm, the ancient pine forests of Sweden’s Värmland have always been steeped in such mystery. Witness the region’s ultra-rare white moose, a creature so extraordinary it made its worldwide debut via a viral video in 2017. The Finnish settlers who transformed this remote region into slash-and-burn farmland in the 1600s were thought to possess otherworldly powers, turning themselves into bears and forging alliances with the guardians of the forest to help them tame the wilderness and learn its secrets. Though many of those legends endure in the region’s folklore and oral storytelling traditions, visitors today are more likely to find a natural wonderland that’s ripe for an off-the-beaten-path adventure into the woods.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Glaskogen nature reserve, a sylvan retreat with upwards of 80 crystalline lakes and 180 miles of wooded hiking trails on its more than 65,000 acres. Setting out from the village of Lenungshammar, outdoors lovers can fish, swim, or canoe on unspoiled waters, then set up camp under the stars or rent a rustic overnight log cabin. More rough-and-tumble types can reserve mountain bikes to traverse the rugged terrain or embark on a two-day hike to the top of Rödvattensberget for panoramic views that’ll take your breath away. Just be sure to arm yourself with a Glaskogen card and an official map of the preserve at the information center in Lenungshammar to ensure access to the park’s facilities during your visit.
Farther north near Torsby, wild lingonberries grow on the bushes along the Seven Croft Trail, which offers visitors a five-mile hike past seven Forest Finn farm settlements, including Ritamäki, an 1840 smoke cabin and museum that sits on an 18th-century tract regarded as the last permanently inhabited Finnish homestead in Sweden. You can learn more about the settlers’ lifestyle nearby at the Finnskog Center museum nearby, or see how it evolved at Sahlströmsgarden, a 19th-century farm in Utterbyn that became a cultural bastion under the stewardship of artistic siblings Anna, Ida, and Bror Sahlström. The halls of the mansion turned hotel, restaurant, and gallery are lined with Värmland antiques, from family-owned paintings and textiles to intricately carved furnishings, and each of the 30 rooms overlooks the serene waters of Lake Sirsjön.
To complete your communion with nature in one of the world’s most pristine wildernesses, consider an atmospheric journey down the Klarälven River on a timber raft you construct yourself. Vildmark i Värmland offers excursions that range from one to eight days, letting you follow in the footsteps of the region’s old log drivers. You can set up camp on land or sleep aboard the raft before an early wakeup to spot moose and beavers along the riverbank. Just don’t count on cell service.
If that all sounds too rough and tumble, there are plenty of more leisurely pursuits to enjoy in towns and villages farther south. The beating heart of the Värmland lies in Karlstad, a former Viking settlement on the shores where the River Klarälven meets Lake Vänern. Here, you can set out on a boat tour to spy wild osprey on the Lurö islands, or take a 50-minute detour to explore the 1920 weaving mill and shop eco-friendly linens favored by the Swedish royal family at Klässbols Linneväveri in Arvika. Just outside Karlstad, you’ll also find the 17th-century manor home of Gustaf Fröding, one of Sweden’s most beloved poets, where you can marvel at an ultramarine sky during an alfresco lunch in one of the country’s sunniest locales.
Back in Karlstad, the recently renovated Värmland Museum is set in a 1929 building (with a modern addition) and highlights art and cultural objects collected over two centuries. Among the collection are everyday items that showcase Värmland life, including ceramics, clothing, and furnishings, some that date back 9,000 years, and contemporary art by local painters, drawers, and craftsmen. No visit is complete without reserving a table at Matbruket, a local, seasonal restaurant that specializes as much in forest-to-table as Instagram-worthy cuisine in creative dishes like butter-seared scallops with cauliflower and smoked rum and goat-cheese fritters with caramel and rosemary. For more contemporary photography and equally inspiring gastronomy, consider sister museum and restaurant Sliperiet, in a 1903 wood grinder about 40 minutes away in Borgvik.
For another memorable dining experience, hop on the E18 toward Kristinehamn to sample the inventive seasonal plates created by chef Johan Johansson, who worked with Marcus Samuelsson in New York before returning to Sweden and serves up meals made with local ingredients like Lake Vänern vendace roe in an 18th-century clergy house with cheery yellow curtains and gingham tablecloths. At Ölme Prästgard Gästgiveri, there are also six pastel-hued guest rooms with floral wallpaper and crisp white linens should you wish to linger into the wee hours.
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But if you prefer to do as the Swedes do and forage for your own supper, the country’s tourism board has partnered with four Michelin-approved chefs to create nine-course do-it-yourself meals across Sweden through Edible Country. You book a reservation, and they arm you with a cooking kit, rustic prep stations, locally inspired recipes, and a seat at an open-air table in a forest glade in Sälglunden, near Sunne, though it’s a good idea to add instruction from one of the program’s guides, especially if this will be your first time foraging.
Reward your hard work in Sunne proper, where pampering and relaxation are just some of the draws at Ulvsby Herrgard, a 1630 manor house that later became Queen Kristina’s vacation home of choice. The 34-room property features a small bathhouse where you can indulge in a wood-fired, herb-infused sauna or simply steep in one of the resort’s four copper soaking tubs before sitting down to a multi-course meal made with locally sourced ingredients like foraged nettles and chanterelles and fresh-caught pike.
Wake up early to tour the 18th-century home of Selma Lagerlöf, Värmland’s most famous author and the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature. In addition to a carefully preserved manor house and thriving garden filled with flowering plants and fruit trees, Marbacka hosts rotating exhibitions about her life and work. Rottneros Park lies just across Fryken Lake, offering baroque-style green spaces and more than 100 sculptures and reliefs created by Scandinavian artists of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Just a stone’s throw away, Västana Theater puts on summer shows inspired by Lagerlöf’s novels and the local ghost stories and legends that inform them. The performances take place, where else, in a historic barn deep in the woods.